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The Films of Sydney Pollack

The Slender Thread

This Property is Condemned

The Scalphunters (September 30/13)

The Scalphunters follows rugged trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) as his valuable furs are stolen by scalphunters (led by Telly Savalas' sadistic Jim Howie), with the movie detailing Joe's continuing efforts at recovering his property - with his attempts both assisted and hindered by an escaped slave named Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis). Filmmaker Sydney Pollack, working from William W. Norton's screenplay, has infused The Scalphunters with a deliberateness that immediately (and consistently) prevents the viewer from connecting to the material, with the palpable lack of forward momentum ensuring that the movie's few engrossing sequences are drained of their impact. (There are, for example, a couple of decent fights towards the end that are essentially rendered moot by the otherwise interminable atmosphere.) The film's erratic feel is compounded by a continuing emphasis on eye-rolling instances of humor, with the undercurrent of over-the-top comedy wreaking havoc on Pollack's efforts at establishing any tension or suspense. It doesn't help, either, that Norton's script is, for the most part, awfully repetitive, as the movie generally revolves around the central character's failed attempts at reclaiming his loot - which, when coupled with the movie's overall vibe of pointlessness, cements The Scalphunters' place as a seriously misguided and hopelessly dated endeavor that's best left forgotten.

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Castle Keep

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Jeremiah Johnson

The Way We Were

The Yakuza (February 4/07)

Set primarily in contemporary Japan, The Yakuza casts Robert Mitchum as Harry Kilmer - an ex-G.I. and all-around tough guy who heads to the land of the rising sun after an old friend's daughter is kidnapped by a ruthless mob boss. Harry consequently enlists the help of a former Yakuza member (Takakura Ken), and even finds time to track down an old lover (Keiko Kishi) and her daughter (Christina Kokubo). As talky and deliberately-paced as one might've expected from a Sydney Pollack film, The Yakuza is generally an effective - if somewhat overlong - little thriller that undoubtedly benefits from Mitchum's effortlessly cool and thoroughly compelling performance. Much of the movie's opening hour is devoted to long, dialogue-heavy sequences in which the characters contemplate the various cultural differences between them; it's sporadically interesting stuff that admittedly isn't quite as fascinating as screenwriters Paul Schrader and Robert Towne clearly believe it to be. That said, the film does improve considerably as it slowly-but-surely morphs into a flat-out revenge story - culminating with a genuinely thrilling finale that finds Mitchum and Ken descending upon a Yakuza stronghold, where they must battle almost two dozen soldiers (Mitchum, armed with a shotgun and a pistol, is particularly bad-ass here).

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Three Days of the Condor

Bobby Deerfield

The Electric Horseman

Absence of Malice

Tootsie (February 8/08)

Tootsie casts Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, a struggling actor who decides to reinvent himself as a woman after his temperamental sensibilities get him blacklisted within the industry. Michael - in the guise of alter ego Dorothy Michaels - subsequently lands a gig on a hospital-themed soap opera, and the movie primarily follows his efforts to blend in with the cast and crew. Though perhaps a little on the long side - something one has come to expect from a Sydney Pollack film, admittedly - Tootsie is an amiable and frequently hilarious comedy that boasts one of the most effective performances of Hoffman's career. That he's been surrounded by a near flawless supporting cast certainly doesn't hurt, yet - despite the presence of such folks as Bill Murray, Dabney Coleman, and Jessica Lange - it's Pollack himself who turns in the film's most memorable periphery performance (it's interesting to note that the director initially didn't even want to play Michael's exasperated agent). It does eventually become clear, however, that Tootsie fares best in its relatively frenetic opening half hour, as the movie slowly-but-surely adopts a more conventional feel as it progresses - particularly as Michael attempts to forge some kind of a relationship with Lange's sweet but guarded Julie. The film recovers superbly for a brilliantly-conceived finale that effectively sidesteps the expectedly melodramatic fallout from Michael's scheme, and it's ultimately not terribly difficult to see why Tootsie is now ranked among cinema's most indelible comedies.

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Out of Africa


The Firm (May 23/17)

Based on the book by John Grisham, The Firm follows Tom Cruise’s Mitch McDeere as he and his wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Abby) move to Memphis after he accepts a job with a small yet prestigious law firm – with the movie detailing Mitch’s creeping suspicion that his colleagues, including Gene Hackman’s Avery Tolar and Hal Holbrook’s Oliver Lambert, aren’t exactly on the up and up. It’s an irresistible premise (emerging from a bona fide page-turner) that’s employed to watchable yet somewhat underwhelming effect by filmmaker Sydney Pollack, as the director, working from a script by David Rabe, Robert Towne, and David Rayfiel, generally proves unable to capture the propulsive, engrossing atmosphere contained within the source material – with the movie’s fairly absurd runtime of 154 minutes, for the most part, preventing the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting to the central character’s increasingly perilous plight. And yet it’s hard to deny that The Firm effectively holds one’s attention throughout, as Pollack’s steady directorial hand is heightened by a number of palpably above-average periphery elements – with the most obvious example of this the stellar performances by an impressively stacked roster of players. Cruise’s almost note-perfect work as the charismatic yet sympathetic protagonist is matched by a uniformly strong supporting cast, with, especially, Wilford Brimley’s sinister turn as the firm’s ruthless head of security standing as an ongoing highlight within the deliberately-paced proceedings. The movie’s third-act shift into full-on action territory is certainly a welcome one, and it’s ultimately clear that The Firm, though entertaining from start to finish, could (and should) have been trimmed down to a more manageable running time – with the end result a completely passable adaptation that never quite becomes the classic legal thriller it wants to be.

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Random Hearts

The Interpreter

Sketches of Frank Gehry

© David Nusair