At the conclusion of Nashville, the camera pans upward into the high heavens and the last image we see before staring off into the ether is the American flag. So it is appropriate that, at the beginning of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, the film that was released the following year, we see the raising of the American flag over the strains of reveille. Following some narration about the brave men and women who built our country and trudged through hardship after hardship, we witness the scene of an Indian attack on some settlers, driving the narrator’s point home in traditional western style. Once the carnage has concluded, the camera pulls back to reveal the attack has been a recreation and the settlers and natives are actors and this has all been done in the attempt to perfect a scenario for a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. So where Nashville infused Altman’s vision of an America being infested with rot via politics and show business, Buffalo Bill and the Indians aims to almost invert that formula from the jump by giving a tall-tale American history lesson filtered completely through the artifice of show business which, ultimately and paradoxically, overflows with truths.

The year is 1886, and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (Paul Newman) is a bigoted, ridiculously coiffed, narcissistic, and pinheaded blowhard who lives in a cloistered bubble of his own legend that is his Wild West Show where he is the figurehead, president, and CEO. But the new season needs a fresh angle as crowds are dwindling, causing chaos and cutbacks in Codyland. With the help of obsequious press agent Major John Burke (Kevin McCarthy) and ruthless producer Nate Salisbury (Joel Grey), Cody scores a coup when he wrangles Sitting Bull (Frank Kanquitts), whose victory over General George Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn made him a ready-made villain to audiences, into joining his show. Cody, a puffed up man of no small amount of self-importance, is frequently annoyed and enraged at Sitting Bull’s insistence on not rewriting history for the sake of entertainment nor allowing Bill to look like the star-spangled hero to which the latter is accustomed of appearing. Sitting Bull’s lethargic refusal to play the game Bill’s way, backed in full by Annie Oakley (Geraldine Chaplin), the show’s major draw, threatens the Wild West Show and, since he’s mostly a media construction, Bill’s existence.

To audiences of the day, this was maybe the most unwelcome bit of bicentennial cheer since Frank Zappa’s “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead.” To fans of Paul Newman and westerns, this was an affront to the senses and their patriotic sensibilities. To those that loved Altman and were in the tank for him, it was unsubtle and too on-the-nose. And maybe both of those camps’ criticisms mattered a great deal in 1976 when the nation was struggling with itself as it turned 200 years old. The country’s dichotomous mindset couldn’t be summed up any better than the Academy nominating Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, and Network for Best Picture only to then turn around and award the Oscar to Rocky, regardless of that film’s bottomless merits and endless appeal. It was clear that America was in the midst of a national case of the DT’s and was desperate to feel better.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, unfortunately, was not made for people who wanted to feel better. It was made for people who thought all the ballyhoo circling the bicentennial was a racket, and a racist one at that. This kind of disdain made Robert Altman a frequent target of conservative critics who would continue to willfully label his flaming of American culture as a misanthropic attitude about America itself. Of course, this was wrong as Altman loved America and, in fact, embodied its best and greatest characteristics. What Altman hated was the rank hypocrisy and the half-truths that built so much of the American narrative, something that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable point of view. And, after all, what was the Wild West Show but a traveling pack of exaggerations that, nonetheless, blazed a trail in the collective mind of America and ensured that its revisionist tales took the place of actual history? If conservative critics are hell-bent on discussing the effect of television and movies on our citizens, why not extend that same argument to those mythological tales with a reach so far back into America’s past that our country’s mind has been hard-wired to recognize only its supposed benevolent greatness?

And perhaps Altman, whose Nashville was a critical hit but didn’t exactly achieve its goal of changing the way movies were made, earned himself no favors in Hollywood by making show business look like a nepotistic, valueless, and grotesque vessel frequently lost in it own sauce of incompetence and yes men. But by looking into the past and examining how so much of America’s historical foundation is built on myths and legends, he also sees the ability to shape the future. Buffalo Bill is a buffoon but his keen understanding of the power of “the show business” to twist history into something perverted, unfair, disgusting, and beneficial only to him is frightening. “Bill Cody can only trust his senses. And when his senses fail him, he might just see things as they really are,” muses Burt Lancaster’s Ned Buntline, one-time scribbler of penny dreadfuls but current deconstructionist of the myths he once helped create.

Naturally, something like Buffalo Bill and the Indians has aged extremely well and, viewing it in 2021, it’s a little jarring. For much of its running time, it feels like a funhouse mirror put up against our contemporary politics. Inspired by Arthur Kopit’s play Indians, screenwriters Altman and Allan Rudolph keep Buffalo Bill and the Indians confined within the boundaries of the camp of the Wild West Show and by keeping the film more or less stagebound, the Wild West Show and all of its backstage pandemonium begins to look like a lot like the White House of Donald Trump. When Bill meets Sitting Bull, it’s a mock celebration that’s meant to feel like an honorable meeting between two great heads of state but is instead a giant fantasy created to assuage the ego of Buffalo Bill who is such a moron, he has no idea what “incarcerated” means and confuses William Halsey (Will Sampson), Sitting Bull’s interpreter, for Sitting Bull himself. Liikewise, truth has no room within the parameters of the Wild West Show. Ned Buntline’s character is such an unwelcome creature in Bill’s land of fantasy that he attempts to have Buntline tossed from the premises the second Bill hears he’s around. Naturally, Bill delegates this duty to someone else and, likewise, Buntline won’t move until Bill disinvites him personally. This leads to one of the film’s most beautifully written and performed scenes in which Lancaster sighs “You haven’t changed, Bill.” “I’m not supposed to change,” Newman retorts. “That’s why people pay to see me.”

As a document in regards to Altman’s feelings toward the bicentennial, it’s fascinating. As a retroactive treatise on what would exactly happen if we lived in a political environment that operated like in the same fashion as backstage at The Muppet Show, it’s pretty brilliant even if Altman sometimes hard presses his acrid point to the point of smugness. “You know,” President Grover Cleveland coos in admiration as Buffalo Bill struts away from a reception, “it’s a man like that that made America what it is today.” Yeah… we get it. Additionally, Altman sometimes stretches himself for easy laughs and the running gag involving Buffalo Bill’s infatuation with opera singers proves to be more irritating and farcical than it is funny but it does at least set up one of the film’s most sublime moments in which the pack of artless cornballs in the Wild West Show are put to shame and moved to tears by the simple performance of by Nina Cavelini ‘Qui Sola Virgin Rosa’.

But, in the grand scheme of things, the film’s flaws seem minor in comparison to its triumphant execution and its fearless determination to take on both the seemingly unassailable lacquer that protects America’s Disneyfied image of itself and the vainglorious stupidity (and potential danger) of Hollywood. By admitting that America itself is a malleable tall tale if delivered by the right kind of polished huckster and that nobody, no matter how noble, is beneath selling out for the right price and practicality, Altman foretold of an America in ruin, susceptible to the charms of empty-headed, megawatt stars where relationships are transactional and nothing is sacred.

“Boy, I’ll tell you,” Harvey Keitel’s slack-jawed and dim-bulb nephew to Buffalo Bill says at some point in the film as he stares off into the distance, “there ain’t no business like the show business.”

Brother, you ain’t kidding.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

Arne Glimcher’s Just Cause

Just Cause, a sweaty 90’s Sean Connery potboiler, is one of those films that could have had its ducks in a line to be somewhat believable and entertaining but the script is a weird one and the execution of said script.. well to say it goes off the rails would be putting it mildly. Connery plays a hotshot professor who was once a legendary lawyer, lured back into the muck of the legal system by an elderly woman (the great Ruby Dee) whose son (Blair Underwood) has been sitting on death row for eight years for the rape and murder of a little girl. She’s convinced he’s innocent, and begs him to investigate the case, and so he journeys to the sweaty Florida Everglades to nose around. Laurence Fishburne plays the dodgy local sheriff who put the boy away on a brutally coerced confession and doesn’t take kindly to anyone trying to dig old secrets up or overturn convictions. Soon information turns up related to another inmate on the row, a serial murderer played by Ed Harris in such a try-hard, faux intense, maniacally cartoonish performance you have to feel for the guy. Here’s the thing: this film doesn’t work for two glaring reasons. Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with a humdinger of a twist ending, but you have to be honest with your audience and play at their level, not deliberately hide shit, manipulate and mislead us into thinking one thing, then just do a fucking unabashed 180 degree turn and expect us to accept it. The twist is ludicrous, especially when you look back at the editing, composition and overall thrust of the first half of the film. Secondly, the film builds a careful series of events to mount tension and at the last minute decides it wants to be an action movie, throws all story and credibility to the dogs and blares rudely on for an obnoxious, balls out, car chase ridden finale it it doesn’t earn, need or warrant in any way. Connery is kind of bland here, just a stalwart archetype following the breadcrumb trail dutifully. A supporting cast of very talented folks like Chris Sarandon, Kate Capshaw, Ned Beatty, Chris Murray, Kevin McCarthy, Hope Lange and an unrecognizable Scarlett Johannsson are all squandered in underwritten bit parts. Fishburne is the only one who makes a valid and lasting impression, doing his best with the writing as he always does and putting menace, mirth and actual gravitas into his work. Don’t know what else to say, this thing just sucked.

-Nate Hill



There have been three remakes of the classic 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers — 1979, 1994, and 2007 respectively. This does not include the countless rip-offs and homages that have been made since the original graced the screen: some good (They Live), some bad (The Astronaut’s Wife) and some just plain ugly (Body Snatchers). By far the superior film in every way is the 1956 version directed by Don Siegel, which continues to thrill and entertain while hopeless rehashes like Abel Ferrara’s film try in vain to recapture the power and the impact of its predecessor. What Ferrara and other imitators don’t understand is that extravagant special effects and elaborate chases do not compensate for a non-existent story and weak characters — something that Siegel understood implicitly and wisely avoided in his film.

Adapted from Jack Finney’s excellent novel The Body Snatchers (1954), Siegel’s film is the best of all the versions made because it is the most faithful to the novel. The film begins with suspenseful music while the credits are shown over a sky filled with rushing clouds. After the credits end we meet a frantic Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) who is being questioned by the police. When a psychiatrist arrives Miles goes wild, until reassured that his story will be heard. What follows is a flashback account of how Dr. Bennell, with the help of an old girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) uncover a secret plot by aliens from outer space to take over the inhabitants of the small town of Santa Mira. It is a subtle invasion that at first glance does not appear to be that much of a threat, but as Miles and Becky soon discover, its implications reach far and wide, threatening not only close friends like Jack and “Teddy” Belicec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones), but all of humanity.

Like the novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a real marvel of pacing — achieved by gradually building the suspense, until the tension is too much. When Miles begins to tell his story, he starts by saying, “At first glance everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.” While these words are spoken, Siegel presents an ordinary looking small town. Miles’ words are a teaser that makes us curious. We want to know what this evil force is, how it has taken the town captive, and why it seems so normal. It is this curiosity that draws us into the story. At first everything seems normal, but little details appear that suggest otherwise. Maybe it is the scared child running out in front of Miles’ car, the same boy who later claims that his mother is not his mother, crying, “Don’t let her get me!” These events are all warning signs that point to a larger, impending danger that threatens the small town.

The film’s inception lies in the hands of producer Walter Wanger who had read Finney’s story in its original serial form in Collier’s magazine. He felt that it would make a good low-budget film for Allied Artists and asked Don Siegel to direct. After convincing screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring to join the production, the film began to take shape. From the start, the three men shared the same approach to the material. Their intention was to have the film act as a metaphor for the way “the majority of people in the world unfortunately are pods, existing without any intellectual aspirations and incapable of love,” remembers Siegel.

Originally, producer Walter Wanger and director Don Siegel wanted to shoot Invasion of the Body Snatchers on location in Jack Finney’s model for Santa Mira, Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco. In the first week of January 1955, Siegel, Wagner, and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring visited Finney to talk about the film version and to take a look at Mill Valley. The location proved to be too expensive and Siegel and some Allied Artists executives found locations resembling Mill Valley in nearby Sierra Madre, Chatsworth, Glendale, the Los Feliz neighborhood, and in Bronson and Beachwood Canyons. However, much of the film was shot in the Allied Artists studio on the east side of Hollywood. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally budgeted for a 24-day schedule at $454,864 and the studio asked Wanger to cut the budget significantly. The producer proposed a shooting schedule of 20 days and a budget of $350,000.

Initially, Wanger considered Gig Young, Dick Powell, Joseph Cotton, and several others for the role of Miles. For Becky, he thought of casting Anne Bancroft, Donna Reed, Kim Hunter, Vera Miles, and others. With the lower budget, Wanger had to abandon these choices and cast Richard Kiley who had just starred in Phoenix City Story for Allied Artists. Kiley turned the role down and Wanger cast two relative newcomers in the lead roles: Kevin McCarthy, who had just starred in Siegel’s Annapolis Story (1955), and Dana Wynter, who had done several major dramatic roles on television but had not done a film.

The film was shot in 23 days between March 23, 1955 and April 18. The cast and crew worked a six-day week with only Sundays off. The production went over schedule by three days because of night-for-night shooting that Siegel wanted. The final budget was $382,190. Siegel used his lack of budget and unknown actors to create an authentic, natural feeling of normalcy to the proceedings. This became one of the strengths of the film. We so easily believe that this is Smalltown, U.S.A. that when the horror of what is really happening becomes apparent the shock is that much more significant. Siegel, a former special effects expert, knew full well the pitfalls of relying too much on effects and not on the plot. “Instead of doing what so many science fiction and horror films do — spend all their money on special effects and put poor actors on the screen — we concentrated on the performers. The main thing about the picture, however, was that it was about something and that’s rare.” And so Siegel actually used the handicap of a small budget to his advantage by downplaying the special effects in favor of creating strong, three-dimensional characters and telling a suspenseful, often scary story.

The project was originally called, The Body Snatchers after the Finney serial. However, Wanger wanted to avoid confusion with the Val Lewton 1945 horror film with a very similar title. The producer was unable to come up with a title and accepted the studio’s choice, They Come from Another World that was assigned in summer 1955. Siegel protested this title and suggest two alternatives: Better Off Dead and Sleep No More, while Wanger offered Evil in the Night and World in Danger. None of these were chosen as the studio finally settled on Invasion of the Body Snatchers in late 1955. Wanger saw the final cut in December 1955 and protested the use of the Superscope format. Its use had been a part of the early plans for the film but the first print was not made until December. Wanger felt that the film lost sharpness and detail. Siegel had originally shot Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The Superscope look was a post-production lab process designed to make the film resemble the popular Cinemascope format.

The studio scheduled three previews for the film on the last days of June and the first day of July 1955. According to Wanger’s memos at the time, the previews were successful. However, later reports by Mainwaring and Siegel contradict this, claiming that audiences could not follow the film and laughed in the wrong places. In response, the studio removed much of the film’s humor, “humanity”, and “quality”, according to Wanger. He scheduled another preview in mid-August that did not go well. The studio decided to change the film’s title to a more conventional science fiction one. In later interviews, Siegel pointed out that it was studio policy not to mix humor with horror. Both Siegel and Mainwaring were satisfied with the film as shot. It was originally intended to end with Miles screaming hysterically as truckloads of pods pass him by. The studio, wary of such a pessimistic conclusion, insisted on adding a prologue and epilogue to the movie that suggested a more optimistic outcome to the story which is thus told mainly in flashback. Siegel decided to shoot these scenes because he knew the studio would put them in regardless and if he filmed them then perhaps he could do a little damage control. Mainwaring scripted this framing story and Siegel shot it on September 16, 1955 at Allied Artists.

Siegel had problems with these sequences because as he saw it, they let “you know right away that something unusual is going on. If you start, as I wanted to, with McCarthy arriving in the town of Santa Mira, it reveals it slowly, we understand why McCarthy can’t readily accept the terrible thing that appears to be happening. And the dramatic impact of the ending is reduced with the epilogue.” Allied Artist also made Siegel cut out a lot of the humor in the film, but enough survived for the director’s intended effect. “I felt the idea of pods growing into a likeness of a person would strike the characters as preposterous. I wanted to play it that way,” Siegel remembers, “with the characters not taking the threat seriously. For example, if you told me now that there was a pod in my likeness in the other room, I would joke about it. However, when I opened the door and saw the pod, the full shock and horror would hit me and the fun would be gone. I wanted the people in the film to behave like normal people.” Despite the studio’s constant meddling, Siegel managed to create an impressive film whose impact has not diminished over the years.

In addition to these bookends, Wanger wanted to add a variety of speeches and prefaces. He suggested a voice-over introduction for Miles. While the film was being shot, Wanger tried to get permission in England to use a Winston Churchill quotation as a preface to the film. The producer also tried to get Orson Welles to voice the preface and a trailer for the film. He wrote speeches for Welles’ opening on June 15, 1955 and spent considerable time trying to convince Welles to do it but was unsuccessful and considered science fiction author Ray Bradbury instead but this also did not happen. Mainwaring eventually wrote the voice-over narration himself. The shorter version of the film was often rerun late at night on T.V. stations and one PBS showing in 1988. The full theatrical version was not widely released until 1978 when a remake was produced starring Donald Sutherland.

By giving us only bits and pieces at a time, Siegel slowly begins to reveal the threat of alien invasion. People act normal enough, but something is slightly askew. People seem to have emotions, but as one character observes, “There is just the pretense of it.” Body Snatchers feeds on our fear of dehumanization and conformity — not only of ourselves, but our family and friends. A lot of the suspense in the film is derived from the fact that the characters must stay awake to remain human; to sleep means becoming a pod. Sleep is an important motif of the film, to the point where Siegel originally wanted it to be called Sleep No More, a reference to Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. For Siegel, sleep is a metaphor for conformity or the stifling of any intellectual curiosity. People often sleepwalk through their whole lives — never truly alive. And like Miles in the film, we are surrounded daily by these intellectual sleepers, being subtly invaded by their ever-growing numbers. Again, the studio stepped in and imposed a more science fiction/horror-like title which the filmmaker had no choice but to accept.

Despite the compromises Siegel was forced to make, his original intentions were not diminished. Through subtle references and imagery, he managed to convey his fears of conformity and present the solution to this problem in the form of its hero: Miles Bennell who embodies individuality and humanity — something that the pods (read modern industrial society) try to destroy. Unfortunately, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was not blessed with a big budget or big name stars and as a result critics and box office success ignored it upon initial release. Over the years, film buffs and student groups began to take interest in the film and an ever-growing cult following developed leading to its rediscovery in the 1960s by French New Wave critics who declared it to be one of the best and most influential science fiction films of the 1950s, alongside such classics as The Thing (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Them! (1954).

bodysnatchers_1American critics underestimated the widespread influence it has had since its initial release. A much imitated (see The Hidden amongst many others) film, it still manages to captivate and delight people today. The film has been read on many different levels, most often as a subtext for protesting Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Red Scare mentality or as an anti-Communist allegory. First and foremost it is an entertaining film that blends a science fiction premise with film noir and horror elements (in particular, its use of unusual camera angles, close-ups, sharp editing, music, and lighting). Despite three remakes, the original film is the superior version because its director, Don Siegel understood Finney’s novel and was able to translate its intent successfully to the screen without relying on flashy special effects and trickery like so many contemporary science fiction films.