Fort Apache, The Bronx
The Last Chase
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Tell Me a Riddle
• A curious combination of ingredients is interwoven in FORT APACHE, THE BRONX. In structure it's an engrossing old-fashioned melodrama, and though it sags a bit occasionally with (of all things) too little action and too much idle talk, it does sustain one's interest fairly well. It marks the return of Paul Newman to a solid three-dimensional role for the first time in years; and its most distinctive feature is its background, the South Bronx, probably the most extensive slum in America.
Police Precinct No. 41 is a fortress—"Fort Apache"—against a hostile civilian environment, consisting largely of pimps, prostitutes, drug pushers, and petty criminals. The film opens dramatically when a drugged prostitute puts the make on two policemen in a patrol car and, rebuffed, shoots them both dead at close range. But if we think it's going to be a murder mystery, we're disappointed: we know who did it, but the police never find out. In the mismanaged attempt to track down the culprit, however, we get involved in numerous other incidents concerning police life in Fort Apache, notably the deliberate killing of a man whom the police throw off a roof, which is observed but covered up. The police aren't exactly dedicated and incorruptible ("If you have any trouble with him, I'll testify I saw him pull a knife on you," says one), nor are the hoodlums they arrest portrayed as thoroughly vicious—there should be no complaints from residents of the South Bronx on that score. Conditions of slum life are certainly not treated with great hope or optimism, but neither are they handled with cynicism, self-pity, or despair. The stance of the film is rather that of "neutral realism," and a sense of humor keeps one's spirits up through the depiction of squalor and human tragedy.
Nowhere does anyone give any indication of how the area got the way it is. That the chance of a prison term for even a major crime is vanishingly small; that city rent controls reduce to zero anyone's motivation to provide decent upkeep for the buildings; that many persons set fire to their own apartment buildings because of a city ordinance that anyone who loses his domicile to fire gets to the top of the list of applicants for rent-controlled apartments—these and many other relevant facts are never brought to light, and doubtless the "liberal" stars of the film, Newman and Ed Asner, would reject such facts as irrelevant, alleging instead that not enough federal money had been plowed into the housing projects.
While we are given no inkling of the causes of it all, we are not spared the visual squalor of the region—the acres of rubble of what used to be well-built apartment units, resembling now the remains of a bombing raid; the all-pervasive filth and degradation; the endless tackiness; the piles of garbage everywhere; and even, in a closing shot, the unclaimed body of the murderess, as if enclosing the picture in a frame and lending to this scene of chaos a final unity and order lacking in that which was portrayed. To those who read the news magazines, the film tells nothing new, and yet the story is worth telling, although the lessons to be gleaned from it—what happens when the State intervenes in the economy of a city or nation-are never mentioned, and most audiences will go away without so much as a single glimmer of insight.
• THE LAST CHASE occurs more than 30 years in the future. The United States has run out of petroleum, and no vehicles have been on American highways for years—we're not told whether the shortage is real or contrived by government, but in view of the strong antigovernment stance taken in the film, the second would seem to be the more plausible explanation. The controllers pictured in the film would be happy to contrive an oil shortage in order to control their subjects more.
This is a film in the tradition of Capricorn One—not as chillingly tense, but thoroughly absorbing. The government is now virtually omnipotent; its bureaucrats control everything and everyone, including weaponry and countless means of electronic detection. But a race-car hero of former days still yearns for the happier times he remembers, and when he is threatened with an Orwellian "correctional institute" for speaking out of turn, he finds a way of fueling his old race-car buried in the basement, and, along with a high school electronics wizard who cherishes a freedom he has never known, he sets out from the east coast to the west, where in California an independent underground has formed, one which occasionally gets through on government-owned television screens with such sayings as "You are not alone" and "Freedom will return." The film then provides an east-to-west tour of deserted American highways, plus a plane flown by a pilot from the old days (Burgess Meredith) who is appointed to shoot down the speeding car. Laser installations are activated to destroy the car and everyone in its immediate environment.
Chillingly portrayed are the bureaucrats who control the nation. "Extremism in the defense of virtue is no vice," says the head bureaucrat, ringing a change on an old Goldwater speech. Even he is more human than his flunkies, who do his bidding with unquestioning obedience and with no qualms. But the head bureaucrat has the best lines: "A car, actually traveling across the country—don't you see, it's a symbol! People going where they want when they want! It could upset our whole regime of peace and order!" There are lots of things it could upset, and this film, by giving us a terrifying vision of an Orwellian future, may do its valiant bit to curtail the creation of such a future in the present.
• A new version of James Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, unlike the 1946 version, is set in the depression era as the novel itself is; moreover, it takes advantage of the "new explicitness" in films, an apparent plus because intensity of passion is the very core of Cain's novel. Yet the new film doesn't begin to match the old one, which starred Lana Turner and John Garfield. The main reason is that there was a real "chemistry" between the lovers in the old version, and the sex, which couldn't be shown then, was suggested by every gesture, nuance, and facial expression. In fact, sexuality can usually be conveyed more effectively when suggested than when shown in graphic detail.
In the new version the explicitness is there, but it's practically impossible to believe that Jack Nicholson has any passionate involvement with the new "heroine," Jessica Lange. He's too busy acting, even hamming it up from time to time as if he were still doing The Shining. Nicholson is always better at playing the detached spectator of events than one passionately involved in them—but detachment is exactly the characteristic that the protagonist in Cain's story should not project. As a result, the actors go through the motions, but the degree of involvement that would lead them to murder just isn't there. Postman without passion is Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
• EXCALIBUR is, in more than one sense of the phrase, a bloody mess.
It does immerse us in an age of savage cruelty, in which knights who apparently have nothing better to do for a living maim and kill one another at such slight provocation that one wonders that there was anyone left alive. The episodic plot follows to some extent Sir Thomas Malory's medieval tome, La Morte d' Arthur, though the world created in the film is not at all the same as that which is created in Malory's tale. Though magical and supernatural forces are taken for granted, the re-creation of the era isn't nearly as consistent or convincing as that of a slightly later period done by Ingmar Bergman in The Virgin Spring.
The visual effects are excellent, and the action never stands still: scenes of battle, the scaling of ramparts, the quiet befogged lake into which the sword Excalibur is finally hurled. But the costumes so elaborately exhibited for our gaze would not have been possible without modern technology, and there are countless other signs of machine mass production. Nor is one aware, from the sumptuous feasts shown, that most people lived always at the edge of starvation. The elaborate gowns worn by the leading ladies are about as Arthurian as the aluminum in the armor of the knights.
The best thing in the film is the music, which, except for a few insipid contemporary interludes, is largely Wagner, with a few bits of Karl Orff's Carmina Burana thrown in. When the mood is martial, we get snippets from the Rhine Journey and the Siegfried Funeral Music from Gotterdammerung; when the mood is romantic, we get bits from Tristan und Isolde; during the Holy Grail sequences we get a few tempting fragments from Parsifal. These are fitting and powerful, though the music is constantly interrupted, and it stops so many times just before the savage crescendo in the Siegfried Funeral Music that one wonders whether it will ever be completed—and it finally is, in the concluding moments of the film while the screen credits are showing. Nothing that the screen can give us visually compares with this powerful musical conclusion, which is Wagner's. How much more rewarding it would have been to have a filming of the Ring cycle intact, so that one could hear the music as Wagner designed it, without the constant annoying interruptions.
• Actress Lee Grant has her directorial debut in TELL ME A RIDDLE, which elicits marvelous performances from Melvyn Douglas and Lili Kedrova, who both deserve Oscar nominations for their work in this film. The film itself, though it may occasionally seem slow unless you enjoy soaking up atmosphere and delicate touches of characterization, is eminently worth seeing, not only because the two main characters are septuagenarians (seldom afforded such roles in American films), but because the idea itself is a sound one and is exquisitely carried out.
The couple are retired; he wants to sell the house, now too large for them, and she doesn't. (It seems trivial, but how significant it is made to seem, through her eyes!) He wins, and shortly thereafter she contracts cancer, and he and the children don't tell her, till finally she finds out for herself. Of all the many fine touches in the picture, best of all are the flashbacks to her childhood in Russia—traumatic experiences under a totalitarian government—with startling juxtapositions of past and present, explaining instantly as only film can why, as she approaches death, she sees and says what she does. It's strong stuff, and some viewers find any treatment of death depressing, but a beautiful piece of film making transcends all these limitations.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His area of special interest is aesthetics.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".