Melvin and Howard ("A" Gate, One and Screen on the Green) is not a specially stirring title. But the film is fascinating. No doubt the spell it casts derives partly from being lightly rooted in contemporary history. I can't decide whether to classify it as a rare documentary joke, imaginative documentary or documentary fantasy. Documentary in its own . dimension it is.
"Howard'. (Jason Robards) of course is Howard Hughes, the eccentric millionaire recluse who discovered Jean Harlow, made an early movie of the air, Hell's Angels, and died in 19.76. Melvin (Paul Le Mat) is a round-faced country-boy, milkman-of-the month on his Nevada round. He is high-spirited, extrovert, devoted to his little daughter and doting on his slightly dotty wife. Mary Steenbarger won an Oscar for this performance and the wife is fun in a rather awful way.
She and Melvin are always 'separating; and she gives him considerable provocation by spending all the jackpot slie wins in a ghastly television contest on a flashy car and running away to Las Vegas to perform in a frightful near-strip cabaret. They catch up with each other on their travels through California, Nevada and Utah long enough to have another child and to get remarried — rather too late — in a Mormon wedding hall in Salt Lake City.
It all seems wildly inconsequential, endearing and highly entertaining. For across the wild open spaces andahe length of the film from beginning to end which divide the two characters of the title, the old man and the openhearted milk-boy both have hearts in the right place and a touch of reality which makes them shine like gold in the garish brassy glitter of the communities all round them.
For Melvin is the real-life garagist who, driving his jalopy across rocky desert ground. picks up the weird old tramp he found lying on the ground. gives him a lift. makes him sing and lends him his last dime. When the weird old man says his name is Howard Hughes, Melvin hardly turns a hair. Later, however, he believes he has been brought the eccentric millionaire's will of which he himself is a beneficiary for his role as a random good Samaritan. Here is the movie's documentary interest, for "Melvin's" real-life action to try to prove his claim is still an open case unsolved on either side of the Atlantic. so that the dream of the "fortune in the letter-box" might still come true.
Another curio comedy of transatlantic social life is Change of Seasons ("AA", Gate Two and ABC Fulham Road). Shirley Maclaine and Anthony Hopkins are the middle-aged couple, who have been happily married for twenty years and set off on holiday. At that dangerous age the professor-husband falls for one of his students (pretty Bo Derek),
The wife is naturally hurt and bewildered, but being Shirley Maclaine in a comedy treats the disaster as a partial joke and tries to get her own back with the first man she encounters. Michael Brandon makes a surprisingly attractive figure of the delivery man she picks on. When, however, the mixed up quartet turns into a quintet — sextet if we include the couple's ,amusingly austere and disapproving teenage daughter (Mary Beth Hurt), the
situation turns too loosely into farce which leaves a less than agreeable taste. The acting. especially Shirley MacLaine's, is exceptionally good and some of the situation is developed with refreshingly apt ironies.
Jilly Clayburgh is one of the most promising new Hollywood stars. directly in the tradition of such popular favourites as Carol Lombard or Myrna Loy who have represented the girl of their era. She ought, I thought, to be just the actress to bring off one of the new attempts to re-create the kind of social comedy which used to fill cinemas. it's My Turn ("AA". Columbia), I found. amused some of my fellow-critics much more than it did me.
Clayburgh plays a character planted as a college professor of very abstruse advanced mathematics. She takes time off to attend the Jewish second wedding or her father to a divorcee (Beverly Garland). During the trip she encounters and has an all-too-compulsive affair with her new step brother a bearded young man (Michael Doughas, son of Kirk). After a thoroughly disruptive whirl she returns to her own desk and her previous companion, Homer (Charles Grodin) whom she finds no more inclined than he had been to be "involved in somebody else's life twenty-four hours a day", though by this stage in the sentimental education of a mathematics teacher that's what she might now like.
There are some amusing moments at the wedding-party' over the dispelling of daughterly prejudice by the new stepmother, but the entertainment seemed to me too bedevilled by crosscurrents of American fatherdaughter intimacy and by the allpervading divorce ambience, to compare with the former Father of the Bride.
Far from social comedy, nearer to sci-11, is Bertrand Tavernier's Deathwatch ("AA", Paris Pullman). It is almost as gloomy as its title. Set in the "near future" in Scotland in that forbidding city, Glasgow. The film supposes a society where death from disease has been overcome.. People may still die of old age or violence, but death has become a curiosity. a target for voyeurs, something to be watched and analysed; what the synopsis calls, incomprehensibly to me "a new form of pornography".
Roddy (Harvey Keitel), an ambitious TV producer who has sold his soul to the media by agreeing to have a television camera implanted in his head conducts the "live action" series Deathwatch, for watching people die "live".
The star of one episode in the series is a woman (Romy Schneider) dying of a fatal illness who first agrees to let her slow death be televised. Then she thinks again and goes off to the country to discuss the whole problem with her husband (impressive Max Von Sydow at his most attractive).
The whole proceeding, beautifully photographed though in suitable gloom, I found as incomprehensible as dismal.
Freda Bruce Lockhart