He Shot Movies, Didn’t He?

We were saddened to hear of the death of Sydney Pollack today. Always an enjoyable presence as an actor, he also directed some memorable movies. Not necessarily great art, but great movie-movies, intelligent entertainments that exuded the professionalism and confidence of a skilled craftsman.

The Pollack film I have most affection for is THE SCALPHUNTERS, which impressed me at an age when I found most westerns boring. The outsize charm of Burt Lancaster (a new thing to me at the time), the dignity of Ossie Davis, and the amusing pairing of Telly (Savalas) and Shelley (Winters)… it comes from that period when American westerns were trying to deal with the Italian newcomers, either by attempting to absorb some of that brio and vulgarity or by standing on their dignity and defining themselves against the Eurotrash. THE SCALPHUNTERS is of the former camp, but it doesn’t try too hard to be cool. It doesn’t need to. And it climaxes in a viciously dirty skirmish between Lancaster and Davis, all eye-gouging and ear-biting, which you’d be unlikely to see in a modern family entertainment. Like a Raoul Walsh brawler, it makes this disgraceful behaviour inoffensive and amusing. Whether that’s altogther a good thing, I don’t know, but to a little brat like me it was HEAVEN. I wasn’t a very physical kid but I’ve always responded to physical comedy (although maybe my tastes have matured).

It’s all a fantastic contrast to CASTLE KEEP, Lancaster and Pollack’s next collaboration, a weird piece of fringe theatre enacted on a grand scale with an absurdly high pyrotechnics budget. It’s like Spielberg’s 1941 as written by a team consisting of Kurt Vonnegut, Harold Pinter and William Peter Blatty. It would make the ideal Fever Dream Double Feature with Blatty’s THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, which is even freakier and also features the esteemed Scott Wilson. The pictures here come from it, and I’ve been meaning to post them since January.

4 Responses to “He Shot Movies, Didn’t He?”

  1. Pollack reportedly turned to directing on Lancaster’s reccomendation. Thanks Burt!

    This passing was not unexpected. When George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and Tony Gilroy were makign the awards seasons round for Michael Clayton late last year they all spoke of their concern for the ailing Pollack.

    A solid mainstream director, and a producer of superb taste, Pollack was an actor without peer. No one could nail a line of dialogue like Sydney Pollack. Just think of his “All rumors are true,” in The Player. And he’s equally amazing in Eyes Wide Shut, Michael Clayton and of course Tootsie.

    The world just got a little sadder.

  2. It’s true.
    I also like his line “Let the boring crap BE boring crap,” a warning to film-makers not to overdecorate and overelaborate the things that aren’t important.

  3. I have no great love for Pollack-as-director. Memory does tell me, however, that “Three Days of the Condor” is quite decent in a mid-’70s, bleak, paranoid sort of way.

  4. Yes, that’s a good one. He’s somebody who can’t be brushed aside, everyone will always find at least one Pollack film they have to admire. I wouldn’t call him important or even inspired, but he would rise to both qualities on occasion, and he was never stupid, crass or lazy. Impeccable taste was always on his side.

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