Tag Archives: Harvey Keitel

Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (Robert Altman, USA, 1976)


buffalo bill

Whether people like this movie or not depends on how much they like Altman’s company, his sensibility, voice, attitude. His films are the work of a jovial host at a party, slightly drunk, extremely sociable, good-naturedly prankish, always snooking a crook at certainties, pomposities, not always making sense but wanting everyone to have a good time, keep them all talking, sometimes simultaneously, whilst still making sure the conversation’s at a certain level and that the music is good.


Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, made in the aftermath of Watergate, takes on one of the great icons of American popular culture and explores how cultural myths are designed, generated and propagated, the difference between those myths and history, the inter-relationships between money, show-business and politics, and how the whole thing is a circus anyways.

Screenshot 2020-05-09 at 08.12.08

Shot near Calgary in Canada –in itself a sleight of hand worthy of the film — at the foothills of the Rockies, with the majestic mountains always in view, nature, certain and seemingly ever present,  a silent witness to the vagaries of culture, the film has a very American sense of space, spectacle here is not contained in a theatre but is outdoors with dozens of horses, hundreds of people, encampments, all by a river. Looking at the film it seemed to me that certain actors are graced with presence: Geraldine Chaplin, Harvey Keitel, and Shelley Duvall need do nothing but be and, at least as seen through a camera, our eye would be drawn to and delight in them. Others, who do need to give a performance — Joel Grey, John Considine, Pat McCormick — give good ones and are a pleasure to see.



The central problem in the film is the dullness of Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill. The role requires an icon, and he certainly is one. Moreover, he is a great actor. So what’s wrong here? I think part of the problem might be that he’s not playing to the camera. For a star such as he, the camera would normally find him, he would naturally be the central focus. But Altman doesn’t work that way, His is a roving camera, one that usually stays some distance away from the players and tries to include as many of them in the frame as possible. There are a lot of long and medium long shot and Newman’s is not a commanding physical presence at a distance. The role really requires an extrovert who’s not afraid of risking being ‘too much’. Burt Lancaster, who is great as  Ned Buntline, the writer and Legend Maker, would have been even better as Buffalo Bill; he would have given it the carny oomph that is simply beyond Newman.

See in the scene above what a showman Lancaster is, his removal of his glasses to get down to business, his pointing with his hands, ‘here you are in the glorious flesh’, the shake of the head, when he says ‘what a sight for sore eyes,’ the way his head tilts upwards and his arm reaches out when he says, ‘like planting a seed and watching it grow into a tree,’ the tilt of the head and the extension of the hand on ‘You make it easy Bill’. One could go on. Lancaster’s thrilling because he is always playing to the audience in the best sense; he’s aware of and in dialogue with it. In other movies, Newman can also be thrilling, because his purpose is always to inhabit character, and let the audience find the thrill in that. But he comes alive here mostly when the camera comes to him in close-up. But Bill Cody is meant to be carny, circus, showman, bigger than life, the outward outline of an advertisement that so persistent it becomes myth at the price of truth. Lancaster conveys that energy, that showmanship, that engagement with audience response, even his final exit, as his horse jumps the fence, is a flourish. And it’s that kind of flourish at the heart of the film that would made it even better than it already is.

The costumes are by Anthony Powell, the design is by Tony Masters, and Paul Lohmann is the cinematographer: the film looks smashing and is a real pleasure to see.


José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 193 – The Irishman

A three-and-a-half-hour epic in his signature genre, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman looks back on the life of a gangster, hitman, enforcer, and WWII veteran, who loses everything. There’s a familiar tone to much of the film, Scorsese getting the gang back together – Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel are wonderful to see, but perhaps the most enjoyable performance comes from Joe Pesci, his Russ a calm, knowing presence, a characterisation that feels like a deliberate defiance of the volatility we remember so vividly from Tommy in Goodfellas. The film weaves a tapestry of power structures throughout 20th century New York, incorporating the mob, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and politicians, all tied together by the wild, paranoid, braggadocious figure of Jimmy Hoffa, played by a brilliant Al Pacino in his first ever collaboration with Scorsese.

Scorsese’s use of digital technology to take years off his cast is a matter of debate between us. José thinks that the use of younger actors would have been beneficial, comparing it to De Niro’s portrayal of Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather Part II; Mike arguing that the technology convinces, facilitates a smooth telling of the story, where, had different actors been used, he might have felt like he was waiting for the ‘real story’ to begin, and doesn’t hamper the facial performances as it might have – though he agrees wholeheartedly that, in his mid-70s, Robert De Niro simply can’t convincingly kick a baker as a man thirty or forty years his junior should be able to.

José asks whether Frank feels enough guilt about having to kill Jimmy, by this point a man who’s been his friend for years. We agree that we think his emotional state is too opaque, though Mike suggests that he’s also tamping down his feelings for the sake of getting on with a task he can’t avoid. The feeling of loss and guilt that this event leads to, though, enormously affects the final half hour of the film, and for Mike it’s a beautifully moving coda to a film that, while hugely enjoyable, often felt free of a clear destination – something José disagrees with, never wondering where it was going.

We also consider Scorsese’s recent remarks on Marvel, suggesting that his perspective is a surprisingly ahistorical one, and that had he been making films in the 1950s he’d have had identical complaints about Westerns, for instance – the dominant genre of the time. But José takes time to agree with his aesthetic and artistic complaints, arguing that Marvel’s films lack ambition, and Mike suggests that his issue really comes down to a level of dominance that is marginalising films of lower budgets and greater ambition. We also discuss the fact that Scorsese has made The Irishman for Netflix, hardly the home of a lover of the cinema, as their model is Internet-based and doesn’t allow for wide theatrical releases, Mike suggesting this represents a conflict between Scorsese’s words and actions; though José argues that, as limited as it is, the film has been given a theatrical release, and one would be stupid to turn down money if it gets one’s film made, no matter the source.

But to bring it back to The Irishman, we had a terrific time and the film throughout is layered with great jokes, considered compositions, and brilliantly written, performed and directed set-piece scenes in which conversation is king, stakes are high, and power is in play. If you get a chance to see it during its brief theatrical window, do so.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.


Eavesdropping at the Movies 54 – Isle Of Dogs


Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion story of the utmost beauty and wit. We discuss its cinematography, compositions, lightness of touch, allegorical relationship to reality, and place in Anderson’s body of work. We also reserve particular praise for Bryan Cranston’s vocal performance and Alexandre Desplat’s score.

Recorded on 1st April 2018.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

We appreciate your feedback so do keep on sending it.

José Arroyo and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.