ON DVD & BLU-RAY
R.P.M. (1970) dir: Stanley Kramer Blu Ray (Indicator)
Rebellion on campus
A group of students led by Rossiter (Gary Lockwood) and Dempsey (Paul Winfield) decide to occupy a university campus building in order to pressure the institution’s board to accede on a list of twelve demands related to how it should be run. When the old president Tyler (John Zaremba) decides to resign, the board persuades a liberal Latino professor named Paco Perez (Anthony Quinn), himself a former activist, to go in and negotiate with them.
When he meets with the assembled group, he finds little difficulty in helping them to meet the first nine of their demands. However, the last three seem less reasonable because they would basically place them fully in charge of the university. With no chance of reconciling these items with the board, he is forced to attempt to moderate their expectations. Unfortunately, their stance has become so extreme that they are in no mood to give in.
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A film of its time
In America in the late 1960s, student protestors were becoming radicalised in their united opposition to the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon, racial prejudices and more. This resulted in a number of buildings on U.S. campuses being taken over. R.P.M. was “issue movie” director Stanley Kramer’s attempt to tap into this particular zeitgeist.
As such, to coin an oft-used cliche, R.P.M. is very much a product of its time - and one which wasn’t even particularly well-received at that time either (many critics dismissed it as having an “old man trying too hard to be down with the younger set” mentality). On the other hand, while it is somewhat over-simplistic in its didacticism, it is arguably more relevant than ever today when people have become even more extreme than before on both the left and right sides of political debate. More to the point, it takes a look at the end results which inevitably occur when groups become too hardened to offer any kind of compromise.
Leaving aside the compelling central debate, the main force holding this film together is actor Anthony Quinn, who has been perfectly cast as Paco - a large, charismatic man who gradually shifts from father figure to pariah in the eyes of his student followers. Since Paco has learned over the years that it’s best to chip away at the system little by little rather than smashing it with one blow, he ultimately causes their sense of hope to give way to disillusionment and anger. Increasingly throughout the film, a heavy-hearted sadness becomes evident in Quinn’s performance as he ultimately has to resort to actions that betray the very values which he has stood for over the years.
One of the film’s main flaws is that, while Quinn’s performance and character are three-dimensional, most of the other people here function more as simplistic mouthpieces than anything else. While it is hardly the first time that director Kramer has adopted a heavy-handed approach to his liberal message-mongering, it is particularly overt here. Gary Lockwood is so one-note sullen as the youth group leader that it’s almost impossible to feel any sympathy for him. Paul Winfield is better as his right-hand man (he’s naturally a stronger actor) but his character is still rather one-dimensional. Ann-Margaret quickly becomes grating as Paco’s brash younger girlfriend who herself has recently graduated from the same university. Various vaguely recognisable character actors (such as Ramon Bieri and Donald Moffatt) portray the institution’s staff as a bunch of unremittingly staid, out-of-touch fuddy-duddies.
As unsubtle as he is, Stanley Kramer does manage to imbue R.P.M. with some bonafide stylistic flourishes. An imagined dinner hall scene portraying a group of professors dressed up in various archetypal costumes (ranging from a clown to a bishop) is rather banal as satire but makes some inspired use of the fish-eye lens. During a later, fraught conversation between Paco and his girlfriend, the intensity is effectively heightened via the use of Dutch angles and a split diopter. Most of all, the inevitable violent finale is made more all the more brutal by some canny use of slow-motion and (again) fish-eye lens. There’s one thing you can say about Mr. Kramer: he certainly knew how to deploy the camera.
R.P.M., while imperfect, is at least so in interesting ways. It hits some clunky notes but, at the same time, sends an undeniable chill down the spine once its closing moments arrive.
Runtime: 92 mins
Dir: Stanley Kramer
Script: Erich Segal, Rod Serling (uncredited)
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Ann-Margaret, Gary Lockwood, Paul Winfield, Graham Jarvis, Alan Hewitt, Ramon Bieri, John McLiam, Don Keefer, Donald Moffatt, Norman Burton, John Zaremba, Teda Bracci
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This excellent restoration really brings out the best of the bright, rich Eastmancolor visuals. The soundtrack also sounds warm and vibrant.
Audio Commentary with Paul Talbot
Cinephile Paul Talbot gives us another detailed and well-researched commentary here. In addition to discussing many aspects of the film’s production, he goes extensively into the political background from which it emerged and addresses its rather negative critical reputation.
The script went through ten different drafts in total. The first five were written by Rod Serling (best known for the TV serials The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery). He was subsequently fired and replaced by Erich Segal who wrote the final five drafts. While Serling’s contribution wasn’t credited, he claimed that the final film had retained many elements and characters which he had created. However, there were also some significant differences: for example, Serling’s version featured scenes building up to the student takeover whereas the filmed version picks up straight after it has occurred. Segal himself won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nomination for his script for the film Love Story, which went into production around the same time as R.P.M. and was released in the same year (1970). It’s ironic that it was a major hit, whereas R.P.M. tanked.
The university exteriors were shot around the campus of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. A number of the university’s students were used as background extras. Kramer had reportedly approached a number of other educational institutions for permission to film on their premises but was turned down by most of them due to the then-controversial subject matter.
It was one of a string of American films to have been based around the late-60s/early-70s campus protests. All of them flopped at the box office, in part because the real-life protestors stayed away in droves because they believed that Hollywood would misrepresent them on screen. R.P.M. also took inspiration from Stanley Kramer’s visit to Stamford University where he talked to students about his race relations drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He discovered that they saw him as being too much of an “establishment” liberal figure.
A few of the cast members were known for having their own progressive/liberal leanings. Gary Lockwood had taken the hallucinogenic drug LSD with Cary Grant, Paul Winfield was an anti-war activist and Anthony Quinn became involved in ethnic minority causes.
Two Sides of the Coin: The Songs and Music of R.P.M.
An interview featurette with Barry De Vorzon, who wrote the pop/rock songs which we hear during the film. He worked with arranger Perry Botkin Jr., who composed the dramatic score. However, Stanley Kramer threw out most of the latter’s work bar an intense instrumental piece which plays over the climactic violence. De Vorzon makes for pleasant company as he discusses the various songs and the meanings of their lyrics.
An isolated music/effects track, TV spot, image gallery and collector’s booklet round out the extras here.
R.P.M. is no Stanley Kramer classic but makes for a fascinating curiosity and snapshot of a volatile era in American politics. The extras here, while not very numerous, are worthwhile.