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Posts Tagged ‘Norman Jewison’

We seem to be going through one of those moments when the musical is having, if not quite a renaissance, then certainly a moment in the sun – a rather fine TV documentary series on the form finished just the other night, several of my friends are displaying almost unseemly levels of excitement having landed tickets to the stage show Hamilton (please God let it not be about Neil and Christine), and, of course, La La Land looks likely to achieve stunning success come this year’s Oscars.

I never used to think of myself as a musicals kind of person, and indeed I was rather underwhelmed when I saw Phantom of the Opera on stage in London back in 2003. But since seeing West Side Story on the big screen a couple of years ago, I’ve come to realise that musicals can do things that no other type of film are capable of, and that some of the great movies are ones with songs in them. So I thought it would be a nice idea to look at a few of them over the next few weeks.

First up, then, is Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof, from 1971 – perhaps one of the last truly great musical movies. We are discussing one of those genres that normally does very well at the Academy Awards, but that year proceedings were dominated by The French Connection: perhaps in 1972 people were in the mood for gritty realism in the same way audiences currently seem to be longing for hopeful escapism.

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Based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, proceedings concern the situation of Tevye, a garrulous milkman living in the Russian Pale in the early years of the 20th century. Tevye is, of course, played by Topol, who gives a towering performance of such warmth and vitality that it practically fills up the screen. Tevye is a devout Jew, and devoted to the traditions of his faith and community, despite all the trouble they cause him. As a poor man, he has the problem of trying to find husbands for his five daughters, which he finds quite difficult enough. But outside his village, the world is changing, and anti-semitic pogroms against the Jewish population are becoming a fact of life…

This is the kind of film that would probably make those people who write books on How to Sell Your Screenplay shriek and fall over in alarm, for it really doesn’t adhere to the normal kind of dramatic structure. Instead, the first half of what is really quite a long film is largely devoted to depicting the long-established world in which Tevye lives and the simple pleasure he derives from both his religion and the associated traditions – even when idly fantasising about being wealthy (in, of course, ‘If I were a Rich Man’), Tevye admits that the greatest benefit would be the opportunity to spend more time praying and studying holy texts. And then, in the second half, his world falls apart, on practically every level. Fiddler on the Roof is not afraid to be manipulative on this front, and while the film does end on a hopeful note, it’s just that – only a note.

That the film manages to feel so thoroughly tragic is, in itself, something of an achievement, I suppose, for in some ways Tevye’s world should feel alien rather than comforting. The question of how to get five young women married off was also the basis of last year’s Mustang, where the same kind of community traditions were uncompromisingly depicted as oppressive and virtually abusive. Fiddler on the Roof manages to dodge this problem, firstly because no-one actually ends up being forced to get married against their will, and secondly because Topol makes Tevye into such a lovable character you can’t help but feel for the guy.

And feel for the guy you do, thanks to a selection of extraordinarily passionate and beautiful songs, many of them influenced by traditional Jewish klezmer music. As is often the case, most of the really great songs are in the first half of the film, where there’s the big scene-setting song, character songs, comic songs, a love song, and to top it all off the irresistibly beautiful ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ (surely guaranteed to have virtually any parent with grown-up children welling up, I would wager).

The second half is a little less blessed, but by this point you care so much about the characters that the songs almost seem secondary to the story (when the film was re-released in 1979, two of the second-half songs were cut out) – and here again, Topol’s sheer charisma is vital, as it keeps you on his side through moments where he could come across as too reactionary and unsympathetic. As it is, his rejection of his middle daughter for marrying a Gentile does not seem solely an act of cruelty.

It’s such a big performance in the main role that everyone else struggles to make much impression, although there’s always Norma Crane as his wife. The film’s European production base means there are some unexpected faces amongst the secondary characters and in the lower reaches of the cast list – Paul Michael Glaser appears as the revolutionary Perchik, while Ruth Madoc is unrecognisable as a comic spectre and a young Roger Lloyd Pack turns up as a Russian Orthodox priest. Lovers of pub quizzes might want to remember that this is the movie which Dave Starsky, Gladys Pugh, and Trigger the street-sweeper all appear, though sadly never in the same scene.

As you might expect from a film directed by Jewison and based on a stage show by Jerome Robbins, the direction and choreography is immaculate, with the spring brightness of the early scenes slowly shifting to an icy bleakness by the time the story reaches its end. In the end this is another film from Jewison about the cost of prejudice, and its pointlessness; less shrewd and angry than In the Heat of the Night, this time the purpose of the movie is simply to make you care. And it’s a purpose it achieves with enormous success.

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My family have always been church-goers rather than movie-goers; I of course am the opposite, usually turning up to see new movies at the cinema sixty or seventy times a year. Nevertheless, when my father likes a movie, he really likes it, and several times in my youth I recall being sat down and commanded to watch something on the grounds that it was A Really Good Film. I must confess that on some occasions I simply bailed out long before the end (Olivier’s Henry V was just a bit too much of a stretch for a fairly young teenager, while the thing about Robert Newton in Treasure Island was… well, you see, it was on at the same time that the first Christopher Reeve Superman was on the other side), but many of these movies did indeed turn out to be Really Good.

One of these was Norman Jewison’s 1967 Oscar-winner In the Heat of the Night, which I was introduced to thirty years ago and which turned up in a revival just the other day. One review of this film, written in 2005, suggested that when first made it was timely, but now it is simply timeless. Well, I’m not completely sure this film is just a comfortable period piece, but I’m probably getting ahead of myself.

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A hot night in the small Mississippi town of Sparta, and a patrolling cop finds the body of a murder victim. The dead man was planning on building a new factory in the area, providing desperately-needed jobs, but his proposal to employ white and black workers on an equal basis made him many enemies in the area. Nevertheless, local police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) adopts what appears to be his standard operating procedure – namely, arresting the likeliest subject in the area and extracting a confession by any means necessary. The recipient of this treatment on this occasion is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a black man discovered at the rail station.

Very much to the embarrassment of all concerned, Tibbs turns out to be an elite homicide detective from Pennsylvania, literally just passing through. To defuse the resulting awkwardness, and basically because the plot demands it (this is permissible when it facilitates a set-up as perfect as In the Heat of the Night‘s), Virgil Tibbs’ off-screen superior basically lends him to the Sparta Police Department to help them solve the case of the murdered businessman, Neither Gillespie or Tibbs are exactly delighted about this turn of events, but Gillespie needs to find the killer if he wants to keep his job, and Tibbs finds he can’t resist the challenge of showing how much smarter he is than the chief and his squad of redneck good ol’ boys – even if his mere presence in Sparta puts his life in danger…

You can enjoy In the Heat of the Night on a number of levels – and this a hugely entertaining, richly enjoyable film – but, to be honest, the police-procedural murder-mystery element of the story is the least compelling element of it, and arguably the least well-developed, too – there’s something ever so slightly perfunctory about the way in which Tibbs, seemingly acting on not much more than a series of hunches, eventually figures out what the killing is really all about. (No spoilers, but let’s just say it has less to do with racial tension than another hot-button issue in the American culture wars.)

The thriller plotline is basically a hook on which to hang an examination of attitudes to race in the Deep South at the time the movie was made, and to a modern viewer some of the things in the movie are still quite shocking – ‘what are you doing in white man’s clothes?’ asks one minor character, upon seeing Tibbs in a suit and tie – and Tibbs is pursued by lynch-mobs at more than one point in the film. (Most of In the Heat of the Night was filmed in the rather more northerly climes of Illinois, mainly because Sidney Poitier had had a run in with the Klan during an earlier visit to a southern state and refused to spend an extended period there again. Apparently, during the production’s brief visit to the south, he slept with a loaded gun under his pillow, all of which just goes to show how urgent some of film’s concerns must have seemed at the time.) Tibbs is routinely called ‘boy’ or by his first name by the good people of Sparta – this of course produces the famous moment when Gillespie mockingly asks what they call him in Philadelphia and he responds ‘They call me MISTER Tibbs!’ – can’t get a motel room, can’t get served in some restaurants, and so on.

The film is always on Tibbs’ side, quite properly, but the magic of the film lies in the fact that, in his own way, Gillespie is almost as sympathetic as Tibbs. He may not be quite as talented an investigator as Tibbs, but Gillespie is still a pretty good cop who has dedicated his life to his job, for not very much reward. He’s intelligent enough to recognise his own prejudices and put them aside when necessary, and – crucially – Steiger delivers a performance with a nicely comic vein running through it. (It was Steiger who won the Oscar for Best Actor, not Poitier, who wasn’t even nominated that year despite making this film and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – perhaps a telling fact in itself.) The relationship between the laid-back Southern cop and the up-tight Northern detective – initially combative and adversarial, eventually approaching something like mutual respect, if not actual friendship – is at the heart of the film, driven by two terrific performances. (I feel quite foolish not to have noticed this earlier, but it’s surely the inspiration for the very similar pairing of Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle in The Guard.)

And, while the film is to some extent the story of Virgil Tibbs as a stranger in a strange land, crucial to the narrative is the fact that this is not just a film about African-Americans as the victims of racism in the South, but one about prejudice and how no-one is truly immune to its pernicious influence. Tibbs heads off down a long blind alley on his investigation, simply because he becomes fixated on collaring a wealthy, openly racist local grandee for the murder – ‘Man, you’re just like the rest of us, ain’t you?’ says Gillespie, gently, realising Tibbs is not immune to this particular human failing, and Poitier’s face is a mask of uncomprehending shock as he realises the chief is right. In the end, however, both men have gone beyond their prejudices, and justice has been served, though at some cost – the climax is an implicitly hopeful one.

Fast forward to today and hope is in short supply for many people, of course: the freedoms and progress that were won around the time this film was made seem as fragile and vulnerable as at any time in the intervening years, if not actually under attack by the rising powers in the United States. Sometimes it seems like you can’t turn on the TV without seeing evidence of the racial and ideological faultlines running through society, not just in the US but in many other countries too. In the Heat of the Night still has enormous power and relevance, as well as reminding us of a whole series of powerful, political films that came out of a desire to engage with and improve the world, rather than simply entertain or distract their viewers. Hopefully the capacity to make new films in the same vein is still there – but even if it isn’t, we still have classics like this. One for the ages.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 21st 2002:

Remake fever surges on apace in Hollywood: in the last twelve months we’ve seen the new Planet of the Apes and the new Ocean’s Eleven, and a new version of The Time Machine was reviewed only last week by my worryingly talented rival Jedi Jade. And a few weeks ago American audiences were treated to the new Rollerball – the original, 1975 version of which I thought I would look at this week.

Rollerball is set in the near future, when nation states have become defunct and a few all-powerful corporations rule the world. Poverty and war have been banished and the violent impulses of the population are given vent in the form of a gladiatorial new sport, Rollerball, a mixture of American football, motorbiking, roller-disco, and kicking people in. The greatest player in the history of the game is Jonathan E (James Caan), star performer for the world champions. But his fame is making him a hero, an example of individual achievement that his corporate-minded masters cannot permit to continue. Jonathan’s employer, Bartholomew (John Houseman) decrees it is time for him to step down – but he is neither shy nor willing to retire, and the organisers of the game are forced to try and arrange his removal – by any means necessary…

But this isn’t the head-banging action movie you might expect. It clearly has aspirations to be a serious, thoughtful, mature drama – something indicated by the choice of an adagio by (I think) Bach as the main musical theme. Unfortunately this ambition reaches the screen in the form of a succession of painfully slow, grindingly heavy-handed scenes as Caan broods a lot and ponders the state of the world. There’s very little humour and all the female characters are a) Caan’s successive girlfriends and b) criminally underwritten. Allusions to the decadence of the Roman Empire are hammered home without wit or subtlety. In the past I’ve written critically of the dumbing down effect of Star Wars on the big-budget SF movie, but I suppose there’s something to be said for the cinema of raw spectacle and emotion if this sort of thing is the alternative.

The only time Rollerball really comes to life is in the actual arena sequences, which get progressively more violent as the film goes on. But they’re not that special, and their main point of interest nowadays is that they’re all done ‘as real’ without a special effect in sight. Even here, though, there’s a problem, as director Norman Jewison’s clear intention to make a point about the brutalising effect of violent sports on players and spectators is hugely undercut by the fact that the violent sports sequences are far and away the best bits of his film.

Technically, things are solid rather than spectacular, the film taking place in one of those spotless and moulded-from-plastic futures seemingly beloved of early 70s SF film set designers. It was filmed in Europe, explaining the presence in the cast of familiar-faced emigrés from North America like Shane ‘Thunderbirds‘ Rimmer and Angus ‘Star Wars’ MacInnes, alongside British stalwarts like Burt ‘Hey Little Hen’ Kwouk and Sir Ralph Richardson (who clearly hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about). Caan is okay in the lead role, managing the neat trick of looking macho in roller-boots, although he’s rather subdued when not on the track. The most natural performance, though, comes from John Beck as Caan’s psycho team-mate.

Rollerball‘s culty reputation is probably the sole reason for the remake, and it’s telling that the new version seems to have ditched all the highbrow posturing in favour of more action. As it is, the original film succeeds only in terms of the violence it’s intended to condemn. And its vision of the future is pretty ropey, too: a world ruled by global corporations, with the population kept happy by stage-managed violent spectacle? As if. I’m off to McDonalds before the WWF starts.

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