Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Defending J. Lee Thompson

In today's Times, Dave Kehr lays smack on the career of journeyman director J. Lee Thompson, while defending King Vidor's questionable Solomon and Sheba in a roundup of Yul Brynner DVDs. (It's interesting where these things start.) Thompson, who directed Brynner in the minor Sixties epics Taras Bulba and Kings of the Sun, is bitch-slapped as "startlingly untalented," while the past-it auteur of The Fountainhead gets a pass. Simply put, Vidor is in the club, and Thompson isn't.

As Kehr admits, Solomon (named one of the fifty worst films of all time by the Medveds in their 1978 tome, not that it's a reliable arbiter) isn't the best case that can be made for Vidor, whose silent classics (and delectably campy Bette Davis picture Beyond the Forest, among others) need to be on DVD. I'm not playing favorites here. But Thompson had his moments, and if Richard Fleischer could sneak in the back door reserved for auteurs of a lesser caliber, he'd probably hold it open for his contemporary in unpretentious commercial entertainment.

But, really, who cares anymore about this kind of categorization, but the folks who blog at Kehr's outpost? Don't get me wrong--it's a great crowd, flexibly minded, who make up for their oft-absent host. Yet on certain subjects they're mighty touchy. I like Fleischer, too, but I got hit with a two-by-four for suggesting that he made a few irredeemably bad films. It's as if no one in the "pantheon" could ever squeeze out a lemon from time to time. Well, Fleischer did. And so did Vidor.

And so did Thompson, whose resume smells like Pledge cleaner after 1985. (He died in 2002, after decades in the British and U.S. film industries.) He was the house director for the aging Charles Bronson, and their fortunes fell together. But 1983's 10 to Midnight and 1984's The Evil That Men Do are capably made actioners, that had Chicago grindhouse crowds cheering when I caught them. (The latter inspired rival gangs to hurl bottles at each other; I saw the ending on VHS, from the safety of my dorm room.) The earlier St. Ives is one of Bronson's more lightly enjoyable pictures, and The White Buffalo an amusing head-scratcher. There are stray flecks of gold in the junk: Robert Mitchum taking charge in The Ambassador (as Ellen Burstyn bursts out of her top), the chintzy effects and rattling pace of King Solomon's Mines, about on par with Fleischer's Red Sonja in bargain-basement entertainment value in 1985; Malcolm McDowell's over-the-top (even for him!) Nazi in The Passage (1979); and the tortured teen terror plotting of 1981's Happy Birthday to Me, a slasher-pic genre highlight. The big-budget, all-star 1969 Western Mackenna's Gold is completely dotty--the Skidoo of its genre?

There is good to go along with the goofy. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the most disturbing film of its series; its take on otherness and the need for, and consequences, of rebellion stuck with this eight-year-old viewer who was just there for the cool makeup. 1961's The Guns of Navarone (pictured) needs no defense as a classic war-time adventure, one I've seen many times. Tony Curtis and Brynner are miscast in the filial saga of Taras Bulba , but the film eventually delivers on sweep and scope, and has a marvelous Franz Waxman score driving the pace. And there is (sound of trump card being pulled) the still-disturbing Cape Fear, sweaty Southern paranoia to ruffle the rectitude of even Gregory Peck, cast as the divide healer in that same year's To Kill a Mockingbird. An interesting double feature, and Fear was a picture that Martin Scorsese could not really remake, just embroider.

I haven't seen many of Thompson's earlier British pictures, but I won't cross the street to avoid them. A diamond in the rough? Maybe not. Does it matter? The shuffling of position papers as lines are being drawn and sides being taken doesn't have to accompany every movie.


Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw Taras Bulba on an import DVD a couple of years ago. Originally it was intended as a Burt Lancaster vehicle, possibly with Curtis. Miscast, but there are some pretty good action sequences.

I saw Ice Cold in Alex and Tiger Bay also on British DVDs. Both are worth checking out. Lee-Thompson may not be a pantheon director, or even far side of paradise, but he did make a handful of films that I don't regret seeing, including McKenna's Gold.

Robert Cashill said...

Exactly--"no regrets." There are other, arguably more talented, filmmakers whose work I do regret spending time on.