PRINT December 1967


The Train, Bonnie and Clyde, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Point Blank

The kooky thing about film acting is its uncontrolled, spilling over quality. The meat of any movie performance is in the suggestive material that circles the edge of a role: quirks of physiognomy, private thoughts of the actor about himself, misalliances where the body isn’t delineating the role, but is running on a tangent to it.

Burt Lancaster’s stationmaster in The Train—a semi-reluctant fighter in the Resistance stationed in Nazi-occupied France—is an interesting performance because it has almost no center. Seven eighths of his time is spent occupied at work tasks, scrambling around the countryside. The basic information of his role is impatiently dispatched to the audience: a man pissed off at the absurdity of total sacrifice to save a carload of Van Goghs and Picassos, the “glorious French heritage.” The overtone in a Lancaster performance is that of a man who seems to disappear into concentration when he has to work. with his hands. The amount of work, involvement, that goes into a Lancaster action is fairly ravishing: he seems perversely committed to quietly (no one’s going to notice this) sidetracking the fantastic leonine head, the overrated nimbleness of his body. Lancaster half-ruins his performance with innocent sincerity, but at that point where the script stops and Lancaster has his task before him, he sinks into it with a dense absorption. His energy of concentration is like a magnet that draws the atmosphere into the action of his hands.

The opposite of Lancaster’s energy expending performance is everywhere in Bonnie and Clyde. Where his performance is filled with small bits of invention to entertain himself while the movie progresses, Faye Dunaway glides, drifts like a vertical sashay. She goes into the movie at one end, comes out the other, leaving a graceful, faint, unengaged wake behind her. (Lancaster at movie’s end has left behind him a map of zig-zagging tracings and small clusters of intense activity.) The idea that this pastel dream of the Depression days is “perfectly cast and edited” is nonsense, and the proof of it is Miss Dunaway. She could have been folded neatly and quietly by the real Bonnie Parker (a very tough ex-waitress), slipped gently into an envelope, and posted to the Lincoln Center Repertory Company from whence she came. If movies were dependent on an “intelligent,” exact rendering of a believable character, Miss Dunaway’s vanilla charm would be a single-handed blight. At her best, she is too clean, blossoming, Catherine Denueve-ish, nurtured in luxury; she’d shrivel up in the dirt crumbiness of the 1930s. (For perfect casting you’d need the butch short order cook at Howard Johnson’s: “Hey Clyde, come pick up your A.C. on toast!”)

The movie starts with the aroma of a French Agnes Varda bedroom scene: Miss Dunaway lying belly down on a bed, in heat, restless, with no action in town, West Dallas. “Hey There, that’s my momma’s car you’re stealing!” She flies down the stairs, the camera staring up her billowing skirts. The movie picks up now that it’s out in the open air, an authentic small town street with covered sidewalks: pseudo folk conversation, spilled up Warren Beatty doing that coy shuffle in which his face loses itself inside a boyishly fake half grin.

The fluke of Dunaway is that her body moves uncannily in harmony with the film’s movement. While Beatty Pollard Hackman are muscular, earthbound, scurrying and plodding in skit like business that is both entertaining and synthetic, she is almost air.

The point is that in both Lancaster’s, Dunaway’s acting there is little center, i.e. deep projection of character. Though a great deal of interpretation can be plied into the written role of a kid uneasy and bored in West Dallas, trying to become a celebrity through bank robbery, the center of the role, which received so much attention in The New Yorker, is a static, negligible thread.

The only kick in Reflections in a Golden Eye comes also from extras: Taylorisms and Brandoisms that shoot the film away from Carson McCullers’s story and into the careers of two stars: his mulishness, her shrewishness. According to the daily newspapers, this is a “dirty movie” but “magnificently acted.” When you meet the “gross, termagant wife” and her “pompous, purse-lipped major,” the major is building his chest measurements by lifting weights, his wife is on her way to another ride into the hay with her next-door neighbor. Mostly what is seen is girth, the inert mass of Brando’s elm-like body, the eyebrows moving in a slat face. Then cut to the stable area: much material about Taylor’s riding gig and how she gets on a large white stallion.

Reflections is a clawingly bland movie about two army officers and their wives: amongst their quiet routine are such diversions as horse beating, clothes sniffing, nude bareback riding, nipple snipping with garden shears, masturbation fantasies with the beloved’s discarded Baby Ruth wrapper, daily adultery in the woods. Given these Ingredients, this story of a seldom seen Army camp is Stalesville, due to the neuterization of the locale, the dated use of symbols (a closeup straight into the pupil of an eye to sink home the voyeurism of a young soldier standing outside a living room looking at a nude female). The people here are treated with a symbolic scorn that has cobwebs on it: a bobbing behind on an army saddle to suggest that Weldon (Brando) is Major Impotence.

Then there is the corny literalism of the color to go with the Golden Eye of the title (every word of McCullers’s title is insultingly reiterated). The movie’s color is that of caterpillar guts, and its 14-karat image is a duplicate of the retouched studio portraits that could be obtained in Journal Square, Jersey City, in 1945. Evidently someone sold the producers a faulty stock of amber ink, because here and there, the color is vulnerable to rose pink. For instance, during the scene in the stables, there are any number of people, horses, buildings, but the local color that registers in the allover yellowed monochrome is the rose pink of Liz Taylor’s shetland wool pullover and a faint flush of the same pink in her cheeks.

The tough ad for Point Blank is misleading. An Andy Warhol silk screen effect, Lee Marvin’s Planter’s Peanut head is seen alongside a gun barrel pointed at Times Square. This smashing blue-red-black-white ad suggests Action, in the Hammett Chandler tough cop tradition. You sort of expect to see Sleet Marvin and Angie Dickenson. They’re there in recognizable form only.

Whatever this fantasy is about, it is hardly about syndicate heist artists,nightclub owners or a vengeful quest by a crook named Walker (Marvin) for the 93 thousand he earned on the “Alcatraz drop.” The movie is really about a strangely unhealthy tactility. All physical matter seems to be coated: buildings are encased in grids and glass, rooms are lined with marble and drapes, girls are sculpted by body stockings, metallic or velour-like materials. A subtle pornography seems to be the point but it is obtained by the camera slithering like an eel over statuesque women from ankle across thigh around hips to shoulder and down again. Repeatedly the camera moves back to beds, but not for the purposes of exposing flesh or physical contact. What are shown are vast expanses of wrinkled satin, deep dark shadows, glistening silvery highlights. The bodies are dead, under sedation, drugged, or being moved in slow-motion stylistic embraces. Thus, there’s a kind of decadent tremor within the image, as though an unseen lecherous hand were palming, sliding over not quite human humans. It’s a great movie for being transfixed on small mountains which slowly become recognizable as an orange shoulder or a hip with a silvery mini-skirt.

In a sickening way, the human body is used as a material to wrinkle the surface of the screen. Usually the body is in zig-zags, being flung, scraped over concrete, half buried under tire wheels, but it is always sort of cramped, unlikely, out of its owner’s control. At one point in the film Marvin walks over to a public telescope at Pacific Palisades and starts squinting at a whitish skyscraper. It is one of the mildest scenes since the births of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but after the endless out of control cramping of bodies, the serenity of the composition and the reasonable decorum make for a fine blissful moment.

The fact that Academy Award Lee Marvin is in the film hardly matters. His block like snout like nose makes itself felt, also the silvery snake like hair that doesn’t look like hair, and the implacable, large lipped mouth. Particular parts of his body and face are used like notes in a recurring musical score. His body stays stiff, vertical, very healthy and sunburned, but he is not actually in the movie. The syndicate is ripped apart by a psycheless professional who never moves except in a peculiar way—like a mechanical soldier quick stepping through a Bauhaus corridor; a memorable mystical moment has him flying slow-motion through a bathroom door, his arm waving a blasting Colt 45.

Point Blank is an entertaining degenerate movie for its bit players: Michael Strong as a used, used car dealer, Lloyd Bochner and his sharkskin style of elegant menace. There are fine tour-de-force action compositions: a woman berserk with rage, beating a man from head to toe, a car salesman being tortured in his own used Cadillac as it is bounced between concrete pillars (a take-off on the Huston-Hawks gangster beating in which the victim is jabbed back and forth between two people in black).

However, with all its visual inventions and dreadfully fancy jazz, the movie really belongs to a composite image of look-alike actresses. As the dawn goes further down over the old notion of acting as a realistic portrayal, Angie Dickenson’s flamingolike angles can be seen one-half foot away from the despised Mal, all debauched beef-cake. They are seated on an orange chaise, like two bookends; his left hand reaches over two acres of sumptuous material and starts descending down the buttons of Angie’s mini-dress. It is a surprisingly delicate scene (considering the camera-made massiveness of the two figures), and it has almost nothing to do with the actors.

If one’s mind focuses momentarily on any of the acting personnel in the above mentioned films, one’s reaction is not in terms of overall evaluation, the role played. The movie experience is a magical, intimate recognition of some small intimate trait or traits that are unique to the actor. In the current papers, some blazing performances have been credited to actors whose persona is an imperceptible excrescence that bubbles up alongside the role: Elizabeth Taylor (spunky shrillness), Warren Beatty (natty dreamer), Rod Steiger (sweaty know-it-all), Alan Bates (bucolic shrewdster).

The actors, in other words, are erroneously built up as migratory statues, but in reality their medium has the blur, the shifting non form of a series of anthills in a sandstorm.

Manny Farber