California Split (Altman, 1974) -- B+/B
You got them purists, then you got them non-purists. The purists are like what the name says. They like their auteurs pure and unfiltered. Purists think California Split is a doozy, and it's not hard to see why: this is Altman with the pulp strained.
California Split is essentially about the thrill of living life in the moment, of the goofy fun in masquerading as cops to scare off a transvestite, of betting everything on a longshot, winning, then blowing your loot. No plot to speak of, no character arc -- just the thrill of living and improvising in the moment. It's film as free jazz, with Elliot Gould doing Ornette Coleman and Altman on the rhythm section going crazy on sound design and indulging in his most cynical instincts. In other words, it's really about about the Altmanesque life lived -- the existential condition -- and not much of anything else. Don't get me wrong: it's a fine, admirable work, but in the end, I'll gladly exchange it for The Long Goodbye, which also features an inventive Gould turn, jazzy rhythms, an existential outlook, but is held together by Chandler (who provides the ur-text...the chords for Altman to riff off of).
It comes down to aesthetic sensibility. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I prefer my auteurs to express their style while wrestling with formidable material. I like The Sweet Hereafter more than Speaking Parts. I'd choose Twelve Monkeys over Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Mulholland Dr. ahead of Fire Walk With Me. Fear Eats the Soul as opposed to Katzelmacher. Age of Innocence over Casino. Out of Sight rather than Schizopolis. And so forth. Not that I don't admire many of these "pure expression" works that I compare unfavorably here. Those films are often more risky, challenging, and groundbreaking. At the same time, they're typically more undisciplined and mannered, with little thematic resonance or content beyond their auteurial concerns.
The Long Goodbye is hardcore Altman grounded in genre; California Split is hardcore Altman without a net. Preferring one over the other likely reveals where you stand on the purist scale.
The Cincinnati Kid (Jewison, 1965) -- C+
Spent a good fifteen mintues fantasizing about being in the middle of a Tuesday Weld-Ann Margaret sandwich. Otherwise mediocre: An indifferent McQueen, clumsy direction, but helped by a killer stud show down at the end between McQueen's Kid and Edward G. Robinson, whose presence adds half a grade to anything. Another flick where precious brain cells are wasted figuring out what Theo was smoking.
Love Me Tonight (Mamoulian, 1932) -- A
The best Lubitsch flick Lubitsch never made. This surreal musical romp boasts some of the most dazzling sequences of the era -- the opening montage, "Isn't it Romantic", and hilarious sight gags done using over and under-cranking -- along with a fountain of sparkling double-entendres, and enhanced by the elegant waltzing camera of Mamoulian. Myrna Loy's a hoot, and even Chevalier's okay. Overall, the most purely enjoyable movie I've seen all year.
A Farewell to Arms (Borzage, 1932) -- B-
A two-hander given poignancy by Hemingway's terse, muscular prose, the same story becomes an overwrought tale of transcendent love in the hands of Grade-A sap Frank Borzage. To be sure, Borzage's an unassailable image-maker: a two-second establishing shot can pulsate with feeling, and certain shots here (the last scene, for example) have the mystical spell of a William Blake painting. But the man is also an incorrigible sentimentalist. His films often falter because they're deeply sincere but also sincerely dumb and sappy, and no great feat of auteurist rehabilitation can make it otherwise. Kent Jones won't say it, but I will: Borzage's spiritual nephew Anthony Minghella is a much better filmmaker, and an unfashionable Oscarbait like The English Patient at least grapples with the wages of romantic narcissism. Borzage hasn't even thought about it, too caught up in his belief that love conquers all. (The best romantic filmmakers understand that it is precisely that love doesn't conquer all that makes love so tragic.) Also, not helped by an unsteady Gary Cooper. Helen Hayes was very good, but the mousy thespian is not my idea of the alluring Catherine Barkley. Too bad Carole Lombard wasn't famous yet. Moving and beautiful in parts, but way sappy.
Hold Back the Dawn (Leisen, 1941) -- B+
In Conversations with Wilder, Wilder expressed disappointment with this and other Leisen pictures written by him and Brackett. He shouldn't have been. This is a picture ahead of its time, a moving tale of desperate immigrants, showing how far people will go to get inside the American border. Witty and elegant, like all the Leisen/Wilder/Brackett collaborations, with a fiendishly charming Boyer. Best is a vulnerable yet layered performance by Olivia de Havilland, whom, with her estranged sister Joan Fontaine, own a patent on the portrayal of the Woman Who Loves Too Much, the kind of timid spinster too eager to hand over her heart to an obvious scoundrel. This de Havilland "victim" turns out to be tougher than she appeared, which makes all the difference.
Burn! (Pontecorvo, 1969) -- C+
If Battle of Algiers was the tactical manual of the anti-Colonialist insurgency, Pontecorvo's follow-up, Burn!, is the socio-economic treatise. As with Algiers, Pontecorvo shows himself to be a highly sophisticated radical. He understands the political and economic precepts behind colonialism, and he's fair enough to depict both the Colonialists' conflicting viewpoints (Colonialists are smartly demarcated into different factions with different goals, some economic, others political) and the native people's deficiencies (inability to exploit their cash crop for value). Brando's complex, morally ambiguous British sabateur is probably his best performance of the Sixties, the weird accent notwithstanding. Some fascinating politics, but the movie's sadly a complete mess, bearing evidence of a brutal studio chop job and too much revolutionary sentimentality. Nice score by Morricone, though.