Quality Corrupted

directed by Stanley Kramer
United Artists
directed by Irving Lerner
Cinema Center

We can no longer listen with tolerance to the corporation managers who control the American motion picture companies when they say that the audience turns out in force only for big lavish movies. Most of the excitement in American pictures in 1969 has centered in mediumor small-budget projects. You don’t need the super-productions based on hit Broadway plays or best sellers; you don’t need the ancient, sagging, overpriced “stars,” the huge sets filled to the corners with specially designed furniture, plastic flowers, and sullen extras mugging at the camera—you don’t need these “production values” to make a good movie or to make money. But before we have our American “New Wave,” we must deal with our American “Tradition of Quality,” such as it is. If I’m harsh and overelaborate here about two unimportant movies, it’s because I want to establish clearly what’s dumb or corrupt in these traditional exercises—the kinds of things we’ve ignored for years but have to campaign against now, when there’s a chance for better.

Stanley Kramer’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria is a crude and conventional movie, but it isn’t offensively bad in the grand Kramer manner. We don’t sit there in agony, holding our heads and saying, “No, Stanley, no! Please, Stanley!” Kramer works the comic-Italian schtik, with the Italians so warm and fallible and “earthy” (so much earthier in our movies than in real life), as we’ve seen it in countless movies and television shows. Everything is geared to feelings and laughs we’ve already had; he doesn’t even try to find anything new in the material. Robert Crichton’s novel was only fair, but even mediocre best sellers deserve better than this. Crichton did achieve the feeling of a small Italian town as a social collectivity—in this case, a bitter and exhausted town at the end of twenty-odd years of Fascist betrayal and lies, its people held to life only by the yearly rhythm of turning out the wine. When the retreating Nazis try to steal the wine supply, a drunken wine seller pulls everyone together, and the book then turns into a rather complicated game between Italian guile and cynical wit on the one side and German method and power on the other, with the Italians saving their wine and humiliating the Nazis in the end.

Screenwriters Ben Maddow and William Rose have “licked” the novel in the old Hollywood sense: simplifying, softening, and dulling the whole conception. The suspense is gone, so are the sardonic humor and the cruelty; and without these the characters go limp and the actors fall back on what they’ve done before. Thus, Nazi Captain Von Prum has been turned into a fundamentally decent man caught in the wrong place—nothing like the sententious, self-deceiving careerist conceived by Crichton—which allows Hardy Kruger to play the role with his customary boyish charm. As the wine seller, Anthony Quinn grovels, dances, and mugs his way through his all-purpose, Mediterranean-peasant tour de force; he does this horsing better than anyone else, and he still has that marvelous laughter that sounds like a truck’s engine, but it’s now so dreadfully familiar. His wife is played by Anna Magnani, who throws pots and pans and carries on as she always does in American films. Crichton imagined her as a woman too emotionally exhausted to respond to her husband at all, even in his time of glory. It’s as if Kramer felt the audience would be cheated if it didn’t get large doses of Italian temperament and noise. When Quinn’s daughter announces that she’s reached womanhood and wants to be with her lover, Quinn is made to look down at her breasts, first at one and then at the other; then, very slowly, a dim light bulb turns on in his eyes, and he’s screaming and shouting again. Perhaps the movie is a stalking-horse for a prestige musical (Paisan!) or a new television series (I Remember Mama Mia).

It may be heartless to complain about actors speaking English with a thick accent rather than Italian, since this practice conforms to the Hollywood conventions for movies set in Europe, but it’s part of what’s wrong with the movie: everyone becomes quaint, comically lovable, and Chico Marxish, no matter what they are saying, and the real Italian villagers, who are being used for “authenticity,”have to keep their Italian tongues still. Americans are so accustomed to hearing this pidgin English in movies that when they go abroad they begin shouting it at taxi drivers and waiters (“Bring-a me roast-a chee-ken”) .

The Secret of Santa Vittoria opened the San Francisco International Film Festival on the night of October 23. It was a gala evening. As the formally dressed patrons entered the auditorium, some of them rushing over from “the super drinkydo offered by Mr. and Mrs. Edward Haas" (San Francisco Examiner) , they were startled by hundreds of meringue pies flying through the air and landing on their faces, tuxedoes, caftans, and brocades. This bombardment, characterized by the Examiner as “a carefully planned, spitefully unpleasant ‘happening,’ engineered by a publicity-mad group of anarchic film-makers,” was photographed by eight cameras positioned in advance around the entrance of Masonic Auditorium. Forty members of the police arrived in squad cars; they counted 494 empty pic tins and arrested thirteen persons on charges of “conspiracy to disturb the peace.” Before being removed, the film-makers announced that they were “paying homage to the bravado, dash, and excitement which marked American movies when they really moved.”

Kramer’s ambitions and his failures have often been linked to a kind of muddled and opportunistic liberalism whose qualities in the arts can be indicated by a list of its compromises: it’s quick and easy with judgments and moral categories but incapable of imagining the experience of evil, the contradictions of virtue, the dangers of the moral life in general; it sincerely dislikes prejudice but defends the victims of prejudice by cleaning and sprucing them to the point where their antagonists look reassuringly insane; it praises variety and diversity but feels comfortable only with an overall scaling down and flattening out of human strangeness, wildness, and complexity; it has explanations for everything but is constantly being surprised. This complex of attitudes was chased out of the older arts fifty years ago, and it’s on the run in movies today. Look at the good American movies of 1969: they all have areas of blindness and confusion, and none of them is quite firstrate, but at least the directors and writers are trying to get some of the antagonisms and hang-ups of American life onto the screen without suggesting in the last reel that everything can be resolved with a little understanding and a show of goodwill.

In Kramer’s next movie, also a comedy, Anthony Quinn will return as an embattled liberal, a Puerto Rican professor of sociology caught up in a campus revolt in which the students have (somehow) thrown out the administration (unlikelysituations never stopped Kramer) . Kramer has said in the Los Angeles Times that “Quinn will play it from my viewpoint. His character will be that of a discarded liberal.”Why doesn’t he quit making movies and write for the Saturday Review? In almost every picture, he has taken his loaded, self-justifying fantasies (and now who’s ready for his disillusion?) and set them at large in the world of racism and politics, where they manage to overwhelm even the most tangled and difficult problems, insulting the audience and the truth alike. If Hollywood is going to give us movies touching on social problems, let them be made by men who will labor heroically to be objective or bv men who are frankly partisan —but not by men grown wealthy telling half the truth and who now presume to wonder why the other half claims its revenge.

Occasionally an actor may go out on a limb and have a wild good time in order to save a big sluggish movie from boredom. If he’s brazen and funny he may eventually win an Academy Award and everyone will call it a “classic" performance, but while watching the movie the audience’s main feeling will be gratitude —the performer provides a rallying point for its own resentment. Now, if audiences aren’t entertained this way by Christopher Plummer in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, then they probably won’t be entertained at all. The movie doesn’t work as serious drama or as spectacle. Philip Yordan adapted Peter Shaffer’s stage hit; somehow the central dramatic “problems" have become confusing and tedious. The conqueror Pizarro, flanked by his raffish army and his hypocritical priests, captures the Inca King in sixteenth-century Peru and exacts a fortune in gold as ransom. The question arises: shall Pizarro release King Atahualpa as promised and face an armed uprising against his men? This issue is debated back and forth, and we never understand why the uprising will not occur if the Spaniards don’t release Atahualpa; finally we don’t care about the resolution of this problem. We also grow indifferent to Pizarro’s moral struggles and his rebellions against official Christianity and duty. If he’s so scrupulous and tortured, then why is he plundering Peru? And why does he kill 2000 unarmed Incas for no reason? These contradictions in his character, which we expect to be developed dramatically, are simply ignored. Robert Shaw works hard to give Pizarro some texture and grit, but he is stuck with a series of scenes, fairly presentable in themselves, which don’t link up one to another.

As for Atahualpa—the king, the son of the sun, it doesn’t matter whether he makes sense or not; Plummet is so strange and funny that he seems to have come down from another planet. We re too lost in wonder to listen to his lines (assuming we could penetrate the German-Canadian-Spanish accent) . Where does this performance come from? Movie kings were never like this! He hisses, he rattles, he mutters to himself and rolls his eyes; he snakes along the wall and drops to the ground; he prances, sighs, and groans—and it’s beautiful, because while everyone else labors through this straight dull play about moral obligation and the failure of Christianity, Plummer has liberated himself from the material, from conventional acting, from the restrictions, it would seem, of his own body. No wonder the Spaniards put him to death: who could bear such epicene splendor for long? Nevertheless, we pray almost as hard as Pizarro for Atahualpa’s resurrection, just to see Plummer go through another turn.

Plummer manages to suggest with his body and voice an alien but splendid culture that honors certain physical characteristics quite different from the ones we honor. But the legitimacy of that culture is at the same time attacked by director Irving Lerner, who photographs the Inca rituals from odd angles so that they look merely weird, and by that wailing soprano we’ve been hearing for years on movie sound tracks, who climbs her octaves once again to signal us that something sinister and eerie is going on. These stylistic devices carry the judgment of our culture; they suggest the Spaniards were right to kill the Incas—look how freakish they are. Lerner shoots the slaughter itself in languorous slow motion with snappy flamenco music on the track to make it cruel and joyous and ceremonially Spanish, but the sequence goes on forever and the ironic intention behind the use of the music is pathetically feeble and dangerously naïve. For some reason many shots in this movie are either too long or too short; the Incas’ entrance into the walled city, for instance, is ruined by the editor’s nervous, over-rapid cutting from one angle to another, as if he were afraid to leave out any of the camera setups. At another point we aren’t sure if several important characters have left the room. We expect errors of taste in big movie spectacles—vulgarity is one of the main reasons we go; but ordinary errors of competence are harder to forgive, and without visual distinction a big spectacle is dead.