It’s been a fairly conventional year for films in Chicago, as best as I can piece together from the generally remote north-eastern corridor. For all intents and purposes, my “Chicago” list is almost the same as my “New York” list, which I am afraid flatters neither city particularly, New York being unable to preen itself on being so far ahead and Chicago restrained from self-congratulation that it isn’t so far behind, after all. I’ve cheated a bit, listing some pictures that haven’t played commercially yet in Chicago—to do them honor a single showing at the Film Center should suffice. I’m sure one or two worthies may have danced on some obscure screen that escaped from my intelligence network; the fault, of course, lies not in their stars but in ourselves. Reserving as ever the right to change my mind, here they are:
1. The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel). No contest for the top spot. Bunuel’s most elegant comedy is also his most richly moving panegyric to liberation above all. Liberation, for Bunuel, is never a partial freedom; it must be complete or it is nothing, and he proves with this masterpiece that it can be done. Would that art were life.
2. Days and Nights in the Forest (Satyajit Ray). Ray fuses a simple style to complex emotions and makes the most elementary symbols devastating in their impact. A wry comedy in the Chekhovian mode, whose behavioral particulars illuminate a dense, contradictory society.
3. Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci). considered apart from all hoopla, Bertolucci’s confessional melodrama suffers some from its academic sex scenes out of Warhol, but its cumulative power and intensity, welded to its fierce, unyielding formal structure, will give it a classic life long after the fuss had died away.
4. Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu). Made in 1949, and far superior to the later Tokyo Story, Late Spring exemplifies the sublime contemplative insights of this passively passionate filmmaker. Ozu matches gesture to focal length to achieve an extra ordinary consonance out of ordinary domestic soap.
5. The Spider’s Strategem (Bernardo Bertolucci). Bertolucci in an anecdotal mode, with a nifty hand at irony. Not least of the ironies is that this color film, shot predominately in extreme long-shots (a directorial strategy to make the players look like spiders?), was made for Italian TV, which broadcast it only in black-and-white. Can you picture it on a 12-inch screen?
6. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese). A visualization, alternatively florid and turgid, of small-time hoods in New York’s Little Italy, directed from the lower depths of the soul of Martin Scorsese, who must have been possessed of the furies. The most original, most personal film of the year.
7. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman). By default, it makes the list. Bergman’s conception of his women is banal in its schematization and he has never learned how to use didacticism with any success. Inferior to his much-maligned The Touch, it nonetheless reverberates with too much feeling to be ignored.
8. La Religieuse (Jacques Rivette). Rivette knows a little too well how to use didacticism as an artistic tool, but working with Diderot and Anna Karina makes it all worthwhile. Its very diffidence nags at the memory.
9. The Mackintosh Man (John Huston). I must be one of the three people in the country who like this film, and I frankly cannot explain why. The acting and script conform in no way to any conventional standard of quality and yet the flexible dispassion of the direction achieves a dramatic passion unassociated with any of the usual psychological dividends of narrative cinema. A spy thriller shot close to the vest, where Huston’s (and I guess, mine own) heart must be.
10. Blume in Love (Paul Mazursky). A cockeyed talent finally puts 95% of it together. Next to the Ray, the most knowing character examination of the year. Mazursky understands whereof he speaks, and in showing his maligned subjects to be worthy of sympathy, he very nearly makes them command admiration for that worthiness. Comedy in the best sense.
There are a lot of good runner-ups this outing, particularly Lamont Johnson’s beautifully realized The Last American Hero and Don Siegel’s supercharged Charley Varrick, perhaps the two best jobs of straight-job direction; and two fine adaptations from the American Film Theater, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (John Frankenheimer) and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (Tony Richardson), easily the best work either director has done. Also: Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon; Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar; Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye; Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night; John G. Avildsen’s Save the Tiger; George Lucas’s American Graffiti; Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid; and Phil Karlson’s Walking Tall.
Most pleasant surprises of the year: Gary Sherman’s Raw Meat (even in its butchered version) and Joseph Sargent’s White Lightning (with its crackerjack crackertalk).
Worst major film of year past (The Clockwork Orange Citation): Mike Nichols’s The Day of the Dolphin) (“major” in terms of dollars, chic and cheek only). Runner-up: Letter to Jane, on which my patience finally ran out on Jean-Luc Godard. Sic semper monotonous.
I’ve missed a few major contenders, but as once was said apropos the wounded, twill serve.
It has been a remarkable year for male performers with such major talents as Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris), Robert Ryan (The Iceman Cometh), Jack Lemmon (Save the Tiger), George Segal (Blume in Love), Paul Scofield (A Delicate Balance), Robert Shaw (The Hireling) and Jeff Bridges (The Last American Hero) giving what I consider their best performances to date. I also like Chishu Ryu in Late Spring, Sid Caesar in Ten from Your Show of Shows, Paul Rogers in The Homecoming, Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall and Charley Varrick.
It was also a customarily good year for male supporting performances, headed by Bradford Dillman, Tom Pedi, Moses Gun and especially Fredric March in The Iceman ComethMean Streets and Bang the Drum Slowly. Also, Eddie Albert (The Heartbreak Kid), Denholm Elliott (A Doll’s House), Jack Gifford (Save the Tiger), Kris Kristofferson (Blume in Love), Ian Holm (The Homecoming), Art Lund (The Last American Hero), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Day for Night), Donald Pleasance (Raw Meat), Matt Clark (White Lightning), Ed Lauter and Ned Beatty in a handful of roles, and John Houseman and myself in The Paper Chase. Mention, too, to Richard Dreyffus, Tony LoBianco, Mark Rydell, Vincent Gardenia, Paul LeMat, Stephen Keats, Joshua Mostel, Richard Jordan and Louis Gossett.
Among actresses I would cite Liv Ullmann and particularly Harriet Anderson for Cries and Whispers, Claire Bloom and Jane Fonda for their respective Noras in A Doll’s House, Anna Karina in La Religieuse, Susannah York in Images, Cybill Shepherd and Jeannie Berlin in The Heartbreak Kid, and Joanne Woodward, supported by Roberta Wallach and Nell Pots, in The Effect of Gamma-Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. In less-than leads, Sharmilla Tagore and Alida Valli make leading-lady impressions, and to vulgarly-conceived roles, Glenda Jackson and Sara Miles brought more flesh-and-blood than their male writers and directors were prepared to grant.
Among supporting casts, Kate Reid (A Delicate Balance), Marsha Mason (Blume in Love), Madeline Kahn and P.J. Johnson (Paper Moon), Anna Massey (A Doll’s House), Cindy Williams (American Graffiti), Valentina Cortese and Nathalie Baye (Day for Night), Valerie Perrine (The Last American Hero), and Dyan Cannon and Joan Hackett (The Last of Sheila commend themselves in memory.
That’s all there is, there ain’t no more.
(Myron Meisel is a contributing editor and faithful companion of the Chicago Reader and a film critic for the Boston Phoenix).