According to the current wisdom, British humor is subtle and understated whereas American humor is crude and obvious. But in the recent British import The Missionary, the humor is so understated that sometimes one wonders whether it's there at all.
The story is promising enough: a priest (Michael Palin, of the Monty Python gang) is so awkward and unperceptive that he's clearly unsuited for his latest priestly assignment (circa 1900), that of getting prostitutes off the streets of London, converting them to The Way, and housing them in a "Home for Fallen Women." (His fiancée of 11 years thinks this means that they've broken a leg.) The fact that most of them have no wish to change their lifestyles fails to deter him once he has raised the money for the Home. He raises the money through the accident of a millionaire's fatal attraction to him (Maggie Smith), and she writes him checks for the Home in order to pursue a relationship with him. Meanwhile, her husband, a senile braggart ex-army officer (Trevor Howard), hasn't the foggiest idea what's going on.
The plot is so slender that many incidents are dragged in by the hair to eke it out—for example, an absent-minded butler can't find Her Ladyship anywhere in the 400 rooms of her castle and finally, still searching, locks himself out. The officer is the stereotype of the ignorant braggart, and his views are so reactionary as to be scarcely believable. The bishop is so cynical ("These people aren't worth it") that one wonders how he ever attained his position. The wife seems to have only one characteristic—wide-eyed lecherousness. And the hero of the tale has only one discernible feature—total ineptness. Yet these characterizations are no more two-dimensional than those in the Peter Sellers Inspector Clouseau comedies, which were about equally amusing as well as equally forgettable.
Still of the Night
The late Alfred Hitchcock has had many imitators. Most successful, though in an overly self-conscious and arty way, has been Brian De Palma (Dressed to Kill). Robert Benton is less successful, if we can judge by his current film, Still of the Night. Roy Scheider plays a New York psychiatrist, and Meryl Streep plays a murder suspect with whom he falls in love while investigating a patient's death. Scheider shows none of the varied talents he exhibited in All That Jazz, and Streep, a fine actress, succeeds only in looking distant and mysterious.
The film totally lacks Hitchcock's humor and playfulness, nor does it exhibit any of Hitchcock's effectiveness at inexorably building tension. There are a couple of scary moments, thanks to some unoriginal camera tricks. There is an extended dream sequence, which in Hitchcock (for example, Spellbound) would not only build tension but have psychological significance but which in this film only indicates some unexplained power of precognition. You'd be better off viewing an old Hitchcock film again than wasting money on this turkey.
In Tex, the Walt Disney studios have finally produced a film of some intelligence and maturity. The setting is contemporary Oklahoma, and two boys whose mother has died and whose father has virtually abandoned them are trying to make it on their own. The teenage problems treated include drugs and sex, hitherto unprobed in Disney films, and are handled with intelligence and realism.
There are still traces of the old Disney. Problems are resolved somewhat too neatly. Things have a way of turning out so as to maximize happiness for everyone concerned. There is more than a hint of old-fashioned Pollyanna sentimentality. Still, all this can be quite refreshing after a season of downbeat film fare. There are not many current films that make you feel good afterwards. In Tex we have an engaging and warming story about growing up, in the tradition of other fine films of the last two years, Breaking Away and My Bodyguard.
John Hospers teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California. His recent books are Understanding the Arts and Human Conduct (2nd ed.).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".