King of the Hill

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JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT is a Sidney Lumet I’d never seen — from 1980 — Fiona got very excited when she learned it was written by Jan Presson Allen (MARNIE, CABARET) from her own novel. I could never understand why writers should be forbidden from writing their own movie adaptations, providing they understand screenwriting. Allen learned from Hitchcock.

Alan King plays a tycoon and Ali McGraw is his mistress and business protegé. This could almost have been a 30s romantic comedy, except it’s a little TOO sophisticated even for that decade — McGraw disrobes and King uses the “cunt” word in front of Myrna Loy. (Water off a duck’s back to our Myrna. Fiona was also very excited about Myrna being in it.) Ultimately, Fiona kind of drifted away from the movie, not really liking the characters and put off by the score, which is indeed kind of diabolical. I was cheered to see that composer Charles Strouse had a distinguished career, so that this can be dismissed as a blip.

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(In his terrific book, Making Movies, Lumet is a little defensive about his work with composers, saying that MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS was the only movie where he wanted us to notice the score, and we did, and it was Oscar-nominated. But he did get it wrong from time to time. GARBO TALKS is a charming comedy rendered unwatchable by its music — same problem as JYMWYW — playing the comedy; Quincy Jones contributed odd and inappropriate scores to THE DEADLY AFFAIR and THE ANDERSON TAPES, though elsewhere he’s been a versatile and sensitive accompanist. Q&A has a score by Ruben Blades that might work extremely well if it didn’t have bloody lyrics, which render the whole thing jumbled and distracting. And then there’s THE WIZ.)

The other thing that makes the movie modern is Alan King, who isn’t an old-fashioned movie star, and commits to playing a rather loathsome character in a way that no old-school star would. Cary Grant could have done the same stuff, but with a twinkle. King’s barefaced aggression and vindictiveness do make it awfully hard to care about the central relationship — I rooted for McGraw when she violently assaults King in Bergdorf Goodman, but not when she made up afterwards. Still, I wouldn’t want to lose any of the bad behaviour — the portrayal of this all-powerful businessman as a peevish child (with added lechery) has a frankness that’s appealing.

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Also with: a painfully young Peter Weller, a painfully old Keenan Wynn (lovely), and Tony Roberts being gay.

This is Loy’s last movie, and she’s great in it as a hyper-efficient P.A. who has no illusions about the kind of man she works for, and manages to like him without looking the other way — up to a point. This could theoretically have run in The Late Films Blogathon, but I decided just to use it as a reminder. Dec 1st-7th. All are welcome!

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15 Responses to “King of the Hill”

  1. Dear, delightful, sadly departed Richard Glatzer (Still Alice, The Last of Robin Hood and Quincinera , co-written and directed with his husband Wash Westmoreland; Grief done on his own) , got his first job in show business with Just Tell Me What You Want. His assignment? Go-fer for Myrna Loy! As you can well imagine Richard was walking on air.

    Just Tell Me What You Want is a film a clef about Ray Stark whose girlfriend was (wait for it) Jay Presson Allen (!) Alan King isn’t Cary Grant — which is the point. Cary Grant could not possibly have uttered (on hearing Ali has left him) “I’M A DEAD JEW!!!!”
    King makes power sexy in a very New York way. And perhaps one would have had to come from New York to realize this. In its heyday the city used to be the abode of madcap Big Shots like this. Then along came Donald Trump who drove the city into the muck.

    What’s great about the Bergdorf’s scene is the women shoppers cheering Ali on. They know that any woman who would act this way — smashing her love upside the head with an expensive bag in full public view – did so because he deserved it!

    Trouble in Paradise it ain’t. but something tells me Lubitsch would have loved it.

  2. Yeah, it’s hard to see who would have been ideal casting for this in an earlier era. The blustering titan types, Edwards Arnold and Robinson, wouldn’t have been suitable romantic leading men, and even the leading men who WERE Jewish couldn’t or wouldn’t play it.

  3. Plus the Jewish studio heads didn’t want to make films about the Jews. Remember “Gentleman’s Agreement” was green-lighted by the goy who ran FOX.

  4. The Jazz Singer seems to have closed the door on overt portrayals of Jewish life in Hollywood movies, which is odd considering what an influential success it was. Warners were always a bit more ethnic than the others, but Zanuck was there too, and may have influenced that.

  5. I always really liked JTMWYW. There are never enough weird romantic comedies for my taste. As for possible casting, how about Warren William?

  6. In his terrific book, Making Movies, Lumet is a little defensive about his work with composers…[But] he did get it wrong from time to time.

    The Offence is the only film with music by Harrison Birtwhistle. Does Lumet say anything about how or why that happened and what it was like? “Unnoticeable” isn’t the word to describe that score.

  7. Lumet spoke at one of my classes at NYU in late 1974(?), when “Murder on the Orient Express” was still in the theaters. He asked for candid opinions and was horrified that we all hated the music (I saw the film on TV a few months ago and thought the score was charming). “You broke my heart,” he said, and mimed a heart attack.

  8. Hey, how about Warren William for the King part in the 1934 version of JTMWYW?

  9. Didn’t know Strouse had that many film scores to his credit. He’s a major name for Broadway musicals, among them the invincible community theater favorites “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Annie”. He composed the song Archie and Edith sing to open the series “All in the Family.” He’s also credited with introducing Anne Bancroft to Mel Brooks (at the time she was performing a Strouse song on a TV show).

  10. Robert Williams could have done solid Peter Weller. And I’m not sure I can find just one pre-code actress for McGraw.

  11. Warren William is definitely the man, or starving lion, for the job, although “I’m a dead Jew!” might still be a challenge.

    For leading lady, I think upgrading Myrna to lead would work, and Ruth Donnelly could step into her shoes.

    The Offence totally works, with music as abrasive as everything else. I guess Orient Express is maybe the only one you could hum.

  12. LADYHAWKE is a pretty good movie rendered unwatchable by its score (inserted after the fact by suits). I’ve always found the score for THE AFRICAN QUEEN to be a major irritant.

  13. Yes, Ladyhawke’s music is an abomination. I’ve forgotten African Queen’s music but it obviously didn’t altogether spoil my enjoyment because I have fond memories of the film itself. And I love Allan Gray’s music for Powell & Pressburger.

  14. Having re-watched The African Queen only the other day, I can assure you that Gray’s music is wonderful, easily as melodious and inventive as his best work for Powell and Pressburger. One sequence in the middle of the film shifts in the most elegant way from full orchestration to solo piano, and winds up with the noise of the boat engine, perfectly integrated into the musical texture in a way which reminded me of Morricone.

  15. Huston must’ve been a P&P fan, since he scooped up Jack Cardiff as well.

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