Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week
The most hauntingly chilling, strangely prophetic science-fiction picture ever made has the worst pulp title-which all the creative people hated, and which the studio imposed, along with the dreaded prologue and epilogue-Don Siegel’s 1956 masterpiece of understated terror, Invasion of the Body Snatchers [Saturday, Feb. 28, WNET, 13, 11:30 P.M.]. Adapted by Daniel Mainwaring and Siegel-Clint Eastwood’s favorite director (five films including 1971’s Dirty Harry )-from a Jack Finney story; the spookily metaphoric plot deals with a small-town doctor who slowly comes to realize that several patients and friends are being taken over by some sort of human-duplicating alien pods so that they end up looking exactly like the real people but lack true emotion of any kind. Made right after the McCarthy era, the film’s references to that sort of mass hysteria are unmistakable, but director Siegel (one of the studio system’s undercover mavericks) and veteran producer Walter Wanger (never a team player, either, and a New York sophisticate) had broader issues in mind on this B-budget movie that no one took very seriously on its release. As Siegel told me in the late 60’s: “… I felt that this was a very important story. I think the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them … So many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow.” The studio heads of the long-defunct Allied Artists, whom Siegel characterized as pods, were afraid of the unmitigated horror of the original ending, in which Kevin McCarthy (exceptional as the doctor) has fled his small town, is lost on a freeway where he sees numerous trucks filled with pods heading into the heart of the country, and screams directly to the audience: “They’re coming! You’re next!” So Siegel and Wanger were forced to put the whole picture in the form of a flashback which, among other things, tends to destroy suspense since you know the doctor has survived to tell the tale. On April 17, the Museum of Modern Art will be showing this film on the big screen with the prologue and consequent epilogue removed which, as Siegel said “would be a lot closer to the way” the film was conceived; I’ll be introducing the event. The utter sense of everyday reality is what makes this work so effective and memorable, a triumph of talent over financial limitations, therefore of truly imaginative direction. I remember an underground New York screening in the late 50’s with Ray Bradbury in attendance, before this film had become the noted cult picture it is today; I believe it’s one of Ray’s favorites and there isn’t a better authority on the genre. The transformation of Dana Wynter at the end is one of the most subtly terrifying moments in picture history.
The McCarey Watch: After making all of Laurel and Hardy’s best silent work, directing Eddie Cantor’s only good movie, The Kid From Spain (1932), the Marx Brothers’ best movie, Duck Soup (1933), one of W.C. Fields’ good ones, with George Burns and Gracie Allen, Six of a Kind (1934), and a fair Mae West, Belle of the Nineties (also ’34), Leo McCarey made his first great feature with his first great serious actor, Charles Laughton: an enduring American satirical yet patriotic classic from 1935, Ruggles of Red Gap [Monday, March 2, AMC, 54, 8 A.M.] . In a Paris poker game, an English gent (Roland Young) loses his valet Ruggles (Laughton) to an outrageously nouveau-riche couple from Washington State (Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland) who, to valet Ruggles’ horror, take him home with them to Red Gap. An early scene of two drunken cowboy-types ordering lunch at a French restaurant is McCarey in his most hilariously savage mood, and much of the humor is at the expense of the U.S. bourgeoisie and bad taste in general. Numerous sequences have all the improvisational freshness of McCarey at his best, including a musical one with Young that is absolutely disarming, and ZaSu Pitts is divine in deadpan as Laughton’s love interest. All the performances are brilliant and the ending-Laughton reads Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address-reminds us of a long-lost ideal of American innocence.
Wednesday, Feb. 25
It’s billed as Music’s Big Night Out. So music’s Bob Dylan is supposed to show up in Radio City Music Hall for tonight’s 40th Annual Grammy Awards . Mr. Dylan has told the producers he’ll be performing his bleak song, “Love Sick,” from the album-of-the-year nominee Time Out of Mind , but that doesn’t mean much. Last time he did the Grammys, in 1991, His Bobness surprised the show’s producers by whipping out a stinging version of “Masters of War,” just at the height of Gulf War fever. On the same show, in accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award from Jack Nicholson, Mr. Dylan did not thank his agent or his manager or his friends, but rather made a puzzling statement: “Well, my daddy, he didn’t leave me much, you know, he was a very simple man. But what he did was this: He did say, Son, he said-” and here he took a long pause-“he say, You know, it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you, and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.” NYTV still has no idea what that means, but we’ve been living by those words ever since. Tonight the Bobster is up for three awards and probably won’t go home empty-handed. Whether he plays well is a crapshoot; the TV lights have been known to have a strange effect on him. Sometimes he withers in their heat, sometimes he does something great.…
Also appearing: music’s Celine Dion, scheduled to perform a duet with music’s Barbra (“I Have the Flu”) Streisand. This will be a duel, as the two divas will try to belt each other off the stage, all the while trying to maintain an appearance of humility and collegiality. Our money is on Celine. Also appearing: music’s Hanson, music’s Stevie Wonder. Television’s Kelsey Grammer is the host. [WCBS, 2, 8 P.M.]
Hey, hey, wait. Watch Ellen DeGeneres give it to her imagined enemies at ABC with a fantasy episode of Ellen in which the majority of people are gay. Ms. DeGeneres’ show has been mostly terrific since she came out-she’s free and relaxed now that she’s able to put on episodes that have something to do with what she cares about, and the jokes are flowing- but (and this is a big but, dear, so get ready) she has to stop slipping in all those “industry” jokes about the shortcomings of television programmers. This is really a bit of a stretch for Ellen (kind of like the time, on Cheers , when Cliffie got to go on Jeopardy!, if you know what I mean, and I think you do). Anyway, rise above it, girlfriend. Just make your big gay show. Be proud, sure, and be loud, too, but ix-nay on the TV executive quips. [WABC, 7, 9:30 P.M.]
Thursday, Feb. 26
The countdown begins-10 weeks until the end of Seinfeld . That’s 10 weeks until a bunch of well-compensated comedy writers start trying their hands at screenplays. Jennifer Crittenden, 28, is now the only on-staff female writer on the show. Before that, she was the only female writer on The Simpsons. Don’t you miss the girls? “It would feel different and probably a little more normal,” she said. “Seinfeld is a little testosterony, but it’s all I know.” This week, Kramer retires and moves next door to Jerry’s parents in Florida; Elaine isn’t sure if she’s part of an interracial couple or not. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]
Friday, Feb. 27
Four years ago, the scholarly Aaron Barnhart made his crazy dream a reality and started putting out an on-line newsletter called Late Show News . David Letterman was his main character, and the newsletter chronicled his every move. But the first readers of Mr. Barnhart’s weekly effort-a group of dedicated late-night viewers-have changed their viewing habits over the years. The main change? They’re not all that excited about tuning in Mr. Letterman anymore.…
Sue Trowbridge, who helps with Late Show News, is an old diehard Letterman fan who has turned away from Dave. She forced herself to check out Late Show With David Letterman , however, during the recent Olympiad: “Maybe I’m getting old,” she wrote in the most recent edition of Mr. Barnhart’s newsletter, “but every time Dave brought on those ‘ski-jumping dogs,’ I just groaned-it wasn’t funny to begin with, and of course he drove it into the ground. After watching Dave for over a decade, I just feel that there’s nothing new in his (or his writers’) bag of tricks.” …
New York Daily News TV critic Eric Mink sent a similar message to Mr. Barnhart for his fourth-anniversary issue of Late Show News : “For what it’s worth, my late-night viewing is down markedly from four years ago. Unless working on a specific project, I may check out Nightline , check out Dave and then check out.… Four years ago, I would almost always make a point of watching Letterman and feeling out of it if I didn’t. How much of this is a result of simple aging, I’m not in a position to know, but I suspect there’s something to it.” …
Tonight with Dave: Kim Basinger. [WCBS, 2, 11:35 P.M.]