My Criterion Essay on Jean Arthur


"She was a nonconformist too . . . a believer in her own intuition. Intuition, that’s what Joan’s voices were. She never killed anybody. She just wanted everybody to go home and mind their own business.” -- Jean Arthur on Joan of Arc

Up now! My Criterion essay on one of my favorite actresses -- the complex, charming, beautiful, funny, serious and seriously smart iconoclastic, Jean Arthur -- a fascinating actress and woman of duality and depth -- for Criterion's Jean Arthur series currently playing on their Channel

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Read my essay here:

Sinatra in a Small Town: Suddenly


Originally published at The New Beverly

Suddenly is a sleepy little 1950s town that’s a stand-in for any kind of sleepy little 1950s town in the U.S.A.  Not much happens in Suddenly, to the point where residents seem a little bored with life, enough to feel either half-awake or, combustible.

Like any town populated with humans, there’s an underlying threat – often from within themselves: Lust, violence, madness – you feel it creeping – the shadow around the corner on those sunny Anytown, U.S.A. streets. Nothing can be so wholesome and so golly-gee and so clean. Nothing ever is. A little boy wants a cap gun, a sheriff wants love from the little boy’s attractive widowed mother, the widow doesn’t seem to want any of it. That’s pretty normal, but when the widow, still bereft over her husband, who died in the Korean War (hence, her understandable hatred of guns and violence and war movies and men taking up her personal space in the market), denies the sheriff – presumably, a man she’s dating – he states dramatically and rather morbidly: “You’re digging a big black pit and shoving us all down into it.”

When a motorist passes through Suddenly, he asks a police officer about the town’s unique name. He inquires: “Suddenly, what?” as if words need to follow. The police officer, chirpy and wise-cracking enough, tells the man that the town’s name is a “hangover from the old days.” The town once offered excitement – even illicit, violent excitement – and the cop seems a little proud of that. The officer continues: “That’s the way things used to happen here – suddenly. Road agents, gambler, gunfighters …  Things happen so slow now the town council is figuring to change the name to Gradually.”

That exchange happened before we meet the widow, the boy and the sheriff and it’s clearly a portent of things to come in this movie, called Suddenly – things that come not so gradually when a skinny, blue-eyed psycho enters the picture. I wonder if David Lynch saw this movie, what with the corny jokes and the small-town wholesomeness, evil lurking right around the corner. The police officer appears, perhaps, bored with the town, but the sheriff is fixated on the possibility of violence; of dark forces, and how one must combat them. (I kept waiting for the sheriff to utter something Twin Peaks’ Sheriff Harry S. Truman would say: “There’s a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods. Call it what you want. A darkness, a presence. It takes many forms but… it’s been out there for as long as anyone can remember and we’ve always been here to fight it.”)


The sheriff is Tod Shaw (the great Sterling Hayden – likable and commanding, and just a little wonderfully off, he often appears to know more than what he’s letting on, or grappling with things far more existential than we may realize), whose feelings for widowed Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) are laid out there for God and everyone to see. He simply tells her he’s in love with her. He’s also gone way too far by buying her son, Pidge (Kim Charney), a cap pistol, entirely against her wishes. He’s attempting to push his views on her about boys growing into men and understanding when violence is necessary, when he may need to defend himself, that kind of thing. “You can’t wrap the boy in cellophane.” He urges. A pacifist, she’s not buying any of this, but Tod persists: “When a house is on fire everybody has to help put it out. Because the next time it might be your house!” These officers of the law are practically willing what will happen.


What will happen, and, soon, is the aforementioned skinny blue-eyed psycho showing up in his impeccable fedora with his thugs, posing as the FBI. It’s a big day in Suddenly among those who know – the President of the United States is riding through on train, stopping off to take a car to his destination – a fishing vacation. Ellen and her father, retired secret service agent, “Pop” Benson (James Gleason) are busy in their house, arguing about how to raise Pidge (Pop thinks she’s overprotective and lectures her, morbidly: “There’s cruelty and hatred and tyranny in the world. You can’t make believe they aren’t there. And Pidge has got to learn what is the law and what isn’t the law so he can defend it.”). Another typical day in the Benson house – working on the broken television set and arguing about Pidge’s exposure to the vicious, malevolent world (side note: the television set will become an instrument of violence). And now, this is the second man in Ellen’s life to practically summon the fedora-wearing psycho, John Baron (Frank Sinatra) to invade their home and prove their point.

The Benson house is situated in a place with a terrific vantage point to see the president disembark from the train, and we’ll soon learn that Baron has been hired to assassinate the president (For whom? He doesn’t know and he doesn’t care, he just cares about money. He also enjoys killing). And, so, things get really dark, really fast. After Tod happily drops in with Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey), who is leading the secret service team deployed in Suddenly (Carney used to work with Pop – he wants to say hello), Baron breaks his cover and kills Carney. He injures Tod’s arm and threatens to murder Pidge. He then takes everyone hostage. At this point, well, I think Pidge has now had his exposure to violence. Tod? Pop? Is that enough for you?

But it’s not going to stop there.


Directed by Lewis Allen, Suddenly is a tense and claustrophobic, and sometimes strange experience (and sometimes questionable – there’s a lot to wonder why Baron wouldn’t just kill everyone right away but, apparently, he enjoys an audience) with a crazy-eyed, grinning Frank Sinatra taking over the movie. It’s a powerful, enthralling performance, one of Sinatra’s best (he really should have played more villains), in which the character’s Napoleon complex insecurities (and bad upbringing – his parents were both drunks) are on full display, weakening him with his need to talk. Creeps like him often need to talk and brag and undo themselves and Hayden’s sheriff smells it the moment Sinatra starts gabbing. Unlike other domestic hostage movies, such as The Desperate Hours or He Ran All the Way, in which Humphrey Bogart has his own kind of appeal and John Garfield is attractive and downright sympathetic, there’s nothing attractive about this guy (aside from Sinatra just looking cool and beautifully tailored), and, even with his hard childhood, there’s very little that’s sympathetic either.

Allen knew that Sinatra would be the center of this picture, not the leading man, but the star, and he lights him and shoots him (alongside cinematographer Charles G. Clarke) with great care – all others staged to revolve around him. It’s an intriguing stylization, both real and dreamlike – Sinatra, much smaller and slighter than Sterling Hayden (which isn’t hard – Hayden was 6’5”), appears, at times, diminutive, all mad dog bark, but he’s got bite. Even if Hayden looks like he could just casually swipe one paw and bump him across the room, Sinatra remains threatening.


Sinatra also steps up to the camera- right up to the lens, in fact – nearly looking into it – an unsettling, confessional act, almost breaking the fourth wall – it’s stagey but captivating almost as if he’s trying to take it the viewer hostage too (“It’s Frank’s world, we just live in it,” indeed). His nerviness, his suit, his hat (which he takes off maybe only once in the film – when he first enters the house, and then never removes) places a certain style, an big-city menace to the Norman Rockwell-esque America held hostage here – his very presence making the picture more cinematic.

Around this time, movie director Allen was starting with his long career directing television (“Bonanza,” “The Rifleman,” “Route 66,” “Perry Mason,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Detectives” and many, many more, though he was still making movies, A Bullet for Joey, IllegalAnother Time, Another Place and Whirlpool followed Suddenly), and you can see how well-suited he is for the medium. You also see his clear filmic talent and his staging skills, which he acquired in the theater – the place he started from (Suddenly feels adapted from a play even if it wasn’t). Englishman Allen transitioned into movies in the early 1940s, and in 1944 and he directed his first feature film, which is largely considered his greatest film and one of the greatest of the genre – the beautifully crafted and genuinely scary ghost story, The Uninvited. He made some comedies, but his strength, from what I’ve seen, was in suspense and melodrama.

Two of his best pictures, for me, next to The Uninvited, are the blazing technicolor film noir, Desert Fury, starring Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott and Mary Astor, and So Evil My Love, a gaslight noir featuring a wicked Ray Milland. Another dark, interesting picture is Appointment with Danger, starring Alan Ladd as a cynical U.S. Postal Inspector who spits misanthropic lines to a nun he’s protecting with almost comedic affect (“When a cop dies they don’t list it as heart failure, it’s a charley horse of the chest,” he says). Whatever drove the director (when discussing his career in a 1997 interview he said, “That was the way of the studios. You took whatever they gave you … From the time I came to Hollywood, I was never out of a job. The William Morris office treated me as one of their pet directors, and there was always a job for me. When they couldn’t get a movie for me, they got TV.”) he excelled in stories featuring seriously dysfunctional relationships, creating a tense, sometimes gorgeously atmospheric setting and getting some fine performances out of actors.

The aesthetics of Suddenly aren’t immediately evident – it could be described as nice-looking and workmanlike – but there are many compositions that are striking – any time Sinatra frames the window or just stands in the middle of the set – actors orbiting around him – the leanness of his scarred face.  Remarkable.

Suddenly falls in the more hard-boiled realm of Appointment with Danger or one of Allen’s later, lean and mean The Rifleman episodes, but it has traces of gaslight noir, even if unintentional, as the men here are all incredibly manipulative towards Ellen (the poor woman hears enough about understanding violence from the sheriff and her pop, and even Sinatra, who at one point, dares her to shoot him with his gun – knowing she won’t… until she has to).

I don’t think that Allen bought the artificial gee-willikers attitude of the town, making the darkness presented here fascinating in terms of Eisenhower America. Though people discussed such things in the 50s and some movies discussed gun violence (like George Stevens’ Shane), the characters are having the kind of arguments one would hear more openly in the 1960s – about pacifism and duty towards your country. That kind of talk makes Ellen, in this world, a traitor, possibly even a communist.  Pop admonishes her peace talk so much that he says her deceased husband would be “ashamed” of her. Jesus, Pop. Ease up.

But of course, the movie ends with a confirmation of everything the men are telling Ellen: That violence is indeed sometimes necessary, even inevitable in life. OK, got it.


However, this is where Sinatra’s WWII psycho war veteran – who states that he loves to kill people and that the war gave him that opportunity – acts as a counterbalance. A natural born murderer who, in one discussion with Hayden (who also served), weighs in on how it’s legal to murder for your country, but not in civilian life.  Sinatra’s character presents an either intentional or accidental rebuke to the necessity of violence; the acceptance of it.  A man who is drunk on violence, who feels like a god with a gun, who has set up a high-powered sniper rifle to kill the president (Is he possibly working for the communists? The movie never says but you feel red scare paranoia laced within all of this).

There’s no telling that her heroism hasn’t traumatized her for life. Still. It’s not only Ellen that saves everyone, it is Pidge pulling a toy gun switch with the gun Pop has hidden in his drawer (everyone’s so used to that cap gun that Sinatra doesn’t notice) – and that will turn the tables on the villain too. The comfort of 1950s Americana – mom, the television set and the normalcy of a toy gun – that’s what brings down the attempted assassination of the president.

Since the movie will, later, be viewed with a likely apocryphal story attached – that Sinatra, so upset by the assassination of his friend John F. Kennedy, had this picture withdrawn after he learned Lee Harvey Oswald watched the movie before he killed the president (Sinatra also starred in another plot to assassinate the president – John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate) – it carries a darkness with it that the filmmakers and stars could not have foreseen, even if none of this is likely true.

By the end, order is apparently restored: Ellen is softer on Sheriff Tod (they kiss and promise to go to Church), Tod is less frustrated over Ellen and little Pidge will surely get more of his way regarding toy weaponry. Well OK. After all that horror. So … is this a happy ending? I’m sure it’s supposed to be, and if you are pro-gun, you may love that Ellen has supposedly seen the wrongs of her anti-gun ways (I don’t love that – I want Ellen to keep fighting for her beliefs – she’s admirable up against all of these men hollering at her). But nevertheless, the entertaining movie sticks with you and makes you think, even beyond its more direct message. Is there something more ambiguous here? I wonder. And, so, after a massive body count, answering the near invocations of the men around her, the town seems to have earned its name back.

Funny name for a town, says a motorist, prompting  Sterling Hayden to answer: "Oh, I don’t know about that."

Marriage: Dorothy Arzner's Craig's Wife


“I did not want an actress the audience loved. They would hate me for making her Mrs. Craig. Rosalind Russell was a bit player at M-G-M, brilliant, clipped, and unknown to movie audiences. She was what I wanted.” – Dorothy Arzner (in a 1974 interview with Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary)

Harriet Craig’s vase. It’s such an obvious object, both literally and symbolically in Dorothy Arzner’s Craig’s Wife (1936) – but a powerful object and one that we look at time and time again, waiting for that precious, terrible thing to be shattered on the floor. Knowing it will.

That dark, rather mysterious vase is beautiful – so large and precious that it needs to be positioned oh so deliberately, in just the right spot for proper viewing pleasure. That vase is status, of course (How expensive was that vase? Is it a museum-worthy antique?), but it’s also something Harriet needs to touch and feel, seemingly on a daily basis. There is some passion connected to that vase as OCD as she is about it. And that vase seems both totemic and vulnerable, seductive and terrifying. That vase is Mr. and Mrs. Craig’s marriage, yes, of course. But, as you go along with the picture and get to know this marriage and these two individuals, you don’t see it as any kind of tragedy that the thing will break – for either Mr. or Mrs. Craig.

Smash it.

Indeed, the film opens with that vase as housekeeper Mrs. Harold (Jane Darwell) exclaims, in horror, to the other, younger housekeeper, Mazie (Nydia Westman), never to touch the thing: “She’d about lose her mind if she ever thought you laid a finger on it!” scolds Mrs. Harold. She continues: “Never forget! This room is the holy of holies!” She’s being both serious and overly dramatic for comedic effect, since Mrs. Craig is not there (one can imagine what would happen if Mrs. Craig had heard the very likable Mrs. Harold’s tone). But without introducing Mrs. Craig, herself, first, we are introduced to her living room: all classical symmetry and color-control. A little joyless (it doesn’t have to be) but, lovely.

Indeed, Director Arzner shows us that holy room in all of its shimmery glory – the living room becoming a museum hall with that enormous vase on the mantel, a chandelier, a grand piano and a satin chaise lounge in the middle of the room (I think of both a fainting couch and a psychiatrist’s office when I see this piece of furniture – almost as a performative fuck you via Mrs. Craig – there will be no fainting or psychoanalyzing going on in this house – that is not until the end when she really needs to collapse on the thing). There’s also a table and a nice set of chairs likely no one sits at, and statues and busts and candles and other beautiful objects, collected, displayed like one arranges and mounts taxidermy. This is not a critique – this is Harriet’s work of art.

It’s a gorgeous living room, if you could call it a living room, no one seems to live there, however, they do argue a lot in it – feel fear in it – whisper in it…

But her home – it’s Harriet Craig’s pride, dammit. A representation of herself. Presented as uninviting and rather remote and maybe even horrifying to some, but not to Harriet. In her home, she rules – she likes to talk to people in that living room, she holds court there, often while looking in the mirror, right where that beautiful vase is. Double beauty and control reflected, and the danger of everything cracking, all in one shot. As said, this is her art piece, her expression – even she herself is her own creation and she fits in all glamorous and stately with her beautiful pieces. The film’s sets were designed – uncredited – by William Haines (a past MGM star who was ousted from the profession in 1934 for bravely not denying his homosexuality – he became a successful interior designer, working with his life partner Jimmie Shields) and his work here is gorgeous. He understands both the beauty and the remoteness needed to be expressed, but it’s not tacky, it’s both ornate and spare – a paradox. I don’t begrudge Harriet’s obsession with this space because it’s so aesthetically impressive. Honestly, you either love this room, or hate it. I love it. Even if it could be viewed as her mausoleum.


Harriet Craig (Rosalind Russell) is married to her very sweet, wealthy husband, Walter Craig (John Boles) and has clearly made the “perfect” home for herself. Underscore herself. We don’t see Harriet right away – we see Walter with his down to earth Aunt, Ellen Austen (Alma Kruger), eating dinner together, seemingly enjoying the night, and a night away from Harriet, who is visiting her sick sister and niece in Albany. At least Aunt Ellen is enjoying Harriet being away. She doesn’t like her. 

Walter, who is very likable and who loves Harriet dearly, probably misses her a little, but is off – giddily – to play poker with his friend, Fergus Passmore (Thomas Mitchell), an activity he rarely does anymore because, well, obviously… Harriet. We wouldn’t suspect anything too controlling about this at first – lots of married couples slow down their social lives independent of their spouse – but that vase has already told us what kind of woman Harriet Craig is. And now we’re already worried about Walter and that poker game.

But the movie kicks things to a different level of intrigue, and concern, as another wife is presented, in some ways, quite the opposite of Harriet (or maybe very much the same, if Harriet didn’t care so much about social norms), who is eager to leave her husband with his poker-playing pals. Walter heads on over to Fergus’s house, and rather than meeting up with a fun-loving Fergus, ready for the game, he sees a tense, angry man, already pissed off that other friends aren’t coming over – what’s wrong with all of these men? We are all, of course, wondering – wives? Do these no-fun wives make them stay in? (Oh, it’s always the wives, right? That’s so unfair, really…) But then the film shows us this – that Fergus is despairing over his wife, Adelaide (Kathleen Burke), who is all gussied up and beautiful – on her way for a night out in town – and does not care about the possible male shenanigans about to happen. Fergus is upset that she’s, well, acting more as a man would.

Fergus, begs her to stay in. He leans over her, looking all sweaty and desperate, as she primps in the mirror (Arzner uses mirror shots many times in this picture to great effect) – pleading for her to stick around. Why? We have our suspicions that will be soon confirmed (another friend spies her with another man). She leaves, of course, and Fergus isn’t just upset, he’s disturbingly upset – a twitching mess. “Run on back to your boyfriend, dear,” she says, as she leaves to meet “Emily” at the theater.

Already, you feel the combustion of this marriage – something is going to break, and soon. And already you see there is something dangerous and creepy about Fergus. This is a terrible marriage and the way Thomas Mitchell powerfully shows how on edge he is – you don’t immediately think it’s all his wife’s fault, even if the knee-jerk reaction would be to think that she’s dishonorable or, a worse word someone else might use. So, what happens when the wife comes home? A violent end.


If you’ve seen many Dorothy Arzner pictures in which marriage is a central plot, you’ve seen a lot of problems within the institution. For the matter of space, I will not mention all of them made by the pioneering female filmmaker (whose impressive career spanned silent films in the late 1920s, all the way to talkies in the 1940s. She started out typing scripts, became a writer and also an expert, innovative editor, working side-by-side with director James Cruze. She then moved on to directing pictures starring Esther Ralston, Clara Bow, Ruth Chatterton, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Russell, Lucille Ball, and more.  She was the first woman to join the DGA, and she later worked in theater, taught film and directed Pepsi commercials for friend Joan Crawford. Read more about Arzner at the  Women’s Pioneer Films Project – you’ll be glad you did).

Here, I am focusing on Craig’s Wife (which showed during this, then, New Beverly triple feature of marital, well, marital hell -- that I was writing about here), but I must speak more of hell, chiefly,  the aptly titled, Merrily We Go to Hell (one of Arzner’s best pictures) – I thought of this one because this is the kind of marriage Harriet Craig could not even fathomMerrily We Go to Hell (1932) features charming, drunken cheater Fredric March marrying wealthy and sweet Sylvia Sidney (who loves him) only to put her through the wringer with all of his problems and dalliances. She decides to try out a “modern marriage” complete with affairs.


That’s not always a bad idea, but that’s not for everyone, and, in the end, not really for her. (God bless her for trying though). By the end of the picture, she loses a baby and he, apart from her (he goes through a lot of changes himself – financially as well), feels terrible about everything and in spite of her father’s protestations – busts into her room to reconcile – they’re going to make it work, he hopes. March says, quite convincingly and movingly, that he loves her, and she says to him, with sweetness, “Oh, Jerry, my baby.” And then pats his cheek and says again, “my baby.” He’s the baby she’ll have to look after now, even if he’s gotten his shit together, supposedly. She still loves him but will that work? We’re not so sure. This couple has broken many vases, so to speak.

In the 1930 Sarah and Son (playing in a triple feature  with Craig’s Wife and Honor Among Lovers – what a night  of bad marriages!), poor Ruth Chatterton’s awful husband  (Fuller Mellish Jr.), actually ditches her and sells their child  to a rich couple, and Chatterton (who is fantastic) spends  the movie trying to find the little boy (March also serves as  love interest here – a better man than the horrible  husband  who, in a complex, moving scene, dies in a military hospital). And in Honor Among Lovers (1931), Claudette Colbert does not take up with her rich boss, Fredric March (again), who professes his feelings for her (and they do have chemistry), but then fires her for marrying another man (pretty bad behavior but he will make up for it as the movie goes on – to the point of literally taking a bullet).

In Honor, that “other guy” (played by Monroe Owsley) who maybe on the surface for Colbert (for, like, a second, to me) seems OK, turns into a cheating thief, a guy who even lies and rats out his own innocent wife –  he is ten times worse than March’s Merrily We Go to Hell louse. At least Merrily’s March is actually charming and repentant. There is no appeal with the guy Colbert marries. She made a mistake because … life is complicated that way. (On that note – March did tremendous work with Arzner – he also starred in The Wild Party opposite Clara Bow – seek out all of his movies directed by Arzner.)


But these movies have somewhat nicer endings. In Merrily, the marriage might be saved, and in Sarah and Son, Chatterton (who is constantly punished throughout this movie – life is such a struggle and we root for her in every moment) will be reunited with her son in an incredibly dramatic manner (by water) and find love with lawyer, March. In the elegant Honor Among Lovers, Colbert ends the relationship (finally – you spend the movie almost in disbelief how devoted she is to such a jerk), going off on a sea cruise with her old boss, March, who never stopped loving her. See, if you find the “right” person, or if you finally do the right thing, a good relationship just might work, or at least be possible – these movies could be saying. However, I don’t think these resolutions, as presented by Arzner, are all that easy. Will these relationships end in good marriages? Should marriage always be the end-game? Arzner is complex with these issues – male/female relationships are not always stabilizing, obviously, and they may not always be the answer either, even if you’re off on a sea cruise with March.

But then comes, Craig’s Wife – Arzner’s full of presage and inexorability.

In Craig’s Wife, Harriet Craig already knows how de-stabilizing marriage and relationships can be. She has vowed – willed herself – to always keep the upper hand: To always maintain control. She knows that people marry for love, sure, but what kind of torment could that lead to? She doesn’t want to be Merrily’s Sylvia Sidney, despairing over March, who can’t even show up to their engagement party on time, or sober. She sure as hell doesn’t want to be anywhere within the vicinity of Ruth Chatterton in Sarah and Son, with a husband so abusive he actually steals their baby. And no way is she going to allow her husband to lose all of their money – as in Honor Among Lovers. For god’s sake, no one is allowed to even touch her vase. When a man delivers a trunk and drags it, scratching the impeccable flooring, she seems about ready to kill him (to be fair – I was cringing when the guy was scraping the floor with the trunk, as many others would). So, no way is she going to even allow one iota of disorder. Even the roses her sweet neighbor, the widow Mrs. Frazier (a lovely, charming Billie Burke) brings over, are removed. How dare the maid place them in the living/showroom without asking? And besides, petals will drop all over the place. Unacceptable.

I mean, obviously, “lighten up, Harriet,” we think. Well, that’s not Harriet’s way. She’s made herself pretty and tough. We do see that her husband – he is a good man – he is worthy of love, and we grow to care about him; we do want him to finally stand up for himself. But why did he marry her? He didn’t see any of this coming? His Aunt sure did.

And yet, while the movie could present Harriet as a near-monster, this horrible, castrating wife, there’s a human being in there too, and Arzner (and clearly Russell) wants us to see this. As manipulative as she can be, there is feeling inside Harriet, a woman with a troubled past and genuine fears about surviving as a female in such an un-equal, male-rigged world. Though her husband is a loving person, what Harriet might really crave is the love and warmth of female friendship (not that a man can’t be a part of that, again Walter here is good-hearted – but her family of sister and niece offer an interesting dynamic here).

When she leaves her sick sister’s bed, early, the scene is incredibly sad (This is your sister, Harriet. She’s suffering.) Harriet doesn’t like suffering, however, of any kind.  She doesn’t like to see it. She avoids chaos and the unexpected. She saw her mother suffer through life; she saw that her father cheated on her. Saw him “mortgaging her house for another woman.” And she saw that her mother died of a “broken heart.” Harriet has hardened herself, and you understand. That is not going to happen to her. No broken hearts. Not for a man.


When traveling by train back from visiting her sister, Harriet breaks down her marital philosophy to her rather shocked niece, Ethel (Dorothy Wilson) who, one senses, Harriet is molding and manipulating, or at least giving some hardened advice to. Ethel is discussing her fiancée and how much she loves him, and here’s how the conversation goes:

Harriet: Does it ever occur to you Ethel, that love, as you describe it, this feeling you have for this boy, is a liability in marriage?

Ethel: Good heavens, Harriet, what a terrible thing to say! You married Uncle Walter because you loved him, didn’t you?

Harriet: Not with any romantic illusions dear. I saw to it that my marriage was a way towards emancipation for me. I had no private fortune, no special training, so the only road to independence for me was through the man I married. I married to be independent.

Ethel: Well, you don’t mean independent of your husband, too?

Harriet: [Primping her hair in small compact mirror] Independent of everybody.

Craig’s Wife was adapted (by Mary McCall Jr.) from the 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George Kelly (Grace Kelly’s uncle) and, according to what I’ve read (chiefly, Judith Mayne’s indispensable biography/critical study, “Directed by Dorothy Arzner” which helped me greatly while researching this piece), Mayne felt that Arzner and Mcall Jr.’s version tweaked the play’s tone towards a more critical take on society rather than just a damnation of Harriet. From Mayne:

“In the play, Harriet is a one-note failure, a woman doomed to a life of bitter loneliness, just like the widowed Mrs. Frazier across the way. Again, Mrs. Frazier represents Harriet’s one last chance for human community, and the film reads less as an indictment of a willful woman than as a critique of the culture in which so few choices are available to a woman like Harriet.”

“So few choices” for sure. As I said, Harriet has seen her mother rely on a bad husband and then, die. Harriet’s exchange with her niece about independence in the movie (I’ve read Kelly’s play and Harriet does discuss independence in the play as well – in a much lengthier, materialistic manner) – it is shrewd, it is cold, but not as simply villainous as one might think. Not if you think about it further. Biographer Mayne felt Arzner’s film wasn’t taking a shot at early feminism: “In Kelly’s play, Harriet’s argument for marriage as a business contract and a home as capital is presented as a caricature of feminism, whereas no such intimation is made in Arzner’s film.”

I agree with Mayne in many aspects when it comes to the film because as you may think you’re about to watch a movie about a controlling monster, and you do feel yourself wishing Harriet would soften a bit (I wish she had more friends, at least!), you also understand the tough world she came from – even if she’s not romantic at all, and in terms of control, seriously overdoing it. And, while a fearful force, and at times, a horrifying one, the brilliant, beautiful Russell is domineering, yes, she’s quick and mean, but even charmingly acerbic at times – you come near liking her in moments. Her “fuck you” laugh as she leaves a room is both unsettling and fascinating.

But this woman Harriet Craig would probably be hard to like, outside of your fascination; she’s intriguing as hell (it really depends on how the actress reads much of these lines, too, her facial expressions, that kind of thing – and Russell is so impressively complex here). We don’t have to like her, however. But we’ll see by the end, that this is a sad, lonely, woman, deep down, and she’s perhaps not as cruel as she seems. She at least doesn’t need to be so cruel, she doesn’t need to be so controlling, as unfair as the world was to her mother. This, she may learn.

But to say Harriet is lonely – she’s not just lonely because her husband leaves her – that will likely wind up a relief for everyone. You don’t get the sense that either one is going to run back into each other’s arms and apologize, or promise to make changes. She seems so lonely, rather, when her sister dies. That is when Harriet completely loses it and collapses on that chaise lounge in that beautiful, pristine living room, in tears. The beautiful room is useful, you see.


In Arzner films, female relationships can be complex, very real, vital, and in Craig’s Wife, we witness what I feel could be a joyous companionship happening between two characters (this is in the play as well). Later in the movie, when everyone is sick of Harriet, when they can’t stand living there or working with her and are departing (either by being fired or of their own accord, her niece takes off too), beloved housekeeper Mrs. Harold decides to go on a trip around the world with Aunt Ellen. Mrs. Harold is done enduring Mrs. Craig (she’s especially upset after Harriet fires Mazie) and Aunt Ellen has made it known that she not only dislikes Harriet, but is quite unhappy stuck in this gorgeous house. That two unattached women, of different classes, who are now running off together, could be read a couple of ways – romantic or platonic – and in either case, it’s a wonderful moment when Mrs. Harold tells Harriet her plan.

Harriet: Where are you going with Ms. Austen? I didn’t know she planned to keep house.

Mrs. Harold: She don’t. We’re going to the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York and then we’re going all around the world as soon as she can get the tickets.

Yes. I love that these women are going to travel the world. Talk about independence.

There’s another moment that really stands out in Craig’s Wife. When Mitchell’s Fergus is under obvious suspicion that he murdered his wife before killing himself – the police are sniffing around the Craig household. Harriet presses Walter to not get involved – what would people think? Walter was there that night, quite innocently, witnessing Fergus’s erratic behavior, and he’d like to discuss. But Harriet doesn’t even care about guilt or innocence, she only cares how their social standing could be affected by any sort of scandal. Walter, honorably, argues with her and we get why this would be the breaking point in their marriage. The movie is placed within a short time frame in the life of Harriet Craig so Walter must move from adoring husband to a man who sees the light, pretty quickly. The murder, though quite a dramatic plot device, works. He’s been keeping a lot bottled up, but a close friend’s fatal, violence-ending marriage would obviously, be the thing to shake one up – in every aspect of his life.


Later on, when Harriet and Walter read in the paper that, indeed, Fergus’s gun shot the bullets, Walter says something that I wasn’t expecting in a movie involving two negative marital situations – really, two negative wives. He, in a way, argues for Fergus’s philandering wife, Adelaide, rather than damn her as just a harlot or femme fatale (and, from what I remember, this is not explicitly stated in the play on behalf of Adelaide – not in this way). As Harriet reads the paper:

Harriet: Oh, so the bullets were from his gun. Murder and suicide. Well, if anyone ever had a good reason for doing a thing like that it was Fergus Passmore.

Walter: You think so?

Harriet:  You know yourself how that woman behaved.

Walter: Yes, I know a lot about Adelaide. She fell in love with Fergus. Something went wrong, he failed her. She couldn’t love him anymore so she fell for another man.

Harriet: Does that seem right to you?

Walter: No, it doesn’t seem right. But I think I can understand it. There was one thing about Adelaide, she wrecked herself and Fergus because she loved somebody.

“She wrecked herself and Fergus because she loved somebody.” That’s quite an open-minded thing for Walter to say in a film of 1936. You don’t get the sense that he agrees she had it coming; that she should have merely respected her twitching, angry out of control husband. No, as a humanist, he understands her. She needed to love and to be loved in return (as the song goes). And so, does he. As much as we will feel for Harriet by the end, we feel something for Walter as well. Arzner does not oversimplify this.

But back to the vase.

It is at this point when Harriet learns that Walter is the one who smashed her beloved vase. (We know he did, we saw it, and it’s his big defiant act, also a bit terrifying) Fergus, it’s said, murdered his wife and took his own life with him. Walter, rather, murders that vase, leaves the broken pieces for Harriet to see, and then escapes the home and her, in hopes to find, one day, presumably, love. He also leaves Harriet with what she seems to love most – the house.


So, Harriet has the house – and she can re-adjust the busts on the mantel (we see her do this) as she likely, plans which new vase she’ll purchase and proudly showcase again. But … now Harriet realizes that she does need someone or at least something, but not necessarily her husband. What? And then … she receives a telegram about her sister’s death, she is despondent. She needed her sister. Obviously. She needed to have expressed more love for her. Overcome with grief, trembling with the telegram, her widowed neighbor, Mrs. Frazier (Burke) enters the house again, and with roses. We could read this is as tragedy – Harriet is now all alone with only the widow next door.

We can only imagine what Harriet is thinking as she takes in her surroundings, letting the tragedy and loneliness sink in. She tells Mrs. Frazier her sister has died and that she, Harriet, should have done more. Mrs. Frazier, full of empathy, expresses her sorrow and asks her if there is anything she can do. Harriet is in shock – and says to herself, “I’m all alone in the house now.” Burke’s Mrs. Frazier has now slowly backed away, she is literally walking backwards from Harriet (it’s an incredible moment) full of sadness and really, fear, like … what do I do with this woman? Presumably, Mrs. Frazier wants to give Harriet her space, but it reads deeper than that – and she also looks a little horrified by Harriet’s absolute. truth and raw feeling. Harriet continues, “I’m all alone here so if you wouldn’t mind, I …” And then Harriet turns to look. But Mrs. Frazier is gone.

When Mrs. Frazier leaves – again, this plays more heartbreaking than Harriet’s husband exiting the house. That needed to happen. But Mrs. Frazier with her roses? We don’t want her to leave.

Russell is so magnificent; we are almost leaning in to observe her actions. Will she be defiant? Will she be stoic? Or will she let her emotions flow? In a brilliant moment of pantomime, Harriet rushes to the door, Mrs. Frazier’s roses cradled in her arms – and she sees the door shut. And then Harriet’s hand – it reaches out to … Mrs. Frazier, yes. But her hand is reaching out … to many things. In gorgeous silent moments, the camera fixed on Russell, her house, her living room, her anguished face filled with tears, Harriet is, again, reaching out. Her heart, her hand, her eyes… to the deceased sister, she can no longer touch, to the woman she could possibly be friends with. To that living room that now frightens her as she cowers next to it in the frame – afraid to enter it. It’s an extraordinarily moving ending where, in spite of everything, we hope that Harriet will weather this. We hope she’ll enjoy her living room again – that gorgeous Harriet space. A place where, perhaps, in the future, Mrs. Frazier might actually drop in to actually sit at the table and… talk.

It’s fascinating to watch Craig’s Wife today – and wonder how much Arzner, perhaps, rooted for Harriet – for all women, indeed. The movie had also been made in 1928 (directed by William C. deMille and starring Irene Rich and Warner Baxter) – that picture is now, alas, lost. The movie would be remade again as Harriet Craig in 1950, directing by Vincent Sherman and starring Arzner collaborator Joan Crawford (The Bride Wore Red) and Wendell Corey. For many years, I found the Sherman/Crawford version as equally as great as the Arzner/Russell version (maybe even more focused – and Crawford is superb), but watching Craig’s Wife again, I think there’s a bit more complexity to Arzner’s version. (That being said, watch Harriet Craig as a follow-up to Craig’s Wife if you’ve not done so because Crawford is excellent). Crawford’s take is perhaps better known since that era seems more the time to take on the perfect 50s housewife. And then of course, for better or for worse, the movie has been, through biography and gossip, intertwined with Crawford’s actual personality/persona. To some, it may even feel like a horror movie. But, by the end, I feel for her Harriet as well, as much as she terrifies, even reminds me of people I’ve met in my life.


But Russell is so commanding, so smart, so stylish, so sly and strong,  that when she is slumped, in tears, when she is allowing such feeling to overwhelm her, you are gobsmacked by her emotion. As stated (and through multiple viewings), I feel obsessive, scary control and then, empathy for Joan in moments of Harriet Craig because Crawford possessed such tremendous vulnerability. But Russell knocks you for a loop at the end – you are not prepared to be that moved by her in the film’s final moments. It’s a tremendous performance.

Playwright Kelly did indeed write Harriet to collapse in tears at the end, the widow does come by, but Harriet does not reach out to her when the door closes. Instead, a very sad Harriet “steps up to the door and clicks the latch.” Harriet’s not happy, but I’m not sure if Arzner’s ending is what he had in mind (and I’m not sure if he ever saw the final picture). As Arzner told Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary in an interview later in her life:

“George Kelly had nothing to do with making the picture. I did try to be as faithful to his play as possible, except that I made it from a different point of view. I imagined Mr. Craig was dominated somewhat by his mother and therefore fell in love with a woman stronger than he. I thought Mr. Craig should be down on his knees because Mrs. Craig made a man of him. When I told Kelly this, he rose to his six-foot height, and said, ‘That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs. Craig was an SOB.’ He left. That was the only contact I had with Kelly.”

We’re glad he wrote such a fascinating character, of course, to be adapted and played on-screen by three actresses who captivated (Rich, Russell and Crawford). And we’re glad that Arzner and McCall Jr. crafted a powerful, complicated picture, with Russel as star, and one that makes you think about love, marriage, independence, and yes, the meaning of such a beautiful vase.

If we feel for Harriet here, we only hope that Mrs. Frazier will come back. Could they become friends? Relationships – romantic or friendship – are never easy. And surely not with Harriet. But perhaps Mrs. Frazier’s roses can fill Harriet’s beautiful new vase of the future? The two women can look at each other in the mirror (and smile)? And maybe even plan for something to do either together, or on their own – supportive, but without each other. “Independent,” as Harriet stated earlier. Is that too much to hope for?

Originally published at The New Beverly 

Liz & Losey: Boom! & Secret Ceremony


“So enough of films. This was prompted by my excitement about ‘XYZ’ [that it] will be a ‘big one’ for E [Elizabeth Taylor]. By talk of distinction and by talk of Oscars. I know she is brilliant in the film and I know the film is good but I thought almost as highly of ‘Boom!’ and that went BOOM.” – Richard Burton, ‘The Richard Burton Diaries’”

Liz and Losey. The dreams the two must have had. At least in 1967, 1968. Not in the aspirational sense (though they, actress Elizabeth Taylor and director Joseph Losey, had those of course – aspirations) but in the sleeping-hallucinatory-fanciful sense. The living of one’s life half as fantasia, half in reality. Not insanity, not entirely on a cloud – but in dreams – and, yet, dreams that are… honest, sometimes even brutal. To them. Asleep in bed dreams, drugged out in the hospital dreams, wide-awake dreams, drunken dreams, dreams inspired by decadent décor, jewels, headdresses, caftans, elaborate abodes, hallucinatory dialogue, trays of food, hair, wigs, makeup, mirrors, witches (of Capri), wild-eyed child/women/Mia Farrow, samurai swords, the sea, the sounds of the sea. The sound of … Boom! Their dreams – I am just speculating and creating my own fantasy and we won’t ever really know. A Secret Ceremony, indeed.

With their two films released in 1968 – Boom! and Secret Ceremony – I, again, can’t help but wonder about Taylor and Losey’s dreams. Not, just, what were they thinking (as some might ask – for both films are often met with such bafflement or derision or, of course, mystified love – money was part of it, if you do ask, as was art, which both movies aspire to and succeed at – I don’t care how bad some think either are – I love these films) – but what were they dreaming while conjuring these movies?


These grand, decadent, perverse, and very lonely stories about lonely women living in big lonely homes facing loss and grief and trauma and inebriation and possible insanity and death. Losey had great success with Pinter, but in Boom! (based on the play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams) and Secret Ceremony (adapted from the story by the Argentine writer Marco Denevi, by screenwriter George Tabori), I thought, via esteemed film historian and author Foster Hirsch, of Pirandello, (Hirsch discussed Secret Ceremony as such, writing, “In its Pirandellian oppositions between appearance and reality, the story palpitates with fashionable modernist themes, but the parade of intellectual motifs has less substance than show…. Losey at his most pretentious.”). I wonder what Pirandello would think of these films? As Pirandello said:

“I think that life is a very sad piece of buffoonery; because we have in ourselves, without being able to know why, wherefore or whence, the need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality (one for each and never the same for all), which from time to time is discovered to be vain and illusory . . . My art is full of bitter compassion for all those who deceive themselves, but this compassion cannot fail to be followed by the ferocious derision of destiny, which condemns man to deception.”

There is a “bitter compassion” to these films, a creating of a reality that may be illusory, by way of Losey and Taylor. Not an easy compassion, not a sweet understanding – a simultaneous delusion and honesty (it’s possible – and these two manage it – and it’s too odd to be merely pretentious, I think, or I don’t mind that either films could be considered pretentious – I’m still working this out). With that, there is a raw vulgarity within the pictures that is, indeed, brave – especially on the part of Elizabeth Taylor who is unafraid of appearing unlikable. Or unrelatable (oh, stars, they are just like us!). And, yet, she hollers, she moans, she even, in Secret Ceremony, belches. It’s a unique mixture of glamour and uncouthness that still feels refreshing (have I seen any other beautiful movie star act like this? And in such a natural, not trying-to-be-gross-or-funny way? To my mind, no).


Still a movie star in the late 1960s, always a hot news item (she and Richard Burton stalked by paparazzi, still, post-Cleopatra), but an actress allowing audiences to see something darker inside that decadence, sadder, meaner, hilarious too, and to some, fading (though she’s gorgeous – critics were sometimes cruelly remarking about her weight creeping up on her – she looks staggeringly beautiful in both films). She is glamorous times ten, and yet, profoundly human.

Taylor, even if she didn’t write either movie, knew the jabs against her, and seemingly took them on – even on film. At one point in Secret Ceremony Robert Mitchum’s terrible Albert (Mitchum is a scary force – mightily creepy here), calls her something bovine: “You don’t look like my late wife at all,” he says, “She was well-bred and rather frail… you look more like a cow… Oh, no offense,” he continues, “I’m very fond of cows.” And then he moos. How awful. We shudder on behalf of her character, sitting on a picnic blanket in her brightly patterned dress enduring this (and much more when Mitchum’s character really let’s go with his repulsive talk), and we shudder on behalf of Taylor. And then we applaud her for taking that line in stride. And she often did. She would poke fun of herself in real life too – or at least comment on how people seem so stupidly obsessed with her weight. As Peter Travers wrote of Taylor, when she passed away in 2011:

“Nearly two decades ago, I enjoyed lunch with Taylor at a Manhattan restaurant where the stares of accompanying diners would have thrown a tower of lesser strength. ‘They just want to see how fat I’ve gotten,’ laughed Taylor, lifting one untoned bare arm for all to see. Taylor howled at their shocked reaction.”

My god, how can you not love her?


But it must have hurt at times. This meanness towards her figure, as if, “How dare this beautiful woman pack on a few pounds! How dare she!” It did concern her health-wise (later on in her life she discussed her loneliness and weight gain with Elizabeth Takes Off, though she was worried about more than just her weight: ”’I was almost 50 when for the first time in my life I lost my sense of self-worth,’ she writes of her ‘gluttonous rampage.’ She was lonely and bored; she felt that her husband, John W. Warner, a Republican Senator from Virginia, didn’t need her.”) But you still hear that kind of “How dare she!” Again, I love that she howled at people staring. How dare they!

But back to Mitchum and that mean moo – it’s nothing like Noël Coward’s Witch of Capri in Boom! who calls for Taylor’s Sissy Goforth with a friendly, though bizarre birdlike “Yoo-Hooo-hoo!” and she answers back the same. (In real life Coward adored Taylor, more on that later), but both movies like to hear men emit animal-like sounds – it’s off-putting and nasty in Mitchum’s character’s case and sweet and then obnoxious in Coward’s (when his character is plastered – you can see why Taylor’s character begins to grow tired of him) and… it’s quite … something.

Well, the movies are, for lack of better words … quite something.

Boom! is often referred to as terrible, or so terrible it’s wonderful, or as John Waters (who famously loves it and has shown it around the world) said to me in an interview for Sight & Sound: “It’s so great and then so awful. So that means it’s perfect, really.” It is perfect, really. Whenever I watch it, I think of it being made in a different way and I think… no. It has to be THIS. So, yes, perfect.

Secret Ceremony offers more weird, gloomy perplexity to viewers over the sumptuous spectacle of Boom! (which provides more joy, in spite of its heroine dying) but it was also often considered a misfire too (particularly in the States at the time – a double dose of bombs via Liz & Losey). Though many take Secret Ceremony much more seriously than Boom! and consider it either an excellent Losey film, or at least a very interesting one, worthy of study and discussion (Indicator came out with a Blu-ray giving the film the respect it deserves), it’s still a curio to viewers. At the time, however, some did value the picture. Renata Adler said positive things. She wrote in the New York Times:


‘[‘Secret Ceremony’ is] Joseph Losey’s best film in years—incomparably better than ‘Accident.’ The opulent, lacquered decadence works well this time, with Mia Farrow as a rich, mad orphan, whose mother Elizabeth Taylor pretends to be and, in effect, becomes. Robert Mitchum is good as Miss Farrow’s stepfather, in a relationship as violent and complicated as relationships in movies like ‘Accident’ and ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ tend to be. The lines are spoken so slowly, with such long pauses in between (it is as though a speech guidance drama class were reciting immortal iambic pentameters) that one thinks for a time that all this affectation is going to be unbearable. But there is something not at all arbitrary and far-out at the heart this time, with people – essentially confidence men – drawn into the frank needs of the insane, until their confidence roles become a personal truth about them.”


Wisconsin-born Losey, who directed, among other excellent pictures, The Boy with Green HairThe ProwlerThe Big NightMThe CriminalAccident, The Go-BetweenEvaThese Are the DamnedThe Servant, and more, was blacklisted around the time his incredible, powerful remake of Fritz Lang’s M was released. HUAC target Losey would leave the country instead of naming names for that ghastly, career-destroying committee. He moved to Europe and become one of the more interesting, daring, and unique filmmakers of the 1960s (there are a lot of informative, deep-dive studies on Losey – essays, books – Tom Milne’s Losey on Losey is a great, earlier one – published in 1967 – as is James Palmer and Michael Riley’s The Films of Joseph Losey, published in 1993, to name a few). The great Losey is a fascinating director to dig into – and I include Boom! and Secret Ceremony – most certainly as something to really dig into – and both, like all of his work, even his flawed work, exceptionally interesting.

In fact, Boom! and Secret Ceremony are, to me – I can’t use the word bad. And I won’t – because I don’t think either are bad. Many would likely agree with me regarding Secret Ceremony but would draw the line with Boom! – even if they love it – but in the case of Boom! I feel like it’s too otherworldly, too its own unique creature to be bad or terrible or the worst. And often well-written. Good seems too simple a word but… it’s not just good, it’s grand.

Both pictures are unforgettable. Eminently watchable. Weirdly wonderful.

And in many cases, touching and thoughtful. By the end of both movies, I find myself moved. For Taylor’s character and her pain and injections and rejection of death (even chucking that X-ray machine off the cliff – did I get that right? An X-ray machine? Whatever it is, she doesn’t want to see that – I get that), for poor, traumatized Mia Farrow’s character and those rows of pills she will swallow only to call out to her mama (who isn’t Taylor but has finally become, here, her sole protector, her real mother), for Richard Burton’s Angel of Death dropping of the ring in the glass and thrusting it into the ocean (it’s a beautiful moment). And then I extend being moved to the real-life characters behind the camera – to Tennessee Williams and to Joseph Losey for making these movies in the first place.

As I read in David Caute’s Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life, Losey, feeling defensive and hurt, wrote to Tennessee Williams of Boom!“I’m appalled for all of us, but particularly for you, by the scurrilous, ignorant and personalized reviews which I’ve seen … I am struck by the fact that the ‘critics’ seem determined to destroy successes and idols that they have built up – namely the Burtons, you and me.”


Those who find Boom! dreadful likely see this as Losey not taking responsibility and just lashing out at critics – they don’t get it! – that kind of response. And I can see that point because it’s a hard movie to get. Williams liked the movie and considered it the best adaptation of his work (hey, are we going to argue with Tennessee Williams on this?) Of this, John Waters said: “And Tennessee Williams did say … that it was the best movie ever made from his work, and I think maybe I, and Tennessee are the only people who agree with it…”

And yet, watching Boom!, to basically live in its odd tone and intent, to drink in the scenery and costumes, and to watch and listen to Taylor and Burton, I do wonder how they (the filmmakers) would consider the cult-embracing of the picture now (Williams died in 1983, Losey in 1984, Burton in 1984). There are plenty of people who maybe don’t get it (and many who probably do – or in their own way) but they love it regardless. Taylor, for one, heard about the love.

Film critic and author Alonso Duralde, an earlier champion of Boom! (we must thank our champions who are instrumental in spreading the word and finding these movies, helping them to get properly released, so Boom! fans, thank Mr. Duralde) tracked down a print and showed it at the USA Film Festival in 1995 in Dallas, Texas (Duralde was artistic director for five years there). He had John Waters introduce the picture (what a night that must have been). Duralde said in his fascinating featurette on the Boom! Blu-ray release (from Shout Select – which also features commentary by Waters) that Elizabeth Taylor was actually in town that night – at a department store promoting her perfume (!). They tried to get her to come but, to no avail. However, according to Duralde, she was asked about the showing, and said something like: “I hope they had a good laugh.” Oh, Ms. Taylor.


In an interview with Vice, John Waters said that he met Elizabeth Taylor once and told her how much he loved Boom! Waters continued:

“…And she got real mad and shouted, ‘That’s a terrible movie!’ And I said ‘It isn’t! I love that movie! I tour with it at festivals!’ Then she realized I was serious. Because it is a great movie. I feel like if you don’t agree with that I hate you. If you don’t like ‘Boom!’ I could never be your friend. Right now, I live by the water and every time I see a wave hit a rock, I shout, ‘Boom!’ like Richard Burton.”

The full quote of Burton from the picture is: “Boom. The shock of each moment of still being alive.” Well, it’s not a bad line, I don’t think. He says “Boom” again – and Taylor says it back to him at one point (of course, this seems so underscored since it became the title of the picture). In her character’s case, there is a shock, perhaps, of still being alive, and, I suppose, a strange celebration of still being alive, so why not make something of this whenever you can? Why not say “Boom?”

While making Boom! Richard Burton wrote in his diaries:

“E [Elizabeth Taylor] and N. [Noël] Coward are madly in love with each other, particularly he with her. He thinks her most beautiful which she is, and a magnificent actress which she also is. We all saw rushes [of ‘Boom!’] and some assemblage last night. It looks perverse and interesting. I think we are due for another success particularly E. I was worried about her being too young but it doesn’t seem to matter at all.”


Boom! was, at first, not a movie to star Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton. Taylor’s character, Flora “Sissy” Goforth, the millionaire multiple widower ruling over her elaborate, gorgeous, guarded compound on an isolated island in Italy was much older, and dying – around 75-years-old in fact. Taylor was 35-years-old, and though she’s still playing a dying woman, she looked healthy. But what does that mean? Looking healthy? She is so convincing in the movie that she doesn’t sound healthy, so no matter of how she looks. And, Taylor, in real life, had been near death a few times before this. She nearly died of pneumonia during Cleopatra. I also recall a photo of her with Burton – around 1973 – being wheeled in a fur coat (I am not making light of this – the woman was often ill – and likely needed a nice wrap).

Anyway, as Burton said, her age doesn’t matter at all since the movie works on a symbolic/surrealist/artistic level, and this is how one looks (or rather, how Elizabeth Taylor looks) and dresses when one is sick. I sure would if I could – in gowns designed by Tiziani of Rome – with help by Karl Lagerfeld. It is not a surprise then, that the picture is also a fascination for those in the fashion world. As Amy Spindler wrote (in 2001) of Boom! for the New York Times Magazine:

“The film was all André Leon Talley, the Vogue editor, wanted for Christmas. Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs had told him about it while dining at Mr. Chow’s. Cathy Horyn, the New York Times fashion critic, tracked him down a copy. Anne Fahey, the public relations director of Chanel, also helped join in the search… Let’s call it free-associative filmmaking. It’s all Mediterranean-Gehry architecture accented with key pieces of the era, like the Arco lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni. And there are hints of Calder and Chagall and even Easter Island sculptures — although ‘Boom!’ was filmed in Sardinia. And while the Roman couture Taylor wears certainly looks like her own by Valentino (the huge rock on her finger and the Shih Tzu running around look like her own, as well), it is credited to an atelier called Tiziani of Rome. Talley called a few days ago to say that while he was expounding on the virtues of ‘Boom!’ to Karl Lagerfeld, the designer said he had a hand in the costume designs. He was working for Tiziani at the time. Alexandre of Paris did Taylor’s hair. Bulgari supplied her jewels.”


There are many reasons to admire Boom! but the very idea of an inspired André Leon Talley talking to Karl Lagerfeld to discuss the picture and then Lagerfeld just dropping an, “Oh, yes, I helped design the costumes” (I imagine this dropped very casually – I have no idea – I just like thinking it this way)… and after seeing those fantastic costumes… how can you dismiss such a movie? I mean, on design alone, it’s worth watching.

So, Taylor – fine. Great. She’s perfect. Cast correctly – never mind her age. Who else could wear that Kabuki-inspired costume and elaborate headdress with such ease? She even removes it – likely annoyed by its weight – and even that seems like, “Sure, place that thing anywhere. Tiziani and Lagerfeld can make another one.” She didn’t say that, but that just occurs to me…many things do when I watch Boom!

And then there’s Burton’s character – poet Chris Flanders/The Angel of Death who was younger in the play than Burton (Burton was 42 at this point – not old, but older than Taylor – obviously this had to just work differently). Burton’s voice is brought up in the movie – his voice as a seductive force. And it is. Watching him saunter around Sissy’s property in the samurai robe and carrying a samurai sword (the outfit belonged to one of Sissy’s dead husbands – and is sent down to his quarters after dogs nearly rip him to shreds) should feel ridiculous, and it is, I think, a bit on purpose. But it becomes as natural as her extravagant attire. Also he appears to like wearing that outfit – for, presumably, the way it compliments his strides, the way it looks cool in the air, the way he looks rather handsome in it, and for the sword, surely an easy indicator of Freudian phallic armament, or an instrument of divine justice, like an arch-angel. Perhaps some viewers wish he were the younger stud, but I find his handsome, world-weariness befitting in this dreamscape. He’s seductive, he’s compelling, he certainly never appears bored. And he and Taylor – they do have chemistry – even when she’s yelling at him. Especially when she’s yelling at him.


Tennessee Williams, who had put on the play twice – first in 1963 with Hermione Baddeley and Paul Roebling, then in 1964 with Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter (both times the play didn’t fare well, receiving mostly bad reviews), was thinking, for film, more of Simone Signoret and Sean Connery. Losey, later, wanted Ingrid Bergman and James Fox. According to Sam Kashner’s and Nancy Schoenberger Furious LoveElizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century: “Bergman had turned down the role as too vulgar (‘I can’t say the word ‘bugger’ without blushing,” she’d told the director).” Another who famously turned down a part was Katharine Hepburn for “The Witch of Capri” (the part was originally written for and played by a woman) – Hepburn was reportedly insulted by the offer. In a bolder choice of casting, Noël Coward was offered the part and agreed (according to Caute’s Losey biography, Dirk Bogarde was asked first and said, “No, thank you!”), and the gender of the character changed.

And so, went the shoot, which is a story in itself… and then the story. How to describe? Flora “Sissy” Goforth (Taylor) is, as stated, a dying multiple widow/millionaire recluse, who has, rather symbolically, taken refuge on an island of her own. She’s living there, like a mythic, capricious creature with a coterie of servants tending to her, both visible and almost invisible. Her head of security is Rudi, a little person with a gun (played by Michael Dunn), and she recites her memoirs to her secretary, Miss Black (Joanna Shimkus), or “Blackie,” as Sissy calls her. It is upon this island that a dark stranger/poet arrives, or rather, trespasses, invades – both seductive and aloof (and hungry – it takes quite some time for Sissy to order him some food – she instead, drinks a lot. And takes pills. And yells for injections). This man that might be death itself, as indicated by his nickname “The Angel of Death” (Coward’s Witch of Capri fills Sissy in on the grim details of the women this Chris Flanders has visited before her).

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What follows is a game of seduction and finality, a stylized game of wit, caprice and carnality as Burton talks much, and in his way, coaxes Taylor into accepting the possibility of death. She has been pushing it away -who wants to think of that – and would like death on her own terms (who wouldn’t) – and is generally in a foul mood as she recollects her past. Well, she’s not feeling well. She hollers at her doctor, her servants and Blackie – she hollers at the sky. One of the most incredible moments comes when Sissy orders her morning needs:

“Now tell them to bring the table over here, so I can put my chair in the shadow when I want it in the shadow. My skin’s too delicate to be in the sun for more than half-hour intervals. Now tell them what I want put on the table: a cold bottle of mineral water, suntan lotion, cigarettes, codeine tab, a bucket of ice, a glass, a bottle of brandy, my newspapers. The Paris Trib, The Rome Daily American, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Express.” 

This provokes laughter for being so … demanding of course, and then for being delivered with such unhinged anger and brashness on Sissy’s part. It continues when she notices the mobile Burton’s poet has made (Sissy has yet to meet him – he’s down in the guest quarters) and asks Blackie, “What’s that goddamned thing?” When Blackie informs her it’s a mobile to give to Sissy, she says to her, “Does he seem like some kind of a nut case to you?” (I think that’s a very good question, frankly.) It continues on with Sissy: “Help me up, will you? The sun’s making me dizzy. Oh… God damn, you… broke the skin with my ring!”


I mean, everything, everything is wrong and annoying to Sissy. But people do act like this – I guess seeing it on screen and with such poetry – it’s wonderfully discombobulating.

Sissy is walking back into the house/compound and demands, “Bring a telex report out to me.” She then bumps into a servant with a tray and furious, yells the movie’s most famous insult: “Shit on your mother!”

(Try not yelling that after seeing this movie. Try. You won’t be able to resist.)

Sissy continues damning the world with: “God damn it, I’ll sign myself into a criminal institution!”

When she finally meets up with Burton’s Chris – the power play between the earthly and the eternal, the perishable and the sublime, is enacted by all characters in hyperbolic and, occasionally, moving ways. Burton’s Angel of Death (whom we are constantly befuddled by – is he evil? He’s not good, necessarily. What the hell is he?) takes from Goforth what one might presume to be her earthly vanity and power – he removes/steals her jewels. He speaks a beautiful, succinct parable – perhaps one of the best monologues in the film – and tosses her diamond-studded gems to the everlasting tide and the crashing waves below: Boom!

There’s so much to discuss and discover with Boom! (the wonderful music is one – by John Barry), the gorgeous cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, the costumes (as stated earlier), and the dialogue – both overwrought and weirdly beautiful- but also, funny. There’s an exchange between Chris and Sissy that I just think had to be funny. As Chris, with that gorgeous Burton theatrical lilt, recites Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome decree. Where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.” Taylor’s Sissy simply exclaims, befuddled or perhaps making fun of him, her voice rising:


I think many understand that question. But to some of us – in a glorious way – we want to figure out, at least some, not entirely, some of that … “WhaaAAAT?” Which brings us over and over again to Boom!

Thinking they had something interesting on their hands (they did!) and a possible hit (alas, not a hit – at all), Elizabeth Taylor thought it would be good to work with Losey again. From Caute’s Losey biography:

“Late in 1967, while in Rome dubbing ‘Boom!’, Losey was with the Burtons in the Grand Hotel when Elizabeth Taylor remarked (it is said), ‘Why don’t we do something again?’ No more inclined than Winnie the Pooh to remove his head from the honey pot, Losey remembered a script by George Tabori originally written for, and turned down by, Ingrid Bergman. For Losey and his flamboyant designer Richard Macdonald, ‘Secret Ceremony’ was to be the second décor-riot of the ‘time of the Burtons.’ [Producer] John Heyman’s role was to raise the money and assemble the cast: ‘I was the shoehorn,’ he says. Universal put up the cash – several months before ‘Boom!’ hit the rocks.”

That Taylor was intrigued by such challenging, strange material – and that she used her star power to, essentially, help Losey get these odd movies made is to her credit – so the Boom! / Secret Ceremony double dose of 1968 makes that year in movies most intriguing to me. It should be appreciated.


The great award-winning screenwriter, director, producer and ultimate cineaste Larry Karaszewski (he of the classic Ed WoodMan on the MoonThe People vs. Larry FlyntBig Eyes and one of this year’s best movies – Dolemite is My Name) has discussed his appreciation for Secret Ceremony on Trailers from Hell. I love how he describes this period of Taylor, who was, at one point, the most famous woman on the planet – both as a movie star and as a tabloid queen, thanks to her infamous marriage to Eddie Fisher (who was before married to Debbie Reynolds), winning an Oscar for Butterfield 8 and then dumping Fisher for her highly publicized affair with Burton on the set of the grandly expensive Cleopatra (a whole other story – and one I wrote about, in part, in regards to Walter Wanger’s (with Joe Hyams) My Life with Cleopatra: The Making of a Hollywood Classic for the Los Angeles Review of Books), and their marriage. And then, acting opposite Burton, she won her second Oscar (for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which she is indeed brilliant) – she’s a movie star, a serious actress and a source of never-ending public fascination. But as Karaszewski says:

“… And, bam! Something changed, and she never quite made another good movie again. She became some sort of alcoholic celebrity monster, so famous that she couldn’t really play normal, and the pictures she chose to appear in are some of the oddest movies ever made. They’re almost their own genre – weird and depressing …” 

He cites Secret Ceremony, the trailer and movie he digs into, as one of them.


And he’s right – it’s a depressing movie. Much sadder, and in many ways, much darker than Boom! If Boom! has sunlight and sea and Richard Burton’s lulling voice to carry you to death, Secret Ceremony has grey skies, construction sites and sad public buses (terrific cinematography by Gerry Fisher), a sick-o, somewhat terrifying Robert Mitchum (who is fantastic here), and sad Mia Farrow hollering, in death, alone in a house for any kind of mother she will ever have. Though Sissy must face death in Boom!, she’s at least able to breathe in the air, gaze at the ocean, be mindful of a cliff without balustrade: “I’m frankly scared of a cliff without a balustrade…” (after Boom! that has become a forever favorite word for me – balustrade). In Secret Ceremony, Taylor’s character is left on a sad little bed by the end, reciting a fable.

But there is glamour here, on the part of Taylor, as her costumes are splendid, and seem to grow more beautiful and intriguing as the movie goes on. The controversial Camille Paglia discussed Secret Ceremony in Penthouse, in 1992, and she highlights just how powerful a screen presence Taylor was:

“One of the most spectacular moments of my movie-going career occurred in college as I watched Joseph Losey’s bizarre ‘Secret Ceremony’ (1968). Halfway through the film, inexplicably and without warning, Elizabeth Taylor in a violet velvet suit and turban suddenly walks across the screen in front of a wall of sea-green tiles. It is an overcast London day; the steel-grey light makes the violet and green iridescent. This is Elizabeth Taylor at her most vibrant, mysterious and alluring at the peak of her mature fleshy glamour. I happened to be sitting with a male friend, one of the gay aesthetes who had such a profound impact on my imagination. We both cried out at the same time, alarming other theatregoers. This vivid silent tableau is, for me, one of the classic scenes in the history of cinema.”


And there are parallels between the two movies. In keeping with Losey’s idea of edifices acting as surrogates for the human mind, in Secret Ceremony, two women are thrown together by fate into a striking, decadent mansion in London (another house as character as in Boom! – another stranger entering the house and undergoing power plays). One, Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), first clad in black, is a religious lady, but a lady of the night who has lost a daughter and seems to be repulsed by the brutality of men – probably for good reason. Watching her remove a long blonde wig at the beginning of the picture and vigorously washing her face in the mirror seems to speak of an alternate reality – or a role playing – she’s furiously scrubbing away – at that moment. The other one, Cenci (a wild-eyed Mia Farrow – cast right before Rosemary’s Baby was released and a huge hit –  according to Caute’s biography, Losey, as yet, had only seen her on Peyton Place) is a daughter who has lost a mother and roams aimlessly, at the mercy of scavengers. She, with her long black hair (the long dark hair to Leonora’s long blonde wig from the beginning) spies Leonora on the city bus, Leonora’s dark hair wrapped up in a black scarf and … she just thinks … that’s her mother. Her dead mother. Both women wear black – and watching Farrow’s Cenci follow Taylor’s Leonora is haunting – as if the two are going to merge at one point – there’s already mirroring going on here and the movie holds our interest, right away.

Cenci is a stunted child – her age defined in her twenties but enacted as if she was prepubescent. Farrow is quite good enacting trauma here – sexual trauma – and her scenes that are deemed possibly seductive with Taylor could be read in myriad ways – lovingly needing a mother, needing maternal touch, acting out her own abuse, or childlike, confused – or all of it. She is certainly not well; she is certainly traumatized – her problems are deep. At one point she feigns pregnancy with a stuffed thing under her dresses.

Both Cenci and her mother’s fortune seem entirely unguarded and vulnerable, which really underscores the power of this movie – just how vulnerable both Cenci and Leonora are – in their grief, in their station in life, and in their dealing with predators. And the automatons Cenci plays with – seen so often in the picture – are characters themselves – sometimes tinkling with music box tunes, sometimes simulating movement, but not truly alive. As if these have been the only friends Cenci has ever had. The only things she can trust.


And, so, a psychodrama starts to develop between Cenci and Leonora who is a facsimile of her dead mother – and, in many ways, Cenci herself. What’s so moving, is, after Leonora enters the grand home (and of course helps herself to Cenci’s deceased mother’s fabulous clothes and a gorgeous white fur coat), bit by bit she grows protective of this woman/child and projects so much upon the young, odd woman, as if by saving her, she can save herself, and regain the grace lost with the death of her daughter. The vulgar, dirty world, which encircles the mansion (in real life Debenham House, a fabulous convolution of architectural styles in West Kensington), invades the power play between the women – an ambiguous role-playing ceremony that tries imposture as a way to reach real healing. You play my mother; I play your daughter… maybe we can save each other?

But even more darkness descends with Albert (Cenci’s stepfather, played by Mitchum), who insinuates himself, perversely with his flowers – and then in an abusive, invading manner – becoming the catalyst for tragedy. There’s also Cenci’s two vermin-like antiquarian aunts who scavenge routinely the diminishing splendor of the desolate mansion—it’s touching when Leonora sticks up for Cenci to these women – women who seem to laugh off the perversions of Albert, as if Cenci should know better. Leonora says, aghast: “But Cenci’s still a child!” One aunt says, “Cenci a child?” And the other states that Cenci is 22-years-old. Old enough they are saying. Never mind this is her stepfather taking advantage of a damaged young woman. Leonora says, “Well, she’ll always be a baby to me.” And then one aunt says, rather ominously, “Crazy people never look their age.”


Cenci has gone crazy – from grief and abuse by the hands of Albert, who has been violating Cenci for – we don’t even know how long – and from who knows what else. Leonora yells at Albert: “You dirty bastard! You raped her!” He then laughs, “I couldn’t rape a randy elephant. I’m much too tentative. I need encouragement. And I loved her. I always loved her…I make her feel like a woman. What do you make her feel like? A retarded zombie?” Defiant, she says “I tried to protect her from…” Albert cuts her off, calling her a “mysterious bitch,” and, again, a “cow” and tells her to leave Cenci … with him. Leonora wants to continue protecting her (quite understandably). Later that night, however, Leonora forcefully pulls the fake baby out of Cenci’s clothes – and Cenci, upset, will order her out. “Why are you wearing my mother’s clothes?” Cenci asks. ‘Get out.”


The world and its dark desires prove too much for Cenci’s fragile mind, and she – in a complex scene (lining up pills, treating a visiting Leonora like a servant until she, in dying breath is calling for her again, as a mother – only it’s too late) – commits suicide.

And then… in a startling moment – Leonora – grieving another daughter – will kill Albert in a bizarre, but beautifully offhand manner. You don’t expect it. But the revenge is not so sweet – you get the feeling Leonora will never be the same (well, what is the same to her?), that she’ll never be “healed,” and yet, she may endure. In the final scene, she recites out loud a fable (about the two little mice who fell into a bucket of milk) – and, I suppose, she’s holding on to the merits of resilience and will. But she almost seems to be talking in her sleep.

The ending works wonderfully because, truly, watching this movie feels like a dream one had. A nightmare. And even describing it – I had to search – am I right? Am I remembering this correctly? I could very well not be.

Again, it’s a sad movie, and it’s worth noting that making the movie was hard on Taylor – she was in physical pain. As discussed in Kashner and Schoenberger’s Furious Love:

“Halfway through filming [‘Secret Ceremony’], Elizabeth could no longer work through her constant visceral pain. After a series of tests, Elizabeth was admitted to a London hospital for a hysterectomy. ‘Elizabeth had her uterus removed on Sunday morning. The operation began at 9:30 and ended at 1:00,’ Burton wrote in his diary, marking some of the most awful days of his life… ‘There was nothing before,’ he wrote when she was finally out of danger and recovering at home, ‘no shame inflicted or received, no injustice done to me, no disappointment professional or private that I could not think away…But this is the first time where I’ve seen a loved one in screaming agony for two days, hallucinated by drugs, sometimes knowing who I was and sometimes not, a virago one minute, an angel the next, and felt completely helpless.”

Secret Ceremony was released to mostly bad reviews (as stated, Renata Adler was kind, as was The Guardian) – still, Taylor, again, to her credit, continued to take on challenging roles, bizarre roles, and do so glamorously, even if critics began taking her apart – her acting, her looks – she was still her own creature, and, as Karaszewski astutely said, making movies that were something like their own genre.


As Walter Wanger wrote of Taylor in My Life with Cleopatra, “It is not a far stretch of the imagination to compare Elizabeth with Cleopatra. She has the intelligence and temperament of the Egyptian Queen — and she has the honesty and directness that characterize all big people.”

As I wrote of her in regard to Wanger’s observation – in Boom! and, I will add now, in Secret Ceremony, Taylor showed us the dark side of excess, the desperation of love, and the disillusionment of lust and she is … fantastic. It is real, it is a dream. Liz & Losey – we don’t know their dreams but with these two pictures, here is the “the honesty and directness that characterize all big people.”

Originally published at the New Beverly.

Have a Violent Saturday Christmas


Coming soon, Dec. 25 -- Ed Brubaker's CRIMINAL # 11 featuring my essay on Richard Fleischer's incredible Violent Saturday.

Happy Violent Saturday Christmas! Order here

A snippet from my piece:

As this film shows, being a lot of things is, as Shelley said, normal and human. The picture is both wonderfully melodramatic in the very best way and powerfully down and dirty violent – bizarre, darkly funny at times, and then bitingly real as only our sometimes bizarre, darkly funny lives can be. The robbery feels real, but it also works in a metaphorical manner. A nightmare. But a nightmare some people don’t wake up from. And one that lingers on Boyd’s mind with almost nihilistic reflection. The grief-stricken Boyd spits, “It’s so stupid and pointless to be alive in the morning and dead in the afternoon.” Pray for a peaceful Sunday. Or never pray again.

Merry Christmas!


Criminal: The Threat


Look for Ed Brubaker's newest CRIMINAL in which I write about Felix E. Feist's The Threat starring the great Charles McGraw, who, as Red is so intense, so naturally frightening that everyone around him look like mice circling an enormous cat – one who will casually swipe his paw and lay any one of them flat -- and easily dead. As enormous cats do.

You'll also never forget how McGraw sits in and utilizes a chair...

Out now -- came out Nov. 27 -- order!

Interviewing Tarantino: Once Upon a Time


From my New Beverly & Sight & Sound interview:

In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, we are watching Los Angeles: a Los Angeles of 1969 that actually happened, a Los Angeles of 1969 that could have happened, and a mythical Los Angeles – a vision of the city and of Hollywood that we might dream about, or a part of our memory that is real.

A memory that still lives within this city. And in this city, if you live here long enough or if you grew up here like Quentin Tarantino did, the visual effect – the way the geography of the town spreads out, and the way we drive through it, the way we look up at the signs, the marquees, the movie posters – often makes reality and dreams merge together, it melds in our mind. Some days it feels normal and other days, not so normal. It makes you wonder about Los Angeles, or Hollywood, rather, and what that means to different people – and not just people in Hollywood, because there’s so much more to this city than Hollywood. But we’re talking Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. So, from watching movies about the city, to being in the city while watching movies about the city, and seeing movies all around you – like Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) driving to his trailer right next to the Van Nuys Drive-In, or the real life Jay Sebring living in Jean Harlow’s house for a time (where Paul Bern killed himself), to walking past a specific old house or apartment where a movie may have been shot or a person may have lived – history, ghosts, movies, real life… It’s both in the now and it’s a memory floating around you.

Here, it’s Hollywood, 1969, where ageing, ex-Bounty Law star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), insecure about his future, worrying he’s a wash-up (“It’s official, old buddy, I’m a has-been.”), and wondering about the emerging, younger talents and wunderkinds of the film world – like the neighbors he discovers living next door to him on Cielo Drive: Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). Rick is a heavy drinker, an alcoholic, with enough drunk-driving offenses that his closest friend and confidant, his stunt double, tough but charming Cliff Booth – a man with a mysterious past, shrouded in darkness – has to drive him everywhere. That can be a big deal in Los Angeles – when someone else has to drive you everywhere.


And so here we follow Rick and Cliff and Sharon. We follow them as they talk, drive, work, run errands and, by the end, a hell of a lot more. They are living their lives. There’s Sharon, driving around, seeing friends and watching one of her movies, in one of the picture’s most beautiful and charming scenes. As Tarantino said, “When Sharon’s on screen we need to slow everything the fuck down. Just slow the whole damn thing down and just hang out with her… it’s about behavior; it’s about what people in Los Angeles do.”

And that leads up to that tragic, horrifying August night in 1969…

The result is a poignant, elegiac Tarantino masterpiece – one of memory and history and myth and darkness and humor and sadness and mystery and tragedy and love. And that brilliant, incredible ending… it leaves one breathless, and then by its final moment – many of us are moved to tears.


Tarantino met me at his house in Los Angeles, and we talked at length about many things. Parts of this interview are excerpted from my September Sight & Sound cover story on Tarantino (pick up, or order digitally that issue, and read more of that interview – we talk about the genesis of the movie, Tarantino’s writing process, Sharon Tate and more here). As said, our discussion went on far longer, and so I’ve added more of it here, for the New Beverly – still condensed and edited (because the interview was even longer!). We talked about Los Angeles, about movies, about music, about Ralph Meeker and Vince Edwards and Toni Basil, about Sharon Tate’s talent, specifically in The Wrecking Crew which Robbie as Tate watches in a movie theater, (Tarantino said: “Sharon does her pratfall, our audience in the theatre laughs. So, I love that Sharon’s getting a laugh. The real Sharon Tate gets a laugh…”), and about the movies he watched in preparation for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and, of course, about the film itself, his ninth. And a whole lot more.

This is a movie you can’t stop thinking about. This is a movie that you want to see over and over (read my long deep dive into this movie here). And reading this interview now, which was conducted in June, before the movie opened (so we couldn’t talk spoilers, and I omitted discussion that veered there – specifically the bravura ending set-piece), there’s even more I now want to talk to Tarantino about – more questions. With that, I’ll go see the movie, which I’ve already watched numerous times, again…


Kim Morgan: In your film, there’s the myth-like idea of LA and the geographical idea of LA, and you’ve merged them together beautifully: all of those gorgeous shots of Cliff driving – everyone drives a lot, of course, this is Los Angeles, except for Rick Dalton [who has too many drunk driving incidents]. And the way you’ve recreated 1969 LA, the movie posters, the radio channels in the car, looking out at all that – it’s mythical and real.

Quentin Tarantino: I gotta tell you something. We can get actual photos of what Sunset Boulevard looked like in 1969 or what Riverside Drive looked like, or Magnolia, we can do that. And we did it. But the jumping-off point was going to be my memory – as a six-year old sitting in the passenger seat of my stepfather’s Karmann Ghia. And even that shot, that kind of looks up at Cliff as he drives by the Earl Scheib, and all those signs, that’s pretty much my perspective, being a little kid…

6a00d83451cb7469e20240a47008b8200c-800wiKM: We’ve talked a lot before about Jacques Demy’s Model Shop – I think he would have loved this film.

QT: Yeah. “The Umbrellas of Van Nuys”; “The Young Girls of Toluca Lake” (laughs). Again, that’s an aspect of a memory piece because I remember what it was like. But, also as a little kid – and probably now too, but especially as a little kid – you see what you want to see. You throw the things you don’t care about out of focus and you throw sharp focus on the things you care about – so… I’m looking out the window and see Los Angeles out in front of me and I’m being more selective about what I’m looking at as opposed to Demy in Model Shop. So, it’s the movie billboards and it’s the soda pop billboards. I’m not seeing the Geritol billboard, but the Hollywood Wax Museum with the Clark Gable picture. And so, in doing a memory piece, I create that landscape.

KM: So, who is Rick Dalton based on?

QT: I like talking about these guys. George Maharis, Ty Hardin, Vince Edwards, Edd Byrnes, and Fabian a little bit, and Tab Hunter a little bit too… So that sets [Rick Dalton] up, he’s not of this generation, he’s not a New Hollywood type of actor – you don’t see him fitting in with Peter Fonda or Jack Nicholson or Donald Sutherland or Elliott Gould or any of these guys. Those are the actors of the time.

KM: Which directors do you think Rick Dalton would have worked with?

: He would have worked with guys like Paul Wendkos… If he was lucky, he would have worked with Phil Karlson, Leslie Martinson, people like that. One of the things about the actors of that era [and Rick Dalton], like I said, they were status-conscious, so they would love to be in a Burt Kennedy western. Not because they think Burt Kennedy is the greatest director in the world, but because he makes movies for Warner Brothers. And 20th Century Fox… If Rick were offered an AIP [American International Pictures] movie, [he] wouldn’t do it: “Well, of course, I’m not going to work for AIP. That’s where the losers work. That’s for fucking Ray Milland. That’s for fading stars like Milland and slumming stars, like Bette Davis, and phony non stars like Vincent Price and Fabian.”

Marianne-Gaba-with-Edd-Byrnes-from-TV-show-77-Sunset-Strip.-Gaba-was-a-guest-star-on-the-show-and-requested-a-lock-of-22Kookies22-hair-to-which-Byrnes-obliged-January-1960KM: And his career could have been different had he worked with AIP or something like that…

QT: In that chapter I wrote on [the book about] Rick’s career, “The Man Who Would Be McQueen”, I actually have that in that version, and I did it in a scene with Marvin. OK, Rick’s contract is over with Universal and now he’s a free agent and having to fend for himself. In that prose, I’d written that he did get one offer for a movie after the Universal contract was over. The movie offered was John Cassavetes’ role in Devil’s Angels, which was Roger Corman’s follow-up to The Wild Angels. And he turned it down: “I’m not gonna work with Corman. I’m not gonna work with AIP. That’s junk.” These TV guys were taught: if you’re gonna be a TV star, you have to be likable. But so, he’s using old-world rules. So those are all reasons that Rick would have said no, but the reality is, that that would have given Rick everything he wanted if he had done it. It would have been his one, along with “The 14 Fists of McCluskey” – his one genuine hit. This wouldn’t have been a movie that is stuck with the other movies in the early part of the 60s. It was zeitgeisty. This was a movie that actually young people would have went to see.

KM: Yeah. And he would meet people like Jack Nicholson, he would have met Bruce Dern [who plays ranch owner George Spahn in the film] …

QT: Absolutely! And, I had it, that actually AIP was really into the idea. So, if he had done Devil’s Angels, they probably would have plugged him into like, three other biker movies that they had on deck… He would have been a young people’s actor. But through his class consciousness, he threw it all away and wonders why he’s standing on the outside of a cultural shift.

KM: And … Rick Dalton is in his late 30s in 1969, he’s getting older, but even Nicholson and Bruce Dern, though younger than Rick, and a different generation, they were in their early thirties by 1969…they had already worked for a while, and on TV, and worked in AIP films…

QT: No, but you’re right though – Nicholson – Bruce told me that he and Jack killed themselves trying to get on western shows. And I mean, guesting on them… The Virginian is on for nine years – Doug McClure and James Drury stayed there, but then the rest of the cast like rotates every four years…. They wanted to get on a series… Like Nicholson would have loved to have been on The Virginian in its sixth season. Bruce said, at that time, we wanted Robert Fuller’s career (laughs): “We wanted to be on our version of Laramie we wanted to join Wagon Train in their color years.” (laughs) Bruce Dern actually did get on a show – he and Warren Oates were Jack Lord’s sidekick on the show, Stoney Burke … and Bruce Dern said “Oh, it’s one of the worst jobs I have had!” And I asked, “Why?” and he said, “Well, I’m on it for like two fucking years and every week it just boils down to a reaction shot of me watching Jack Lord – the biggest prick in the business – riding a bucking bronco and yelling “You got it Stoney! Ride ’em Stoney!” (laughs) “That was like, my part!”

MV5BZTcwZGQyYTEtM2ZiNC00ZDA1LTg5ZTYtMGI3ZTczNWMxN2Y5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTM3MDMyMDQ@._V1_UY268_CR87 0 182 268_AL_KM: Bruce Dern has such a long, wide-ranging career and worked with guys like Rick. He must have had a lot of stories.

QT: He [played] such interesting bad guys on these western shows, like his characters in the stuff he did in ’64 or ’65 or ’66 could be a main character in a 70s western. Like he did a Big Valley episode where it’s him and Lee Majors doing a lot of stuff together and he’s a bounty hunter, but his whole thing was to dress like a priest, so if you’re his bounty, he approaches you on a horse, with a collar and the black frock and the bible, and he asks to have some beans at your little campfire and you say yes because he’s a priest, and then he shoots you dead. (Laughs) That’s his modus operandi. That’s a fucking great character…. Bruce Dern, all those guys: Robert Blake, Burt Reynolds… they remember every episodic television director they ever worked with, Bruce better than all of them. If you name an episode and the director, Bruce will tell you a little story about that guy…

KM: Well, that was smart, considering who some of those guys were who were directing episodic television, like Sam Peckinpah…

QT: Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. He’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of Gunsmoke and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of The Big Valley, but they don’t necessarily look like [Ritchie’s 1972 film] The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for Gunsmoke – it’s right there.

KM: And then Dern must have had some thoughts about 1969 in particular…

QT: Yeah, he had a huge memory because one of the weird dichotomies going on was everybody, [Dern’s] whole circle, is blowing up and becoming superstars, and he’s still stuck doing this episodic television stuff and doing this B-movie stuff and playing western scoundrels in these other movies, while Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper are starting to run the damn town. So, look at it in perspective – so, in 1970 Jack Nicholson does Five Easy Pieces, directs Drive, He Said, and then is brought into On a Clear Day You Can See Forever to bring youth appeal to the movie. That year Bruce Dern guested on a Land of the Giants and starred in The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant. (Laughs) He also gives the best performance in Drive, He Said, but all that had to be hard for him. But it all changed the next year. The next year he does The Cowboys and Silent Running.

KM: How much did you work with Burt Reynolds before he sadly passed away? He must have been great to talk to.

HqdefaultQT: When I was getting to know him, I was really taking advantage of that: I’ve got Burt Reynolds to talk to, and he understands the politics of this movie, of where Rick’s coming from. So, I’ve spent my whole life hearing Burt Reynolds tell stories on talk shows, so our time spent together was him telling Burt Reynolds stories, and me telling Burt Reynolds stories. And I was just trying to ask him everything I could. What did he think about Sergio Corbucci? What did he think about Raquel Welch? What did he think about Jim Brown? And so, we’re doing this script reading and we have a break in the middle, and Burt was pretty fucked up in terms of his mobility: when he sits down in the chair, he’s gonna be in the chair for a while. And so I’d get up, and walk around, he’d be at the end of the table, and I’d sort of get down on my haunches and start talking to him, and every time I’d see him, I’m thinking, “Who am I gonna bring up this time?” I’m gonna ask him about William Witney. And I gotta set this up a little bit. Now, he only worked with William Witney three times. Three episodes of “Riverboat” in the 50s – that’s it. Now, I’m expecting him – I’m gonna bring this up and he’s not going to remember. So, I ask him, “I wanna ask you a question about the show you did, Riverboat. And he says, “Oh boy.” And I say, “Look you probably don’t remember who he is, you only worked with him three times, but you worked with a director named William Witney. Do you remember him?” [Reynolds says,] “Of course I do.” One of the perfect Burt Reynolds line reads. [I say,] “Oh. You do! Wow. Great. Well, I think he’s terrific. I mean, I think he’s one of the most underrated action directors that there ever was, and especially westerns.” [Burt says,] “I agree. You’re very true. William Witney was under the belief that there was no scene that had ever been written that couldn’t be improved by a fistfight. And that’s kind of the way the guy would direct. You’d be standing there doing a scene, and he would be like, ‘Cut. Cut. Cut. You guys are putting me to sleep. Here’s what I want to happen. You say this, you say that, you say this, you say that, now you get mad at him and you punch him. And now you’re mad at him, so you punch him back. And now we have a scene!” (Laughs) I can’t guarantee, but I can practically guarantee that nobody has brought up William Witney’s name to Burt in 55 years, and I bring it up. Not only does he remember the guy, he has perfect Burt Reynolds stories – ready to go, as if he’d been telling these anecdotes for years because they were funny. He has a perfect description, and they are all funny and they all have a punchline to them. Those are not ready-to-go-to stories. He just pulled it out of his head from 50 years ago. It was just a masterful moment. And it is like, “This is the most charming man who maybe ever lived.” …


KM: Speaking of Witney [Rick has a William Witney The Golden Stallion poster hanging in his house] …though I’ve seen some things, I feel like Witney, who you love, is still not really discussed enough, not that I’ve seen anyway, but I’m sure I’ve missed something…

QT: Well, people have given me some things – like Films in Review, in the 1970s – had a piece on him that was really cool. And somebody sent me a Cahiers du Cinéma article… but they were talking about random things… It was kind of funny because I went to a big event in France and Bertrand Tavernier spoke about me at the event and he said, “Quentin is a film fan and a film scholar. And I am a film fan and a film scholar. And we have similar tastes and similar obsessions and interests. However, I have one thing over Tarantino that he will never have! I have it and I’m very proud that I have this over him. I have met William Witney! And he will never meet William Witney!” (laughs) I met William Witney’s son…

KM: William Witney lived a long time – he died in 2002 if I’m not mistaken…

QT: When I first did my piece on him… he was still alive. But he was a little out of it…

KM: That is nice that he got to probably know that, that he was able to see your appreciation…

QT: Yes, they said that. He can’t talk, but his family has passed on to him my admiration… [But] he was so unknown that he wasn’t even included in the Oscar Farewells.

KM: As for Rick Dalton – who do you see in the future, who he could have worked with…

Lead_720_405QT: We did that thing – the alternative careers Rick could have. He could have had the George Maharis career – which is basically, he’s always Rick Dalton, he’s a name, but he goes into the 70s, and he continues on as guest spots. He’s on The Streets of San Francisco, he’s on Cade’s County, he’s on Shaft, he’s on Cannon he’s on Barnaby Jones – those kinds of shows. Shows that didn’t survive that long – a show like Chase – things like that. And doing the random TV movie whenever it would come up SST: Disaster in the Sky, I can see him in that. Now, oddly enough, it’s interesting because in the George Maharis version of a career is, one of the roles in a late 60s movie that you can imagine – I mean one of the roles you can imagine him in is The Great Escape, or you can imagine him in a great “masculine” adventure from ‘64 or ‘65 or ‘66 – whether it be a war film or a detective movie or a cop movie or a western. But, a new Hollywood movie, that he could have been in, one that he could have been cast in, and a role that he could have been good in, is as Rosemary’s husband, the Guy Woodhouse role in [Roman Polanski’s] Rosemary’s Baby – [the role] that John Cassavetes plays. And, I mean, I actually don’t think Roman [Polanski] would have cottoned to Rick. I think Roman would have been immediately suspicious of a guy like Rick…

KM: Interesting… Well, he did reportedly have problems with John Cassavetes too …

QT: And he had problems with McQueen…He hated McQueen. He talks about it in his book… and McQueen didn’t like him. When they, Roman and Sharon [in the movie] show up at the Playboy Mansion, and Sharon runs up to Steve, Roman didn’t like it, but Steve was one of her big friends when she moved out here, so he had to put up with it. But the first thing McQueen does is he picks her up and spin her around … so that’s the kind of dynamic they have. But having said that though, while I don’t think Roman would have cottoned to Rick all that much, if he had met Rick especially, and Rick could have come in and read for Guy, I think he would have thought Rick is very much like this guy. And I actually think Polanski would have thought that was good casting. And it would have been good casting. Now, the interesting thing is, if Rick actually had George Maharis’ later career in the 70s, that would have included Rick playing that role eventually, because in the mid-70s there was the TV movie Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, starring Patty Duke, who was actually considered for the role, in the original movie. In [Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby] she [Duke] played Rosemary, and George Maharis played Guy Woodhouse. But then if you also look at Edd Byrnes. His Italian western career is, more or less, what I modeled Rick’s career on – his Italian spaghetti western career. [And] when he came back it was like he wasn’t even famous anymore… His name didn’t mean anything. He’s just like a regular working actor now. And so, he continued to work in episodic television and things, but he wasn’t like George Maharis or Vic Morrow guesting on your show, he’s just Edd Byrnes, another actor. And it was pretty degrading frankly. But then that changed when he was put in Grease, because his whole persona was brought up again, and you have the whole aspect of mothers taking their daughters to take Travolta, and saying, “Well my Travolta in my day was that guy.” And then that actually made him famous again. And so, then he continued to do episodic television shows, but now he’s Edd Byrnes again, so now he had the cache. He had a big up-spike in popularity. So those are those careers.

KM: We were also talking about Vince Edwards before…


QT: Vince Edwards, on the other hand, never did really guest on other people’s stuff after he became big, into the 70s, but he had his own series, for a while called Matt Lincoln but it didn’t quite last. But big guest stars and ABC, they put a lot behind it. But – Vince Edwards – like Vic Morrow, like a lot of these guys who were big-time guest stars on shows and starred in some really good TV movies in the 70s. And would appear in a couple of exploitation things at the same time and then kinda got – what happened to a lot of these guys – the later career. From a lot of these more 50s leading men was the later television career – where in the late 70s, you’d see them get in another series, but on that series, they wouldn’t be the lead, [and] it would usually be a cop show, and some young cop, whatever the deal is, the star, and they’re [the older actors] are their boss. The guy who sends them on their mission. Or who reprimands them when they cross the line. And actually, Vince Edwards had a show like that with David Cassidy… David Cassidy is an undercover cop and he’s sending him on missions. But that’s similar to Jack Kelly being Christie Love’s boss on Get Christie Love! or Earl Holliman being Angie Dickinson’s boss on Police Woman. Vic Morrow was on the show B.A.D. Cats which starts a Dukes of Hazzard kind of thing… Of all of those [guys], I would actually think the Earl Holliman character in “Police Woman” would probably be the best fit for Rick. And then you have somebody like Ty Hardin who, in the early 70s, who went off to Australia to do a show called Riptide and it was a very successful show. But as far as America was concerned, it was like he just disappeared – the show never got syndicated. But that happened to a lot of [those] guys. Robert Vaughn went to England and did the show The Protectors. So, someone would do, like, a weird German show, and they’d be a superstar in Germany, but no one knows what happened to them out here. But now, all that… that keeps Rick in the box he’s in and he never kind of broke out of that. But there is another world where, another alternative version, in post 70s kinds of thing…

KM: What’s that?

QT: I think Rick and Tom Laughlin were friends, and so they did some things together, so I can actually see Tom Laughlin casting Rick in the Kenneth Tobey role, the sheriff, in Billy Jack and that would be a big role, in a movie that was a smash hit, very zeitgeisty, very hippie-ish movie, that young people would have seen. And I can see Rick doing a good job in that role.

KM: He really would have…

6a00d83451cb7469e20240a4aaf48a200d-400wiQT: But there is also something else – that suggests I think there’s a suggestion that something else could have happened for Rick – a better future for Rick. But I wouldn’t want to say what the future is for Rick. I would want the audience to come up with it on their own. Because if I say what that future is then that becomes the future. I’d rather use these other examples. But here’s the thing – when Rick meets Marvin [played by Al Pacino] at Musso & Frank, I don’t think Marvin says it out loud, but it’s gotten across that the culture has changed, and he’s on the outs. You know, it’s 1969, and Rick still wears the pompadour. He puts pomade in his hair … even Edd Byrnes didn’t wear a pompadour anymore. He was famous for doing a hair spray commercial where he said “I used to be Kookie … the dry look is where it’s at baby!” So, that sets him up, he’s not of this generation, he’s not a New Hollywood type of actor – you don’t see him fitting in with Peter Fonda or Jack Nicholson or Donald Sutherland or Elliott Gould or any of these guys. Those are the actors of the time. But, I think when Sam Wanamaker the director of “Lancer” puts the mustache on him and puts the longer-haired wig on him, and the hipper jacket, I think Rick has never seen himself that way … Rick has kept one hairstyle his entire career… he’s had one look his entire career … even when he goes off to do the spaghetti westerns, the outfits you see him in seem a little flyer that the stuff he wore on television… So, I think you see that he could be a 70s actor, he could be a New Hollywood actor and the performance that he ends up giving in his last “Lancer” scene that we see, that suggests more that type of actor…

KM: Yes. And Trudi [played by Julia Butters] is impressed – she says it’s the greatest acting she’s ever seen…

QT: Yes. And he’s playing a real sadistic bad guy. Not just a standard-issue bad guy of the week. He’s actually playing almost like he’s a Hells Angels gang. And all of those rustler guys with him are his gang mates… But I like the fact that with that long hair and that mustache and the cooler more zeitgeisty jacket, is this could be the guy he could be …

KM: What was with critics not liking what was called, well, a derogatory term then, spaghetti westerns? How could they not see the beauty and innovation when they watched those movies? The music? It baffles me to this day. Even Rick Dalton didn’t want to make them…

QT: Look, the answer, when it comes to Rick, when it comes to a lot of the Hollywood actors out there at the time who grew up on American westerns and doing TV westerns, and even the critics, that, at the time, grew up with American westerns, it was a combination of a generational divide that they couldn’t see it. And, a healthy, healthy dose of xenophobia. A healthy, healthy dose. It was like, “We’re Americans! We make westerns. This Italian’s doing this? It’s just fucking ridiculous. It’s fucking ridiculous that Italians would try to do westerns. This is our thing. Fuck those guys they don’t know what they’re doing – it’s crap.” And generationally they couldn’t understand it, they couldn’t see the innovation, they just couldn’t see it. But just xenophobically they rejected it on general principle. But that wasn’t even new, the Italian westerns are the later generational biggest examples, but I mean, like, guys in Rick’s era, they were pissed that Dean Martin’s in Rio Bravo. (imitates voice) “Eh, that fucking spaghetti bender in fucking Rio Bravo, what the fuck is that about? Get that guy out of here.” That’s just how they talked, it’s how they thought…

KM: And you love all those [different] eras of westerns…You embrace classic westerns, you love William Witney as we talked about, and then Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and obviously revisionist westerns…

QT: You know, Burt Reynolds [was] dining out, through the 70s making fun of Navajo Joe on talk shows.

KM: I love Navajo Joe!

QTNavajo Joe is great! It’s great!

KM: Yeah, he did make fun of it…

Navajo-Joe1QT: He was constantly making fun of it. “Oh, I’m wearing a Natalie Wood wig.” And he would describe on talk shows the post synchronization aspect where everyone was speaking their own language … His joke used to be (imitating Burt Reynold’s voice), “Navajo Joe, a movie so bad they walked out on it on airplanes.” (laughs)

KM: Yes. Ha.

QT: Even when I got on the phone with him, I was like, “OK, I got a bone to pick with you, you’ve talked shit about Navajo Joe forever and you’re wrong.” [He asks], “What movie?” [I say], “Navajo Joe.” [Burt says], “You can’t like that movie!” “[I say], “Yes, of course I like that movie, it’s fantastic and Sergio Corbucci is like one of the great western directors of all time.” [And Burt says], “Well I didn’t say I didn’t like Sergio! Sergio was great!” (laughs)

KM: And in spite of what some critics think, Rick and Cliff are not based on Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham.

QT: They wish they had those guys’ careers.

KM: And so, what about Cliff? Is Cliff a composite of anyone?

QT: That’s a really good question. Cliff is based on two things – it’s when I worked with an actor, I can’t say his name, who had once had a long-time stunt double. And we really didn’t have anything for that stunt double to do. But there was one thing he could do and so the actor would ask, “Can my guy do that? I haven’t bugged you about him because there haven’t been many things for him to do, but that’s something he could do, and if I could throw my guy that thing, that would be really great.” [I say,] “Yeah, sure, OK, bring your guy in.” And so, this guy shows up and it’s like they’ve been working together for a long, long, long, long time. But you could tell, OK, this is the end. Because everyone’s gotten older. And it was also interesting, because I tend to talk to stunt guys like they’re actors, because that’s how I like to talk to people who are in my costumes, and I learned really quick that this guy, who was a great guy, he’s not here working for me, he’s working for the actor. And so, he did one of his stunts and I asked, “Hey, are you OK?” And he said, “Yeah, I’m fine, fine.” [I ask,] “Are you happy with it?” [And the stunt guy says,] “If he’s happy with it, I’m happy with it.” And I thought that’s an interesting dynamic. I thought, if I ever do a movie about Hollywood, that would be an interesting way in because I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. But then another actor I worked with mentioned a stunt guy. And this guy was like the closest equivalent to Stuntman Mike [played by Kurt Russell in Death Proof], and although he isn’t like Stuntman Mike, he’s a notorious guy. And he was never a big stunt guy, he was never a stunt coordinator, but he’s done enough to be legit, and people know who he is. But there were three things about this guy that were absolutely indestructible. He could not be hurt. He could do nine stair falls that would put some of the greatest athletes you’ve ever seen in the hospital after one, and he could do it nine times in a row. Two, he scared everybody. Men who pride themselves on not being intimidated by other men were intimidated by this guy because he was just dangerous. If he wanted to kill you, he could have, and he was just a little off enough. And the third is, he killed his wife on a boat and got away with it.

Ouatih-cbprev-main1KM: Cliff also has a real likability and charm about him…

QT: But I think this guy did too. But [Cliff] he knows how dangerous he is, so he’s clamping down on the monster that’s inside of him and he’s actually quite Zen about the whole thing. But that monster is always there.

KM: Yes. And also Cliff seems like he’s a little calmer in his way… or so we think, he’s certainly mysterious …

QT: He’s more than that, I think that’s one of the things that’s actually very funny about the twosome is by comparison, Rick has everything and he’s completely unsatisfied, and by comparison Rick has a great life, but he can’t see it. He keeps getting in his own way. All of his anxieties and dilemmas are of his own making to one degree or another. Where Cliff is Zen. Cliff … knows he could be in jail for the rest of his life, so anything that happens to him, and if he’s not in jail, is all great…

KM: And what made you return to LA with this movie? It doesn’t feel like a nostalgia piece – did you feel a deeper understanding or something else you wanted to say?

QT: No, I didn’t want it to feel nostalgic… I came up with those characters… I did like the idea of taking on the industry I did spend the last 30 years in, but doing it from a more historical perspective.

KM: I’m thinking of how Leone was mythologizing our west, and of course the “Once Upon a Time,” the fairy tale quality – you are doing it too, but you also live here, and there is a haunted quality to all of this. And Los Angeles still feels that way – not just driving up to Cielo Drive, but going past houses and places here. Like the real Jay Sebring [played by Emile Hirsch] who lived in Jean Harlow’s old house [the Harlow/Bern house where Harlow lived with husband Bern] where Paul Bern killed himself and where Sharon Tate visited and lived with him for a while, and Tate thought it was haunted…

QT: Yeah. Not only that, we shot there. We had a whole big scene there but we ended up cutting it out… But when Jay is working out with Bruce Lee, that’s at Jay’s old house – the Jean Harlow house – with the faces, carved into the wood…

KM: You only use the one scene of Manson [played by Damon Herriman] himself, and he’s coming up to Tate’s house and I was thinking about the 60s in Los Angeles, specifically, not the 60s or counterculture in New York or in San Francisco, which was a different vibe, I’m thinking. And before Manson and through the 60s – you hear it in two masterpieces, The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” you hear it in Love’s “Forever Changes” – that there’s some kind of darker feeling because of the sunshine in LA – there’s this sort of beautiful but crazy element of chemical imbalance of the sun and the darkness in this city…And you really feel it in this movie…

1_MansonQT: More than in San Francisco which is so compact, and more than in Manhattan, which is so compact or Greenwich Village which is so compact, the hippie culture [in LA] started having a more effect like Nomadic tribes…because everything is spread out, and it’s easier to have a commune out here. And people were like, “Oh, so-and-so are away for the summer” and so they just take over their guest house… And people not literally having addresses. People just moving from this couch and this situation to that couch and that situation…

KM: I think driving is so cinematic and there’s so many connections made via car in your movie – and, as we talked about this with Model Shop, that Jacques Demy totally got this…

QT: What better way to get Los Angeles across? If we were in New York and I was staying in Greenwich Village, you might take a subway there, you might even walk there to do the interview. Here, you drove! (laughs)

KM: A lot of things can happen along that drive!

QT: Exactly (laughs)

KM: So, I really got the interconnections that happen – when Rick first sees Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, in person, it’s from his car. And the first time Cliff sees Manson girl, Pussycat [Margaret Qualley], it’s from the car. And then when Sharon Tate picks up the hitchhiker (I love this whole scene and sequence), and it shows the generosity and sweetness of her…


QT: It also shows that she’s down with the new culture. And it also shows how ubiquitous hitchhiking was back then. I mean, people just did it. They just did it. It was the way.

KM: In that incredibly creepy Spahn Ranch part of the picture, I like that you’re showing how all of the Manson members are hanging out at that ranch, watching TV. It’s like they’ve spent the day watching TV…

QT: Oddly enough, that was something that had deeper levels in it because the thing is, Charlie [Manson] didn’t let watch them TV…

KM: Oh, and so he’s gone in that moment…

QT: Yeah, he’s gone. So, when he was gone, they’re watching TV. [And] everyone was jealous of Squeaky because she was always up at the house, so she had TV watching privileges. So literally in my conception is that, well, Charlie’s gone so she has them all come up and watch It’s Happening – watching a youthful music show. But if Charlie was there, they would not be all up in there. But even the concept of everyone always has a TV on, everyone always has a radio on. It’s going on constantly. And that’s how I remember it.

KM: And that is threaded throughout the film, which I love. You hear the radio DJs, you hear the music, you see the TV shows, you see the movie marquees all around them…Movies and mythology are all around you, and yet there, in terms of what their lives are, the reality around Rick and Cliff… They’re outsiders in some way, in the insiders’ world…

QT: The insiders who have become outsiders.

KM: And I love that Cliff lives right next to the drive-in (and that gorgeous shot) – movies all around… I also thought, wow that would be great!

QT: That’s the One from the Heart section of the movie (laughs) where everything is operatic and slightly larger than life… but I love that about it. That’s the part that Jacques Demy could have done… (laughs)

KM: There’s so much to say about the music in this film…

QT: One of the best recycling of scores in this movie that I’m really proud of is, there’s this great theme and it’s only used in one scene in Lamont Johnson’s terrific western Cattle Annie and Little Britches, it’s got this great music bit when the Doolin-Dalton gang actually enter the town for the first time and I thought, I wanna use that bit in this movie. And so my music supervisor Mary Ramos, she’s magnificent, she just finds all this stuff but she couldn’t find anything for that… and all I had, I don’t think it’s ever been out on DVD, I just had not only an old videocassette of it, like a Good Times videocassette of it, which means it was done in the six-hour mode… and so I took my audio from the cassette and there’s even talking during some of the musical sequence and my musical editor had to cut it out and he did – he did a good job with it. And so, we kind of made it work for one sequence. But then Mary my music supervisor talked to the composer of it and he said, “Look I don’t have any masters or anything – of any of the things we recorded, but I wrote the piece. I know the piece. Would you like me to do an acoustic version on the guitar and I’ll send it to you?” (claps hands) “Fuck yeah!” So, he just did his own acoustic version with a guitar, put it on file, send it to us. That’s the music we use when Tex Watson rides up to confront Cliff.

KM: That’s a great moment… So, what else about the music… you choose pretty much everything – right?

Beyond_current_mediumQT: Yeah, for the most part, yeah. It was actually interesting because for like five years, I thought about the music… and for instance, an idea I had three years ago, I had a couple different tapes that I’d made that I’d listen to for years as I’d do this movie, this will be the soundtrack. And just to give you an example… I want the movie to be extremely realistic, but the “Once Upon a Time…” suggests that it’s taking place in a vaguely alternative universe. Not that I wanna make a big deal about that, but it is. And I think, when you think, “Once Upon a Time,” that is part of the implication. So, I didn’t want to do anything super big – but I wanted to have little tiny touches, of, “Oh, OK, if you’re hip enough, you got it.” And one of the things that I thought would be kind of cool is …one of my absolutely favorite imaginary bands is The Carrie Nations from Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. And so, I thought it would be kind of cool at some point that they’re driving around and “Look on Up from the Bottom” plays, and the announcer says, “OK, that’s the Carrie Nations, those girls are just tearing it up!” And so, if you’re hip enough to catch it, you’re thinking, the Carrie Nations weren’t a real band, so ultimately this isn’t real… (laughs) If this exists in a universe where the Carrie Nations are real; the Partridge Family are real…

KM: But the Partridge Family kind of are real!

QT: They kind of were! (laughs) Everything was real except Danny Bonaduce’s bass playing (laughs). So, I had that idea but then I also had the idea to have the KHJ, to have most of the music to come out of KHJ. And so, I got about 14 hours of KHJ shows, and literally, the research people came to me and gave me all of this stuff and it’s fantastic. And no radio station or TV station of that era kept anything. So, anything that I’m listening to – these 14 hours, how you got it, oh, somebody in 1968 or 1969 had their tape recorder turned on “The Real Don Steele Show,” and they hit play record and recorded it for an hour.

KM: And that’s what you got? That’s pretty amazing…

QT: And, it’s also kind of interesting because we put a song from my tapes in the movie, and then we’d get the master for it, and we’d realize that our version of it was way slower…because we were going off whoever’s batteries were in [there] from 1969 in that tape recorder. And so, it all sounds fine, but it goes at a slightly slower rotation. And I go, “Well, we have to use that version, because that’s what we cut everything to. We can’t use this other version. And actually, some of them were so different because we’ll get a stereo version but KHJ did it in Mono. So, you get the masters of some of this stuff and it’s not right, it’s just a different song. [And] we gotta make this work. But once I got used to hearing 14 different hours -of hearing KHJ – and kind of making my own version of it, I realized that, if it’s coming from the radio, it has to be the real KHJ show. So, any songs I had in mind of putting in the movie, at least coming from the radio, unless I can find it in those 14 hours, I’m not including it. It just became this integrity thing. And a couple ideas I had, if it’s not coming from the radio I can use. For instance, that song I play when Cliff is walking the gauntlet of the Spahn Ranch and they’re all “Get out of here man, get fucking lost…” that’s actually from the soundtrack from the Roger Corman movie Gas-s-s-s – a great song, I’ve always liked that song, I like that movie too. But one of the things that was interesting to me in listening to the KHJ recordings was the fact that KHJ had a sound, the way the 80s KROQ had a sound, and then other radio stations tried to buy that sound, they tried to take that format and do it in other cities. It was the same thing with KHJ. And it was even kind of interesting the way KHJ would print up their Top 40 or something, and they were so into what they were doing themselves, that their Top 40 wasn’t just exactly based on Billboard. It was a mixture of Billboard, it was a mixture of what people called up and would request, it was a mixture of what the DJs liked, and just a mixture of what they thought was good for the KHJ sound… So, fuck Billboard, we’ll do a little bit of them, but we’ve got our own dynamic, we have our own algorithms that we’re going to use. And, so, I’m listening to them, and you know, I’ve been buying record albums since I was a little boy, and I’ve got a pretty good record collection. And, so, you know, you buy a Box Tops album – Rhino came out in the 80s with “The Box Tops Greatest Hits” and there’s “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby.” Is there anything else? Well, yeah, there was. I think I knew this before, but until I listened to the KHJ tapes, I never had it that clear of, yes, The Box Tops definitely had “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby” – those were the hits that went national; they were hits everywhere. But, The Box Top’s version of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” “Sweet Cream Ladies,” “Choo-Choo Train,” “Neon Rainbow” – they’re all really good songs and they were played on KHJ. And they did OK on KHJ, they just didn’t break national. And I realized there’s a whole lot of songs like that. You know, like the Buchanan Brothers’ “Son of a Lovin’ Man” – it didn’t go national, but it did really well in Los Angeles and probably a few other markets. And so that was the case. A lot of songs did well, but they only did well in those markets… The whole trick was to have it go national so it was playing on every radio station in America and some of them didn’t breakthrough, but they were perfect examples of the KHJ sound.

KM: So, like the Bob Seger System’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”… I have never heard that song in a movie and I love that song…


QT: I had a friend in Detroit say “I never even knew that that song ever played outside of Detroit!” (laughs)… I wanted to play [The Box Tops’] “Sweet Cream Ladies” so much but the only place that I figured it could work – but it’s just too obvious – is when the Manson girls walk in front of their windshield. OK, but I might as well be playing “Baby Elephant Walk” at that point – I don’t like songs being on the money.

KM: It was really moving when you played “Out of Time” by the Stones (outside of the radio songs)… because it just fit perfectly and so beautifully in so many ways – and the gorgeous moment of all the signs lighting up, all that, how that makes one tearful) …

QT: It fits perfectly and it’s terrific. I was a little worried it was too on the money though. I really don’t like on the money…

KM: But it’s just too perfect – and very touching, it’s incredibly moving…

QT: Well, I think why I think it works is… maybe it seems a little on the money in the Rick section and you think that’s what it’s going to be, talking of Rick coming back home, but then when it cuts to Sharon and the lyrics still apply, then it starts becoming heartbreaking. So much that I even questioned using it…

KM: Which movies did you show the cast to prepare?

Sharon_Tate_Valley_of_the_Dolls_1967QT: We watched Valley of the Dolls to see Sharon, but the three movies more or less trying to show Los Angeles at that time [were] Alex in WonderlandPlay It as It Lays and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

KM: I thought of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo a lot in this picture – all of the different characters converging together in Beverly Hills (counterculture and squares) – a hairdresser who just wants his own shop, the woman he loves, Julie Christie, marrying Jack Warden…

QT: It takes place [around] the same year. If I was going to show one more movie it would have been that one [Shampoo] – it’s one of my favorite movies… The image of Los Angeles is George [Warren Beatty] in his Jim Morrison shirt riding his motorcycle right where the Sunset Strip starts, just like when I think of the other George, Gary Lockwood, making that turn off on Sunset Plaza…

KM: Though it’s not necessarily like your movie, but for some reason I was just going to bring up the [Bob Rafelson directed Monkees] movie, Head 

QT: There’s a connection with me and Head. Toni Basil choreographed my musical sequences! I think one of the best choreographed sequences of all time is her and Davy Jones’ number together….

KM: When he sings the Harry Nilsson song, “Daddy’s Song” …

QT: Yeah, yeah… it’s one of my favorite musical moments in any movie…

KM: She’s in Easy Rider too, so there’s another connection, 1969, Rick Dalton screaming “Hey Dennis Hopper!” at Tex Watson…

QT: Yeah, that’s another connection … I always loved it when Toni Basil would show up in movies. She’s the one who kills Bruce Davison in Mother, Jugs & Speed. [But] if I were doing the top 50 movies of 1969, I would not think twice at all about putting Head in the top five movies of 1969. It would have been unfathomable for a critic of that day to put Head in the top five movies, it just wouldn’t have happened! They just don’t think like that! And, now, how can you not think like that?! It’s obviously one of the most inventive movies ever made…

KM: Were there any writers who were an influence?

QT: Joan Didion. I actually think people who are fans of Joan Didion are going to respond to this movie. It’s my LA but it’s not too far removed from Didion’s LA – the biggest difference is I think I’m more affectionate towards it than she is. I’m self-aggrandizing myself, and don’t take this too seriously, but one of the things that I actually thought was kind of neat that’s been out there is, I love the Frank Perry version of [Didion’s novel] Play It as It Lays, but somebody who wanted to do it was Sam Peckinpah, and then the studio wasn’t really into him doing it. To me, there is a small aspect of this that might be as close to the Sam Peckinpah Play It as It Lays as we’re gonna get.

KM: What else did you discuss with DiCaprio for preparation?

QT: The thing is, Leo’s around ten years younger than me or Brad. Me and Brad are around the same age. Leo didn’t grow up watching The Rifleman or anything like that, so those kinds of shows were all brand new to him. So, I watched a bunch of Wanted: Dead or Alive [starring Steve McQueen] so I could cherry-pick the episodes [for Leo] because it was the closest to Rick Dalton’s Bounty Law. I sent them over to him, and he watched all six or seven of them, and he likes Steve McQueen more on Wanted: Dead or Alive than some of the movies he’s done. But the guy and the episode he went nuts over – and you’re gonna get a kick out of this – is the Wanted: Dead or Alive with Ralph Meeker and James Coburn. So, we’re talking about it, and literally, his eyes light up and he’s like, “Who the fuck was that guy?” And I go, “That’s Ralph Meeker.” [DiCaprio says,] “He was fucking amazing! Can I play that guy?” [I say,] Well, it’s not exactly the right idea but I love Ralph Meeker, so feel free. If you think you’re Ralph Meeker, then be Ralph Meeker.” It’s actually one of the proudest things of this entire movie that I have made Leonardo DiCaprio this huge Ralph Meeker fan. He’d already seen Paths of Glory, so he watches it again, and then he watches The Naked Spur and Kiss Me Deadly and I think I gave him Glory Alley and I sent him The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. And then he comes back to me and he goes, “I’ve been studying Meeker in these movies.”

KM: Oh my god, I love this!

ImagesQT: I was just as tickled as you are; I didn’t expect this to happen. And he goes, “I realized one of the things that Meeker does that makes him so powerful and he does it in all of his scenes in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre…” and I’m like, “Well, what are you talking about?” Leo says, “He doesn’t blink. When he’s having a confrontation, which is almost every scene that he has in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, he just doesn’t blink. And there’s really only one way to do that. You just have to work on the muscles of your eyes and everything and it takes control and it’s a hard thing to do. But he’s learned how to do it – Meeker. And people aren’t going to notice it, but it has this power to it. So, we go do the movie and then I go to Leo and say, “Guess who does a full-on Meeker in this movie?” He goes, “Who?” [I say,] “Dakota Fanning [as Manson Family member Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme].” In the scene behind the screen she doesn’t blink. It’s a full-on Meeker. And, she knows: “If I blink, I lose the scene.” And over the years she’s worked on it so she can control her eyes and she can lock it in for the course of a scene. And it has the same power it has with Meeker in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. And she’s the most formidable character Cliff comes across. She’s like a concrete pillar on the other side of that screen door (laughs). And when she acquiesces, it’s kind of sinister, because she had won the stare-off.

KM: And Brad Pitt?

QT: Now, Brad Pitt, he grew up like me, he has a lot of the same references. So one of the things Brad is really responding to is a lot of the guys are the guys that Brad Pitt’s father dug. He loved that Burt Reynolds was in the movie, because his dad loved Burt Reynolds. He was so fucking happy. And it was written in the script – I didn’t throw it in later – that Cliff was a Mannix fan. He goes, “My dad was such a fan of Mannix. He watched Mannix every week.” And so the fact that Mannix was Cliff’s go-to guy [felt right to him], and even in the scene when Cliff makes his macaroni and cheese to the Mannix theme – now it’s just a Cliff theme. But also, [Brad and I] had a really interesting discussion about how when we were little kids – like seven and nine – we really loved the 70s western show Alias Smith and Jones – we watched it every week. And I don’t think I’d ever had this conversation before and I don’t think he’d ever had this conversation before – and then we started talking about when Pete Duel [who played Hannibal Heyes/‘Joshua Smith’ in the show] killed himself and we both realized that that was when we learned about suicide for the first time.

Pete_Duel_1971KM: Wow.

QT: That one of our favorite actors on our favorite shows committed suicide during the run, and that was when we first contemplated what that meant. And I’m sure in both cases, as I talked to my stepfather, and he talked to his dad, the conversation went something like, “Well, well, what happened to Hannibal Heyes? “Uh, well, he committed suicide.” “What’s suicide?” “Well, it’s when you kill yourself.” “You kill yourself? Why did he kill himself?” “Well, I don’t know Quentin, I guess he was depressed.” “What does he got to be depressed about? He’s fucking Hannibal Heyes! He has it made.” (Laughs) I started doing some research into it. When he killed himself it was a weird thing: he had a drinking problem and, according to his brother, he had mood swings, and nothing in particular happened that day – he had worked that day – and nothing, in particular, had happened that night, and he was lying in bed with his girlfriend and got up and excused himself and an hour later shot himself. And we realized, he was probably undiagnosed bipolar and self-medicating for his mood swings, and the mood swing got the better of him that night. Well, I told that to Leo and he thought that would be a great thing for Rick. That, you know, in the script, Rick wasn’t quite the alcoholic that he is in the movie. He was a heavy drinker, he drank at night, but he drank to loosen up. In my original script, he wasn’t showing up for work with a horrible hangover from drinking by himself. The character already had mood swings, so that was in the material, and he was already a drinker, so that was in the material – but when we got this bipolar idea this gave him a reason to do everything, and it gave him a reason for his anxiety, and it gave Leo something to actually play. And so that became a really exciting discovery for us, and it all led from that conversation Brad and I had about Alias Smith and Jones.


KM: The movie is gorgeous, mysterious, the way it moves… Was there anything technical you did with this movie that was more challenging or different for you – you maintain your own style but you seem to always be challenging yourself in each one…

QT: That’s a good question. Me and [cinematographer] Bob Richardson, have been starting from Inglourious Basterds on, we’ve been, and we even get a big leap from Inglourious Basterds to Django, we started operating more and more and more on the crane… we used the crane like, a lot more. It looks better than a dolly, it’s smoother, and we worked the crew up enough that they’re used to doing it, so it’s not a thing. They’re just used to Bob being on the crane. And [so] we started doing everything on the crane from that point on – things that don’t need a crane. It’s not always about rising and falling, it’s going parallel, but a real smooth parallel. So, we’ve been operating on it more and more and more. And we were really operating a lot on the crane on Hateful Eight, even when we were just inside the cabin, but that’s its own thing. Here, almost everything was shot on the crane. And I think there’s a fluidity to the camerawork that suggests that, that’s kind of called for in the movie … and I think it’s also kind of the marriage of me and Bob visually just finding [a] true sweet spot by movie five. It’s very visually sophisticated, but in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself either. It has a classical cinema [feel]. We’re trying to be like Ophuls (laughs). Most people don’t even realize that the Bruce Lee [scene] is one shot. Until he crashes into the car – it’s one shot. From the opening of his line to the crash in the car, it’s all one take.

KM: I love this line – When Mike Moh as Bruce Lee says to Cliff, something like, “You’re kinda pretty for a stunt guy.” It’s a direct line, and so something that would be said to a stunt guy who looks like he could also be a movie star.

QT: OK, I gotta tell you, that was a suggestion. I did not come up with that. Burt Reynolds read the script, and he knows a lot of stunt guys. And Burt said, “So Brad Pitt is playing the stunt guy?” And I said, “Yeah.” And Burt says, “You gotta have somebody say, ‘You’re kinda pretty for a stunt guy.” (Laughs) And the thing is, Brad doesn’t like making his looks a thing in a movie, but he couldn’t say no to that because it was Burt Reynolds’ line! And watching Brad grin and bear it is really great. Because he doesn’t really dig it. (Laughs) But the fact that Burt Reynolds came up with it – he can’t say shit!

Criminal: Gunman's Walk


Out now! My piece in Ed Brubaker's latest Criminal. I dig into Phil Karlson's fantastic Gunman's Wal(1958).

A sample of my piece:

Phil Karlson, who directed some superb tough-as-nails noirs (99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential and The Phenix City Story) – working from writers Hardman and Nugent – seems to wonder – why in hell do these people have to be so violent? Does it solve anything? This is a film questioning authority; looking at how we blindly believe in institutions – one of them being “manhood,” domination, the way one moves through the world (do you walk with a gun?). And Karlson gives Van Heflin, James Darren and Tab Hunter plenty to explore here – these are fascinating character studies, both deeply human and symbolic.

Heflin’s Lee – god knows what he did to his sons and god knows why he is so obsessed with Ed. What is going on there? There’s an inverse to Martin Ritt's Hud here – Heflin’s character puts up with so much regarding Ed, irritated by his gentler son, Davy, while Melvyn Douglas’ righteousness clashes with his bad-boy son (whom Douglas does not love – which messes up his son – that dad has got to account for that too).

You get the feeling that Heflin’s Lee would get along well with the cynicism and corruption of Paul Newnan’s Hud. But would Hud hate him too? Probably. But to Heflin and Hunter’s immense credit and their brilliant performances (this is one of Hunter’s greatest roles) – we, the audience, don’t hate them. We can’t. We get that they are damaged men – and that there is something about the world, something about what is expected of masculinity, that can twist these two men and turn them crazy. The resulting movie is heartbreaking ...

Read the entire piece in Criminal -- order here