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Guest Post » Robert Duvall: Two Of His Best!

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Greetings all and sundry!

Given the past few weeks to re acclimate in and reacquaint with old memories around a new location. Plus a sudden and pleasant influx of information and discussion of a favorite series of the 1960s. I’ve let my mind roam and eventually nail down some errant thoughts surrounding a proven and long-standing purveyor of the actors’ trade. Who quietly avails himself of a personal Toolbox. And digs deeply or just rummages around its many layers, drawers, nooks and cubbyholes.

Born of at time when venues to test, exercise and slowly hone his skills were many and varied. Stage at first. Transitioning easily to the blossoming outlet of television with many varied, yet memorable roles in classic B&W series, Route 66, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Twilight Zone, Naked City, The Outer Limits, The Defenders, T.H.E. Cat and three episodes of Combat! Plying his craft with a familiar. often gentle touch. Though always keeping a few surprises for special occasions.

Allow me a few moments of your time to shine the spotlight on a pair of lustrous efforts from the Grand Old Man of the acting trade:

Robert Duvall: Two Of His Best!


Title Card - The Chameleon

First seen in the 1962 award winning, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ as Boo Radley. The ostracized, quiet, perhaps challenged protector of children from things that go “Bump!” in the night. Content to keep a distant and wary eye almost out of sight. Until the proper moment arrives, Much has been written and opined of this Classic. Which I would only badly ape. Though, take a look at the tale from Boo’s perspective. Instead of Atticus Fitch’s. And a much richer and darker tome evolves.

Moving the clock forward to April of 1964. And a favorite series and last great hurrah in the realm of Science Fiction, The Outer Limits. And it’s very late in its first season’s episode. The Chameleon. Where an alien spacecraft has landed badly and its two creature crew caught on government cameras in the forested hills west of nowhere. Expecting and fearing the worst. An unnamed agency sends out suited agents to fetch their recently disillusioned, though best infiltration man, Louis Mace (Mr. Duvall) seeking solace in a guitar and tequila inside a shadowy Mexican Cantina.

The Chameleon~2Mace listens. Nods thoughtfully. Smashes his guitar and uses its bundled strings as a taut garotte (Something I’d never seen before. Or since!) on one agent’s throat. As a tool (And a darn good one!) to get more information from the other. The situation is diffused with the arrival of Mace’s old Control Officer, General Crawford (Henry Brandon). Who takes Mace aside for a for a long talk. First in a government hauler. And later in an underground bunker and science lab.

The alien ship is down. Damaged. And its crew has had a run in with locals Where a chunk of alien flesh is left behind. Crawford’s idea is to play around with DNA (Something easily twenty-five years in the future). Graft the skin to Mace and have him infiltrate the crew, ship. And if need be. Destroy everything and everyone in sight!

http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2702050073/

Mace is intrigued. Agrees because it’s a challenge. The metamorphosis goes as scheduled, But the results aren’t really what are desired. Mace looks. And sounds a little too much like an alien. The camera in his identification amulet works, But the cover story isn’t the sturdiest and needs work. Mace is up for the task, but upon being found poking around the deserted ship by the returning aliens. Who know. The mission is a wash!

the chameleon

The alarm in Mace’s amulet goes off. Mace grabs a rifle. A standoff ensues, And the pair of aliens (Revealed to be Venusians) make Mace a proposition. Repairs to the ship are completed. They and their race have no interest in war. Or this heavier gravity, backward, mud ball. Come back home with us!

An even more intriguing proposition. Since Mace has no family or next of kin to speak of, And Mace is also aware that if he completes the mission. There’s no guarantee that the procedure can be reversed. And if it is. There will always be another mission

I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers’ sake.

The Chameleon~1

Overall Consensus:

Often thought of as a “Monster of The Week” anthology series. One of the great hooks of this series was the writers taking massive leaps in taking topics in their infancy in the 1960s (DNA in this episode. The internet and satellite surveillance in O.B.I.T. And making exceptional Science Fiction fare in the process.

The Chameleon~4

Though only 52 minutes long. And shot on a next to nothing budget in six days. I will easily and confidently put this one episode aside anything cranked out by Hollywood and its over budgeted, effects laden offerings of the past decade. And still come out on top!

The secrets are a script and story by Robert Towne. Perhaps, based on an idea from Harlan Ellison. Perhaps, not. Though treated with maturity and a dash of imagination from its audience. With not a lot of money. Shadows (A favorite topic of mine!) are used strategically throughout. Especially in the recruitment and metamorphosis of Mace. Where fresh soil is begin tilled by veteran hands, Gerd Oswald and Kenneth Peach in charge of cinematography. Getting every penny’s worth of unease, tension, suspense and finally wonderment out of each scene.

The Chameleon~3Though, it is Robert Duvall masterfully pulling the plow. Underplaying wondrously as he accepts the mission and subjects himself to basically. The unknown. Only to throw a curve ball with a giggling, “You all look weird!” to the General and scientists immediately after the transformation. Creating a cornerstone of opportunity to successfully complete his mission. Or turn the entire concept of the 1950s and 60s “Alien Invasion, USA” subtly on its ear.


If Mr. Duvall’s portrayal of Mace is noted as most memorable and deft in its revelation of future talent and potential. I’ll move the clock forward about a decade and a half. Beyond his deftly calm and underplayed roles in Bullitt, THX 1138, The Godfather, Joe Kidd, The Conversation, The Outfit and The Seven Per-Cent Solution. Where he easily held his own as Watson. To Nicol Williamson’s Holmes.and Sir Laurence Olivier’s Moriarty.

And his louder, more boisterous roles in True Grit, Badge 373, The Killer Elite. And his first definition of greatness as uncredited, Lt. Colonel Bill Killgore in Apocalypse Now. To focus on a small gem that did not fare well upon release from Orion films in 1979. Given a change in title to The Ace. Which really didn’t improve response or fill the needs of First Class and Coach airliner passengers. From its original:

The Great Santini: (1979)

the-great-santini-movie-poster-1979-1020196883

Taken from the very little messed with novel by Pat Conroy. Developed into a screenplay Conroy and by Lewis John Carlino, who also directed. Creating not only a superbly detailed period piece about race relations in 1963 Beaufort S.C. But, also an intriguing and sometimes scary look into the travails of a Military family in pulling up stakes and traveling cross country in the middle of the night. And beyond, to a new locale and base. And the myriad ways wife and kids noisily resist. Then adapt and improvise to new surroundings.

The Great Santini~2Focused consistently upon Lt. Colonel Wilbur “Bull” Meechum. Former “Nugget” and Marine fighter pilot and Ace of WWII. Equipped with a non-issued ego as wide as the skies he slices through in a McDonnell “Phantom” fighter and bomber. Anxious for promotion after upsetting many Navy officers of higher rank and their wives after a joint exercise in the Mediterranean. And seeing such an opportunity in a possible upcoming war with Cuba months before its Missile Crisis.

The Great Santini~4Mr. Duvall’s Meechum is a contradictory piece of work. Meticulous in appearance and regulation when first assigned to ramrod a squadron. Yet, not averse to pranks that backfire and threaten his dreams for advancement. While being loud and a bit standoff-ish at home. As his wife, Lillian (Blythe Danner. Rarely better as the hard striving Southern Belle) raises and runs interference for teenage Ben (Michael O’Keefe revealing excellent chops!). Mary Anne (Lisa Jane Persky playing much younger. While portraying teen angst with a sarcastic touch). And little sister, Karen (Julie Anne Haddock. Who sees the family’s problems and privately wants her ticket refunded!).

The Meechum family is about the polar opposite of the “Ozzie & Harriet” Nelson’s of that era’s television fame. “Bull” drinks. Sometimes too much. And is a mean, verbal, sometimes physical drunk. With his own ideas of “Manhood”. And in those rigid ideas. his male progeny is sadly “gentled” and “lacking”. Sharing weekend cookouts and “family time” with soon to be 18, Ben in traditional basketball games. Taking his first loss badly while letting his anger fly and ruin the brief celebration. And the realization that his son is growing up. And may be better, more cultured and civilized than the Old Man.

the great suntan

Unsettling to experience? Yes, Though it is in this key scene and others that Mr. Duvall reveals the inner turmoil of a warrior without a war. Gifted with the ability to strap a multi million dollar pieces of technology and machinery through the ages. Out fly all comers and arrive victorious. While being denied the ability to ply his craft with reckless abandon. And the distinct and distasteful prospect that the good Colonel may be nearing the end of a career. While leaving not much of a mark in American and Marine Corps history.

Yet, instantly willing to throw it all the way when Ben calls his Dad. Who’s pulling Officer of the Day duty when Ben’s negro friend, Toomer (Always under rated Stan Shaw) is being beat up by local thugs Red Petus (David Keith) and his buddies. “Bull” abandons his post. Tells Ben to call the cops. Offering strong moral support while Ben gets his first taste of 1960s Jim Crow bigotry and racism in action.

the great suntan - stan shaw

The pendulum swings throughout the film and is capped off one hot August night. When Ben and his basketball team play a long-standing rival. Ben’s talents as Captain are being noticed by scouts and others. Hopes are high. As “Bull” enters the crowded gym. Drunk and anxious to give Ben a pep talk. Against the wishes of Ben’s coach. The game starts well and tight. With a tie ticking down to the last minutes. Ben cedes to his dad’s wishes to be more aggressive. Intentionally roughs the opposing player as the winning basket is sunk. As Ben’s future in regards to Sportsmanship and a possible college scholarship.

“Bull” arrives home late. And even more frighteningly drunk. Arguments ensue. Fists fly. And the Colonel winds up in the dog house. As Lillian balms wounds. Taking extra time with Ben. In trying to explain his father to him. Made worse with the revelation that Lillian had more than “a fling” with Bull’s long time rival, Colonel Virgil Hedgepath.

the great santini

With the Meechum family’s future on the rocks. I’ll leave it right here for Spoiler’s sake.

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

A very notable second effort from Mr. Carlino taking on an often ignored facet of our society. Those who decide to wear the uniform and endure the vagaries of unannounced moves. Not just on the parents. But on the kids. Losing and acquiring new friendships. While also dealing with living on a tight budget. And being the perpetual “new kid in school and town”. And in this film, the latter is written large and interwoven into different swirling plot lines. Giving young Mr. O’Keefe, Miss Persky and Haddock copious opportunities to vent their grievances and make them all more known and memorable. Most handled with gentle, understated Southern charm, aplomb by Ms. Danner’s Lillian. If there is a better film about the inner lives and feelings of often disparaged “G.I. Brats”, I know not of its existence!

santini

Direction by Mr, Carlino is uncluttered, clean and lacking in lagging points. Guiding Ralph Wooley’s touch with cameras in surprising ways. Especially when using the military town and surroundings of Beaufort. Making it an uncredited character while taking advantage of its dripping moss, Magnolias and vast beautiful expanses beyond town. Music from Elmer Bernstein is on the sparse side. Heightening drama, conflict and occasional levity.

Set Direction by Jeff Haley and Donald Sullivan is on the light side. When most setts are supplied by the Marine Station at Beaufort. And the Meechum’s mansion on Laurens Street in the center of town. High marks also for Teresa Merritt as the Meechum’s housekeeper and Toomer’s mother, Arrabella Smalls. Who has the Colonel pegged. And is unimpressed from their first meeting. And takes absolutely no static from him!

What Makes This Film Great?

Robert Duvall taking on a complex and often unlikeable character. And being willing to pull out a number of stops. Making fighter (First in WWII prop driven Grummans. Later in jets) jock, Colonel Meechum flawed in ways associated with his career field. Plus the myriad qualms of growing old, mid-life crisis. The possibility of rising no higher in rank. A marriage that is less than sterling. Though is too mule headed to admit any fault. And a son and daughters who may be better people than he is.

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I’d written of a contemporary, Frank Gorshin in an episode of Combat! turning in a fine example of the inner turmoil of “Push Me. Pull You”. And as Lt. Colonel “Bull” Meechum. Mr. Duvall takes that swirling emotional microcosm and puts it on occasionally over the top steroids! Creating a multi layered, fully fleshed, something of a bastard character and giving it incredible life!


Author’s Notes: Clips and interviews for The Chameleon can be found on You Tube. The entire episode is linked through IMDb.com. While clips, trailers and The Great Santini can be found on You Tube.

Agree? Disagree? Different comparative ideas and thoughts are welcome. As the Floor is open for discussion!
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38 Responses to “Guest Post » Robert Duvall: Two Of His Best!”

  1. cindybruchman

    Hi, Kevin: you bounce all over don’t you? First Ruth,then Michael. That’s okay, I enjoy your posts wherever I may find you ;). Ahhh! The Great Santini. I forgot all about this film of Robert’s. I thought his performance was perfect and Blythe (underrated) the perfect side kick–always sad she didn’t have more roles that featured her sensitivity and strength, not just the “stand by your man” wife enduring the foibles and passions of her mates. I remember her in M*A*S*H counter to Hawkeye–she was the one that got away. Great post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • jackdeth72

      Welcome, Cindy:

      Thanks very much!

      An insightful start to the discussion.

      ‘The Great Santini’ is a favorite of mine for many reasons. It’s cast, especially Mr. Duvall and Ms. Danner have rarely been better. Its story, depiction of the 1960s south. And how kids adapt and occasionally rebel.

      Great catch on Ms. Danner’s sensitivity, strength in keeping Duvall in line when she can. Without losing any of her quiet charm. A nice juggling act pulled off with admirable style and elegance!

      PS: Keep an on Paula’s Cinema Club this Sunday and the coming week, And the third annual “What A Character” Blogathon being hosted by her, Kellee and Aurora.

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    • le0pard13

      Aye, Kevin’s contributions are wide-ranging. But we’re so glad to have him. Yeah, Duvall’s and Danner’s contributions made this a wonderful character piece. I remember Blythe in that M*A*S*H episode, too. She was great in that, and this. And “The Great Santini” being one of the first that brought lead actor recognition for Duvall after so many extraordinary supporting roles. Many thanks, Cindy 🙂

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  2. le0pard13

    Y’know, when I saw the title of your article I wondered which pair you’d center on, Kevin. There have been so many by Duvall. Gave me a big smile when it turned out to be these two. As someone who grew up with The Outer Limits as a kid, there are a number of brilliant episodes instilled in me to this day from that time and program.

    “The Chameleon” easily among them. A segment that was darkly cynical, yet unexpectedly hopeful and repentant. Quite the heady mix for a sci-fi, “Monster of The Week” anthology series. Duvall truly giving a blazing performance that held your attention.

    As he did with The Great Santini. A ferocious personality both terrifying and somehow paternal in that love/hate kind of way only his children would regard. The word ‘awe’, with its mix of fear and wonder, a word and half when applied to this dad. Magnetic like Robert Mitchum in “The Night of the Hunter’, but without the darkness. Just a force of nature.

    Another wonderful spotlight and with a contrasting tandem that works to focus on one of the all-time great actors. Many thanks for this! 🙂

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    • jackdeth72

      Hi, Michael:

      The beginning of this post started out as scribbling in a spiral notebook. That morphed into a draft and was returned to with your reblogging John Kenneth Muir’s superb perspectives on ‘The Zanti Misfits’. In a series that like ‘Twilight Zone’ was made for B&W of the early 1960s!

      Excellent catch with A segment that was darkly cynical, yet unexpectedly hopeful and repentant. . Which was another great unheralded hook of the series. Constantly ending upbeat and hopeful. As opposed to its later incarnation of the late 1980s and 90s.

      Creating an unique vehicle for Mr. Duvall to reach, romp and play while staying cozily contained within himself.

      The contrasting polar opposite of Mr. Duvall giving great, often uncomfortable depth to a warrior without a war in ‘The Great Santini’. Making an unlikable character believable in a near forgotten gem that put Mr. Duvall and the rest of the film’s cast on the map!

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  3. Dan

    I’m definitely a fan of Duvall’s but Jack’s recommendations I have yet to see. I like him in the patriarch role (ie. Godfather) which he does so well – the world-weary, fountain of life’s knowledge, but he’s showed such range and can be so damn icy (The Conversation, The Eagle Has Landed, Network). I sometimes forget he made his debut in To Kill A Mockingbird.

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    Reply
    • jackdeth72

      Welcome, Dan!

      Mr. Duvall certainly has a wide and exceptional range. And delivers certain types of character with intriguing ease, From your spot on choices for “icy”. I’ll add “distant” with his brief appearance as a shell shocked officer in ‘Captain Newman, MD’. To his damaged font of knowledge in ‘Tender Mercies’ and runaway minister in ‘The Apostle’. To just plain having fun with Michael Caine again in ‘Secondhand Lions’!

      That he has been around and embodying so many characters since ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is quiet testament to this master’s abilities.

      Cheers!

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      Reply
      • Dan

        I’ve got Secondhand Lions to watch but have yet to sit down and view it. I think I’ll get round to that this weekend. Michael Caine is one of my favorite actors so it should be fun.

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        • jackdeth72

          Cheers, Dan:

          Caine and Duvall make a very smooth, under rated team. More of a matching of equal talents first glanced with ‘The Eagle Has Landed’. Then given time and room to run around and play with ‘Secondhand Lions’. Where both taking on mentoring in their own unique ways.

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  4. robbinsrealm

    Wonderful post! I have come to expect nothing less from your blog.

    I loved the descriptions you used in your opening paragraph, and for that matter, throughout the piece. I am sorry to have to write that past those two comments, I really can’t offer much else in the way of commentary. I haven’t seen the episode of “The Outer Limits,” nor I have seen “The Great Santini.” Based upon what you wrote, I am going to try and change that in the near future.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • jackdeth72

      Greetings, robinsrealm:

      Thank you very much for such a gracious comment!

      ‘The Chameleon’ and ‘The Great Santini’ are two superb examples of Mr. Duvall plying his craft and creating such surprising and memorable results. Which required writing from the middle outward in regards to his notable career. While leaving plenty of room to draw attention to and detail these pieces of work.

      I’m extremely pleased that my efforts have drawn such pleasantly positive responses. Also hope to see your comments more often!

      Liked by 2 people

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    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, my friend. 🙂

      Hope you get a chance to take in this episode and film. It’s well worth the time. Many thanks, Jonathan.

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  5. ruth

    Great double reviews Kevin! Sadly I’m not as familiar w/ Robert Duvall’s earlier work, so I should remedy that. He looks so much like DeNiro in the Great Santini’s poster btw 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • jackdeth72

      Hi, Ruth:

      I’ve been wanting to spotlight Mr. Duvall for a while. And was in search of the proper venue to show off his vast talents without focusing on similar roles and characters. These two, though years apart seem to have worked out quite nicely. ;D

      And yes. Mr. Duvall looks virile and rather dashing and rocks a Marine Corps regulation “High and Tight” haircut!

      Liked by 1 person

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  6. Mark Walker

    Great stuff Jack. I’m a big Duvall fan. I’d probably say that he’s one of the few acting great from the 70’s that is still managing to deliver the goods and keep his reputation intact. DeNiro and Pacino have fallen from grace on many occasions and with likes of Hackman and Nicholson now absent, Duvall still carries that torch.

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    • le0pard13

      Duvall has probably stood the test of time better than most performers, of alltime. Glad we still have him doing stellar work in whatever genre he appears. Thanks so much, Mark. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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      • Mark Walker

        I’d agree Michael. He’s always turned out quality. Even if some films themselves were poor Duvall was always strong. One of my favourite performances of his was in the 4part tv series Lonesome Dove. Im a massive fan of Larry McMurtry’s quadrilogy based on the lives of Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call and Duvall absolutely nailed the part of Gus. It was sterling work.

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  7. jackdeth72

    Hi, Mark:

    And thank you very much!

    One thing I’ve admired about Mr. Duvall is his willingness to not take the easy way out. As Mr. Pacino and DeNiro seem to have done over the past decades. Take on sometimes unlikable characters in whatever sized role the director has in mind. Make them memorable and often empathetic. Then quietly move on to his horse farm in Virginia and wait for the next call.

    Definitely one of a kind!

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    • Mark Walker

      As I mentioned to Michael above, Jack. His role as Gus McCrae in Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove probably stands as my favourite of his but I’ll never forget the commitment he had to a small Scottish film called A Shot at Glory. The film was about a small Scottish football (soccer) team and was pretty rubbish but Duvall really knew his stuff when it came to the sport in Scotland itself. He was aware of the history and the legendary players. In fact, he even called his dog “Jinky” after one of Scottish football’s most talented players. Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone. He and Johnstone also became very good friends and I remember watching cup final games on TV and Duvall was always at the matches. He’s a class act!

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        • Mark Walker

          Yeah, as it goes Michael Keaton was in the film too but it was Duvall’s commitment that really stood out. He was in the great film too and his scots accent wasn’t bad either 🙂
          Its worth a look but knowing the sport inside out myself, I was a little critical of it. However, i think it would probably play better overseas, though.

          Liked by 1 person

          Reply
      • jackdeth72

        Excellent catches with the ‘Lonesome Dove’ mini series, Mark!

        I mentioned the original and its sequel over at PaulaCinemaClub for the talents of a then starting out Chris Cooper. As part of her and Kellee’s third annual ‘What A Character!’ Blogathon.

        Mr. Duvall rarely plays himself. And his films are much better for it. Also I imagine he does spend time researching his character. Great find with ‘A Shot At Glory’. One of the few I’ve missed.

        Great catch with ‘Open Trail’, Michael. To quote a line from co star, Abe Benrubi. “That old man can really Cowboy!”

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  8. le0pard13

    Come to think about it, there’s a Robert Duvall flick that’s been in my stack to watch for quite awhile. Should screen ASSASSINATION TANGO soon because of our discussion on the man. Thanks, guys.

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    • jackdeth72

      Excellent add on for future discussion, perhaps, Michael?

      My cable system (Cox) has some additional. old time TV stations added on. Sunday nights on “ThisTV” there are back to back episodes of ‘The Outer Limits’ starting at 11:00 pm.

      Tonight’s episode was this critique’s episode. ‘The Chameleon’. A most welcome blast from the past! With only a few small errors.

      Followed by ‘The Forms Of Things Unknown’ with David McCallum. Dealing with murder. A room full of grandfather clocks and resurrection. Another great shadowy and backlit episode!

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