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RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) – Indiana Jones and the Template of Contrivances


When Raiders of the Lost Ark was first released in 1981, I was as gaga over it as anyone, watching it over and over for the fine filmmaking and stunt work involved. A quarter-century later, I decided to show the movie to my then-9-year-old son (who had become a George Lucas-phile thanks to his intense connection with the Star Wars series).

In 1981, I would have given this movie five stars just for its non-stop thrills. Viewing it again, though, it looks a lot less than perfect.

As archeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford remains as roguish as ever, perhaps even channeling a little Humphrey Bogart into his sly performance. (Indeed, it’s a pity that Ford didn’t keep his “dark side” in further movie roles, instead transmogrifying into a pointy-jawed Mr. Perfection with each passing movie year.)

At the other end of the acting spectrum is Karen Allen as Marion, a long-deserted lover of Indy’s who reunites with him for his latest adventure. Marion is obviously intended as another spunky Lucas heroine (a la Princess Leia in Star Wars), but she fails miserably. She is forever telling the villains to “get your grimy hands off me,” and then as soon as they throw her over their shoulders like a sack of potatoes, she shuts right up with no riposte. (Reminds me of the woman in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who pounds incessantly on a Roman soldier’s chest, only to have him look down and nonchalantly say, “Stop that.”) There’s an especially unforgivable shot of Indy and Marion in the middle of a village swarming with bad guys; Indy seems to be literally fighting for his life, while in the background, Marion looks as though she’s taking a TV tray and robotically bopping willing villains on their heads.)

The story is set in 1936 and involves the lost Ark of the Convenant, which (the story tells us) Hitler as a fan of the occult was eager to possess. Archeologist Indy has been craving this treasure for years, and against all odds, tries to snatch it back from the Nazis.

There’s no denying that the thrills are still there and that the bad guys are movie-legend bad. (As evil Major Toht, Ronald Lacey seems to be letting the dialogue drip off his tongue.) If only it weren’t for that silly climax. (Big spoiler paragraph next.)

The greedy Nazis decide to have a look at the Ark’s treasures before delivering it to Hitler, while Indy and Marion are tied to a pole that is tantalizingly close to the Ark. The sucker gets uncovered, and suddenly ominous shapes and spirits ascend from the Ark and literally melt down the bad guys. Indy warns Marion to keep her eyes closed until the fracas is over. This leads to the strange thought that, if all these bad guys just shut their eyes for a while, they’d still have the Ark to themselves.

And then there’s that inane, Citizen Kane-tribute ending, where the Ark gets shoved into a warehouse with thousands of similarly crated treasures, and Indy complains that the Washington bureaucrats “don’t know what they have there.” But Indy does — shouldn’t he be warning them that if they ever open that thing, Washington bureaucracy will be decimated very quickly? Or does the evil that’s inside the Ark work its wonders only on Nazis?

Raiders of the Lost Ark is still an adventurous hoot, but nearly four decades have worn away its novelty, revealing a few too-smooth contrivances beneath.

R.I.P., David Ogden Stiers


Sorry to hear about yesterday’s death of actor David Ogden Stiers (above, top right). He died from bladder cancer, at age 75.

Stiers, of course, was best known for playing snooty Boston blueblood Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester on TV’s “M*A*S*H.” Winchester wasn’t my favorite character on the show, but he definitely had his moments, as when he bonded unexpectedly with Cpl. Klinger (Jamie Farr) in a Christmas episode, and particularly his well-rounded story arc in the series’ famous finale.

In later years, Stiers was reticent to discuss “M*A*S*H” in interviews because he didn’t want to be known only for his work on that show. And who could blame him? He had a long-running career on stage and in film as well as TV. His first movie role was as narrator of George Lucas’ debut film, THX-1138. He also did voice work for many Disney cartoons: Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast, corrupt Gov. Ratcliffe in Pocahontas, and the voice-of-conscience archdeacon in my all-time favorite Disney film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

His was a rich talent, and he will be sorely missed. Rest in peace, Maj. Winchester.


SEXTETTE (1978) – The reputation of Mae West goes south


Forgive my sacrilege, but as much as I enjoy 1930’s movies, Mae West has never done anything for me. IMHO, she’s the Madonna of the Depression era: Her act is so much about sex that I don’t find it the least bit sexy.

However, there were obviously millions of moviegoers who did. Unfortunately, almost none of those fans followed her into the late 1970’s when, at 84 years of age and two-and-a-half years before her death, she tried to reprise all of her old shtick in a jaw-dropping movie titled Sextette.

West (who wrote a play on which the screenplay is based) plays Marlo Manners, a famous movie sex symbol who is in London to get married for the sixth time, to Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton). However, we find out that Manners has also been called upon in the past to use her sex appeal undercover (ho-ho) in matters of international diplomacy, and her manager (Dom DeLuise) keeps pulling Manners away from her honeymoon so that she can again help to negotiate, er, world peace.

There is certainly some brilliant acting in this movie — and it’s all done by the thousands of extras who flood city streets and huge lobbies to convince us that they can’t wait to see Marlo in the flesh and hang on her every word. Every time West utters one of her tired double-entendres (some of which are actually reprised from her classic ’30s movies), the crowd roars as though they’ve just heard a priceless bon mot, much like similar movie extras were hired to laugh at Jerry Lewis’ tired antics in Hardly Working three years later.

The movie’s production value is almost zilch. The entire movie is brightly and flatly lit and ends up looking and playing like an extended episode of “The Love Boat.” And the movie’s half-hearted attempt to pass itself off as a musical is pitiable, from a blah performance of “Hooray for Hollywood” (performed in the lobby of a London hotel) to West and Dalton doing a what-were-they-thinking cover of The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” (Throughout the song, West mutters the “Whatever” in the song’s chorus as though she’s giving us her critique of the movie.)

Based on the movie’s premise alone, there’s no way that any of the performers can come off credibly. It would be hard enough for Timothy Dalton (then a half-century-and-change younger than West) to convince us that he’s madly in love with her, but it doesn’t help that the couple never exchange a single kiss in the movie.

After that, all you can do is rate the other actors on how much they give up on the movie’s hopeless plot and just go for big yoks. Probably the worst is Tony Curtis, whose entire characterization is a fake Russian accent. As, respectively, Marlo’s costume designer and one of her ex-husbands, rockers Keith Moon and Ringo Starr garner a few good chuckles. But the movie’s saving grace is Dom DeLuise as Marlo’s alternately harried and pushy manager. DeLuise imbues the movie with so much comic energy, it makes West look even more aged and arthritic. (It must be said, though, that the movie’s absolute nadir is DeLuise tap-dancing atop a piano and singing the Beatles song “Honey Pie.”)

Based on the above debits, one can only conclude that Mae West thought she was still so charismatic that she alone could carry the movie and make the audience overlook the film’s many defaults. Obviously, no one on the set had the heart or nerve to tell her that it wasn’t 1934 anymore.