Sunday, February 18, 2007

Il Maestro, or, my life in retrospect(ive)

Thoughts on Ennio Morricone, who receives his honorary Academy Award this coming Sunday...

*I went to see The Untouchables, with his Oscar-nominated score, on Sunday at New York's Film Forum. And it was again a treat. I saw it four times in the summer of 1987, the first in its setting, Chicago, which rolled out the red carpet for it. (There was some squawking that the movie made too big a deal out of the city's gangland past and romanticized the whole era, but if you got it, baby, flaunt it, as Max Bialystock says in The Producers.) David Mamet's script hits the family values button, so hot during the Reagan years, a little too insistently, but it didn't really bother me (about as much as the questionable politics behind 24 get in the way of my weekly cathode jolt). And Brian De Palma's mordant touch (and amazing stylistics) takes the edge off--note how the two good guys felled in the course of the storyline are offed as soon as they sneak a drink, violating Prohibition laws and Kevin Costner's warnings, almost as if in a Mad magazine strip. Back then, who knew that Costner would rise so high and fall so quickly? That the once-magnetic Andy Garcia would get so tiresome? That Patricia Clarkson would emerge from the supportive wife ghetto and have a thriving career? That Reagan, then in the depths of Iran Contra, would be considered a saint today?

I thought of all this--then realized that this was the first film that I saw first run that I had now seen in repertory, as an "old movie," in other words, its glory faded into legend. I'm sure others are on the rep house circuit but I didn't see them. I was 21 when I saw The Untouchables in early June of 1987, 41 today. I feel like Sean Connery's old beat cop, putting in the miles from my aisle seat. The next year Morricone, whose music for the film is sensational, would score Cinema Paradiso, about a film-struck kid's friendship with a projectionist; I'm closer in age now to the projectionist than the kid.

*Q: When is a Morricone film not a Morricone film? A: When his biggest contribution to it has been snipped entirely from the print. Such was my dismal experience with Machine Gun McCain, which was twinned with The Untouchables on the same double feature. I'd really come to see the Italian-made McCain, the only film John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands and Val Avery appeared in together outside of Cassavetes' own work, in 1968. That was disappointment #1--Cassavetes and Rowlands have a single, tough-talking scene together, but all these actors are mostly kept apart, and I'd swear fourth-billed Gabrielle Ferzetti (from the Morricone-scored Once Upon a Time in the West) has more screen time than any of them as a puppetmaster Mafioso in Las Vegas pulling the strings on the turgid and downbeat plot.

But the real big foul-up was several hideous splices in the passable-quality print, removing all of what I were assume were the opening credits and almost of all the end ones; in short, removing Morricone's title song in its entirety. Film Forum had been playing it on a CD between features but this was unacceptable, and they should have aborted the showings entirely. It's a weak film anyway and surely a substitute might have been found, unless, as is entirely possible, Film Forum didn't know what they were getting. [Why not the Vegas-set Bugsy, which has received expanded-edition treatment on DVD?] Film Forum should have looked under the hood before putting this lemon out there.

*Finally, it's good that the great Morricone is getting an Oscar. It was good that Peter O' Toole got one. And fortunate that Robert Altman got his in the nick of time. But I think retirees, those who made their significant contribution and left the soundstage, should also get them, too. That used to be the case but hasn't been in some years. Bravo, Il Maestro, for all that wonderful music, some of which I have on CD...but next year, how about letting Richard Widmark or Doris Day, to name but two living legends who have been mooted for Oscars, take a bow?


Brandon Crawford Smith said...

Wait did Peter O'Toole get an honorary Oscar?

I thought he refused an honorary award a couple of years ago.

Great site by the way!

Robert Cashill said...

A grateful O'Toole gracefully accepted his honorary Oscar in 2003, but said he still hoped to one day win a "real" one. Better luck next time.

Thanks for reading.