News & Politics

Even with a Shirtless Robert Redford and Johnny Cash Soundtrack: ‘Rotten to the Core’


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
October 29, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 44

Film: Little Fauss
By Molly Haskell

Can Robert Redford be a nasty skunk? Can Jack Nicholson be without charm? Or Jane Fonda without bail money? Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? In Preston Sturges’s great “Sullivan’s Travels,” a Hollywood director played by Joel McCrea sets out with 10 cents in his pocket to find out what trouble and poverty are, in order to make a serious and uplifting film about it. It is also Sturges’s search for his own identity, somewhere between and including both the tramp and the sophisticate, but with the former finally subsumed in the latter. In the most clear-eyed and unreconstructed of endings, he returns to Hollywood ready to make more comedies because he has discovered in the universality of laughter the redemption of his own commercial art, but with hardly a passing thought or backward glance for the wretched of the earth.

Even back on the chain gang, he had known he didn’t belong there, that he was a Director, not a criminal, and that his condition was conditional. The last recorded person to leave the luxury of the bourgeois family and embrace poverty authentically and unconditionally was a man called Francis (Assissi, c. 1200).

Periodically, when the world is too much with us (which now it most emphatically is) we are seized with a fervor for self-purification which may take fanatical forms far more dangerous in their isolation and self-deception than the more diluted, daily conflicts and compromises. The mistake is not necessarily in the act of abnegation, the self-denial which can create tension and growth, but in the Kantian imperatives which are claimed for it.

Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, divested of all the appurtenances of theatre, is in no way, except to the actors, ultimate or absolute theatre.

The revolutionaries in Robert Kramer’s “Ice” have to invoke (and incite) repression and postulate an abstract, fascistic “state” to provide a political motive and justification for a revolution which is fundamentally not political at all. (And if it were political, who are they to call us to arms, to presume to be the one revolution?) But it is something else — the social, religious (not power-to-the-people economical) effort of an elite to find personal absolution in collective activity; an attempt to combine work and play (this division, in the lives of their parents, being the real crime), the diverse personae of the individual in continuous communal significance. And they must murder in order to confirm the political (i.e., rational, higher purpose) nature of their revolution.

Nevertheless, “Ice” is so much more genuine and admirable (and more frightening) a film than “LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSY” which is rotten to the core without a surface ripple in its moral superiority. Sidney J. Furie has as much insight into America as Sturges’s John L. Sullivan into poverty. The film manages to convey an attitude of both sensitive distaste and indifference to the two main characters, their profession (motorcycle racing), and the people around them. Robert Redford plays Halsy, a battered, snotty, thieving, womanizing rat, and Michael J. Pollard is a (what else?) dim local yokel who teams up with him. Redford trying to play against his irresistible good looks is like Joel McCrea, carefully dressed as a hobo, trying to shake the mighty Hollywood caravan of press corps and friends tailing him down the highway. Nevertheless, despite the perversity of his performance, Redford is the best and most untainted thing in the film, and Pollard is second, although he is required to undergo a rather mysterious, Saul-to-Paul character change.

Lauren Hutton is misused and mystifying as a dull, freaked-out chick who comes between the guys (shades of “The Leather Boys”), has Redford’s baby, and then, for no apparent reason other than to identify herself socially and economically, calls her parents at a California country club. Little’s mother and father (Lucille Benson and Noah Beery) are written, directed, and played with such self-parodying contempt that they are more embarrassing as a reflection of the film-makers than of America. Because Furie obviously considers bike racing a boorish and reprehensible activity (just look at those ignorant slobs and whores on the sidelines!) the racing footage is without conviction or excitement. Johnny Cash’s song seem as calculating as everything else. As in “The Lawyer” Furie’s deduction of a message from bloated, tacky details is like seeing a vision of doom and damnation on a chewing gum wrapper.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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