Howard Hawks once described a good movie as one with “Three great scenes, no bad ones.” But what do you call a film with three great scenes and two horrible ones?
I call it frustrating. If I discover a great film, it’s wonderful. If I discover a stinker, I’ll never see it again. But when a film soars with great artistry, then trips over its own shoelaces, the disappointment never goes away. You want to revisit it and celebrate it, but you also wish it would just go away.
Many consider the four films below as classics. But I have a love/hate relationship with them. One was an Oscar Best Picture winner. Two were directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
For the first 104 minutes of the original version, Francis Coppola’s fever dream catches the insanity of the Vietnam war like no other movie. The trip up the river becomes a journey into a very strange and unique kind of hell. The Do Lung Bridge sequence, seen from the point of view of a young soldier on acid, makes the entire war feel like a bad hallucination – and one from which you may not recover.
Then the boat reaches its target, Dennis Hopper pops up to introduce us to an extremely overweight Marlon Brando, and the film’s remaining 43 minutes go down the toilet. Brando mouths weird yet silly platitudes. Natives sacrifice a water buffalo to hit you over the head with symbolism. I understand the difficulties Coppola had rewriting and then shooting Apocalypse Now, but I also understand that Coppola failed to fix the problems.
Twenty-two years after the original, Coppola and editor Walter Murch added 49 minutes that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Apocalypse Now Redux smooths out the jarring switch from masterpiece to mess by intertwining additional bad scenes in with the good ones. The result was more consistent, but worse.
West Side Story
How could it not be great? New York street gangs replace Romeo and Juliet’s Montagues and Capulets in an adaption of a hit Broadway musical. A jazz-tinged score by Leonard Bernstein – one of the best in Broadway history – with lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim. Jerome Robbins’ choreography just may be the greatest in a widescreen movie. And let’s not forget the hot supporting cast, including Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno.
But more than song and dance, Romeo and Juliet needs hot, passionate leads – something this movie sorely lacks. Natalie Wood manages a few scenes well, but she can’t sing (her songs were dubbed by Marni Nixon), and she’s white – a problem when playing a Puerto Rican in a mixed-race love story. But she’s great compared to Richard Beymer, who plays her Romeo as a bland teacher’s pet. His presence can make you grind your teeth. He sinks every scene he’s in.
Steven Spielberg is currently preparing a remake which, I hope, will have better and more appropriate stars. But I doubt it will match the dances.
The screenplay by Arthur Laurents and Hume Cronyn, from the play by Patrick Hamilton, is one of the most intelligent scripts Alfred Hitchcock ever shot. Two homosexuals (something that could only be hinted at in 1948) murder an acquaintance for the intellectual thrill. Then they host a party with the body still hidden in their apartment. But one guest, the mentor who taught them the Nietzschean philosophy with which they justified their crime, begins to suspect.
Since the story is set in one apartment over real time, Hitchcock decided to make Rope a one-shot film. That was impossible with 1948 technology, so Hitchcock shot it in 10-minute one-shot takes, and tried to camouflage the breaks between shots. The technique, which occasionally worked, robbed Hitchcock of the ability to edit, which meant he couldn’t control pacing. What’s more, those “hidden” breaks aren’t hidden at all; you notice them far more than a conventional cut.
The Birds has some of the greatest sequences of cold suspense and frightening mayhem in the history of movies. Birds slowly appearing on an empty playground. The attack on the children. The gas station. Alfred Hitchcock used incredibly advanced special effects for his time.
But when there isn’t suspense or action, the movie is horrible, and that’s largely because of Tippi Hedren. Hitchcock tried in two movies to turn this beautiful-but-talentless model into a star. If a scene simply requires her to talk or show an emotion other than fear, she sinks it.
Consider the first scene, when Hedren and male lead Rod Taylor meet in a San Francisco pet store. The first time I saw it, it just seemed bizarre, with weird and pointless dialog. Then I read that Hitchcock intended it to be screwball comedy. Hedren and Taylor just couldn’t handle the sort of dialog appropriate for Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.
It’s not all Hedren’s fault. Taylor was a good actor, but he wasn’t known for comedy. And it was Hitchcock who made the mistake of casting them for roles beyond their capabilities. (Hitchcock sexually abused Hedren in their next and last film together, Marnie.)
The Birds has another major problem: For budgetary reasons, Hitchcock’s planned ending was never filmed. So the movie doesn’t end; it just stops.
Do you have your own frustratingly failed masterpieces? That’s what the comments section is for.