The Driver (1978)

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You know I don’t like guns. The laconic and enigmatic Driver (Ryan O’Neal) excels at manoeuvering getaway vehicles through the tightest of spots following robberies, making him quite in demand in the criminal underworld. His skill and notoriety, however, infuriate the corrupt Detective (Bruce Dern), who becomes obsessed with taking the Driver down and has issues convincing his cohorts (Matt Clark and Felice Orlandi) on the best way to entrap him. He decides to use Teeth (Joseph Walsh) and his trigger-happy gang, and offers them a deal in a set up robbery. Luckily for the speed-loving anti-hero, the Player (Isabelle Adjani), a gorgeous and resourceful woman, is around to help him elude the Detective… I’ll tell you something, I’m very good at what I do. Who says American cinema doesn’t do existential? Channeling Melville (Jean-Pierre) and Camus this boils the film noir down to essentials and provides a sustained picture of Los Angeles at night often challenged, rarely equalled. From the country and western music played on his Craig electronic notebook (I want one) to his moniker of Cowboy, the western allusions play out with an unexpected shootout involving a man who doesn’t usually carry a gun. The irony of course is in the casting:  Dern once killed John Wayne on screen, so brings that genre baggage to this tapestry of tropes. Writer Walter Hill was making his sophomore directing outing following Hard Times and you can tell he watched a lot of Raoul Walsh movies.  The generic character names are proper archetypes that take flight in this most meticulously conceived actioner, the car chases reminding us of his work as AD on Bullitt (he wrote this for Steve McQueen). There’s astonishing camerawork and shot design by Philip H. Lathrop, who did Shadow of a Doubt and Saboteur with Hitchcock and the opening tracking shot on Touch of Evil, as well as doing a great job on Blake Edwards’ astonishing LA movie Experiment in Terror and The Pink Panther. There are other titles on his resumé, but those are impressive enough credentials for one DoP. The limpid lighting and great cutting make this muscular thriller a visually haunting experience. The scene when the Driver teaches Teeth and his gang how to really drive a Merc in an underground car park is stunning and you know, when you think about it, they’re just driving around a car park.  That’s all. But it’s how they do it that matters. There is a winning simplicity and modernity that bespeaks careful construction to achieve this finessed cinematic affect. And there’s the significance of the cars in the culture and what this is about symbolically, a western scenario unfolding in a lawless town where Dern fancies his chances as omnipotent sheriff irritated by his constantly questioning sidekicks. There’s the usual hilariously inexpressive performing by Adjani, a great supporting role for Ronee Blakley as the Connection and a very satisfying ending. This is why Walter Hill is one of the geniuses of cinema and why O’Neal was a major star, perfect for the era. He looks great, he says little and he does it with surgical exactitude. He and Dern have utterly asymmetrical acting styles and make remarkably memorable complementary foes. One of the great Seventies movies.  How do we know you’re that good?

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Happy 78th Birthday Ryan O’Neal 20th April 2019!

What a run Ryan O’Neal had in the Seventies. The boxer turned actor was born Charles Samuel Eldridge Patrick Ryan O’Neal III to screenwriter Charles O’Neal and actress Patricia Callaghan and after paying his dues in a slew of TV shows he landed a lead in western series Empire then top-lined in Peyton Place becoming famous all over the world. And then there was Love Story. That was the big one, followed by non-stop hits among which are my personal favourites, What’s Up Doc?, Paper Moon (co-starring with his preternaturally gifted daughter Tatum), Barry Lyndon and The Driver. Stop! There were more, several of them, but somehow the wheels seemed to start coming off sometime around Green Ice, So Fine and Partners. He was married to two actresses, involved with more (La Streisand) but the big love affair with Farrah Fawcett-Majors (Lee Majors was his close friend) perhaps distracted him. He has always had an opacity (not a lack of technique) which lends itself equally to comedy and enigma, at home working with Kubrick (for whom he was great) and Bogdanovich (for whom he was hysterically funny) and Hill (for whom he was blankly expressive). More recently he has found a home in TV, doing good work in my beloved Miss Match and Bones and 90210 but occasionally he has a showy role in something like People I Know and we are reminded that this is a star, a really modern one, even with the family tragedies, terrible reality TV appearances and occasional public interviews of the car crash variety.  He is a guy who is really of his time and will always be in the Top 2 Sexiest Men Alive (in my house at least). Happy birthday Ryan O’Neal!

The Games (1970)

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How will it end?/I’ll get to the top./How will you know?  American Scott Reynolds (Ryan O’Neal), Briton Harry Hayes (Michael Crawford), a Czech Army man Pavel Vendek (Charles Aznavour) and an Australian Aborigine Sunny Pintubi (Athol Compton) train for the Rome Olympics marathon and their paths cross at various international meets before the big event which ends up taking place in gruelling heat … That boy’s gonna be our Silver Cloud. Starring Ryan O’Neal, with a screenplay by Erich Segal and a score by Francis Lai. It’s got to be Love Story, right? And yet, wrong. For Michael Winner helmed this paean to distance running and endurance before that classic and this adaptation of a novel by Hugh Atkinson sadly fails to entirely rise to the momentous occasion amid evident effort. Presumably a budgetary problem prevented better cinematography and editing – so much of what could have been a beautiful travelogue looks dreary because a lot is shot in England.  Issues of personal relationships, nationality and race (!) rear their heads, as one might expect. Crawford is the central character – a milkman with an unbelievable running time and he’s fairly unbelievable in the part (his later TV gurning as Frank Spencer is hinted at) but the other roles are more satellites to his story.  However it’s interesting that O’Neal’s character is a Yalie with a heart problem! (See above).  The mentoring relationships are central to the narrative and it’s Crawford’s with the inimitable tough-as-old-boots Stanley Baker that works best although Jeremy Kemp’s with Compton’s is fascinating, given the issues involved. The actual race is quite thrilling and the outcome is hugely satisfying. The crowds are mostly cardboard cut-outs, believe it or not.  Nice to see the real Kent Smith, Sam Elliott and Leigh Taylor-Young (Mrs O’Neal, as an uncredited co-ed) in the cast.  There’s an interesting sidebar about TV coverage and how US scheduling influences sporting events. Notable for a Lai-Hal Shaper song From Denver to LA performed by one Elton John who became famous later that year and had the record (s)quashed. Isn’t the poster rather cool? You run against yourself

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

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Fool’s courage. Operation Market Garden was the code name for the failed attempt to take the bridges around Arnhem in Holland as winter drew in during 1944. The Allies led by Montgomery and Eisenhower had the idea to power through to the damaged German factories on the Ruhr – and a combination of bloody mindedness, poor planning, bad luck and bad weather made it a pretty disastrous sortie and certainly did not end WW2 as anticipated.  The great Irish writer Cornelius Ryan’s stonking blockbuster books about the era yielded this (published in 1974) and Darryl F. Zanuck’s independent production The Longest Day (1962) and his brilliance as a journalist and investigative historian have cleared up a lot of myths about certain WW2 events, this not being the least of them. Both films have an A-Z list of stars in common but Richard Attenborough was the sole helmer here and William Goldman adapted the book, published in 1974.  General Browning (Dirk Bogarde, a real life WW2 soldier) is the man poised to lead Montgomery’s plan but when a doubting Private Wicks (Paul Copley) carries out an extra recce and supplies him with photos of concealed armoured German tanks in the area where the landing is planned he has him put out on sick leave. Bad idea. With seven days’ notice the paratroopers, infantry and air service both US and UK are sent in. It’s well set up with the Dutch underground – a father and son carry out some spying for the Brits on the Nazis assembled in the area – and the putting together of a team of doubting Thomas Allies with Sean Connery in particular being given some great moments as General Urquhart – confessing to air sickness before takeoff;  landing in a forest where the lunatics from the local asylum are literally laughing at him;  and in a lovely touch and a symmetrical moment after the disaster has happened, arriving at Browning’s Dutch HQ being greeted by geese – who are clearly laughing at him too. That’s good writing. Never mind the naysayers, and there have been a lot over the years amongst the critical posse, who probably wish this had had a very different outcome (don’t we all):  this is fiercely exciting, mordantly funny and has memorable moments of sheer bloody minded bravery, not least when James Caan pilots a jeep through a Nazi regiment with the body of a young captain he has promised he wouldn’t let die. If you’re not cheering at this then you’re not breathing, mate. Maximillian Schell is terrific as the German General who applauds his opponents’ courage and hands Anthony Hopkins a bar of chocolate upon capture. After he’s given the order to raze Arnhem. Thrilling, splendid and a history lesson we still need to learn – bad project management, not heeding early warnings and then stopping the Poles from parachuting in because of fog when it was too late to rescue those poor men who were being slaughtered by the thousand. And those bloody radio crystals. Why’d they bring the wrong ones when the drop zone was eight miles from the river? Sheesh. Exciting as hell. And with a bigger body count. Fantastic, with every Seventies star you could wish for, be they given ever so little but with a special mention to little known Paul Maxwell and Erik Van’t Wout. There is an absolutely iconic score by the great John Addison:  hear it and you know exactly where you are. What a shame Ryan didn’t live long enough to see it:  he died two months after the book was published. What a gentleman and scholar he was. His contribution to our knowledge is immense. Just the thing for a rainy summer’s day when you should be watching Wimbledon but they shunted it back by a fortnight. Again.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

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Ryan O’Neal is the absent-minded musicologist whose rocks are upset by scatty accident-prone college dropout Barbra Streisand in this Peter Bogdanovich homage to and adaptation of the great screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby. A San Francisco hotel is the location where a kiss-chase on a mammoth scale proceeds, with thieves and assorted academics and hotel staff running in circles, all because of a very popular type of plaid suitcase. With Streisand crooning as Ryan tickles the keys and a to-die-for supporting cast – Madeline Kahn! Kenneth Mars! Austin Pendleton! – this is a sheerly hilarious, swoony delight from start to delectable finish. Amongst the many movie references is an homage to the car chase in Bullitt! Written by Buck Henry, Robert Benton and David Newman, and Bogdanovich himself. One of the funniest films ever made.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

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It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled;  good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now. An Irish lad on the make in eighteenth century English society. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s everything. Adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, this is Stanley Kubrick’s most sumptuous production and my own favourite among his films (that poster dominates my dining room) and close to being my all-time favourite movie. Rarely appreciated, Ryan O’Neal is just perfect and wholly sympathetic in the role of the impoverished and ambitious social-climbing soldier who romances a wealthy widow. The candlelit interiors, the narration, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the performances – with so many striking cameos – all combine to create an incredible sensory achievement. Much misunderstood over the years, this was re-released to the big screen over the past year to fresh appreciation. It is stunning and enriching, in ways you have to see to believe.

Irreconcilable Differences (1984)

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Nowadays Nancy Meyers is more celebrated for her rightful foregrounding of the older woman’s experiences:  in the early 80s after having her screenplay (with Charles Shyer) for Protocol rewritten by Buck Henry (apparently at Goldie Hawn’s behest after they wrote Private Benjamin for her) she decided to write a very caustic appraisal of Hollywood, marriage and the whole darned thing. Ryan O’Neal is the film professor hitching a ride west to Hollywood;  Shelly Long is the wannabe writer who picks him up. He’s cherrypicked by a producer and mentored to write a movie and becomes a director who abandons Long and their young daughter Drew Barrymore and when his movie with new love Sharon Stone fails and Shelly’s career soars, Barrymore sues for emancipation from their madness. It’s brilliantly written, performed – look at Barrymore! Extraordinary! – and smartly directed by Shyer, cunningly incorporating screwball staging with references to Ernst Lubitsch (and Peter Bogdanovich). I’m a huge fan of Nancy Meyers – so I wrote a book about her:  https://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481113546&sr=1-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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Love Story (1970)

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Where do I begin?  There are seven basic plots and Love Story is one of them. Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy loses girl. It began as a screenplay sold to Paramount Pictures and the writer, literature professor Erich Segal, was persuaded to novelise it. The novel became a bestseller before the film’s release. The stars were already very elderly to be playing undergrads – Ryan O’Neal was 29, Ali MacGraw 31.  Some smart and arch dialogue, the decision to use classical music (“What could be better than Bach – or Mozart – or you?”), an audacious opening, well chosen fashion, characters who do things (play keyboards, hockey) all contribute to a film that feels unerringly modern. O’Neal had been a Hollywood kid who nonetheless paid his dues in TV including a long stint on Peyton Place, MacGraw had made an impact the previous year as Jewish American Princess Brenda Patimkin in the Roth adaptation,  Goodbye, Columbus (Peerce) and both performers were affecting and ridiculously beautiful (and remain so to this day.) What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died?  A classic.

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