Movie Reviews

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, Lance Henriksen
Review by Steven Loeb


Cableman Roy Neary is one of several people who experience a close encounter of the first kind, witnessing UFOs flying through the night sky. He is subsequently haunted by a mountainlike image in his head and becomes obsessed with discovering what it represents, putting severe strain on his marriage. Meanwhile, government agents around the world have a close encounter of the second kind, discovering physical evidence of otherworldly visitors in the form of military vehicles that went missing decades ago suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere. Roy and the agents both follow the clues they have been given to reach a site where they will have a close encounter of the third kind: contact.


In the early days of science fiction movies, beings from other planets were often used as a symbol of fear and destruction. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, aliens were often used as a representation for the invasion of Communism. They came, they saw and they destroyed everything in their path. By the late 1970s, though the Cold War was still going strong, the Red Scare was long over, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) had improved relations between the United States and Russia, leading to a reduction in the number of missiles that each country would be allowed to keep in their arsenals. It seemed that the two super-powers might be coming toward some kind of resolution to their decades-long war; of course this would not actually happen until more than ten years later. Nevertheless, if there is one film that shows a prevailing optimism in the direction that the Cold War, and the world in general, was taking at the time, it was Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the third film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the story of a small town electrician named Roy, played by Richard Dreyfuss, who experiences a seemingly random encounter with a UFO. After the experience, Roy becomes obsessed with aliens and UFOs. His behavior becomes extremely strange and erratic, including drawing the same mountain over and over. When he is unable to explain his behavior to his wife, she leaves him, and only then does he realize that he is drawing Devils Tower in Wyoming, the site where the UFOs are about to make contact with humans. As he races to get there, the government, having made a list of people who will be allowed to visit the aliens, apprehends him. After being questioned, Roy is added to the list, the aliens return the numerous people who had been abducted over the years, Roy and the others on the list enter the spaceship and are taken away to make contact with the friendly aliens.

Close Encounters was a film that Steven Spielberg had been working on for almost a decade by the time it was finally released. After shopping the film around, Spielberg was finally able to sell the script, and get creative control of the project, following the massive success of Jaws (1975). Based on a story he had written as a teenager, it is one of the few scripts for which Spielberg gets full writing credit, even though the script went through numerous changes and numerous other writers worked on different drafts of the story. Despite the contributions of other writers, in many ways, this is the first real Spielberg film, as this is where he began to incorporate themes that he would use in many of his later films, some of which reflect his own life and would come to define him as a director. This is the first of Spielberg’s films to depict an unhappy marriage; Spielberg’s own parents had divorced when he was a child and he often incorporates broken families, or single parent homes, in his films. Roy and his wife have a tempestuous relationship to begin with, and they see their marriage become even more strained as a result of Roy’s obsessions, ultimately leading to the collapse of their relationship. Spielberg would use this theme most famously in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982), a film about a lonely boy who finds friendship with a lost alien. Spielberg’s films also often incorporate the themes of wonder and child-like innocence, seen here as Roy enters the spaceship at the end of the film. Though he is unsure of what is going to happen, he is excited and awed instead of afraid. This motif was used again in the Indiana Jones movies and, perhaps most successfully, in Jurassic Park (1993).

Close Encounters was the second collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss, the first being Jaws two years earlier. Dreyfuss, who had first gained fame for his role in American Graffiti (1973), became a major movie star after Jaws. In 1978, he became the youngest actor ever to win the Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Goodbye Girl (1977), though this honor has since been surpassed by Adrian Brody.

Unfortunately for Dreyfuss, at the peak of his success, he developed a serious drug habit and, after crashing his car and being arrested for cocaine possession in 1982, he was forced to enter rehab. He was eventually able to resuscitate his career, going on to receive a nomination for Best Actor for Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995). After Close Encounters, Dreyfuss and Spielberg would work together one more time in Always (1989), a film that is widely considered to be one of Spielberg’s worst movies.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a huge success, both critically and at the box office. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including a Supporting Actress nomination for Melina Dillion, playing the mother of an abducted child, and Spielberg’s first for Best Director; the film would walk away with two Oscars, for cinematography and sound editing.

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elevator in the gallows.jpgThis new Cinematheque series showcases post war French Crime classics, may of which are seldom seen. One of the best films in this series is the newly restored PANIQUE, a 1945 black and white film (remade by Patrice Leconte as MONSIEUR HIRE in 1989) which I got to see for the first time, and must say is the BEST film I have seen this year.

PANIQUE was selected for both the Cannes and New York Film Festivals and was received with critical accolades when it opened at New York’s Film Forum. The film is capsule reviewed below. A MUST-SEE! (Panique screens on Thursday, July 20 at 6:30 p.m.)

French Crime Classics running from July 6 to September 3 is curated by James Quandt, Senior Programmer, TIFF Cinematheque. There is a total of 25 classic crime films, several in new or restored prints.


(France 1957) ****
Directed by Louis Malle

One of Jeanne Moreau’s early films that director Louis Malle help put on the filmmaking map. Moreau does a lot of sulking and wandering around the city like a crazed lady when her lover (Marurice Ronet) fails to turn up for the rendezvous after being locked and trapped in an elevator after office hours as a result of a murder they both conspired on. The victim is the husband and the target the prize money that the two lovers hope to live happily ever after with. But as stories like these are, nothing goes as planned. A young couple steal the car and murder two German tourists with Ronet being the prime suspect. Director Malle fills his suspense thriller with lots of details that aid the story’s authenticity, especially in the segments in which Ronet is trapped in the lift. The black and white cinematography (by Henri Decae) is superb and aided by an excellent jazz trumpet score by Miles Davis. A beautifully stunning and entertaining suspense thriller!

LES DIABOLIQUES (France 1955) ***** Top 10
Directed b H.G Clouzot

Undoubtedly the best suspense murder thriller of all time! Based on the novel by Pierre Boileau, the film is the typical Hitchcock movie. It was rumoured that Clouzot bought the rights of the novel just before Hitchcock could, thus infuriating the Master of Suspense. But Hitchcock could not have made a better film. Shot in black and white with the word sinister printed on every scene, DIABOLIQUE tells the story of a mistress and wife of a boarding school owner conspiring together to commit the perfect murder. As one school colleague put it – it is really strange to see the wife comforting her husband’s mistress.

Simone Signoret plays the strong mistress while Vera Clouzot plays the weak hearted wife, both abused physically and mentally by the man they plan to murder. Of course in stories like these, things never go as planned. The body goes missing and the plot twists more than once at the end. Clouzot ‘s film contains some wickedly brilliant moments. The one in which the wife begins to warn her husband of the poisoned wine he is about to down only to get slapped by him is a classic. She then quietens to pour him more of the poisoned wine.

Another has her burn the evidence with a match, the light brightening up her face to reveal her reaction. As the two women leave in the car to drive back to the school with corpse in the boot, the neighbour says casually that the cops are around the major intersections theses days. One sentence of dialogue such as this one is sufficient to drum up the audience anticipation for the entire car trip. The atmosphere of the 50’s countryside France, the boarding school and emotional trappings of the two women are all wonderfully created. DIALBOLIQUE was remade with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani in the 90’s, but some films like this one (and all Hitchcock films) should never be remade.

JUDEX (France/Italy 1963) ****
Directed by Georges Franju

JUDEX (original creator Louis Feuillade) is a French mysterious hero who punishes evil men like a judge passes sentences. The plot revolves the evil banker Favraux, receiving a threatening note from Judex (Channing Pollocak) demanding that he pay back people he has swindled. He is later drugged by Judex and locked away. But Favraux is not the only villain in the piece. Meanwhile, the former governess, Diana (Francine Berge) , kidnaps Favraux’s daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) to try to get the banker’s money. At the same time, private detective Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau) bumbles his way (like an Inspector Clouseau) trying to figure out what is going on. The film is rich in period atmosphere especially in the costume ball segment where JUDEX makes a surprise appearance wearing a costume with the head of a hawk. The film wonderfully transports the audience into the style of early French cinema.

PANIQUE (PANIC) (France 1946 ) ***** Top 10
Directed by Julien Duvivier

The first film (before Patrice Leconte’s MONSIEUR HIRE with Michel Blanc) based on the novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire by Georges Simenon, PANIQUE has all the elements of a film classic. The plot is a beauty and the beast like story with all the villagers at the end of the film lynching who they think is the murderer of a an innocent girl. After an elderly woman is murdered, the murderer realizes that Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon), a solitary Jewish neighbor on the courtyard where the main characters live, knows who is responsible. The murderer and his girlfriend, Alice (Viviane Romance) manipulate local opinion against Hire, who is ostracized by the community. It does not help that M. Hire falls in lvd with Alice. He tells Alice his every move, making him more vulnerable to the murderer. They then plant evidence in Hire’s apartment to confirm popular suspicions. Director Duvivier builds up on the suspicion and mistrust by the villagers on the stranger, criticizing the small French town mentality. The butcher questions the the preference of his pork chops to be bloody hen M. Hire buys the, and another is suspicious of the gifts M. Hire offers to a little girl. The town is interested in cheap gossip, tacky entertainment like lady wrestling and taking matters into their own hands. Beautifully shot in black and white with M. Hire wonderfully performed by Michel Simon, PANIQUE is a thrilling tragedy from start to finish.

Directed by Francois Truffaut

One of Truffaut’ more obscure but no less impressive feature, SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER follows the adventures of a bar’s pianist, Charlie played by French singer Charles Aznavour after his bother runs to him for hiding. The film is part thriller part romance but it is these little details of the film that creates the charm and magic of this sensitive film. One scene has Charlie contemplating whether to ask Lena (Marie Dubois) to have a drink or to be more subtile by asking her if she was thirsty. When he immediately turns to her to utter by mistake, “Let’s go for a drink,” she has already walked off. The execution of musical numbers like the rendering of “Framboise” also does the trick. Aznavour is no great actor, by Truffaut milks the charm that has made this singer so famous. Again, the are lots of shots of women’s sexy long legs here as in Truffaut’s other films especially L’HOMME QUI AIMES LES FEMMES. I saw the film only once 20 years ago and was not really impressed then, but am now.



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