Lorenzo Semple, Jr. R.I.P. — master of paranoia

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semple1The screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who died in Los Angeles Friday at the age of 91, never won an Oscar but his name is on a terrific bunch of movies, including two of the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s  — “The Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor.”

As the Hollywood Reporter obit pointed out, Semple had a very eclectic career that was launched — more or less — with the “Batman” TV series in 1966 which caused a sensation in its time. The show was one of the first mainstream exploitations of camp — the idea of something so bad that it’s good.

Semple switched to movie writing with “Pretty Poison,” a 1968 black comedy that so disturbed the leadership at 20th Century Fox that the studio decided to dump the picture in second-rate theaters with very little advertising.

Riding to the rescue of the movie was New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who not only wrote a rave review, but convinced Newsweek critic Joe Morgenstern to check it out, too, which resulted in another key positive notice.

sempleKael and Morgenstern recognized the little film’s sharp satire of small-town morality through its tale of a gorgeous high school cheerleader (played by Tuesday Weld) who manipulates a disturbed loner (Anthony Perkins) into helping the girl dispose of her mother (Beverly Garland).

Embarrassed by the fuss, Fox re-released the picture and it became an art house cult hit. Kael and Morgenstern’s advocacy of Semple resulted in him winning the best screenplay award of the National Society of Film Critics.

Semple’s hip sensibility and his ability to mix genres would eventually lead him to the Alan Pakula political assassination thriller “The Parallax View” (below) in 1974 and Sydney Pollack’s similar suspense film, “Three Days of the Condor” (above) the following year.

Those two movies now stand as milestones in the post-Vietnam, Watergate era during which Hollywood briefly embraced political films with a leftist slant. Pakula and Robert Redford would team up in 1976 for another key film of that turbulent decade, “All the President’s Men.”

“Condor” brought the Italian producer Dino DeLaurentiis into Semple’s life with mixed results. The screenwriter’s salary soared for “King Kong” (1976), “Hurricane” (1979) and “Flash Gordon” (1980), but the movies were widely panned.

In recent years, the reputation of “Flash Gordon” has turned around, as fans have grown to appreciate Semple’s witty approach which enabled the great Swedish actor Max von Sydow to give one of the funniest performances in any of the sci-fi/comic book films that followed in the wake of “Star Wars” (1977).

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Joe Meyers

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