Thursday, March 17, 2011

Day 146, 1973(Part 6 of 6)

I think I’ve seen bits and pieces of The Sting over the years, on television and such. In any case, not enough for this not to feel like a new experience. I knew that it was about con men, which is something I generally enjoy. And I remember that it repopularized ragtime music, specifically Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” I’m pretty sure there’s a direct link between this film and the fact that my cell phone came with that particular ring tone. This is Robert Redford’s sixth appearance on the list, Paul Newman’s fourth, and reunites them with their Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director, George Roy Hill. Overall, I found this to be a very pleasant film and more consistently entertaining than Butch and Sundance. Though, with all the truly great films of 1973, I was a little surprised to find it was the big winner at the Oscars that year. Redford plays Hooker, a small time con man, who inadvertently stumbles across a big score, which in turn gets him into deep trouble. Through various connections he gets hooked up with Orndorff(Newman), who takes him under his wing, hides him, and introduces him to grifting on an altogether higher and more elaborate plane. The plot is not so complicated that its difficult to follow, but it would take entirely too much effort to summarize it here in greater detail than I have already. Their mark is Doyle Lonnegan(Robert Shaw), a temperamental and powerful Irish mobster with a violent temper. Watching this made me realize I’d seen very little of Shaw’s work. Perhaps his memorable turn in Jaws(to be addressed later) made me think I’d seen more. In any case, his presence and intensity is undeniable. In every scene he’s in, I found him both utterly watchable and terrifying, as he suffuses every line and facial expression with the sense that he could explode at any moment. This makes his scenes with Newman especially delightful as Newman is completely fearless and deliberately pushes his buttons. I also really enjoyed the scenes where they were putting the operation together, the most elaborate set piece being a gambling parlor, where everyone but Shaw is essentially an actor, including the announcer narrating the races(Ray Walston). As they were setting it up, it was reminiscent of putting a play or a film together, with the sets being built, the costumes distributed, and the roles being cast. I especially remember chuckling a bit when one man, after interviewing for a “role” and being “cast,” is told, “Go pick out a suit,” and he goes to what is essentially a large costume rack. It’s all a great deal of fun even when I was able to see certain twists coming. Though I mentioned that it may not be on a par artistically with some of the other achievements of 1973, it’s great entertainment and certainly worth checking out.

As I mentioned before, Lynne joined me for the final title from 1973, The Exorcist. I’ve seen this one a few times, at least once or twice on video, as well as the extended version several years ago at the (sadly now closed) Astor Plaza theater in midtown Manhattan. So I was glad to have some fresh eyes with me as Lynne had never seen it and had, in fact, built it up in her mind a great deal. The Exorcist is the story of a young girl named Regan(Linda Blair), the daughter of Chris MacNeil(Ellen Burstyn), a movie star shooting a film on location in the Washingtom D.C. area. Subtly at first, Regan starts displaying erratic behavior that blossoms into full blown demonic possession and is subsequently in need of an exorcist. Father Merrin(Max Von Sydow) and Father Karras(Jason Miller), are brought in to free her of the demon. They succeed, but at the expense of Karras’ life. What I found particularly remarkable about the film was the realistic tone it takes. I listened to a bit of William Peter Blatty’s(who wrote the book and subsequent screenplay) commentary on the creative process. Though there were no doubt creative embellishments, this story has its basis in an actual case. The embellishments were mostly due to the extreme secrecy of the Catholic Church and their refusal to assist him in a non-fiction book he wanted to write about the case. It’s clear that Blatty is a believer, but the documentary approach he takes to the subject matter speaks to a rational world that either believes such things don’t happen or that they only happened in Biblical times. As such, both believers and non believers can appreciate the film. Believers should appreciate and recognize the world they live in and what would happen if such a thing happened in present day. Non believers should be able to suspend their disbelief as the world of the film is rooted in reality. Even Father Karras, the younger of the two priests, doesn’t seem to believe that such a thing could be possible. There is such a buildup that, aside from a prologue set in and shot in Iraq, Merrin, the exorcist of the title, doesn’t show up until the last half hour to perform the ceremony. The scenes of Blair in full possession mode are so powerful and shocking its easy to forget how little of the running time they actually consume. William Friedkin directed this one, his second on the list after The French Connection. He’s another director who, though it seems he’s never really stopped working, never really lived up to the achievement of these two titles, though these two contributions alone certainly give him a notable place in cinematic history. This is Burstyn’s third appearance on the list, though she’s always so memorable it feels like more. I mentioned previously that Lynne, though she enjoyed this film, had been expecting something more shocking. I’m inclined to think that she’d seen the most gruesome stuff on clip shows over the years and had assumed that what she hadn’t seen was much worse and more prevalent in the film. I’m envious of the people who saw this film having no idea what to expect. All that being said, I think the film certainly packs a punch. Though this would probably sound strange to audiences in 1973, it seems admirable in its restraint compared to the typical gorefest horror films today. The scenes of a little girl in horrendous blistered makeup projectile vomiting and spewing out lines like, “Fuck me Jesus” and “Your mother sucks cocks in hell” would have been numbing if used in excess.

Well, that’s 1973. I’m ridiculously backed up on this. I’m a week or so away from finishing the viewing process, but I have a backlog of about 17 titles that I haven’t written about. Ah well. It happens as it happens. Part of the process I suppose. I hope to get back here with part one of 1974 soon.

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