Steppin’ On The Spaniel

SAVAGES. The Players: Louis Stadlen, Thayer David, Susie Blakeley, Kathleen Widdoes, Ultra Violet. Written: George Trow, Michael O’Donoghue. Photographed: Walter Lassally. Directed: James Ivory. Certificate ‘AA’

One of the saddest facts of living in these civilised times is that a few people are supposed to bundle off to the cinema and then write what they think of what they saw for others to read. But once you’ve sat down at your typewriter and written that Savages is as close to being a masterpiece of a movie as you’re in danger of seeing in the next 12 months — and that’s a long time — you’ve said all that’s worth saying, bar telling the story.

It’s by retelling the story you can usually pad out a review once you’ve run out of words because the movie defies words – there are a lot more knocking words than there are words of praise.

And that being said/written, let me add that there’s nothing anyone can say about Savages that is going to make sense unless you go and see the movie. Ignore what people say, see it. Make up your own mind.

Savages, quite simply has very little story. Or, to put it another way, it is a simple little story which still has an amazing complexity.

It charts the rise and fall of civilisation through a series of chapters (I think there are five, but the number doesn’t matter).

We start with a black-and-white anthropological documentary about The Mud People — as the chapter heading tells us.

The action is explained and interspersed with captions written in a send-up anthropology jargon – after all, co-scripter O’Donoghue is a staffer on America’s National Lampoon, the satirical magazine.

The Mud People are getting ready for a bit of ritual human sacrifice, but they’re quite bowled over by the appearance of a croquet ball from the clear sky over their unspecified territory in an unspecified continent at an unspecified time.

The tribe sets off to find where the perfect sphere – hitherto unknown as a shape in the forest, we’re told — came from. And they end up at a very stylish old house belonging to an unspecified period in the development of the civilisation of an unspecified nation – it looks like America, and it was shot in upstate New York.

They enter the house, find the remnants of the last ‘civilised’ occupation — cupboards of clothes, records and so on. They dress up and assume the attitudes of the people whose clothes they’re wearing – capitalist, eligible young man, limping idealist, remote artist and such like.

The next main step – the third chapter -is the dinner party when the attitudes are played for all they’re worth. Suddenly a croquet ball appears from nowhere and passes the table unseen. But the people know that some force has passed among them — shades of the Exterminating Angel and 2001.

From then on the civilisation they’ve reached is in decline.

Anyone for croquet. Asha Puthli is the Forest Girl in ‘Savages’.

A girl who consistently wears men’s clothes does a number to a song called Steppin On The Spaniel (a song about treading household pets into the ground). People dive into the swimming pool and the eligible young man does an underwater grave robbing job, stealing coins and jewellery. Ultra Violet, described in the beautiful title sequence as a decadent, seduces the maid in the back of a massive car that’s parked in the grounds. This lesbian-fuck scene is typical of the movie in that every time you think you know your bearings, director James Ivory throws in something else to confuse things just a bit.

Confusion reigns at the end, crusty aristocrats, cigar-smoking capitalists, sensitive girls and idealists are involved in a game of croquet that turns into agame of cheat, the hostess keeps moving the pole – a scene reminiscent of the first time I tripped on LSD (when it was legal of course) and cheated gloriously at cards.

The rise-and-fall of civilisation is one huge subject for a movie to tackle, and James Ivory, whose idea the scripters worked from, has used the motif of the croquet ball to link the sequences. That might sound like a clumsy image, but in the context it isn’t, honest.

As I’ve said/written, it’s a huge subject, and it’s a movie I had to see twice before I could take it all in. And it’s still running.

The Curzon ought to sell season-tickets. I’ve got to see it another two or three times to really absorb the subtleties of the script – in a desperate attempt to regain civilisation the hostess relies on ritual and uses an etiquette-form question to get the conversation going again (“Do you know,” she asks, “the precise meaning and derivation of the phrase bric-a-brac?”).

The subtleties are also included in Walter Lassally’s best cinematography since Tom Jones, the soft focus, the muted and delicate colours.

At once. Savages is funny, mind-blowing, intelligent, good-to-look-at and so good it confounds criticism. There’s only one thing to do – go and see for yourself.


THE GETAWAY. Director Sam Peckinpah. Stars: Ali McGraw, Steve McQueen, Slim Pickins. Music: Quincy Jones. Distributor: Cinerama Releasing (UK), for National General Pictures.

Sam Peckinpah, in company with Bob Rafelson and John Schlesinger, is one of the three greatest living film directors. His films have consistently managed to create a highly original style, a style which not only has won him critical acclaim, but constantly brought the movie going public to the cinemas in force. This so called style emerged significantly in the “Wild Bunch” and is contained in what I would call his fascist romanticism, that is an unyielding love for the traditional violent all male Americans, while ceasing to really believe in it. His love of and appreciation of how much part of man’s inner-self bloody violence is, led to his instigation of the now legendary slow motion shots of men bloodily dying

Peckinpah has undoubtedly been far more responsible than Kubrick for shocking us into a realisation of how much we love violence, and how close to the top of our minds it lurks. His characters are usually tough, uncomplicated, but above all, likeable. The exception was in “Straw Dogs”, where Dustin Hoffman played an exceeedingly unlikeable American college professor, delivering what Peckinpah would consider to be the ultimate left wing affront, that of taking over a kind of patronising squire’s role in a small Cornish fishing village, where he rents a cottage and treats the bored locals with an ugly disdain, at which they justifiably, in the Peckinpah moral code book, violently retaliate in a fashion which makes “Straw Dogs” his most controversial film.

Having made a point, his two most recent movies have seen a mellowing in the images. His last film “Junior Bonner” was an evocative, sensitive observation of traditional values in America, seen through the eyes of an ageing rodeo star, Steve McQueen, whose ability to turn out brilliant performances for Peckinpah is nothing short of miraculous, considering most of his earlier work.

Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw shoot their way out.

In “The Getaway”, again at his brilliant best, accompanied by Ali McGraw as his wife, McQueen plays a crook who is bailed out of jail by a local lawyer, on the condition that he organises and carries out a daring bank robbery. But the film starts out as a slow, very atmospheric character study of yer actual crook, and there is a beautiful scene, as just after being released, he stands outside the prison in front of a long flat skyline, accompanied by those almost eerie sounds one only seems to hear in America, fascinating sounds so familiar to anyone who’s ever been there. The raid is excitingly staged and is followed by a superb non-cliched car chase and by inter-gang arguments, during which McQueen shoots the leader and one of his accomplices. The rest of the film is then grippingly concerned with McQueen and McGraw’s attempts to flee the pursuing gang and escape over the border into Mexico. But this is much more than just an exciting chase movie. It is really a kind of American travelogue of excess. The story is incidental to the images, like McQueen and McGraw dodging their pursuers at one stage on to an interminable city dump, with its mounds of trash stretching into oblivion; the acute observance of Texas as the two flee partly by train, the ultimate USA symbol of decayed splendour.

For the first time in a Peckinpah movie there’s a strong element of sarcastic humour. He has learned to gently mock his own ideas, so that when Slim Pickins, the ultimate delight of the film, is reached, we are being simultaneously amused, excited and being persuaded as to the moral justness of it all. Pickins plays a clapped out garbage truck driver who much to his delight is hijacked with his van to carry our heroes and their money on the last stage of their journey over the border. He doesn’t mind them being gangsters, but are they married? Well, they are, and safely over the border he sells them his van for more money than he normally earns in ten years.

It’s all so much fun. I just can’t wait to see it again.

Austrian Concoction

THE SALTZBURG CONNECTION. Director: Lee Katzin. Screenplay: Oscar Millard. Stars: Barry Newman, Anna Karina. Distributor: Fox Rank.

It’s a great pity this Austrian set concoction, swiftly made and named to cash in on a recent success, has such a lousy script, because it has several assets, which might have helped to create a sequel worthy of the word “connection”.

There’s the direction, attempting to be expansive and imaginative, in its panning, atmospheric shots of the Austrian scenery; attempting to inject some documentary semi-reality in its fast cuts to people inthe streets’ faces. There’s also Barry Newman, perpetuator of the modern car chase, in “Vanishing Point”, and also one of the few modern stars out of the Redford/Reynolds stable, who doesn’t have an expressionless face, and who can actually act.

The contrived, leaden script, having the character of an extended TV episode, has cardboard figures from the KGB, the CIA, Israel and the Neo-Nazi Party chasing after the same crate of German wartime secret papers, suitably placed at the bottom of a very cold, shallow lake. Cliches abound, and after the regulation shootings, car chase and double crossings, there isn’t really anything left of the 92 futile minutes to make us laugh, cry, think or tremble with excitement.