â€¢ As a drama, THE FORMULA is incredibly complex and hard to follow: the names and faces of the various persons involved in some way in this intricate plot sweep by us too quickly for us to recognize them when they recur, and their relevance to the story is often quite obscure. Probably it was clear enough to the film makers, but for an audience seeing the film for the first (and only) time it requires a great degree of concentration to take it all in, and even then not everything fits; anyway, by the time it's half over the viewer is too confused to care. Because of this artistic flaw, the film may have more difficulty getting its message through than if it had been clear and simpleâ€"and since the message is a fabrication out of whole cloth, this may be a blessing.
A Los Angeles cop (George C. Scott) is placed in charge of investigating the death of a friend and fellow cop, and a tortuous trail of leads and red herrings takes him to Germany. There, after endless problems and complexities, and the company of an extremely attractive but double-crossing companion (Marthe Keller), he tracks down the secret formula for made-from-coal synthetic fuel that fed the Nazi war machine until 1945 and that (in the film) American oil companies possess but are purposely withholding from the market until such future time as Arabian oil supplies and the high profits therefrom become exhausted and the customers have been bled to death by high prices, while all the time a cheaper and better substitute (the German formula) was available but kept secret. Scott's mission is to find the formula and publicize it to the world, thus breaking oil tycoon Marlon Brando's monopoly of it.
The film exemplifies what Ayn Rand has called "package deal morality." Brando is an oil man, and he also has people killedâ€"we are to accept these two as a package, so that our indignation at murderers will extend to oil men, tarring both with the same brush and guiding us to the conclusion that all oil men do these things. Scott is properly indignant at the revolutionists of the Baader-Meinhof gang, saying to one of them, "You think the people who sent you out to kill are different from the people you kill"â€"a nice point, which establishes him as a nice guy; but he also throws in a few licks at Chile's government, and apparently we are expected to accept such remarks along with it as part of the package.
Most viewers will not take highly to this film as drama: the plot developments are so hard to follow that many other films about Germany, such as The Odessa File, shine out as beacons of clarity by comparison. It is to be hoped that they will not accept it as history, either. According to Science magazine (Nov. 1980), American oil companies learned no priceless secret from the German synfuels industry; indeed, they actually helped to construct it: Standard Oil built a synfuels plant for aviation fuel in Germany as late as 1939. ("Trading with the enemy" would indeed be a legitimate charge, though it is mentioned in the film in only one line. And nothing whatever is said about the Communist takeover of East Germany, though one scene occurs there, or about the Russians' use of German oil scientists as slave labor: the film is against the Nazis, and we can't complicate that by being against the Communists too.) After the war, when 175 tons of documents about the German synfuels industry were captured by the American Technical Oil Mission, the documents were examined and abandoned because they contained nothing that wasn't already known. Besides, cheap oil was becoming available, and the German synfuels processes were very uneconomical. "I don't see any conspiracy at all," said Arnold Krammer of Texas A&M University in his article, "Fueling the Third Reich" (Technology and Culture, July 1978); "the formulas were well known." The US Bureau of Mines built a German-style synfuels plant in Louisiana, Missouri, in 1949, but it had to be rebuilt in order to be practical. The process was no secret; it was examined and found not to be feasible under current conditions.
The oil conspiracy idea, however, provides a good sounding board for limousine liberals George C. Scott and Marlon Brando, for whom making the film was apparently something of a crusade. Scott becomes boringly preachy in his abuse of the oil tycoon (Brando): "You're not in the oil business," he spits at him, "you're in the oil shortage business." Brando, however, who is supposed to utter the villainous lines, replies with a rather good one when Scott reprimands him for destroying the American dream: "Oil is the American dreamâ€"without it there ain't no America."
â€¢ Impressions of comic effects are probably as subjective as anything in the arts. For my money, Gene Wilder tries so hard for laughs that the effect seems strained. Richard Pryor has a real comic flair, and in STIR CRAZY he plays a kind of cross between the Good Soldier Schweik and the loser-with-an-instinct-for-survival who starred in Seven Beauties. Some of the situations are quite funny, and considering what a rogue's gallery of losers is collected together in this film, it is much easier to laugh at them than with them. Easiest of all is to forget about the whole thing the minute it's over.
â€¢ THE MAN WITH BOGART'S FACE does look somewhat like Bogart, until you see him in a facial close-up, and the voice and mannerisms also resemble his. His sidekick does look somewhat like Gene Tierney, and there are other Hollywood figures of the '40s and '50s recognizable to movie buffs of that period, with repeated name dropping to make sure we get the point, if there is one. The detective story, what there is of it, is flimsy and dull and too obviously there just to induce a nostalgia for those early films. There is also a conscious cultivation of similarities to The Maltese Falcon, with jewels instead of the bird, complete with an unconvincing replica of Sidney Greenstreet. But to compare this film with one of John Huston's best is a kind of sacrilege. It's much more enjoyable to see such films over again than to pay money to see sleazy imitations, either of Bogart or of his films.
â€¢ There's this one group, see, who have a special kind of ESP that enables them to be SCANNERS and tap directly into the brain circuits of other people and drain them of whatever is in their minds (brains?). And then there's a second group that can do the same thing, at war with the first. Whoever wins can presumably win the world. But there are no clues as to who is likely to win in any particular struggle: we just have to watch and see, usually who frowns the most, whose nose bleeds first, and, in one sequence, whose head is blown off first. Since there are no "rules of the game" available to the viewer, no probabalistic expectations can be calculated, and the whole thing becomes a guessing game without clues. It's not that different from the battle of warring clans in Westerns, except that there's no goodies versus baddies here, since they're all baddies using futuristic ESP techniques. Nor does anyone, by the time it's half over, really care who wins; the audience is there only to see the shocking visual effects and the explosions of human bodies, which are greeted with cheers and sadistic glee. One would do better to stay home and consult his own ESP on what film to see instead of this one.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His book Understanding the Arts will be published this year by Prentice Hall.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".