The book up for this month is one I started last month because I knew I would need extra time to finish it. The book is JR by William Gaddis, written in almost entirely dialogue with no scene breaks or chapters, and coming in at 726 pages. Published in 1975, JR tells the story of Edward Bast, a composer working as a school music teacher. He befriends 11-year-old JR Vansant. JR appears to be an economic savant, and without Bast realizing it he is pulled into the young man’s capitalist machinations. A novel that feels like the cacophonous and biting satirical work of filmmaker Robert Altman.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, dir. Philip Kaufman)
Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) is convinced something is wrong with her boyfriend Geoffrey. His behavior has changed overnight, and she witnesses him meeting with strange people across San Francisco. She seeks out help from her coworker at the city’s Department of Public Health, Matthew (Donald Sutherland) and the two unravel a dark conspiracy that threatens the future of humanity. Along with friends Jack and Nancy (Jeff Goldblum, Nancy Cartwright), they soon find themselves up against a menace that is growing and in turn becoming increasingly unstoppable.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a remake of the 1956 classic which in turn was an adaptation of the 1955 novel The Body Snatchers. It’s a classic tale that has been in turn remade many times over (Body Snatchers, The Invasion) and has always served an allegory for some sort of societal strike. The original film adaptation was influenced by the McCarthy Hearings the hunt for communists in America. For the 1978 version, there is a sense of Watergate on the edges of the script. There’s also the overall sense of malaise that came out of The Me Generation and disconnection from others as a person became focused on self-fulfillment. This can be seen most overtly in the bookstore scenes with Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a pop psychologist who advises a paranoid wife about reconnecting with her husband and blaming his distance on her own doubts about the relationship.
This is a fantastic film and one we don’t hear about often enough. The cast is composed of some acting greats who are firing on all cylinders. I’ve always felt Brooke Adams was terribly overlooked and this performance is one of those that reminds you of her strengths. Leonard Nimoy who we never got to see outside of Spock very often is excellent as the laidback Dr. Kibner who becomes a very different character by the film’s conclusion. Nimoy plays both sides of the character wonderfully.
Beyond the fantastic cast, you have members of the production who are delivering masterful work. Cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) finds interesting angles and ways to convey a character’s point of view that provides volumes of information. Chapman is able to obscure enough to keep us wondering and the sense of paranoia building. Almost every shot has some background element that hints at the concrete conspiracy or plays with the thematics of the film. Anytime a plant is present it is grounds to get scared.
Composer Denny Zeitlin delivers a score that mixes elements of jazz and electronic music. The film uses more jazz at the start before finally being overtaken by an eerie alien electronic score for the finale. This way music plays along with the progression of the takeover is one of the examples of a film’s production being a collaborative effort. Sound engineering legend Ben Burtt worked on this movie just after his time on Star Wars and just as with the other elements the sound is textured and crucial to the full experience. The pods that contain the doubles have a wet, membrane sound, cracking and opening with viscous threads of mucus. The soundtrack fades in the scene where we first see a birth taking place, and Burtt’s sound design is allowed to take center stage.
Invasion manages to create a palpable sense of paranoia minutes into the film. It brushes up against becoming cheesy early on but then goes so deep into the gritty bleakness of this event that it becomes chilling. As it is building horror in the literal background of the picture we are being introduced to our two leads and getting a strong sense of character. Elizabeth’s first scene establishes significant external traits (botanist, in a relationship) but also personality traits that help us connect with the character (curious, affectionate, intelligent). With Matthew’s first scene we have him on a surprise health inspection of a high-end French restaurant, and we know exactly who this character is. He’s very dedicated to his job, unwavering in following regulations, but also playful and wry. Neither of these characters feels one-dimensional in any way and, much like I felt about Gene Wilder and Jill Clayburgh in Silver Streak, they have natural chemistry.
The way the horror is developed is paced so well and reveals of information hit at the perfect moments. The film uses it’s first 30 minutes to introduce the leads and establish the sense that something is off. Around then we have the first glimpse of a partially developed clone and character’s sanity being questioned as evidence disappears. At the halfway mark we glimpse an actual birth from a pod occur and the film suddenly tilts. Our protagonists are in the minority and time is running out as the enemy surrounds them.
Released in the shadow of 1977’s Star Wars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a science fiction masterpiece that has been sadly overlooked by so many. It exists as a beautiful amalgam of 1970s director focused cinema and an acknowledgment of the remake/reboot film culture to come. It’s a film that still feels relevant and terrifying almost 40 years later.
The World’s Greatest Lover (1977, dir. Gene Wilder)
Rudolph Valentino is the sex symbol of the century! Rainbow Pictures executive Adolph Zitz (Dom DeLuise) is furious over Valentino and Paramount Pictures’ success. He strikes upon an idea: hold a contest for The World’s Greatest Lover, a man who they will make into the new star of the ages and get the female moviegoers to forget about Valentino. Cue Rudy Valentine (Gene Wilder), a man incapable of holding down a job due to his nervous tic of sticking out his tongue when he’s nervous. Rudy and newlywed bride Annie (Carol Kane) travel from Milwaukee to Los Angeles for his chance to become a star. A wedge is driven between the couple after they arrive and mishap piles upon disaster to impede Rudy from reaching his goal.
From the opening scene of The World’s Greatest Lover, I was laughing. And the laughs came pretty consistently throughout, probably the funniest of the Wilder films I’ve watched in this batch so far. There is the playing up of Wilder’s manic rage for comedy. And while in some films it befits this character, in this one it is the perfect tone to take. The absurdity of Wilder competing with Valentino is apparent off the bat, but having the character be so arrogantly assured of himself makes it that much funnier. It also doesn’t hurt that here, like in Silver Streak, Wilder is so naturally damn charming.
On the same level as Wilder in the picture are DeLuise and Kane. I can’t say I saw too much of DeLuise’s work in the past, but he just brings such a massive level of energy to his performances that it overwhelms you. He has got to be one of the better blowhards I’ve ever seen in a film. Much like Wilder, the sort of manic switch from furious to inviting creates a wonderfully tense comedy in each scene. Kane is unlike anything I’ve seen her in before. If you’re more familiar with her later work (The Addams Family, Kimmy Schmidt) then you’ll be stunned by how demure and innocent she can play. You don’t question for a second why Rudy is in love with Annie, and you also don’t ask why she is falling out of love with him.
The World’s Greatest Love is not Wilder’s finest work. Regarding directing, it is an improvement on Sherlock Holmes. He feels very comfortable with large set pieces and manages to balance comedy and sentiment well. There are some moments where the plot goes off track and Wilder indulges in some scene he cooked up that isn’t necessarily essential. There is also a love of an older style of comedy from the 1920s and 30s that is being recreated in the 1970s and viewed in the 2010s may not translate.
This was Gene Wilder at his peak. He’d just made Silver Streak and was a full-fledged movie star at this point. From here on out his career would be a mixed bag with a lot of less than stellar vanity projects. The Frisco Kid with Harrison Ford would come in 1979, Stir Crazy in 1980, and then the big moment of his life: meeting Gilda Radner on Hanky Panky, which is what we’ll look at next time.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975, dir. Gene Wilder)
England’s foreign secretary has a critical document stolen from his home. There’s only one person who can track it down, Sherlock Holmes, with his assistant Watson of course. However, Sherlock knows this case will be a bit more complicated than his typical work and assigns it to his oft-overlooked little brother, Sigerson (Gene Wilder). Sigerson teams with Scotland Yard’s records clerk Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman) to uncover the circumstances behind the theft. The trail appears to lead to Bessie Bellwood (Madeline Khan) who claims the foreign secretary is her father. Also involved and lurking in the shadows in the infamous Professor Moriarty (Leo McKern).
Coming off the massive success of Young Frankenstein, Wilder was able to write and direct Smarter Brother. He brought Marty Feldman and Madeline Khan back into the mix, and it’s pretty obvious there’s an attempt to recreate the magic of Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. The film most definitely does not achieve that, but it isn’t a complete failure. There are some genuine laughs, and the plot structure holds up well. The comedy informs the plot which in turns let’s many jokes hit well. The problems arise in the form of the comedic tone. The script doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a farce of Sherlock Holmes stories or a simple comedy-adventure. There are moments with exaggerated sight gags, but then more subtle wordplay humor. The comedy rules of the universe aren’t established as clearly as Young Frankenstein does in its opening moments.
Wilder is hitting his mark quite well; he has the charming personality with the moments of ridiculous outburst. He has a couple of set pieces that involve stunts on top of horse carriages and some good sword fighting. You can see the seeds of a film like Silver Streak being sewn with Wilder’s interest in living out the dashing hero trope. I was particularly impressed with Marty Feldman’s acting. I don’t have a considerable knowledge of his work beyond Young Frankenstein, but I didn’t expect the sort of quiet, sly character we get. The dynamic between Wilder and Feldman is developed further here with Feldman’s Sacker being the smarter of the pair and playing his quiet intelligence off of Wilder’s arrogant Sigerson. Madeline Khan delivers yet another force of nature comedic performance. While we have many strong female comedic actresses today, I don’t know too many who just have the sheer power that Khan brings again and again to every film. She seems like she was a very fearless actress who understood what made comedy funny at its core more than most.
Helping from the sidelines are McKern as a Moriarty with a strange nervous tic, Dom DeLuise as Gambetti the loud and boorish opera singer, and Roy Kinnear (Veruca Salt’s dad from Willy Wonka) as Moriarty’s always shat upon right hand. Everyone does well with what they are given, but like I said it doesn’t reach near the comedy heights as Young Frankenstein. One set piece does stand out as some brilliant writing from Wilder, a staging of Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera, translated into English by DeLuise’s Gambetti. The lines are sung in a very casual, informal, almost slang version of English undercutting the rich production design. “Let’s drink some sexy wine” becomes one of the key lines of the performance.
As far as the less notable Wilder films I’ve explored, this stands out as one of the better works. This gives me hope for The World’s Greatest Love, The Woman in Red, and Haunted Honeymoon, all directed by the man. Wilder’s next picture would be Silver Streak, but that would be followed up by The World’s Greatest Lover which has him playing an actor during the silent film era. And we’ll look at that, next time.
Start the Revolution Without Me (1970, dir. Bud Yorkin)
There was a certain genre of film in the late 1960s and early 1970s that eschewed plot for zany, madcap romps. This can be seen in films like the original Casino Royale, The Magic Christian, and to some extent, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World. These are those decent budget films that just blow the roof off and have little to no narrative coherence. I can’t say with certainty, but I believe the writings of authors like Terry Southern and Tom Wolfe, the exploits of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and the over “swinging” nature of the 1960s fed into this anarchic strain of filmmaking. Another film that I believe had a strong influence on this particular picture was the 1963 picaresque Tom Jones, an adaptation of the novel and similar, albeit less farcical skewering of 19th European society and culture.
Start the Revolution begins with Orson Welles standing at a picturesque estate and detailing the events that led to the splitting two sets of identical twins between a common peasant and the Duke de Sisi of Corsica. The two sets of twins (one of each played by Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder) end up leading very different lives. Claude and Charles become reluctant members of the French Revolution while Philippe and Pierre are spoiled degenerate aristocrats. Through a series of ridiculous circumstances the twins switch roles with the peasants mistaken for their royal counterparts and bedding down in Versailles while the Corsican brothers are pushed into the midst of the revolution.
The premise isn’t an entirely original one with twins switching places and being mismatched, and there is a lot of fun story potential when you add in the setting. However, the humor never stretches beyond a certain hackneyed level of writing. The jokes are very obvious and not too clever with some bright spots. A royal dance at the palace highlights the treacherous nature of the royal court as everyone is exchanging notes about whom each other should discreetly assassinate or poison. The other rare moments of brilliance come from Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the utterly demented Corsican brother Philippe. It’s one of those performances where he amps up the manic rage, and it works well in the first act of the film until the focus shifts more heavily to the peasant brothers.
In the context of Wilder’s career, Start the Revolution comes very early on. At this point, he’d made his big screen debut in Bonnie and Clyde and The Producers. His performance in the latter film is what likely got him this part as his performance highlights the emotional outbursts Leo Bloom showcased. The same year he co-starred with Margot Kidder in the light comedy Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin the Bronx (a film that appears to be nigh impossible to find). In both Start the Revolution and Quackser, Wilder attempts English and Irish accents which do not work. With this being the early part of his career he was still searching for the types of roles he would feel comfortable with. He was intelligent enough to know accents were not his strong suit.
Wilder would go on to star as Willy Wonka in 1971, followed by a breakout role in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). A re-teaming with his Producers’ co-star Zero Mostel in Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros came next. The high point of his career (Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein) took him from obscurity to stardom, with The Little Prince tossed in for good measure. This brings us to the film we’ll look at tomorrow: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.
Phantasm (1978, dir. Don Coscarelli)
Something is going on at the old cemetery in town, and young Mike is determined to find out exactly what. His brother Jody thinks Mike just imagines things as part of his grief over their parents’ death, but when Jody sees the evil firsthand. A tall menacing stranger stalks the grounds, sinister dwarves attack anyone seeking out the truth, and a chrome sphere makes quick work of trespassers. Phantasm paints a surreal, dreamlike tableau of horror that stands as a singular achievement in horror.
Watching Phantasm reminded me of my childhood, flipping through the channels on a chilly October Saturday afternoon. Certain images just feed the primal fears of a kid, and this film is chock full of them. When it comes to a logical story that makes sense, though, it falls apart. I was reminded of Beyond the Black Rainbow, a very stylish horror film from 2010. Director Yorgos Lanthimos spoke interviews about the working to infuse the film with an intense dream logic that focused more on playing with nightmarish imagery rather than a fully realized plot. Phantasm is one of the films Lanthimos will mention when he talks about those late night childhood experiences.
As a whole, Phantasm has a lot of flaws and doesn’t deliver on the promise of the horror it builds up. However, there are a nice handful of moments that show off some real cleverness and creativity. The chrome orbs are probably one of the most original concepts I’ve seen in a horror film. Their design and the utterly brutal way they dispatch unwanted visitors was genuinely shocking for me. The Tall Man as an antagonist is not like the slasher figure that was garnering so much popularity around the same time. When Mike discovers the gateway to the other world, we’re presented with a very striking and hellish image of another planet/dimension.
The acting is incredibly stiff, but I suppose some might chalk that up as part of the charm. I think there is a fascinating seed of an idea in the film, a real chance to tell a great horror story, but the execution just never pays off. The standout character, in my opinion, was Reggie, the shotgun wielding ice cream man, such a uniquely original character for this genre of film. He seems to have the most acting talent in the crew and every scene he is in ends up being very enjoyable.
I have plans to watch the second film in the series, but beyond that, I don’t have much interest. Despite its flaws, Phantasm is a genuinely original entry into the horror film genre. It doesn’t feel like anything that came before it, and there is nothing in horror today that seems quite so interesting to look at and as surprising in its ideas.
Silver Streak (1976, dir. Arthur Hiller)
George Caldwell (Gene Wilder) is taking the Silver Streak train from Los Angeles to Chicago. While onboard he meets and spends the night with Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh), the secretary to a prominent art professor. George claims he saw the professor dead and thrown from the roof of the train and his investigation the next morning leads to him crossing paths with paid goons and being tossed from the train. A conspiracy behind the professor’s work is uncovered and George must team up with Grover Muldoon (Richard Pryor), a thief who ends up drug into the mess.
When Silver Streak was released, Gene Wilder was at his career peak. He’d come off of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Previously, Wilder had struggled to find a breakout role. In retrospect, films like The Producers and Willy Wonka are spoken of fondly but at the time they were considered box offices failures whose love only came later with home video in the 1980s and 90s. Richard Pryor was as big a name and arguably bigger than Wilder at the time. By 1976, he’d had three comedy albums that went gold and hosted what became one of the great Saturday Night Live episodes. Before that, he’d cut his teeth as a writer on Sanford and Son as well as Blazing Saddles. He was set to play the co-lead with Wilder in Saddles but his volatile nature connected to his drug use caused studio heads to nix that idea.
The film was directed by Arthur Hiller, one of the big directors of the 1970s with features like Love Story, The Out of Towners, and The In-Laws. He worked frequently with playwright Neil Simon, however, Silver Streak was the work of Colin Higgins. Higgins was the screenwriter behind Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct Foul Play, 9 to 5, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
The biggest thing you’ll notice while watching Silver Streak is that Pryor doesn’t appear onscreen until a full hour into the film. He’s billed third behind Jill Clayburgh and this appears to be because his roll was not meant to be as stand out. After reading the script, Wilder told the producers that the only way to keep elements in the film from becoming offensive would be to hire Pryor for the Grover role and allow him to bring his personality and point of view to the role. He was exactly right because, in scenes like the blackface disguise moment, Pryor is able to comment on white people and their exploitation of blackface in a way that most certainly came from his own mind. It’s very apparent to see why Pryor and Wilder would be teamed together for the next 15 years because they do have a wonderful chemistry together.
Speaking of chemistry, the relationship between Wilder and Clayburgh is one of the most convincing I’ve seen in a film. There was a certain type of naturalistic acting that worked its way into mainstream cinema in the 1970s that I think is present in the interaction between these two actors. It doesn’t hurt that both of them just have very magnetic, genuine, and charming personalities. You just can’t help but smile during their flirtation because it feels like you’re watching a real moment between two people who are attracted to each other.
The supporting cast is one of those great character actor showcases: Ned Beatty, Scatman Crothers, Patrick McGoohan, Ray Walston, Clifton James, and Richard Kiel. The roles are not that meaty on the page, but the actors bring dimensionality to the characters through their choices. The film is also very well-paced with Wilder’s series of ejections from the train marking the act breaks in a very clever manner. This will definitely be the strongest of the four Pryor/Wilder films in the series and serve as a benchmark to compare the subsequent pictures.