Reviews

40 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
8/10
Difficult, but remarkable
16 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
This one is difficult to review. It's the first of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's so-called German trilogy--followed by Karl May and Hitler: A Film from Germany, collectively an extremely ambitious exploration of German history, culture, and thought in the troubled last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.

Usually, one can launch right into a discussion of the film itself--but not here. Syberberg's film is not quite like anything else you are likely to have seen, and one has to establish context. First, aesthetics: Syberberg is driven by two primary, and contradictory, influences: Wagner's concept of the Gesamkunstwerk, the total work of art, integrating image, word, and music into a single overpowering experience, by implication completely immersive; and Brecht's anti-naturalistic epic theater, one of the primary goals of which is constantly to remind the viewer that he is watching a play via a range of distancing techniques, such as breaking the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience. Without taking these two principles into account, Syberberg's style will appear almost incomprehensible.

This is not a conventional narrative film; it proceeds as a series of tableaux taken from the life of Ludwig II, last king of Bavaria, castle builder, patron of Richard Wagner, and romantic, finally deposed for alleged insanity and (most likely) assassinated. (If you are tempted to watch this film (and I hope you are), it would not be a bad idea quickly to read the Wikipedia article on the life of Ludwig II.) These tableaux are staged in highly stylized sets back by giant backdrops—largely Romantic paintings. Some are naturalistic; some, dream sequences that bring in elements that Syberberg explores in the second and third films of his trilogy, including Hitler and Karl May—a German writer and filmmaker who wrote extensively about the Wild West while never leading Germany.

The other essential element is Wagner. Ludwig's legacy to the world is twofold; first of all, his castles, bequeathed to the Bavarian state, and a source of enormous tourist revenue, and Wagner's final operas. It is quite possible that, without Ludwig's extravagant patronage, the Ring and Parsifal would never have been written, nor the Bayreuth festival begun. The Ring is an essential organizing principle here—the film begins with the prelude to Das Rheingold, complete with Rhine maidens (here conflated with the Norns in Gotterdammerung) and ends with the music of the Immolation scene in Gotterdammerung. Along the way, Syberber pairs crucial scenes with other Wagner selections including the love duet and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and Siegfried's funeral march. (An additional stylistic subtlety; Syberberg uses Wagner performances by Furtwangler and Karajan, slow paced and hypnotic.) At the most obvious level, Ludwig comes off as an extravagant, surrealistic and dreamlike meditation on the life of one of the strangest monarchs in European history. But it is far more than that. The more you know about German history, literature, music, and culture, the more evident it becomes that the film is an extended meditation on those topics—in particular, the conflict between modernism, exemplified in the Prussian state and Bismark, and Romantic attitudes and nature worship. There are some extended passages from Goethe (I believe), for instance, that would have deeper resonance if one were familiar with his Iphigenia in Taurus. I am tolerably familiar with German history and history, and rather more deeply familiar with Wagner, and I have no doubt that there are references that flew right by me. If ever a film warranted the full Criterion treatment with detailed commentary, this one does.

I haven't discussed performances—frankly, they are so subordinated to the overall design of the film that to say anything beyond Syberberg gets what he wants would be superfluous. There are other fascinating enigmas; why, for instance, are there two actors playing Wagner, one male and one female? Jungian animus and anima? One could go on for more pages than the reader would have patience for.

How to rate this, and for what audience? For the serious minded film-goer, and for the Wagner enthusiast, at least an 8/10. I have been recently been pretty disgusted by most of what I see coming out on the screen, and a film like this—difficult and almost willfully obscure as it often is—is immensely refreshing as an alternative. It pushes the boundaries of what we recognize in the medium of film. Undoubtedly, to a significant degree, the more you bring to the film, the greater will be your reward.

For the average film goer—a 6. But be patient, and be prepared to have your perceptions of what film is challenged.
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SGU Stargate Universe (2009–2011)
1/10
Why? Dear God in heaven, why?
2 July 2011
There are good ideas, and bad ideas. The original Stargate film, SG-1 and Atlantis were all good ideas--fresh, entertaining, and among the best science fiction ever to appear on television.

The remake of Battlestar Galactica--the bastard parent of SGU Stargate Universe, the bastard child--was a bad idea--fusing soap opera hysteria and scenery-chewing overacting with science fiction, elements utterly antithetical to each other. An attempt to reach a female audience? Heavy drugs at a creative session? An attempt to be "serious"? Whatever the reason, we can only judge the result. Battlestar Galactica was vile. SGU is a downright criminal waste of talent, money, and, most of all, the viewer's time.

The result, in a one word--unwatchable. Dreary, ugly, hysterical, overacted, gloomy. Like Blue Valentine with spaceships.

How this abomination lasted as long as 20 episodes is beyond me. Let us hope that a new return to the Stargate universe is in the offing--and in the spirit of SG1.
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9/10
OK--I just love this film
31 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I first saw this at an impressionable age and fell in love with it. I won't bother rehashing the plot--I won't compare it to the superb earlier version with Ronald Coleman (of which this version is a virtual shot by shot remake). If you have an ounce of noble feeling in you, you really need to watch this, and wallow in the highest of sentiments.

James Mason gave one of the best performances as the villainous Rupert von Hentzau. Both Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr are almost impossibly beautiful and impossibly noble as lovers for whom Duty will always be more important than Love. How very refreshing! Consistently great supporting cast--particularly Robert Coote and Louis Calhern. Eye candy for miles. Frankly, I can't see how anyone can't simply check their brain for a few hours and lose yourself in this film.

Read the book, too.
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Doc Martin (2004– )
3/10
I do love this show, but....
15 January 2011
Martin Clunes is simply brilliant as a Martin Ellingham, London surgeon turned rural doctor in Cornwall (not too different in some ways from Northern Exposure) whose brusque and straightforward manner is greatly at odds with his rural setting. We have the usual collection of rural eccentricities--which appear even more eccentric to an American audience.

The only problem is Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz), the doctor's on again, off again fiancé. She's intended as an emotionally expressive counterweight to the emotionally undemonstrative doctor. Unfortunately, she comes across as a hysterical harpy.

I know that I'm in the minority on this, but I do wish she would take something to calm herself down, and stop shrieking at Martin.

Highly recommended, with slight reservations. Without Louisa, a 9.
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The X-Files: Ghost in the Machine (1993)
Season 1, Episode 7
1/10
Enertaining, but.....
11 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Even for the X-Files, this is beyond the pale for one simple reason. It's a rehash of the cold computer-becomes-conscious plot, which goes all the way back to The Invisible Boy. I do wish that writers--and computer scientists--would recognize one very simple thing.

You can't do it. Period. Computers cannot become conscious. Computers cannot be engineered to be conscious. Ever. Now or in the future.

The great British mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose proves this conclusively in The Emperor's New Mind, Shadows of the Mind, and The Large, The Small, and The Human Mind, based on Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.

Time to retire this plot.

As entertainment, it's fun--but it's based on an idea as false as denying the existence of gravity. Not even as probable as UFOs.
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9/10
Exceptional!
8 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I am not in general particularly fond of Roman Polanski as a directer. In The Ninth Gate, however, he accomplishes something rather special--a genuinely unnerving and haunting intellectual thriller, and one of the very few films that treats the occult with intelligence and respect.

Inevitably, the comparison to Rosemary's Baby has to be made. Let's start with the source material. Ira Levin's novel is a well-made pot-boiler; Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas, on which The Ninth Gate is based (the novel is quite different in certain respects) is a first-rate intellectual thriller, and, frankly, a much superior novel. Rosemary's Baby is more a nightmare of a really, really bad pregnancy than a supernatural film. In addition, it stars two of the most annoying fingernails-on-the-blackboard actresses imaginable--Ruth Gordon and Mia Farrow. It's a chick flick with pretensions.

The Ninth Gate is superior in every way. Superficially, it's a detective story with occult content and a Faustian subplot. But how many films deal with the world of rare books-accurately? This film does not insult the viewer's intelligence.

The script is well written and literate. Boris Balkan, a book collector obsessed with rare books about the devil, commissions rare book dealer Gregory Corso with an unusual task. Balkan has just obtained one of three copies extant of "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows"--a book printed in 1666 and purportedly based on an actual text by the devil himself. (The author was burned at the stake for heresy). Balkan wants to verify the authenticity of his copy by comparing it with the other two. This quest becomes more and more perilous as it becomes evident that some sort of singular significance attachs to variations between the three copies in the nine engravings. Balkan attempts to use the nine engravings to summon Lucifer--and fails. But there is something about the ninth engraving.....

The casting is just about perfect--the only actor who somewhat falls below the mark is Emmanuelle Seigner as The Girl--manifestly Satan's minion in this demonic Pilgrim's Progress. A former model, Ms. Seigner is beautiful--but boring. Apparently Polanski directed her to play the role flat--but except for the occasional special effect with her eyes, we really do not feel a demonic presence. Fail of direction, or actress? Probably a bit of both. Johnny Depp does a notable job as Gregory Corso, a book dealer without a conscience; Lena Olin does another turn on her standard over-sexed villain persona as Liana Telfer; Frank Langella is appropriately menacing as Boris Balkan, an arrogant book collector who longs for union with Satan.

What makes this film work so well is that overused term atmosphere. There are few films indeed where atmosphere plays so important a role--a just comparison is to another notable supernatural film, one of the very few really frightening ghost stories on film--Robert Wise's The Haunting. In The Ninth Gate, as in The Haunting, the surrounding are critical characters. Corso, Balkan, and other inhabit spaces that are frequently strangely empty of other living beings. The barriers between the world we know and a numinous world of seductive promise and evil threaten to dissolve at any moment. This is a genuinely beautiful film--beautiful to look at and to listen to (the score is also first rate)--beautiful, seductive, and menacing.

Many commentators has disliked the ending--and yet it is the only possible one. Corso, having obtained (or has he?) the secret of The Ninth Gate, enters the castle shown in the final engraving, which then dissolves into yellow light. Apotheosis? Transcendence? Damnation? Impossible to say. Anything more definite would be a disappointment. The ending is chilling--in the best way.

This is not a film for the literal-minded. There are few comparable films--The Devil Rides Out, for one, and perhaps Dead of Night. I doubt if Polanski has ever done anything better--and the The Ninth Gate is one of the very few films about the supernatural that does not insult the intelligence. A singular and worthwhile experience indeed.
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Alice in Wonderland (I) (2010)
1/10
When will we get a decent Alice film?
22 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
When a really talented director—like Tim Burton—goes off the tracks, the result can be a spectacularly bad film. (In fact that one can argue that some of the very worst films were made by some of the very best directors). Alice in Wonderland is such a film. Not only is it bad—it is monumentally, mind-bogglingly, brain-cell destroyingly bad. What was Burton thinking? Please note—many spoilers follow.

First honors for this disaster have to go to the screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Her CV is replete with child- and teen-oriented television. Her feature credits include The Lion King, Mulan, and Beauty and the Beast. Nothing in this intellectually and aesthetically underpowered and painfully formulaic material constitutes any preparation for dealing with a text of the imaginative and psychological complexity of the Alice books, let alone an understanding of Victorian society. All of this is painfully evident in her shoddy excuse for a screenplay.

To begin with, the very title is misleading. This film, apart from appropriating a range of Carroll's characters, has nothing to do with the Alice books. Instead, we are to believe that Alice, after her original dream-visits to Wonderland (her subsequent visit to Looking-Glass Land is ignored, even though characters from the later book are yoked in by violence) share the story with her incredibly understanding father—now a shipping magnate instead of a clergyman (as in the original). He dies, and she grows up a willful and peevish young woman, to the despair of her mother (Lindsay Duncan, in a thankless role).

The film proper begins with a 19 year old Alice on her way to her engagement party with a man she has not as yet accepted (Leo Bill, in another thankless role as a chinless, clueless wonder.) Almost as damaging to the film as the screenplay is Alice herself. Mia Wasikowska takes a gracelessly written part and makes it worse. It is easily one of the most tedious performances I have ever seen—particularly when Alice is clearly intended to be a sort of Disney Princess / fully realized Modern Woman.

Let's consider the engagement party. Engagements were serious business to Victorians—one of the great Victorian novels, Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?, deals with the almost catastrophic implications of two women jilting or potentially jilting the men to whom they were engaged. It is literally unimaginable that a family would give a massive engagement party where the bride to be was not committed, or where she could publicly jilt her intended. To anyone with any sense of Victorian society, this is nonsense.

Alice follows the White Rabbit into the rabbit-hole and into the Underland—Wonderland devastated by a war between the Red Queen and the White Queen. I do not propose to synopsize what passes for a plot here, except to note that Alice's Destiny Is To Slay The Jabberwocky And Defeat The Red Queen—which she does. Helena Bonham Carter chews the scenery as the Red Queen; as the White Queen, Anne Hathaway looks like she wandered in from an Elvish domain in Lord of the Rings.

There is almost no recognizable trace of Carroll in these sorry proceedings. Characters like the Dormouse and the Mad Hatter have been Disneyfied into cuteness. The only character that still is like the original is the Cheshire Cat—voiced by Stephen Fry. Johnny Depp is lost in makeup, costume, and bad writing. Even the poor Jabberwock is not immune. Readers will recall that the entity was the Jabberwock; the poem, Jabberwocky.

With a dreadful inevitability Alice emerges from Underland, rejects the chinless wonder, and at the end is sailing away as a supercargo on one of her family's company's ships. Witless Disneyfied feminism.

Now, the film does look like a Burton film. It is visually striking. But what's the point? You might film the telephone book with great visuals to equal effect. I have to wonder what on earth Tim Burton was thinking when he executed this monumental, beautifully produced, brain dead excuse for a film.

If Burton had a screenplay that stuck to the book, this film might well have been worthwhile. But it raises a question that I have wondered about for many years—why has no one made films of Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass that are in any way faithful to the originals? It is true that the Alice books are sui generis—the greatest works in of all children's literature, unique combinations of psychology and mathematics, each carefully organized around a different set of metaphors—Alice around cards and growing and shrinking and summer; Through the Looking Glass around chess and winter. They are as strange and familiar as paintings by Rene Magritte. They are heavily visual and cinematic. Why mess with them? What forces filmmakers to cheapen and vulgarize them? This film reportedly cost some $200,000,000 to make. What a monumental waste of time, effort, and money. Ms. Woolverton should be publicly flogged before the British Library by members of the Society for the Protection of Textual Integrity and Mr. Burton should wear a particularly itchy hair shirt for the next year as small measures of penance.

It is rare indeed that one finds a film that is so utterly infuriating and so utterly without redeeming features. It is even rarer when it exhibits so clearly the failings of contemporary film—contempt for sources, witless writing, justification through special effects, and no sense of history.

It should be burnt. Or at least shunned.

Save yourself, and avoid it.
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1/10
Sherlock Holmes (Ritchie) and Sherlock (BBC)—bad and good
22 December 2010
I recently finally caught up with Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes; very much at the same time, I saw the BBC's 21st century reboot of Holmes. They span the extremes—dreadful to astonishingly, and unexpectedly, wonderful.

Starting with the ridiculous—Guy Ritchie's film is, frankly, dreadful in almost every way. The steampunk vision of Victorian London is visually striking, but far from original, and it gets tiresome and overly gloomy. The plot is a cross between second-tier Conan Doyle and second-tier Hammer horror. The film is full of special effects and set pieces—in particular, a boxing match, a bout in a shipyard with a 19th century Oddjob, and a fight between Holmes and the villain on top of a half-completed Tower Bridge. The first is mere vulgar sensationalism; the second two, obvious borrowings from Bond films.

In fact, much of the film is bricolage from better work, be it Bond films, or Hammer films, or earlier Holmes films. There is enough holes in the plot to drive a locomotive through. For instance, Holmes gets to Tower Bridge from a location near the Houses of Parliament in a matter of moments—in reality, Tower Bridge is several miles away from Parliament. The only bright spot is Jude Law as Watson—a performance that is authentic to the character.

And, ultimately, authenticity is the biggest problem. For a Holmes film to work, it does not have to be a faithful reproduction of one of the 60 original stories—the route generally followed by the Thames TV series with Jeremy Brett. To name only a few, Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Seven Percent Solution, and most of Basil Rathbone's films have little if any connections with the original stories, and yet they are full of the right atmosphere and character. The biggest problem is Robert Downey Jr.—a wonderful actor whose work I generally admire, but who is all wrong in the part of Holmes. Part of the problem is the dreadful script. Part of the problem is that Downey plays Holmes as too neurotic, too scruffy, and too unpleasant. A scene where Holmes insults Mary Morston (Kelly Reilly), Watson's fiancée, is simply out of character.

There is another dimension, which is perhaps a bit refined—but nevertheless significant to a core portion of the audience. Holmes is the best known fictional character in English literature—possibly the best known fictional character in all of world literature. The Holmes stories have attracted exegesis worthy of a Biblical text, and even those who are not of fanatical disposition (like me) are sensitive to contradictions. To name only two—Holmes at one point states that he has never met Mary, which (chronologically in the books) is untrue, and much of what passes between Irene Adler and Holmes does not square with the only story in which she appears, A Scandal in Bohemia.

These points would be trivial, if the overall quality of script and characterization were right. They are not. Gregory, the movie cat, whose judgment is infallible, just snorted with disgust and left the room early on. I wish that I had. Don't waste your time.

As a long-time Holmes enthusiast, I was not prepared to like the BBC Sherlock. The notion of updating Holmes to the 21st century sounded like a ghastly idea. But this new series—three episodes to date, and I hope many more to come—is flat out wonderful.

The casting is spot on. The critical characters are of course Holmes and Watson. Benedict Cumberbatch proves a nearly perfect Holmes—cerebrotonic, neurasthenic, unnervingly intelligent—and Martin Freeman, as an Afghan war veteran (a clever reference back to the originals) is a perfect down to earth foil, and, refreshingly, not played as a dolt. The first of the 3 films, A Study in Pink, is both a cheeky reference to the first Holmes story (A Study in Scarlet) and an intriguing psychological variation on the locked room mystery.

Frankly, as urgently as I would suggest that the reader avoid Ritchie's Sherlock, I would suggest watching the BBC's Sherlock. It's one of the most refreshing things I have seen in some time. The atmosphere is right, the characterization is right, and the concept is original.
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Mickey One (1965)
1/10
Feh.
3 October 2010
Warning: Spoilers
TCM has been showing a number of Arthur Penn's films in the wake of his recent death. I have never been much of a fan of his work--Bonnie and Clyde has always seemed to be a one trick pony with one good idea that does not stand up to repeated viewing. Little Big Man--another one trick pony, but a good trick--and the underrated Four Friends, striking elegy for the 60s, are the two films of Penn's that really work for me.

Penn was a quintessentially 60s director--with some of the good and much of the bad that that would imply. One of the bad things about the 60s was trendiness for its own sake--something that has unfortunately become embedded in our zeitgeist. Mickey One is a perfect example. Just about every element is trendy. And the result is predictable.

This is one of the worst, and most pretentious, films I have ever seen.

With its sumptuous black and white photography, it is like a turd in a silver and jet setting.

I've read quite a number of the comments on here, and it appears that many of the commentators have a pretty shaky grasp of what the following terms for trendy elements mean: Felliniesque, French New Wave, paranoid,existential, Kafkaesque, surrealistic. They are neither interchangeable nor synonymous. Let's try to apply things with some degree of precision.

French New Wave and Fellini: these two black and white styles are not identical, although they have similarities. New Wave is often characterized with rapid cutting and hand-held camera-work--Breathless, for example. Fellini's characteristic technique involves striking and unexpected images, as in the opening of La Dolce Vita with a large status of Christ dangling from a helicopter over the city of Rome.

OK, apply to Mickey One. Black and white, check. More Fellini or New Wave? Less like Breathless, more like La Dolce Vita--the end, for instance, echoes La Dolce Vita. And certainly the whole junkyard / horse drawn junk wagon sequence is very reminiscent of Fellini.

The problem? The best directors have a style. And when a good director does an homage, he picks a single style. Woody Allen stuck to Fellini in Stardust Memories, for instance; Truffaut stuck to Hitchcock in The Bride Wore Black. And beware of your sources. Fellini's use of symbolism verges on, and often crosses into, the painfully pretentious rub-the-audience's-nose-in-the-meaning. Most Fellini imitations are bad. This one is.

Now--can we call this paranoid? I think not. Great paranoid thrillers are few and far between--the Manchurian Candidate (original only), Winter Kills, The Prisoner, Twin Peaks. The paranoid thriller, for a good part of its duration, must make it seem that the threat felt by the protagonist may be part of his imagination, and that, ideally, there be no clear motivation for the threat. This is not a paranoid thriller. Mickey knows that he owns the mob $20,000. Good reason to be chased. Hyping around this is just an embellishment to add a bit of mystery to a pedestrian plot--one that could as well be worked as a comedy.

Kafkaesque implies a particular degree of paranoid in which the reason for the threat is never really made clear--as in The Trial. Do we have that here? Not really.

Existential or existential angst. Very popular in the 60s, particularly among undergraduates at selective colleges who wore black and worried about authenticity. Any work where the protagonist questions the ground of his being can be called existential, and so may this. The problem, of course, is that existentialism can be staggeringly pretentious. In my view, it generally is. And so it is here. (I suspect the core audience for this film is people who dress in black and worry about authenticity.) Finally, surrealism. From the French, meaning "above the real" or "heightened reality". Characterized by striking images associated with dream or unconscious states. Fellini is often called surreal, but incorrectly, I think; there is just not enough of the subconscious there to justify the label. (Luis Bunuel is the master of surrealist cinema.) Mickey One is not surreal.

There is one other element that has to be mentioned because it is of a piece with the rest of the film. That is the score. In my experience, a jazz score on a film is usually the sign of a producer or director who is trying desperately to show how hit they are. Boy is that the case here.

So: we can agree that Mickey One, stylistically, echoes Fellini (at his most garish and pretentious) and to a lesser degree the French New Wave, not particularly well, inasmuch as these are not compatible styles; and that, thematically, Penn has embellished a simple guy on the run from the mob plot with lashings of existential angst and pseudo-paranoia. All this to a cacophonous, hipper-than-thou, score.

The cinematography is quite good.

Shake until addled and you have a preposterous and pretentious mess.

This film might be taken as a perfect example of how not to create something new. When your clear list of influences are all trendy and of the moment; and when the influences remain distinct and unblended; the result, inevitably, will stink.

It does not help that Warren Beatty's performance, to be charitable, make his turn in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone as rent boy Paolo look like Oscar material.

A long journey to a short sentence.

Don't bother.

Avoid this dreadful mess.

Gregory, the infallible movie cat, started howling piteously and ran from the room as fast as he could within the first five minutes. He was able to tolerate more of Richard Burton in Exorcist II.

Better yet, burn the negative.
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6/10
This film needed an editor......
1 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Gregory, the movie cat, had the same mixed feelings about this film as I did. He yawned and left after 15 minutes, his whiskers twitching in boredom. However, he did return for the last hour or so and purred intermittently. A solid 6 from both of us.

There are a few reasons about why this film just doesn't quite work. I'll get the first out of the way quickly--the score. Somehow, jazz for a rural courtroom drama just seems wrong--and like most jazz, it's a cacophonous noise. However, realizing that this is in part my idiosyncratic reaction, that just looses 1 point of 10.

The rating of 6 builds up from the performances--particularly James Stewart, as good as he ever has been (except perhaps for Vertigo). Joseph Welch, as the judge, and Arthur O'Connell, as Stewart's colleague, both provide textbook examples of superior character performances. Lee Remick enjoys a star turn as the wife who may (or may not?) have been raped; Ben Gazzara is solid as the murderer who may, or may not, have been acting under "irresistible impulse"; and George C. Scott gives a memorably showy performance as a reptilian prosecuting attorney. And how can you not love Eve Arden, even if she were only to read the phone book?

And the gap? Frankly, the film is just plain too long and the pacing too languid. Much of the first hour seems like filler. The trial, which occupies the last hour and forty minutes, is far better, but still is more than a little prolix.

I'm not going to comment on some of the attitudes towards the attitudes towards rape; they are of their time and need to be seen as such without pious feminist posturing.

Call this one a near miss. When you watch, be forewarned. If only you could filter out the soundtrack.....
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