Monday, November 25, 2019

everybody has one

Bosley Crowther covered film for The New York Times for a whopping 27 years. My one encounter with him was in 1967, the year he retired. I was in college, reviewing for the campus newspaper, and had been invited by Paramount to a New York critics' screening of "Barefoot in the Park."

Encounter is a misleading word. We never actually met and my only recollection of the legendary critic was that he sat in the aisle in front of me, to my right, and that he could be heard ... snoring. Disillusioning.

Flashforward to 2019 and I'm watching Phil Karlson's "Kansas City Confidential," an installment of Turner Classic Movies' "Noir Alley," hosted by the utterly thorough Eddie Muller. Without missing a beat, Muller invokes the name Bosley Crowther during his post-screening discussion, referencing the critic's near-irrational pan of an otherwise solid film.

After quoting a lengthy portion of Crowther's scathing attack on Karlson and his star John Payne in particular -  with the venomous quote also superimposed as an on-screen caption (Chyron) - Muller digs into his bag of words and accurately designates Crowther a "gasbag."

At long last.

Like a certain body part, everybody has one, as the old saying goes (cleaned up here). An opinion, that is. But there are educated opinions, the kind smoothly espoused by Muller - and the kind that seem to evade most professional, working critics, represented by critics like Crowther. 

Finally, the impressively knowledegable Muller, who is nothing less than sophsticated, erudite and astute in his taste and brings panache and snap to his presentations, then flings himself into a long overdue critique of Bosley Crowther, equally scathing. Well done. There's a reason why Muller self-describes as "wordslinger, impresario and noirchaelogist."

Muller is an esoteric wordsmith, refreshingly idiosyncratic at times.

As for Crowther, in many other quarters, he was dismissed as "unnecessarily mean" and was particularly questioned about the cluelessness of his take on Arthur Penn's ”Bonnie and Clyde”and his refusal, unlike other reviewers, to re-evaluate it following the controversy of his attack. Instead, he doubled down and retired not long after that.

Yes, Eddie Muller nailed Bosley Crowther with "gasbag."

Note in Passing: Furthermore, any noir whose cast includes Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand in supporting character roles, as "Kansas City Confidential" demonstrates,  has at least three elements worth recommending. Crowther also ignored the film's contribution of leading lady Coleen Grey. Nothing on Preston Foster either. Unprofessional. 

FYI:  The 2019 Noir City 71 / 2020 Noir City Program kicks off Sunday, January 25 with screenings of Richard Fleischer's "Trapped" (1949) and Robert Siodmak's "The File on Thelma Jordan" (1950) at the Castro Theater and concludes on February 3, 2020 with Samuel Fuller's "Underworld, U.S.A." (1961) and Allen Baron's "Blast of Silence" (1961) 

The September 3rd, 1967 New York Times page containing Bosley Crowther's review of "Bonnie and Clyde"
~click on image to enlarge~

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

* * * * *
(from top)

 ~Eddie Muller, TCM's host of "Noir Alley"
 ~photography: Turner Classic Movies 2018© 

 ~Poster art for Phil Karlson's "Kansas City Confidential"
~photography: United Artists 1952©

~N.Y. Times tear sheet containing Bosley Crowther's review of "Bonnie and Clyde"
~news page: New York Times 1967©


mike schlesinger said...

Funny, but whenever Crowther's name comes up, the first thing that flashes into my mind was his B&C review and his refusal to give it a second chance hastened his departure. Unfortunately, they replaced him with Renata Adler, who in her own snooty way was just as off-putting. Her trashing of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" was a textbook example of not getting it. She barely lasted a year.

joe baltake said...

Crowthers, Adler (as Mike points out), Vincent Canby, the list goes on. The Times seems to have a knack for employing less-than-impressive critics. Trouble is, once a critic reviews long enough and builds up a following, most papers like the Times are reluctant to replace him/her.

Joe Dante said...

Roger Greenspun was good.
I remember his review of The Crimson Cult, not a very good movie but it elicited the observation that one of the prime pleasures of double bills was going in when it was light out and coming out in the dark.

Bill Wolfe said...

My wife and I have enjoyed Mueller and his "Noir Alley" very much over the past year. I'd never been that big of a noir fan, but he's helped me gain an appreciation for it. I agree that "Kansas City Confidential" was a solid movie with a genuinely surprising twist involving Preston Foster's character, plus the remarkable trio of heavies mentioned by you. (I still find it hard to believe that Lee Van Cleef was ever an accountant!) Foster's performance surprised me, since for me he'd always been a serviceable player, but nothing more. Here I thought he achieved some darker colors than I'd seen from him before - bitterness, a capacity for violence, melancholy, all nicely underplayed. And, yes, Bosley Crowther was a gasbag. His attitude struck me as a holdover from the early days of movies, when it was an article of faith among the sophisticated set that movies were disreputable, quite beneath the Legitimate Theater.

Kevin Barry said...

Crowther trashed Psycho in his initial review, then it turned up on his Ten Best list at the end of the year. After the Times put him out to pasture he wrote a book called The Great Films, his selection of the 50 greatest movies ever made. They are all warhorse textbook classics like Potemkin, The Seventh Seal, Paisan, etc. The final selection in the book is the Joseph Strick production of Ulysses, which Crowther chose to be "up to date". To say that it isn't the most fondly remembered film from 1967 is putting it mildly. (By the way, the current duo at the NY Times are nothing to cheer about, either).

joe baltake said...

Kevin- Yeah, he trashed "Psycho," too< and then did an unexpected about-face with his 10 Best list. I completely forgot about that. No surprise, right? And I agree wholeheartedly with you about the current status at the Times- Dargis and especially Scott. Neither brings very much to the table.

Bill- Movie snobs, which best describes Crowthers as a critic, are the worst, perhaps topped by only those critics who are utterly predictable. And he was indeed also predictable. So, again, it's no surprise that he panned the likes of "Psycho" and "Bonnie and Clyde." And I'm willing to bet the rent money that he's among those reviewers who gleefully slammed "Vertigo. -J

Brian Lucas said...

I second Joe Dante, re Roger Greenspun. He seemed pretty fair and intuitive - from what little I read his stuff. By that time, I think that I stopped reading the Times for movies. I believe Janet Maslin was at the helm at the tme. Or maybe Canby. Or both. Whoever ruled there at the time, Greenspun seemed the best.

Sheila said...

For me, the current Times movie reviewers are simply two more people espousing opinions. And as you say, everybody has one. But what really bothers me are these occasional long-winded "dialogues" in which they indulge, presumably via email. Too pretentious for me. -Sheila

joe baltake said...

Sheila- Agreed. And sometimes these exercises in critical camaraderie go on for pages in the Times. I rarely make it through them without calling it quits. -J

Bunuel said...

I had the same reaction to Muller's take on Crowthers,a critic who lasted for 27 years, writing nasty and clueless reviews, only because no one at the NY Times had the insight to replace him. Legendary, my ass!

mike schlesinger said...

Hey, everybody, it's Muller, not Mueller! You're thinking of that investigation guy.

I'll defend Dargis and Scott. Manohla was the only major critic who really dug into Joe's LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION, in particular picking up on the irony of Roger Corman directing a mega-budget version of the stuff he'd once cranked out for five figures. And Scott earned my respect on THE LONE RANGER; in a reversal of Crowther's behavior, he wrote a long Sunday piece admitting he'd reviewed the budget, not the movie, and a second visit confirmed to him that it actually was a very good picture. As we've seen, most critics tend to double down on their mistakes.

joe baltake said...

Mike- Thanks. Eddie alerted me to the gaffe himself.That said and done, to your other point, doubling down is what most critics do best. -J

Gavin Elster said...

My take on film criticism in the New York Times is that the paper is the star, not any of its writers. I think that explains why it has never had a truly outstanding movie critic.

Charlotte said...

To "Gavin Elster"- You're on to something. The influential movie critics over the years (Kael, Kaufmann, Sarris) have operated out of New York but for publications other than the Times.

Chris said...

Muller rocks!

ralph i. said...

I've done some reading on Crowthers since finding this blog and it seems to me that, after 27 years, he went out with little admiration.

Bill Miller said...


You've lost your rent money in your bet that Crowther slammed "Vertigo". In his May 29, 1958 review, Crowther gave "Vertigo" a very positive review. He even called Kim Novak "amazing". But, as was typical of Crowther and many other mainstream critics, his review was superficially plot-oriented and he made no mention of Bernard Herrmann's magnificent score.

joe baltake said...

Bill! You've proven two points that I honor: (1) One should never assume. And (2) Writers need fact-checkers. I bow to your "Vertigo" research - something that I could have easily done myself. Thanks much. -J.