Thursday, January 15, 2009


It's ungodly cold outside, and I have the day off, so I'm staying inside until the temperature at least approaches zero. Ideally, I'd be cracking some great books or getting started on that novel I've meant to write for twenty years or so. Instead, I'm watching cable.

Which is how I stumbled across the low-rent 1972 epic Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes. This would be the fourth entry in the series, and it was the most economically filmed to that point. It's a heavy-handed racial allegory (the apes are slaves, you see, and no, it's best you not think too closely about the use of apes to stand in for African-Americans) with a particularly silly set-up (all cats and dogs got wiped out in some world-wide plague, and apes were domesticated to take their place), and, aside from Roddy McDowell and the late Ricardo Montalban, the cast is dominated by Familiar Faces (Don Murray, Hari Rhodes, Severn Darden) from seventies TV.

And's highly watchable. Not good, necessarily, but then again, with a movie like this, most standards of quality don't really apply. But it has endearingly simple characterizations, a fair amount of honest suspense, and, best of all, some striking wide-screen imagery, beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Bruce Surtees (who worked with directors as varied as Clint Eastwood, Sam Fuller and Bob Fosse), including some chilling shots of desolate locations--unmanned escalators, empty plazas--that wouldn't be out of place in an Antonioni film.

Paul Dehn's script efficiently sets up the story, and J. Lee Thompson's direction is unremarkable but competent, which is a fair description of the film as a whole. It's easy to laugh at some of the movie's sillier notions (its futuristic America is a facist state, so naturally all cops must be dressed in Nazi uniforms) and occasional cheapness (only McDowell got fully-articulated make-up, so most of the rebelling ape army appears to be wearing costume-shop masks), but given a chance, it becomes surprisingly involving.

It does this simply, by staging the action cleanly, and shooting it well. When a movie is well-made, it can become a compelling experience no matter how trite the material. Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, it never congratulates itself on its own cleverness, it has no sense of irony, yet at the same time it never feels like its just going through the motions, delivering the bare minimum level of entertainment needed to keep an audience from walking out. Best of all, it's over in less than ninety minutes. It never overstays its welcome, fails to pile climax upon climax upon bloated, endless climax.

It's a solid little little B-picture that knows its place, but also knows how to accomplish its limited goals. In 1972, it was considered a throwaway, mostly fodder for matinee audiences. Thirty-seven years later, it looks like a model of craftsmanship, something I devoutly wish more contemporary filmmakers understood.