Tag Archives: B+

MAJOR DUNDEE: THE EXTENDED VERSION

The treatment of Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” (1965) has become one of the classic tales of Hollywood’s ability to butcher the work of great directors–not as appalling, to be sure, as what was done to “The Magnificent Ambersons,” but notorious nonetheless. Coming between the elegiac, autumnal “Ride the High Country” (1962) and the brutal end-of-an-era “The Wild Bunch” (1969), the picture schizophrenically shares some of the themes of both. It’s about a driven, tormented Union officer (Charlton Heston) who leads a widely diverse posse composed of cavalrymen, confederate prisoners, buffalo soldiers, and scalawags of various sorts into Mexico to track down a renegade Apache and rescue three children he’d kidnapped on his last raid; most notable in the band are the southern prisoner (Richard Harris) who was once his close friend but now his sworn enemy; the by-the-book lieutenant (Jim Hutton) whose callowness matures as the trip proceeds; and the laconic scout (James Coburn) on whose skill Dundee depends. But the cast of very rough riders also includes such genre stalwarts as Slim Pickens, Warren Oates, Brock Peters, Ben Johnson, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Karl Swenson and Dub Taylor, as well as Michael Anderson, Jr. as the inevitable adolescent squad man, in this case the bugler. (Senta Berger is the prospective romantic interest met along the way, in this instance a European woman in a Mexican village where the expedition enjoys a temporary peaceful interlude. And English actor Michael Pate, of all people, is almost unrecognizable as the brital Indian Sierra Chiba.)

Peckinpah, whose hot temper and penchant for drinking are well-known, got through the filming of “Dundee” in Mexico (though Heston later claimed that he had to take over for the “indisposed” director on some occasions), but in post-production he quarreled violently with producer Jerry Bresler, who recut the picture, which got a mixed reception when it was released. Peckinpah always claimed it was a ruined masterpiece, and this restored version, which adds twelve minutes to the running-time and boasts an entirely new music score (the director objected strenuously to the one Bresler introduced), at least gives some idea of what might have been. And what it demonstrates is that while “Dundee” remains an uneven work, it has flashes of brilliance as well as a general air of competence, even elegance, in storytelling that’s become increasingly rare in Hollywood. With its stock stable of character actors, it also makes one nostalgic for a time in American films when such familiar and unforgettable faces made regular, and welcome, appearances, and for the westerns in which they specialized.

Is this new “Major Dundee” superior to Bresler’s version? The answer has to be yes, if only because the march with choral accompaniment by Mitch Miller’s singers that used to accompany the opening credits is no longer present. (Otherwise the new music by Christopher Caliendo is no more than serviceable, lacking the strains of the really classic western scores by Elmer Bernstein or Jerome Moross.) The longer added scenes don’t appreciably deepen the film, and while shorter insertions increase the level of violence, they hardly bring it to the point that characterizes most of today’s PG-13 product. And the movie’s central problems are intractable. The nature of Dundee’s internal turmoil remains opaque beneath Heston’s granite countenance. And especially in the last third, the narrative logic gets frayed and the energy flags, mostly as a result of repetition of similar incidents. And at this point, the conventions in the story stand out in even greater relief than they did forty years ago.

Still, there’s something especially nice in seeing an old-style Hollywood adventure movie, in which real humans take the place of CGI creations and the action scenes have the stamp of stunt-man based reality rather than special effects, so nicely refurbished. Sam Leavitt’s widescreen images are beautifully composed, even if the location shooting often gives them a gritty, unpolished look and the lighting isn’t always ideal. Even in this form “Major Dundee” is no classic, but it’s good enough to make one remember the day when ordinary Hollywood movies had a bit of ambition beyond the bottom line and scripts that, however schematic, appealed to more than a juvenile mentality.

FEAR AND TREMBLING (STUPEUR ET TREMBLEMENTS)

The same culture clash that served as the backdrop to the halting romance between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in “Lost in Translation” takes center stage–though romance is nowhere in sight–in “Fear and Trembling,” a cool, incisive, funny but also strangely melancholy film adapted by writer-director Alain Corneau from a novel by Amelie Nothomb. Fashioned with impeccable style and blessed with a flawlessly restrained performance by Sylvie Testud in the lead role, the tale of a young Belgian who suffers through a horrendous year as a low-level employee in a Tokyo-based megacorporation is probably too specialized to appeal to many viewers, but it will touch a nerve with anyone with a taste for trenchant storytelling and refined filmmaking.

Again like Sophia Coppola’s much-praised picture, “Fear and Trembling” has a very narrow focus, which it hones in on with uncanny precision. Amelie (Testud) is a mousy European who was born in Japan and recalls her early years there as a time of enchantment. Fluent in Japanese, she’s enthusiastic about the job she’s managed to secure at the giant Yumimoto Company. But from the first day in the well-oiled-machine of an office she finds herself treated with utter condescension by division head Mr. Saito (Taro Suwa), who answers to a Buddha-like vice-president named Omochi (Bison Katayama). Amelie’s immediate superior is Fubuki Mori (Kaori Tsuji), a tall, incredibly beautiful young woman who’s working her way up the corporate ladder. Amelie sees Mori not only as a model but as a kind of oriental ideal, and assumes that her friendly manner–especially when compared to the dismissive attitudes of Saito and Omochi–indicates a degree of warm support for the newcomer. But in this, as in so much else, Amelie is mistaken, and by the end of her year with the firm she finds herself repeatedly humiliated, yet strangely instructed by the experience of being relegated to successively more demeaning duties–culminating in a stint as washroom attendant. The odd thing is that she realizes her ineffectiveness in each of the roles she’s assigned, and sticks it out for the full year–despite the miseries heaped on her–to prove that she can at least achieve the attitude of complete submission to hierarchical authority characteristic of the Japanese worker.

On the surface “Fear and Trembling”seems pretty slight, not much more than an elongated sketch; but it’s actually about a good deal more than simply earning chuckles from a clash between Japanese and western mindsets. The picture gets at the essential impenetrability of cultures to outsiders while painting a fascinating psychological portrait of a woman bewildered by a society she idolizes who ironically must demean herself in western terms in order to prove worthy of even the most grudging acceptance within it. If played ineptly, such a tale would seem cruel and unpalatable. But here it’s staged with an artfulness that keeps it light on its feet–not fluffy, but cooly, almost ascetically weightless. That winningly precise tone is enhanced by Amelie’s reportage of her experiences as the picture proceeds in the words of Nothomb’s book, but even more by Testud’s marvelous performance, which makes the character not just a pitiful waif but curiously determined, almost courageous figure. (The actress’ mastery of the Japanese dialogue is also impressive.) The mood is further assisted by the excellent supporting cast, particularly the extraordinarily lovely Ysuji, by the crystalline cinematography of Yves Angelo, and by the decision to score the film with excerpts from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” which, especially when performed on harpsichord as they are here, mirror the visuals both in fastidiousness and in structure.

Like director Alain Corneau’s previous film “Tous les Matins du Monde” (1991), “Fear and Trembling” is a rarefied piece, sophisticated and somewhat distant emotionally, and so unlikely to appeal to the mass audience. But connoisseurs of cinematic elegance should find it a brilliant jewel.