Category Archives: movie

Second-guessing the Oscars for 2016

Though I am a fan of long standing of Tarell Alvin McCraney, I think the best picture was the more conventional “Hidden Figures.” Theodore Melfi, the director of the latter was not nominated, so I’d have voted for Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight” if I had a vote.


The best actor award should have gone to Viggo Mortensen in “Captain Fantastic.” Not that Casey Affleck was bad, but Mortensen was astounding. (Until I saw “Captain Fantastic,” I thought Ryan Gosling should have won the award, rather than Affleck.)


Isabelle Huppert (Elle) was also astounding; the best actress winner, Emma Stone, merely likeable (which Huppert was not).


Mahershala Ali was not really a supporting actor in “Moonlight.” It’s just that he was only in a third of the movie. I have the same qualms about Dev Patel in “Lion” and Viola Davis in “Fences.” She was great, but was the lead actress, and the second lead (after Denzel Washington). In the same part she got a Tony for best lead actress. I’d have given the award to Naomie Harris for her chilling performance as the drug-addled mother in “Moonlight,” though especially after her acceptance speech, I’d be very reluctant to try to wrest the Oscar from Davis!

I think that Chris Pine should have been nominated for best actor in “Hell or High Water” (in which Jeff Bridges was very good and was nominated. And I think that Taraji P. Henson should have been nominated for best actress.

Though I don’t buy the rationale that it was adapted (from an unproduced play), I admire the screenplay for “Moonlight”  by McCraney and Jenkins that won the adapted screenplay award. Also Kenneth Lonergan’s one for “Manchester by the Sea,” though David Birke’s “Elle” adaptation deserved and Martin Zandvilt’s original screen play of “Land of Mine” deserved at least nominations.


“Elle” should have been nominated for best foreign-language film along with “Land of Mine.” I’d have voted for the bewitching Vanatau movie “Tanna” and, if not it, the harrowing “Land of Mine,” rather than “Salesman.” I thought that writer-director Asghar Farhadi, second Oscar-winning film failed to consider (let alone show!) what Rana (Tareneh Alidoosti) was thinking, just as in the earlier Farhadi-helmsed (misnamed) “About Elly,” also starring Shahab Hosseini. Having Rana and Emad (Hosseini) playing in an amateur production of “Death of a Salesman” seemed pointless to me. (Yes, I know that Miller’s play is about a man’s humiliation, but the basis and the difference in characters’ ages makes it and Hosseini’s character’s frustrations not very comparable.) I also thought it unbelievable that the assailant of Rana left behind both his cellphone and his keys, and, thus, the van AND that Emad was so slow to track down the assailant with such evidence (and then got it wrong…). I had difficulty with the final deliverance in “Land of Mine,” but thought it more harrowing and more cinematic. “Tanne” is plenty harrowing and very cinematic, too.

The other two, “A Man Called Ove” (from Sweden with a Iraqi female lead and her son) and “Toni Erdmann” (from Germany, though mostly shot in Romania) have outsized, flamboyant older male leads (Rolf Lassgard and Peter Simonischek, respectively). The latter film is less predictable than the former. Both touch on larger issues (as, of course, do “Land of Mine” and “Salesman,” and in a remote contex, “Tanne”).


I can only provisionally approve the cinematography award going to Linus Sandgren for the often artificial “La La Land,” not having seen three of the other nominees’ work.

The best documentary feature choice, “O.J.: Made in America” is solid, with strong competition from “13th.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


A Beautifully Wrought Memoir of Traumatizing Losses and Dislocations

The Betrayal: Nerakhoon” (2008) began with Laotian refugee Thavisouk (“Thavi”) Phrasavath tutoring anthropologist Ellen Kuras in Lao during the mid-1980s. She videotaped him and his family some then and later shot some more interviews with him. He got involved in editing footage of an interview of his mother.

Kuras felt that the movie needed footage of Laos. Since the US government is still attempting to deny it fought a war in Laos (dropping more bombs there than the total tonnage the US dropped during two world wars), film shot from the Nixon era, when Thavi’s father worked with the US military remains classified.

In the 21st century Thavi was able to revisit his birthplace and track down the two sisters who were left behind. (They were at her mother’s when the human-smugglers came and said “We’re leaving now.” Thavi had swum across the Mekong earlier. His father was taken away for “re-education.) There is some poetic footage of rural Laos both in the movie and in a DVD bonus short, and footage of very emotional reunions of Thavi and his sisters (one was 18, one three when he left, and the younger one was adopted and take far north within Laos).

Thavi recalls someone in his hometown asking where he’s from and not believing “I was born and grew up here,” though, unfortunately, that was not filmed.

Most of the documentary (which was nominated for an Oscar) was shot in the US. The denial of the war in Laos continues to justify any benefits for the Laotians who were left behind when the US pulled out (any similarity to Hmong who fought with the Americans is completely not coincidental).

The wife of the Royal Laotian colonel/liaison to the USAF and the eight children who made it to Thailand were eventually granted asylum in the US, taken from the refugee camp in Thailand, and dumped in a crack house in Brooklyn. Not an easy adjustment in their second relocation, with physical safety much less than in the refugee camp.

As the eldest, Thavi had to try to father his younger siblings in an unfamiliar and dangerous environment. And Thavi resented having to father a brood he did not create, etc. There’s a very major surprise that I don’t want to reveal. It is perhaps surprising that there is only one funeral in the movie’s story, but it was filmed very revealingly, both for showing the cultural tradition and the family dynamics.
Though not obtrusive, I realize that the editing by Thavi is really, really good. He may not have known what a jump-cut is, but without any technical training, he brought out dramas in what Kuras shot. Howard Shore provided music with some gentle chanting and poignant string-playing that enhanced the images and very candid interview footage.

The betrayal of the title is the US government’s betrayal of the Laotian officers who worked with(/for) it, but there is at least one other major, heartbreaking one shown. (And, perhaps, Col. Phrasavath’s targeting US bombs onto the part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos [there is no question that Laos’s neutrality was massively violated by North Vietnam troops and supplies moving along it]).

The disappointment in the liberators (American, then Pathet Lao), the anguish of trying to get by in Thailand and less-than-welcoming America is somewhat familiar to me from the poignant autobiographical novels by T. C. Huo, Thousand Wings and Land of Smiles; and the difficulty of holding a large Southeast Asian family together in an American slum from Andrew X. Pham’s luminous memoirs Catfish and Mandela and The Eaves of Heaven; Uyen Nicole Huong’s trilogy Daughters of the River Huong, Mimi and Her Mirror, and Postcards from Nam; GB Tran’s graphic novel Vietnamerica; and Andrew Lam’s memoir Perfume Dreams and  collection of stories Birds of Paradise Lost. Perhaps such background, and other refugee stories such as “The Lost Boys of the Sudan,” made it easier for me to understand “Betrayal,” though what Thavi and his mother felt at various times over the 23 years of the movie’s gestation is probably clear enough. The DVD includes some newsreel footage on the US air war, a trailer, a stills gallery, and a commentary track.

©2010,2017 Stephen O. Murray


The best movies about the US in Vietnam

My list of he best movies in English about Americans warring in/on Vietnam includes some that are not “about” combat. I’ve mostly excluded portrayals of blowback (heroin trafficking, PTSD of survivors). I have not seen any Vietnamese movies about repelling the marauding would-be conquerors (French or American) and Vietnamese (allies or enemies) are rarely characters in the American movies about the stresses and discombobulation American soldiers experienced in a misconceived military intervention.*

Go Tell the Spartans (1978), directed by Ted Post

Set in 1964, it manages to provide a remarkable cross-section of the difficulties faced by American soldiers in Vietnam. Burt Lancaster is the star, as a grizzled major who has survived two wars to take up a command that “thankless” does not begin to sum up. Evan C. Kim is also notable for vividly portraying a very complex ARVN interpreter who is a sadist, but also a brave and effective leader. (Post was a tv director whose only other remotely notable movie was the Clint Eastwood vehicle “Hang ‘Em High.”) The title alludes to the defense of Thermopylae, but that mattered to the course of the Greek/Persian war, while this doomed stand (like those portrayed in “Hamburger Hill” or the Korean War “Porkchop Hill”) had no real strategic importance.

I think that “Wholl Stop the Rain? (1978), directed by Karel Reisz, based on one of the best books focused American soldiers in Vietnam, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldier,s is the best Vietnam blowback movie, though including some combat in Vietnam, too. It has one of the best performances from Nick Nolte and one from Michael Moriarty, and shows paranoia as well as heroin “coming home” to these United States.

I like both adaptations of Graham Greene’s prescient 1955 novel The Quiet American a lot. The black-and-white 1958 version, shot by Robert Krasker (The Third Man), with Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy belies the rap against Joseph Manckewitz as uncinematic or visually deficient. Greene’s critique of dangerous American innocence/willful ignorance was less watered down in the 2002 color remake, directed by Phillip Noyce with Michael Caine taking on the cynical long-term resident Thomas Fowler and Brendan Fraser taking on the gung-ho American newcomer know-it-all Alden Pyle role (showing Americans’ dangerous —to themselves and others — ignorance about the world, before the buildup of US troops in Vietnam).

Casualties of War (1989) directed by Brian De Palma, shows stressed-out American soldiers running amok and then attempting to cover up their atrocities. It has compelling performances by Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn.

Rescue Dawn 2006 Werner Herzog’s expansion/enactment of his 1997 talking-head documentary “Little Dieter [Dengler] Needs to Fly” is more survivalist epic than a war movie, though it starts on an aircraft carrier and follows downed US flyers escaping a Viet Nong prison, played superbly by Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, (there is another pair going off separately). More a survivalist tale than a “war movie.”


Platoon (1986), written and directed by Oliver Stone, based on his experiences as an infrantrtyman in Vietnam. College dropout army volunteer Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) and other soldiers in his unit are torn between the idealistic pothead Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the cynical, hardened Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). It includes execution of a civilian, and murder of one sergeant by the other. Both Berenger and Dafoe were nominated for Oscars. Neither won. Stone won the best director award and the movie won best picture, plus best sound and best editing (Claire Sumpson) Oscars. Along with some late-60s soul music, the soundtrack employed Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” to haunting effect. Speaking for Vietnam veteran Stone, Taylor (a character pretty like Michael J. Fox’s in “Casualties of War”) concludes that “t he enemy was within us.”


Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), directed by Barry Levinson, is set in Saigon (ca. 1965) with a bravura performance by Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer, an insubordinate Armed Forces radio dj, who goes to entertain troops (without the riot of the Playboy bunny show in “Apocalypse Now”), and makes connections with some Vietnamese, one of whom (Tuan, played by Tung Tranh Tran) he learns is a covert Viet Cong operative (and who saves Cronauer’s life twice).

Apocalypse Now (1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola has a lot of delirium and befuddled American troops. I think that the mission portrayed is preposterous, and the bloated Brando’s (Green Beret Col.) Kurtz as an independent warlord also preposterous, but there is some amazing stuff in the movie, including the more believable PT-boat crew (as disparate as units in Hollywood WWII and Korean movies).

Full Metal Jacket (1987), directed by Stanley KubrickThe stateside, basic training of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie’s first half is superbly disturbing (also see Robert Altman’s “Streamers,” Coppola’s “Gardens of Stone,” Sidney Furie’s “The Boys of Company C,” and Joel Schumacher’s “Tigerland”), the Vietnam combat second half shot in the UK not great.

Heaven & Earth (1993), Oliver Stone’s movie about a Vietnamese woman is not a “war movie” in the sense of being about combat. Also it follows her to America. (It is also runs 140 minutes.) If it is disqualified, the harrowing battle movie “Hamburger Hill’ (1987), directed by John Irvin, can be substituted to fill out the list, though half of it is also away from combat.

Aside from being set in Cambodia, “The Killing Fields “(1984, directed by Roland Joffe, with an Oscar-winning performance by Haing S. Ngor), mostly takes place after the war, during the genocidal misrule of the Khmer Rouge.

There are also many worthy and interesting documentaries. In chronological order of their release dates, I’ll mention

The Anderson Platoon (1967)

I Was a Soldier (1970)

Hearts and Minds (1974)

The Soldier’s Story (1981)

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

Regret to Inform (1998)

Sir, No Sir! (2005)

Oh, Saigon (2007)

Indochine (2009)

Soldiers of Vietnam (2016)

*I think that after WWII the US should have continued to work with and try to influence Ho Chi Minh. It is certainly possible that he would have established a Stalinist state in the 1940s, but after all the blood shed between then and the mid-1970s, the North Vietnamese overlords inflicted one on the South Vietnamese. The Truman administration’s support for reestablishing French colonial (or the attempted restoration, one that fizzled at Dienbenphu) rule was IMO a mistake that was exacerbated by the US (Eisenhower administration) blockage of the plebiscite it had agreed to in Geneva, and the support (JFK and LBJ) for unpopular South Vietnamese governments with more and more troops on the ground winning battles while losing the war (ye olde “hearts and minds”). Without the secret bombing of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge would almost certainly not have come to power. (Not that Sihanouk was a saint, but had he been supported rather than destabilized by Kissinger et al., Cambodians would surely have suffered less.)

©2017,  Stephen O. Murray

I’ve also posted lists of what I think are the best movies about WWI, WWII, and the Korean War.

Werner Herzog goes back to the jungle for “Rescue Dawn”

Christian Bale has recurrently gone far out on limbs in portraying a range of characters and taking physical as well as emotional risks. I guess that Steven Spielberg saw the resiliency of a survivor in Bale when he cast him as the lead in “Empire of the Sun”(1987). Batman is also a survivor, and Dieter Dengler, the German-born US Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1965 and was one of very few Viet Cong POWs who did not sign the standard propaganda letter denouncing imperial aggression and is said to be the only one who escaped captivity and survived, provides him a role as a survivor of extreme hazards.

Especially given the availability of Les Blank’s great documentary “Burden of Dreams,” anyone signing on to go to a jungle with Werner Herzog to make a movie about survival has to be very brave. Bale and his costars, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, signed on and starved themselves before showing up in Thailand to make “Rescue Dawn.” Because the American POWs needed to look more emaciated as the story went on (and because radical weight loss should be done slowly with medical supervision), they showed up for work in a weakened, very thin condition, and had to shoot the scenes in reverse order, which obviously makes development of character considerably more difficult than shooting in an approximation of beginning to end.

rescuedawn tp[.jpeg

The rapport beween Bale and Zahn had to be at its most poignant in their first scenes shot. Moreover, the scenes of escaping barefoot through the jungle had to be filmed when they were weakest. In the making-of feature, they make abundantly clear that Herzog did not ask anything of them that he did not ask of himself. Indeed, he invariably went first, showing them what he wanted. What he wanted, as Herzog recognized, was taking risks and meeting physical demands far beyond what movie stars typically do.


In the commentary track and the making-of feature, Herzog speaks of wanting the audience believe it could trust what it saw (not CGI effects or stuntmen). Bale chowed down on maggots and underwent tortures, including being hung upside down and spun, submerged in water, and dragged behind a water buffalo (and running through dense jungle barefoot). The physical demands of being at the forefront “Rescue Dawn” for Bale and Zahn were extreme, apart from having to create characters and relationships (backward).


I think they are completely convincing: Bale as the savvy flyer determined to escape, Zahn as the follower whom Dengler kept going and protected as best he good. Their trek across Laos (impersonated by Thailand) during the rainy season, with basically no food, is arduous. Its impetus is war, but only the frame of “Rescue Dawn” is a war movie (on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the secret bombing of Laos). The middle is half survival in a prison-camp and half trying to get to the Mekong River and into Thailand.

Dengler’s optimism was not shared by the other prisoners (two Americans, two Thai) with whom he was incarcerated, but by force of personality and resourcefulness, he convinced them to attempt escape with him. From Herzog’s documentary about Dengler, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” (1997), I knew about Dengler’s background. That he was inspired to become a flyer by brief eye contact with a US pilot coming in low and shooting up his childhood home in the Black Forest during World War II gets into “Rescue Dawn,” along with the story of his capture, incarceration, escape, and eventual rescue. Knowing the story did not get in the way of my admiring how the events (and Dengler) were portrayed in the film. There was considerable interpersonal and physical tension, abetted by the musical score that was varied and not over-insistent (as war movie music so frequently is!). (Klaus Badelt has also scored Gladiator, The Pledge, Constantine, and Curse of the Black Pearl)

The cinematography by long-time (including “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”) Herzog cameraman Peter Zeitlinger was outstanding. Herzog spoke of having to curb Zeitlinger’s inclination to make every shot beautiful, but Herzog, throughout his career, has shown the harsh beauty of various kinds of wilderness. There are striking shots of the scenery in “Rescue Dawn.” More remakrable still, is Zeitlinger’s shooting of Bale and Zahn going through dense (very real!) jungle. Even Herzog expresses astonishment at how the camera got in there.


Both Bale and Zeitlinger report that Herzog focuses on the scene as a whole, and Zeitlinger figures out how to shoot it (though the hands-on director seems to look through the camera, too).


Herzog has made some films I strongly dislike (Heart of Glass, Even Dwarves Started Small), but is a fascinating raconteur who always has interesting things to say about making movies. I think that the movie “Rescue Dawn” is outstanding. Herzog’s commentary track and the extensive making-of feature (with additional insights from Zeitlinger and the actors) make for a five-star DVD for anyone interested in how movies are made (on location with anticipated and unanticipated problems). Unusually for Herzog, there are also some deleted scenes with clear explanations of why Herzog did not include them.

And, returning to Bale, he shows Dengler’s charisma and ability to solve whatever problem comes his way. His matter-of-fact discussion of the role and what he did in Thailand on the making-of feature show an intelligence to match the courage (and that he has a sense of humor and good comic delivery!). He and the other actors playing Viet Cong prisoners underwent grueling location work at what looks like dangerously reduced weight (as Bale did for the less worthy project of “The Machinist”).

The only qualm I have to offer is that Herzog, as in “Lessons of Darkness,” has a fascination with fires and explosions that I think aestheticizes viewers to their horror (as with John Woo). I also have to note, again, especially after “Lessons in Darkness” and Herzog’s many statements over his career of not caring about distinguishing documentary from fiction that there is something dubious about his wish to allow the audience to believe what it sees. (Hereon, he makes the distinction between a feature film based on Dengler’s story and the documentary of Dengler telling his story and revisiting Laos with Herzog. And his recreations are certainly not “faked.”…)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


“Casualties of War” Redux—in Iraq

I’ve remembered Brian De Palma for two great (if uneven)  fims: the 1981 “Blow Out” and the 1989 “Casualties of War,” which showed that Michael J. Fox could do more than ingratiate (not to mention Sean Penn, who has never been big on being ingratiating and was particularly vicious in “Casualties of War”). De Palma has made much more commercially successful movies than these two great ones, including Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993), the first Mission Impossible (1996)— along with the disastrous adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and such dubious (if stylish) movies as Snake Eyes (1998), Mission to Mars (2000), and “The Black Dahlia” (2006) that lost money.


Learning of another movie about young Americans (soldiers) way out of their depth in a hot and hostile environment of counter-insurgency did not make me rush to a movie theater to see “Redacted” in 2007 (a year which also saw the excellent “Rendition” and the well-acted “In the Valley of Elah” followed in 2008 by the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” (and “Stop-Loss” and “American Son”) and in 2009 by “The Messenger” and “Taking Chance” preceded by the 2005 “Jarhead” with Jake Gylenhaal). And Like “Casualties of War,” “Redacted” dramatized a real instance of rape and murder of civilians and one soldier’s unease with what he was supposed to remain silent about.


“Do we need to go there again?” is a question I asked myself, and Brian De Palma most certainly asked himself. His answer and eventually mine as well are a reluctant yes. As Cheney and Bush and Powell lied about the imminent danger Saddam Hussein presented to Peoria, I wondered how the populace of these United States could again fall for official lies. The lessons Powell learned from actually having been in Vietnam were cast aside by Donald Rumsfeld. What Rumsfeld learned from the American war on Vietnam was to more tightly control access of reporters to what was going on in the field, particularly in a counterinsurgency (as he long denied there was an insurgency).


Absolutely central to De Palma’s movie are new media that any soldier might use, including mobile phones, lightweight digital cameras, Skype, Facebook, etc. These are what made denial of the tortures at Abu Grhaib fail (though the Bush administration managed to confine disciplining low in the chain of command). In the movie (which I will reiterate was based on a real atrocity), two of the five men are making video diaries. These include their sergeant (the only person exercising any discipline over them) exploding, and one of the two video diarists being abducted.

The fascination with the mechanics/techniques of representation makes “Blow Out” a precursor of “Redacted.” “Blow Out” and “Casualties of War” also prefigure “Redacted” in official rejection of the possibility of the crimes. The coverup of the atrocities in “Redacted” does not succeed as well as the ones in “Blow Out,” but the depressing realization that no one cares what really happens is a theme running hrough both movies.


De Palma also includes security camera footage, and in contrast to all these rough media, a French tv documentary that has the elegant look of a Brian De Palma movie. This collage of media makes for one important difference from “Casualties of War,” which was shot on film stock. I will readily stipulate that the characters in “Casualties of War” or war were more developed than those in “Redacted,” though at least as schematic.


In a regrettably brief interview that is a bonus feature on the DVD, De Palma opines that soldiers in Iraq are in a more frustrating position than those in Vietnam were: those in Vietnam had access to sex, drugs, and alcohol, all of which were and are largely unavailable to US military personnel in Iraq (and Afghanistan). The frustration and constant anxiety of urban residence with enemies who do not look any different from civilians leads to aggression—and not just in this movie. The young men were lied to about why they were put into a place where they know nothing of the language or culture (and care less, if that is possible) and are not invariably noble. They (and we safe at home) should be angry about being lied to (and the deployments drag on, three years after we elected someone who opposed the occupation of Iraq…)


Especially after the illuminating interview on the Criterion edition of “Blow Out,” I would have liked more from De Palma talking about what he did with five million dollars in Jordan (that would be 1/18th of the budget for “Mission to Mars” a tenth of that for “The Black Dahlia”). A five-minute look at shooting a poker scene is unimpressive. The DVD does have a remarkable hour-long bonus feature of of “Refugee Interviews.”


“Blow-Out”: Brian DePalma’s Masterpiece

Though I was happy Criterion was doing an edition of Brian De Palma’s 1981 “Blow Out,” I had some trepidation that it would not live up to my memories of the film as one of the greatest of the “paranoid thrillers”—a misnamed genre in that the paranoia always underestimated the extent and ruthlessness of the conspiracies. Not everyone regarded the movie as highly as I did in 1981 (Pauline Kael provided good company though). Like “Vertigo” in its time (1958), “Blow Out” was a commercial flop.


Like Peter Bodganovich and the Cahiers du cinema critics turned directors, De Palma had considerable knowledge and great admiration for earlier masters, especially Alfred Hitchcock, and especially Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” And even the title “Blow Out” is in part a conscious homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” in which a photographer became obsessed with trying to show (himself) there had been a murder… and eventually blows up the image to the point where it is all grain in which nothing is clear.

But let’s veer back to the opening of “Blow Out”: a trashy slasher movie. Only after a shower knifing (invoking Hitchcock’s “Psycho”… and De Palma’s “Psycho” homage “Dressed to Kill”) do we move out of that movie. The scream is inadequate. John Travolta, playing a character named Jack Terry, is the soundman who has been coasting on reusing the same sounds, including that of the wind. According to De Palma, the genesis of “Blow Out” was his own sound editor (Michel Moyse) reusing wind sounds.

Jack goes out to a Philadelphia park creekside and is recording an owl when he hears squealing tires, what sounds like a shot, and is horrified to see a car plunge through the railing of a bridge into the creek (I guess that if a car can be submerged in it, it must be a river?).

Jack rushes down, jumps in, and with considerable difficulty pulls a panicked woman from the back seat. Sally (the acutely claustrophobic Nancy Allen, then Mrs. De Palma, says she was not acting but was genuinely freaked out). Why was she in the backseat is a question that did not immediately occur to me (even on my second viewing three decades after the first).

In the hospital, a policeman (Tom McCarthy, future Baltimore Sun editor on “The Wire”) begins the damage control work of obliterating Sally from the scene of the “accident” in which a governor, who was polling far ahead of the incumbent president, died. There is no question that there is a conspiracy to cover-up the dalliance of the man on the way to becoming president, even though he was now dead.


Relatively soon, a second conspiracy is also beyond doubt. Sally worked with sleazeball photographer Manny Karp (Dennis Franz, who had first made an impression in De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill”) compromising men on behalf of wives seeking divorces and alimony. Manny was on the scene, the figure clambering back up, onto, and across the bridge while Jack is rescuing Sally.

Also quite early, Burke (John Lithgow) switches the tire with bullet holes (entry and exit) to a blow out (that is, a shot-out with an imploded blown-out one).

So, there is the coverup of the dead governor’s reputation. The question (still!) is whether there are two cover-ups or three. Were Burke, Karp and Sally all working for one coverup on behalf of the incumbent president? Or were there two conspiracies to take him out of the race? Burke clearly exceeded his mission and goes really, really far, killing girls who look like Sally so that when he eliminates her her killing will be attributed to a serial killer rather than to a political conspiracy involving the killing of the presidential front-running candidate.

Jack is obsessed with matching the sound he recorded to the photographs Manny shot (and sold to a newsmagazine) with the aid of Sally… who is being stalked by Burke. There is no official interest in the assassination of the presumptive next president. Detective Mackey (John Aquino) is the face of that skepticism.

No one except Jack (and Burke) cares. The schlock-picture opening is redeemed by the ending with a very real scream (Nancy Allen’s, De Palma attests). That opening was what I was most dubious about the first time I saw the movie, but recording new material is the catalyst for the plot. The numbness at the end foreshadows what I find so great at the end of “The Pledge,” another movie I eagerly champion. The stakes are much higher and the loss greater here than there or in “Blow-Up” or “The Conversation.”

Especially when Jack is synching his sound recording with Karp’s images, “Blow Out” obviously becomes a movie about making movies. De Palma had experience of synching sound and image the old (nondigital way) and drew on it. There is a famous 1620-degree pan around Jack’s studio that would have warmed the heart of Max Ophuls, and fireworks (the annual Mummer’s Parade) that would have pleased Hitchcock (To Catch a Thief), I think. And De Palma upped the ante of no one except the technician caring from “Blow-up and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.”


In the sometimes rather technical interview conducted in 2010 by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) De Palma is explicit about his admiration for and consciousness then of “Blow Up” and “The Conversation,” and has interesting war stories, including the increased scale of production when John Travolta wanted to be in it, Travolta wanting Nancy Allen (with whom he had worked on De Palma’s “Carrie”), and the disaster of the negatives of the finale being stolen (necessitating reshooting in which Lazlo Kovacs stepping in when his great Hungarian-American compatriates Vilmos Zsigmond was committed elsewhere. And De Palma confirms that he was a JFK assassination conspiracy consumer.

Even De Palma’s most dubious movies look good, and “Blow Out” looks great (in addition to his great cinematographers and his own discerning eye and native-son familiarity with Philadelphia, set designer/scout Paul Sylbert deserves and receives credit).

The Criterion edition includes the fervent championing of the movie by Pauline Kael (reprinted in Taking It All In), which I have forced myself not to reread (yet) and another essay by Michael Sragow. The disc of bonus features, besides the hour-long Baumbach-De Palma interview, has a 2010 one with Nancy Allen (which makes obvious that she is not a ditz like Sally, that is, that she was acting, except in her real panic in the car filling up with water). Both range over other De Palma movies and are essential to anyone interested in De Palma’s body of work. A third interview feature is with Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam, who talks about its early deployment in making “Blow Out.” Plus the original theatrical trailer and some production stills shot by Louis Goldman.

Also included is his first (very low-budget) feature film, “Murder à la Mod” (1968), which Karp watches on his tv in “Blow Out.” Though I am interested in De Palma, I didn’t find “Murder à la Mod” essential. Admittedly, it prefigures “Blow Out” in having a sleaze film-maker tracking down a murderer, and shows De Palma’s apprentice grappling with technique and leitmotifs of his later work. On the one hand, purchasers of the Criterion edition get a lot on the bonus disc. On the other, those wanting the great “Blow Out” are saddled with the minor-interest “Murder à la Mod.” This tempts me to rate the DVD 4 stars, but since my intent is to champion the movie (especially in full knowledge that its greatness is not universally recognized even now, and that Criterion is not infallible in what it includes), my 5-star rating of the movie wins out. And De Palma supervised the 1080p transfer, so the picture quality of the DVD is phenomenal.

John Travolta (whom I suspect is not as intelligent as Jack) is not on the bonus disc, but his greatest performance is on the main one.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Samuel Fuller’s Long-Suppressed Masterpiece,”White Dog”

The gruff, cigar-chomping Sam Fuller (1912-1997) has long been a favorite of auteur theorists, particularly French ones, as a maverick writing and directing movies in his own, distinctive way. I think that he was sometimes a bad writer of dialogue and usually a very good director of actors and actresses. He recurrently examined the pathologies of American racism, and not just the black-and-white binary, but also including Asians, most notably in “The Steel Helmet” (1951) and “The Crimson Kimono” (1959), and Native Americans in “Run of the Arrow” (1957). The most searing of all was Trent, a black man (Hari Rhodes) in an insane asylum who had internalized the hatred spewed by the Ku Klu Klan and conceived of himself as a klansman in “Shock Corridor” (1963)

At least Trent was the most searing portrayal of racist pathology before the title character in Fuller’s last American movie, “White Dog,” which was made in 1982, but did not have a US release until 1991 and a 2009 Criterion Edition DVD with very interesting recollections by Fuller’s widow Christa Lang (who has a small but memorable part in the movie as a veterinarian’s nurse), Curtis Hanson (who adapted Romain Gary’s novella and then worked with Fuller in revising the script… before going on to direct movies such as “LA Confidential” and “Wonder Boys”), and producer Jon Davison (who had more commercial success with “Robocop”). In addition to intercutting interviews with those three, the DVD disc also includes a text interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller (who took the part of a would-be rapist in the movie and went on to the animal-training work in the “Babe” movies). The booklet includes essays on Fuller and “The White Dog” by J. Hoberman and Armond White and an interview of the dog imagined by Fuller himself.

The movie

white dog.jpeg

Criterion has also managed to release a very good-looking (albeit very 1970s-looking) print, shot by Bruce Surtees (Lenny, High Plains Drifter), with a very fine score by Ennio Morricone heightening suspense and pathology.

Setting up the main story takes a while and is somewhat klunky (as I already said, Fuller sometimes was an inept writer, though some of the blame for this probably should be assigned to Hanson).

An actress whose house in the San Fernando Valley seems rather opulent for her less-than-stellar career, Julie Sawyer (Kristy MacNichol, who is skimpily dressed through most of the movie), hits an all-white German shepherd on a dark road. Ascertaining that the dog is alive (and blocking both lanes of a blind curve…), she takes it to a veterinarian. The nurse (Lang) tells Julie that only puppies are adopted, but that if she advertises the lost dog its owner might come forward.

With her vacuous screenwriter boyfriend (Jameson Parker) she posts signs on utility poles (that would certainly blow off, since they are only stapled at the top and bottom…).

The dog attacks a rapist, endearing itself to Julie. Her boyfriend recognizes that she has an attack dog that is dangerous and urges that it be put down. Then it wanders off and attacks a black man driving a street-sweeping vehicle and returns to Julie, who washes off the blood without any apparent curiosity on how her dog came to have all that blood on him.

After having visited the dog pound and watched one dog being put down, Julie takes the dog to an animal-training facility run by Carruthers (the ever crusty and herein charming Burl Ives). The dog attacks a black employee. Carruthers’s main trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield), the son of two anthropologists, has a mission in life to find a way to recondition dogs trained to attack black people.


In two earlier instances, he managed to decondition “white dogs” attacking blacks, but they instead attacked white people (this is what the trainer in Gary’s story that originally appeared in LIFE magazine aimed to do). Keys believes that if he can succeed in salvaging one of these “white dogs,” that will discourage training others (a liberal hope, though running into conservative results).

The dog (actually, there were five white dogs playing the part) is ferocious. He certainly scared me — and often! Fuller included juxtapositions of the dog’s point of view (low) with that of Keys and Julie, as well as showing more objective shots of the deprogramming (and a very good one of Julie, Keys, and Carruthers having dinner when a policeman appears). Apparently, Paramount executives hated the dog POV shots and shelved the finished product, judging the focus on racism (the whole point of Gary’s story and novella and Fuller’s movie!) too incendiary. They wanted a horror movie, a sort of “Jaws on Paws.”

As I said, the attacking dog is plenty scary, and Ennio Morricone exacerbated this as well as John Williams did the shark in “Jaws” IMO.


It is astounding that anyone could have thought the movie was racist rather than anti-racist, but, despite Fuller’s track record, the movie was denounced before anyone had seen it by the NAACP., which also threated telecast.  It was released (and made money) in Europe, but did not play at all in the US until 1991 (when it was acclaimed by critics, but still not given any general release). Criterion has done right by the movie and made many earlier Fuller movies available.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray