And then a few like it cold

Russell Baker

March 24, 1993|By Russell Baker

"UNFORGIVEN," for which Clint Eastwood is apparently destined to be honored in the Academy Awards excesses next week, is the coldest movie I've seen since "Eskimo."

The next coldest was "Pale Rider," a 1985 Eastwood oater about an avenging gunman raised from the grave by a little girl's prayers, unless I misunderstood the symbolism.

The dominant color in both Eastwood movies was ice blue. While the sun occasionally came out in both, it was the gray, dead sun of a North Atlantic January.

A friend in the movie business says maybe both shows were filmed way up in Canada, which might account for the frigid colors. It becomes harder every year to find outdoor locations in the United States suitable for shooting movies about the old West.

Skies filled with jet trails and horizons cluttered with power lines and TV dishes spoil the atmosphere if you are trying to make an audience believe that elegantly groomed actors really are struggling to cross cruel and trackless wastes by wagon train. One solution is to shoot in Canada's relatively unscarred terrain.

On the other hand, maybe Clint Eastwood simply wanted to make a couple of cold-looking movies. Both, after all, are about death, or "the big chill," to use the popular yuppie euphemism.

If he deliberately chose to make a cold movie, Mr. Eastwood proved he truly has the nerve of a gunslinger, because Hollywood is a hot-movie town and America is a hot-movie audience.

I don't know the movie business well enough to say Hollywood absolutely hates cold movies. I'm pretty sure, though, that whoever first said "I've got a script titled 'The Long Hot Summer' " had to move fast to avoid being buried under a bombardment of money.

The instant you hear that title you envision everything that makes Hollywood movies irresistible: steam coming off an alligator-infested swamp, steam coming off beautiful and scantily clad actors, steam coming off the truculent old villain inside his white suit . . .

The supreme artist of the cold movie is Ingmar Bergman. He even titled one of his movies "Winter Light." Imagine Bergman pitching that one in Hollywood.

What would any normal movie bankroller immediately see? Liv Ullman not steaming, Liv Ullman not scantily clad, Liv Ullman's cleavage not oozing beads of perspiration down by the alligator-infested swamp, but -- Ingmar, when are you going to grow up? -- Liv Ullman in deep ice, Liv Ullman in chilblains.

Liv Ullman, incidentally, though a regular Bergman star, was not in "Winter Light," but the curse of the cold-weather movie master seemed to follow her. When her chance came to make a hot-weather flick set in France with Charles Bronson, it was titled "Cold Sweat."

I haven't seen "Cold Sweat." The title sounds like the kind of movie I try to avoid. The kind of movie that sends me bolting from the TV room to the movie house is titled "Body Heat."

Hollywood did not make "Winter Light." It made "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Both, like Clint Eastwood's two cold westerns, spent a lot of footage fretting about death in vaguely philosophical ways that don't work in movies.

Comedy is probably the only form in which movies can effectively muse philosophically, especially about subjects as vulnerable to easy sentimentality as death.

Mr. Bergman is best not when he is whining about the death of God, but when he sets Death loose on the countryside telling people their time is up. Confronting a customer who says he still has too many tasks unfinished to die just now, Death says, "That's what they all say."

Death comes close to being Hollywood's favorite subject, of course. As you might expect of an industry whose favorite weather condition is heat, it has never had to rely on cold movies to deal with this beloved old theme.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, dispenses death on the grand scale, but always in a climate so warm that he can perform his lethal duty practically, and sometimes totally, naked. Come to think of it, it might be a refreshing spectacle to see Arnold peeled down to his pecs on Clint Eastwood's Arctic prairie, just ++ to see if his goose pimples match the size of his biceps.

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