Thursday, December 23, 2004

DVD: California Split (1974)

A few years ago, I instituted a three-strikes rule for directors. Make three movies that I can’t stand, and I never have to subject myself to your work again.

The only exception to this policy is Robert Altman. He’s responsible for some truly awful, self-indulgent films, several of them so long (PRET A PORTER, SHORT CUTS) that they should count against him twice. But when he’s on, there’s no finer observer of human behavior. SPLIT, one of his lesser-known efforts, has basically been out of circulation for 30 years. The DVD release reveals it to be among Altman’s best work.

That’s because it plays to his strengths. It’s a hangout movie, following a writer (George Segal) as he develops a friendship with a fellow degenerate gambler (Elliott Gould). Both actors are in top form here, the bond between them instantly electric. Ann Prentiss costars. She’s a dead ringer for her sister Paula. And you know how I feel about her.

SPLIT is one of the best films made about compulsive gambling because Altman and writer Joseph Walsh are willing to show the highs that come with the lows, and not only in terms of winning. There’s a chaotic rhythm to the lives of these men that at times seems enormously appealing. Eating Lucky Charms with Elliott Gould and two prostitutes has it all over punching in at nine and reporting to wavy-haired editor Jeff Goldblum, photographed during an unfortunate skin phase.

And the film’s ending is still potent. With Altman, you know you’re not going to get a rah-rah finish. But what he offers here isn’t the typical dark ‘70s finale, either. It features the kind of stark epiphany that so seldom occurs in life that you’ve given up expecting it in the movies. When it comes, it packs a hell of a punch.

DVD: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

A recent conversation about Martin Scorsese’s remake of CAPE FEAR prompted me to revisit this movie. Both employ a baroque visual style, but Scorsese’s approach seems wildly at odds with the psychological realism of the story. The theatricality that Charles Laughton brings to HUNTER is inseparable from Davis Grubb’s tale, adapted by James Agee.

I’d have to put this on the short list of true American classics. How could Laughton only have directed once? Only an amateur would attempt as scene as bold – and as terrifying – as Harry Powell’s ride across the landscape at moonlight, staged as Japanese puppet theater. Robert Mitchum acts against type and delivers his greatest performance. He’s less a psychopath than an escapee from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a child’s vision of evil. And the closing scene with Lillian Gish made it appropriate holiday viewing.

And on that note, as I won’t be posting again until next week ... Ho Ho Ho!