DirectorGilbert Cates, Richard Brooks, Stanley Kramer, Dick Richards
Release Date(s)1970-1977 (August 4, 2023)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures/AVCO Embassy Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
I’m really delighted by the ingenuity of Imprint’s Film Focus series of boxed sets. Here, the spotlight is on actor Gene Hackman, and rather than an obvious repackaging of perennial favorites like The French Connection and The Conversation, the set turns attention to less-familiar works: I Never Sang for My Father (making its worldwide Blu-ray debut, 1970), Bite the Bullet (1975), March or Die and The Domino Principle (both 1977). The characters Hackman plays and the quality of the movies he appears in vary widely, but taken together they make a most interesting package.
By far the best film in the set is I Never Sang for My Father. Based on an unsuccessful Broadway play by Robert Anderson, it was widely acclaimed for the outstanding performances by Hackman and Melvyn Douglas, both of whom received Oscar nominations. But because it was directed in such a straightforwardly manner by Gilbert Cates (best remembered as a longtime producer of Academy Awards telecasts) it also seemed stylistically old-fashioned during the height of the Easy Riders-Raging Bulls era. In fact, Anderson’s screenplay is just as superb as the fine acting by all. It really is one of the great films of ‘70s American cinema.
Widower college professor Gene Garrison (Hackman) lives in a New York suburb near his aging parents, Tom (Douglas) and Margaret (Dorothy Stickney). Gene enjoys a warm, loving relationship with his ailing mother, but with Tom it’s another story. Tom is controlling and self-absorbed, outwardly genial and charming, but manipulative and possessive of Gene’s feelings of duty toward his parents, further complicated by Tom’s advancing senility. His older sister, Alice (Estelle Parsons, who played Hackman’s wife in Bonnie and Clyde), was disinherited by Tom when she took a Jewish husband, she and her family settling in far-off Chicago, leaving Gene holding the bag. Gene wants to marry Peggy Thayer (Elizabeth Hubbard), a gynecologist whose life and practice are based in California, but Gene is reluctant to leave his mom and dad.
The tense situation becomes worse when Margaret dies suddenly, leaving Gene and Alice to face the issue of Tom now living alone, increasingly unable to care for himself. Alice encourages Gene to move to California, yet despite Gene’s resentment toward Tom, he’s not certain he should leave.
The film is remarkable on many levels. Both Gene and Tom are extraordinary complex characters and the film offers no easy solutions to their relationship issues. Tom is a kind of backseat driver in Gene’s life, criticizing and belittling him and Margaret while constantly turning all conversation toward himself. In one scene days after Margaret’s death, Tom is replying to a letter of condolence. His reply quickly segues into a pompous, self-serving monologue about his life story, including how much money he made at the height of his career. Even in his eighties, Tom still fumes about his long-dead old man, repeatedly telling the story about how he wouldn’t let his father come to his mother’s funeral or how when his father lay dying in hospital he brought him a few oranges, no more than that because he’d be dead soon, so why waste the money? He’s terrified about his future because, essentially, he has none, and his occasional flashes of stark vulnerability add to Gene’s problem about leaving him.
I Never Sang for My Father was an ideal role for Hackman because it plays to his strengths, playing a character who keeps decades of resentment bottled up inside until he can stand no more. Gene (the character) is playing the dutiful son because that’s the role expected of him, but also because he desperately wants to find a way to connect with his father in ways fathers and sons are supposed to, something he’s been aching to do without much success all his life, and in spite of Tom constantly pushing him away at every opportunity.
The film’s billing is curious indeed. Despite playing the main character, the one every scene in the film is built around, and who narrates its opening and closing dialogue, Hackman is billed second, under Melvyn Douglas. The veteran actor had been a big star in the 1930s, and won an Academy Award for Hud in 1963, but was hardly a box-office draw by 1970. Hackman was not yet the ‘70s powerhouse he’d soon become, but he had made a big impression in several films, notably Bonnie and Clyde, The Gypsy Moths, and Downhill Racer, and was clearly on the ascent. Nevertheless, Douglas was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor for his work here, while Hackman was nominated as Best Supporting Actor. (Douglas lost to George C. Scott in Patton, while Hackman lost to John Mills in Ryan’s Daughter. Good as Scott and Mills were, Douglas and Hackman were better.)
Film Grade: A
“Rousing” is an overworked adjective often applied to Westerns, but director Richard Brooks’s The Professionals (1966) really was just that, one of the most entertaining films of its genre. Brooks returned to the Western for Bite the Bullet (1975), which operates from a similar conceit: disparate characters vying for a big payday across a harsh landscape in the early 20th century West, overseen by a wealthy capitalist operating out of a moving train. Bite the Bullet isn’t as good as The Professionals, but it has many fine qualities, some unusual or even unique to Westerns. It should have been a big success, but had the misfortune of being released five days after the opening of Jaws, which gobbled away all the box office it might have enjoyed.
Based on a real, historical event, the film revolves around a 700-mile cross-country horse race, sponsored by newspaper tycoon Jack Parker (Paul Stewart, kind of; more about him below). The winner-take-all prize: $2,000.
The 15 contestants include aging cowboy “Mister” (Ben Johnson), who has a bad ticker; a Mexican (Mario Arteaga) riding despite a chipped tooth and exposed nerve; Miss Jones (Candice Bergen), the only woman competing for “2,000 reasons”; American sports-obsessed English gentleman Sir Harry Norfolk (Ian Bannen); cocky young cowboy Carbo (Jan-Michael Vincent); and gambler Luke Matthews (James Coburn), who has bet everything he’s got on winning.
A last-minute entry is Sam Clayton (Hackman), a friend of Matthews from their Rough Rider days, late delivering a ringer, a thoroughbred of championship pedigree, because he stopped along the way to rescue an abused colt headed for the glue factory.
Following them along are a reporter (Robert Donner), whorehouse madam Rosie (Jean Willes, very good in her last film role), and a couple of her girls (one is Sally Kirkland) to provide “comfort” to the riders at the various checkpoints.
More like a serious, Westernized Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines than The Wild Bunch, Brooks’s screenplay eschews many (but hardly all) Western genre conventions in making the entire film about the race (the film literally stops dead the moment the race ends) and the relationships among the competitors which, as in Magnificent Men, come to respect their shared experiences despite their obvious differences. Far lighter than Brooks’s usual fare, Bite the Bullet nonetheless touches on some interesting concepts rare in Westerns, particularly in how, through Hackman’s character, issues of animal cruelty and the treatment of animals in the West are brought to the foreground:
Sam Clayton: “Did you ever see a horse run himself to death just to please the man on his back? What’s the horse get out of it? Cracked bones? Colic? See his picture in the paper? Horse doesn’t give a damn who wins a race. Me neither.”
There are nice subtle touches, some unnoticed by moviegoers, such as the fact that Candice Bergen (the underrated actress excellent here) was an accomplished rider and used her own Arabian horse for the film. Something else that moviegoers might not notice is that Paul Stewart’s newspaper tycoon is prominent in several early scenes before disappearing entirely and he appears uncredited. It turns out Stewart suffered a heart attack during filming and had to leave the production. Rather than reshoot his scenes, Dabney Coleman took over for the last two-thirds of the film, playing his “son,” dialogue that sounds written more appropriate for Stewart than Coleman. (At one point one of the contestants even refers to 42-year-old Coleman’s character as “the old man,” an obvious error.)
Not all of Bite the Bullet works. Ben Johnson’s character is all-too-clearly modeled after his Oscar-winning Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show, complete with wistful, fireside monologue. A big plot twist toward the end seems unnecessary to the already longish film, though it does serve to band several characters together, even initially unlikable Carbo. Harry Stradling Jr.’s Panavision lensing is notably beautiful, and Alex North’s musical score enhances the film. Not a total success, but very good.
Film Grade: A-
It’s great to have a proper Blu-ray release of The Domino Principle (1977), even though the movie is a major disappointment. A conspiracy thriller written by former actor Adam Kennedy, adapting his novel, it was producer-director Stanley Kramer penultimate feature. His direction is flaccid and frequently clunky, completely at odds with the innovative stylings of similar yet far-superior thriller of the period like The Parallax View and Hackman’s own The Conversation (both 1974), but the real problem is the fundamentally ludicrous screenplay. Even while it was shooting Hackman recognized this, eventually regretting doing the film while acknowledging his own contributions to its failure.
Roy Tucker (Hackman) is in San Quentin, with 15 years left on his sentence following the murder of his wife’s abusive ex-husband. Warden Ditcher (Ken Swofford) arranges a meeting between Roy and mysterious Marvin Tagge (Richard Widmark), who offers him a chance to get out of prison immediately and a fresh start with his wife, Ellie (Candice Bergen again), and even a new house and $200,000 in the bank, all in exchange for … something. Tagge is cagey about just what his secret organization will require of Roy, only that the “job” will involve a couple of weeks’ work. Roy’s longtime cellmate, Spiventa (Mickey Rooney), warns Roy that, obviously, he’s being groomed as some kind of hitman, certain to be disposed of once the job, whatever that job is, is completed.
Nevertheless, Roy accepts Tagge’s terms, except that he insists Spiventa escape with him. Tagge and his associates—intellectual Ross Pine (Edward Albert) and ex-military man General Reser (Eli Wallach)—reluctantly agree, but immediately following the escape assassinate Spiventa under the Golden Gate Bridge. Roy is eventually flown to Puntarenas, Costa Rica, where he’s reunited with Ellie and given a beautiful beachside house. For a few days they enjoy an idyllic life, but then Tagge and Co. return, expecting Roy to fulfill his end of their bargain.
Initially, Roy doesn’t trust Tagge, and yet even after Spiventa is gunned down right in front of him, Roy seems only mildly concerned about the arrangement, or how slim his chances are of getting out of it alive. Once reunited with Ellie, the blissful pair act like they’re on a permanent honeymoon. When Roy foolishly refuses to go along with the cabal’s assassination plans at one point, Roy returns to his hotel suite to find Ellie missing. Incredibly, he can’t imagine where she might have gone off to. “Ellie? Ellie?” When he finally realizes they’re holding her hostage to ensure he’ll follow through on his part in the assassination plot, he seems genuinely surprised. After the deed is done Roy goes to his bank only to discover the $200,000 withdrawn, leaving a zero balance. Again, gobsmacked Roy.
All this, of course, makes Hackman’s character look like a complete idiot, dumb as a bag of rocks. Had the script fashioned Roy as a fatalist along the lines of Robert Mitchum in some dark noir, or had Roy secretly been plotting an ingenious way out all along, The Domino Principle might have played better. Instead, when it’s painfully clear to the movie audience that Roy’s every move is being carefully scrutinized, his sole bid for freedom is casually booking a flight for he and Ellie to Rio de Janeiro, like that’s gonna work.
Hackman’s unease with the material is apparent in his performance. He’s good in his scenes with Candance Bergen, she credible in an offbeat role, but is often disengaged with the material, walking through it as if in a daze. Kramer’s direction isn’t bad during the action scenes, surprisingly, and the Hackman-Bergen moments resonate slightly, but he’s clearly out of his element at other times, the Hackman-Rooney cellblock scenes particularly bad, more on the level of Otto Preminger’s notorious Skidoo.
Film Grade: C-
Despite its all-star international cast and big budget ($8 million), Dick Richards’s March or Die (1977) is one of those movies that slipped under the radar for most viewers. It seems to have been barely released at all in the United States. I don’t recall ever seeing any trailers, TV ads, or it appearing on marquees anywhere near where I lived at the time. (Shades of Bite the Bullet—March or Die opened during the summer of Star Wars.) Negative reviews didn’t help its chances and many who stumble upon it now are rather startled to come upon a major movie they barely heard of, if they’ve heard of it all.
This is a shame because it’s actually quite a good, unusual picture. Director Richards’s previous feature, Farewell, My Lovely (1975) is unquestionably one of the best films of the entire 1970s, a 100% perfect film as far as this reviewer is concerned. From Raymond Chandler’s novel, it was both a throwback to 1940s film noir but with a modern sensibility. March or Die operates under similar terms, harking back to foreign legion movies from Hollywood’s past like Beau Geste (1939) but done with both a greater sense of realism and political awareness. It also draws, consciously or unconsciously, on other Hollywood and European films about militaries outnumbered by less-well-equipped, culturally different indigenous peoples, movies like Fort Apache (1948), 55 Days at Peking (1963), and Zulu (1964).
In March or Die, Hackman stars Maj. William Foster, an American commander in the Foreign Legion at the end of World War I, after his army of 8,000 men has returned to France with just 200 survivors, many of them horribly wounded. He’s next assigned to return to Rif in Morocco, to protect French archaeologists while they uncover (and grave-rob, according to Foster), an ancient city near Erfoud, buried by the desert sands some 3,000 years ago. Foster pessimistically notes that El Krim (Ian Holm) is uniting the scattered Rif tribes, all for the glory of wiping out these invading French graverobbers.
Partly the film follows the back-breaking training of new recruits, all social outcasts, in the unforgiving desert climate. They include jewel thief Marco “The Gypsy” Segrain (Italian favorite Terence Hill); former Russian Imperial family bodyguard Ivan (Jack O’Halloran, late of Richards’ The Long Goodbye), wracked with guilt at being unable to stop their assassination; “Top Hat” Gilbert Francis (André Penvern), a morose dandy; and naïve English aristocrat Frederick Hastings (Paul Sherman), who longs for the adventure the Legion would seem more than able to provide. Their superiors, including Sgt. Triand (Rufus) and Lt. Fontaine (Marcel Bozzuffi, from The French Connection) are merciless, Foster perhaps even more so.
Roguish Marco soon begins wooing Simone Picard (Catherine Deneuve), whose archaeologist husband was tortured and essentially murdered by El Krim. She finds his cheery innocence appealing on one level, but recognizes long before he does that no lasting relationship is possible. Like Ava Gardner in 55 Days at Peking, everyone falls for Simone, including Foster (though the idea also disgusts him, like everything else), and new archaeologist François Marneau (Max von Sydow), who regards the lives of the Legionnaires a distant second to the historical importance of the dig.
The healthy budget and location filming allow for much greater realism in March or Die than previous movies about the French Foreign Legion. At the same time, much of it recalls other, sometimes better movies; the climactic battle seems heavily influenced by Zulu, for instance, and Hill’s character is something of a throwback to Errol Flynn and other rascally heroes from Hollywood’s past. The screenplay, by David Zelag Goodman (The Stranglers of Bombay, Straw Dogs) may be to some extent a mishmash of recycled ideas, but Goodman and Richards find new ways of presenting them.
Like The Domino Principle, March or Die was another film Hackman did mostly for the money, and his performance here is workmanlike, but less interesting than many of the international actors in smaller, supporting roles.
Film Grade: B+
Film Focus: Gene Hackman comes in a sturdy box with four standard Blu-ray cases inside, one for each film. I Never Sang for My Father, The Domino Principle, and March or Die were all shot for 1.85:1 widescreen and presented in LPCM 2.0 mono; I Never Sang is presented in that ratio, while the other two are 1.78:1 full screen (no big deal, in my opinion); Bite the Bullet, filmed in Panavision, is 2.35:1 and offered in both LPCM 2.0 stereo and DTS-HD 5.1 surround mixes. Domino and March or Die are touted as 2K scans, the latter from the original negative, though all four films look great, with only Bite the Bullet ever so slightly a bit less scintillating than it might be. (It seems like an older transfer, possibly the same one I saw broadcast on Japan’s NHK network about 10 years ago.) All four discs are Region-Free and include optional English HOH subtitles.
There are no extras on I Never Sang for My Father, a shame as that’s the best film of the set, and only a trailer on Bite the Bullet, though an isolated score track is offered on the latter, as with Twilight Time’s earlier Blu-ray release.
The Domino Principle includes a new audio commentary with film historians Howard S. Berger and David Nicholson; two featurettes, Stanley Kramer: Man Out of Time, a video essay by Berger, and The Devil’s Advocate, a Zoom interview with Karen Sharpe, Kramer’s actress-wife. Also included is the vintage featurette The Manipulators: Behind the Scenes on “The Domino Principle” and a trailer. March or Die includes another new commentary, this time pairing Berger with Steve Mitchell, with Berger appearing yet again in Of Blood & Time: The Weary Worlds of Dick Richards. Also included is an interview with actor Paul Sherman (who played the English aristocrat) and a trailer. Not included on March or Die is crucial footage cut from the theatrical release but included in some television broadcasts.
Oddly, none of the video extras puts the spotlight on Hackman. The actor himself is long retired and would not have been expected to participate, but it’s still a bit of a gaping hole not to include something. For an actor as hot as Hackman was, box office-wise, his worthy films are truly scattershot, Hackman himself admitting he did a lot of films—too many—for the money. And yet, all the way up to the end, there are great films and scattered great performances; in this sense, he is the American Michael Caine. I hope he’s enjoying his retirement. He certainly earned it. And, in Film Focus: Gene Hackman, we can enjoy watching him at work, slugging away.
- Stuart Galbraith IV