Semi-Tough (1977)

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All you care about is fucking and football. Quarterback Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds) and wide receiver Marvin ‘Shake’ Tiller (Kris Kristofferson) are professional football players who share a lush Miami apartment with multiply-divorced Barbara Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh), the pretty young daughter of their team’s owner Big Ed (Robert Preston). When Barbara develops feelings for Shake and the two begin a relationship, he insists that she join him at B.E.A.T., a New Age training programme run by the shady Friedrich Bismark (Bert Convy). His conversion to the EST-type belief  gives him more confidence but causes a rift in the cosy ménage à trois and Billy Clyde makes a play for Barbara himself. Meanwhile, there’s a big game coming up … We don’t like football that much. We just like taking showers with niggers. Rowdy, wildly provocative and profane, this satire of the business of football and the men who play it and the people around them stands out in the careers of the cast, the director (Michael Ritchie) and screenwriter Walter Bernstein, adapting Dan Jenkins’ best-selling novel (Ring Lardner Jr. had his name taken off the credits). It’s not all about Burt, but it might well be, even in one of the most likable ensembles you’ll ever see with charm just pouring off the screen. In real life Reynolds was a college ball player when an accident derailed his promising career. He invested in Tampa Bay’s (doomed USFL) team and his characterisation is partly based on Hall of Famer Don Meredith who played for the Dallas Cowboys in the Sixties and became a sportscaster with a taste for double entendres and worked as a TV and film actor. (North Dallas Forty features a quarterback believed to be based upon him). The rhythm of the script plays to Reynolds’ skills – an easy swagger, a  taste for deadly put-downs and immense charisma. The chemistry with Kristofferson and Clayburgh automatically eases the audience into the pro ball world and the ribald humour is offset by inspired slapstick. Preston is tremendous as the addled Big Ed creeping and crawling on the floor in the name of Movagenics, his newfound religion:   You outta line with gravity, Billy Clyde. That’s your trouble! Offensive, wildly funny and masterfully controlled, this is one of the best films of the Seventies and even with that cast (including Lotte Lenya, Richard Masur, Brian Dennehy and Carl Weathers), Reynolds is just outstanding in a story that is hugely generous to its characters. When Billy Clyde assuages the feelings of a matronly woman who thinks her size makes her unattractive to him, he’s so sweet and kind you believe what he tells her: There’s nothing sexier in the world than a woman who knows she’s a real woman. Bernstein, who turned 99 last month and was one of the victims of the blacklist, provides a script that is perfect for the times with the narcissistic worlds of self-improvement and therapy in his sights (the energy field, not just the football field, natch). Directed with verve by Michael Ritchie.

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Downhill Racer (1969)

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In seven years I’ve never had a hot dog like you.  Smug, arrogant and overly self-assured downhill skier, David Chappellet (Robert Redford), joins the American ski team after their star has an accident and quickly makes waves with his contemptuous behavior and his actions on the slopes, falling into conflict with the team’s coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman). He won’t ski at Wengen because he’s seeded too low. Then when he comes fourth he thinks he’s won. But he has a good face and attracts the attention of a ski manufacturer Machet (Karl Michael Vogler). A rivalry also develops between David and Johnny Creech (Jim McMullan), the man who is now considered the team’s best skier, firstly romantically as Chappelet immediately hits on Machet’s assistant Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv) when he sees Creech with her.  The relationship lasts a season when Chappelet wins at Kitzbühel and alienates the rest of the team. Then the men find common ground when they are both in the running for the Olympic team and Chappelet realises Carole is even more driven and capricious than he is He’s not for the team, and he never will be. Written by the great James Salter (from the uncredited novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall), this is a classic character study told in terms of competitive skiing. The limitations of Chappelet’s smalltown origins paradoxically make him want to conquer the world – which in skiing terms means Europe. While Redford would make another kind of mountain movie in a few years (Jeremiah Johnson) this is about another paradox which team coach Hackman addresses in a press conference – why America has such fantastic mountains but lacks champion skiers (money). Chappelet wins the attentions of the glamorous Carole but he loves her money as much as the sex – when he snorts with laughter at the sight of her yellow Porsche you understand. His sketchy relationship with his farmer dad demonstrates the issue and why his tunnel vision exists. Claire is tolerant of his talent but antagonistic to Chappelet’s single-minded drive: All you ever had was your skis and it’s not enough. Chappelet may not be a nice guy, but Claire needs him and the team needs him. When a happy accident occurs, replaying a race held in jest, you know Chappelet’s glad. The almost-twist ending is just perfect. It’s amazing to realise that this was Michael Ritchie’s debut as director. He is often described as a master ironist and while the material is undoubtedly on the page, the staging is meticulously judged:  there is acute observation and colour (look at the difference a white turtleneck makes to Chappelet and how he dons blue jeans to talk to his uninterested father);  the production design in flawless in terms of contrast; there are also reverse shots that make you laugh out loud. (Look at how Claire laughs in a restaurant when Chappelet is cornered by a dumb journalist). This world is established leanly, using few reaction shots.The part is Redford’s. He had picked up on the property when Roman Polanski was working on it at Paramount prior to getting involved with Rosemary’s Baby and Salter developed the story outline from Polanski’s idea of a High Noon on the slopes, ignoring Hall’s novel. Redford and Salter travelled with the US ski team to the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble and Hall picked up on an aloof quality in Billy Kidd but was also influenced by Spider Sabich and Buddy Werner who had died a few years earlier in an avalanche while fooling with a film crew. Sparv was married to Paramount Studio head Robert Evans for a few years and she has precisely the glacial attraction required for such a nonchalant self-absorbed woman. Superior, in fact. Chappelet’s need of money and fame needs that kind of woman in tow. When she doesn’t need him he is brought down to earth – literally. Claire is the warm team manager whose methods the cool Chappelet despises. There is a plot but it’s the anonymity of the slopes, the hotel rooms, the lifestyle, the effort, the brutality, that highlight the characterisations. The technical side of the film is superlative – rarely has the experience of skiing been so accurately shot and Ritchie hired cameraman Brian Probyn and sound man Kevin Sutton after seeing their work on Ken Loach’s Poor Cow. The images of Chappelet and Carole skirting the high line of the glistening white slopes under a bright blue sky are awesome. Some years ago an acquaintance regaled me with a little story about Redford at one of the Sundance Institute workshops. He kept a low profile, he said. Didn’t want to draw attention to himself. And then one morning he was out on the slopes. You could spot him without any effort:  he was the one in a hot pink suit. Somehow you just know he is channeling his inner Chappelet. Not just for ski bunnies and Jean-Claude Killy fans. Outstanding.

 

 

Fletch (1985)

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Are you putting a whole fist up there Doc? Irwin Fletcher (Chevy Chase) is an undercover reporter doing a drugs story while disguised as a homeless junkie on the beach when he’s approached by businessman Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) to kill him for $50,000 because he’s got bone cancer. Fletch identifies himself as Ted Nugent. He then investigates this fascinating proposition, donning a myriad of disguises and identities (we particularly like the 49c teeth), getting mired in Stanwyk’s marital disarray, property deals, police corruption involving Chief of Police Karlin (Joe Don Baker) – and murder. And he gets to know Alan’s LA wife Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) in a mutually satisfying fashion. Win! Gregory Mcdonald’s novel gets a fast-moving adaptation from Andrew Bergman, a director in his own right (there was some additional uncredited work by fellow writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)  Chase gives the performance (or performances) that you’d expect – droll and deadpan, always amiable (yet plucky!) and the running joke about his bizarre expense claims is well done. Fine, funny lighthearted fare handled with his customary aplomb by director Michael Ritchie, energised by a typically zippy plinkety-plonk score from Harold Faltermeyer, the go-to composer for zeitgeisty mid-Eighties entertainment. Chase even dons an Afro to play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There’s a wonderful supporting cast including Geena Davis in the newsroom, David Harper (of The Waltons!) as ‘teenager’ and Kenneth Mars:  we are thrice blessed!