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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » First Monday in October
First Monday in October
Paramount // R // July 6, 2004
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 1, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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After working together on Hopscotch (1980), actor Walter Matthau and director Ronald Neame got together once more for First Monday in October (1981), a so-so comedy-drama about two squabbling Supreme Court justices. Adapted from the play by Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence, authors of Auntie Mame and Inherit the Wind, the movie can't shake its general staginess, and overall the film has the general air of a good if uninspired TV-movie.

When an associate justice dies unexpectedly, the president appoints a conservative judge from Orange County, California, Ruth Loomis (Jill Clayburgh), much to the consternation of die-hard liberal Justice Dan Snow (Matthau). As Chief Justice Crawford (Barnard Hughes) and the other judges adjust to the country's first woman on the bench, Snow and Loomis lock horns immediately. First they battle over an obscenity case involving a porno film called The Naked Nymphomaniac, and later over a class action lawsuit involving a conglomerate that may have buried a patent for a new type of automobile engine.

The film's timing was impeccable: President Ronald Reagan nominated conservative Sandra Day O'Connor for the seat vacated by Potter Stewart in July 1981. The movie, slated for released either later that fall or early in 1982, was pushed back to August 21, 1981 in order to capitalize on this real life coincidence. However, what is treated as a Big Deal in the movie - the other justices fretting endlessly, she feeling slighted by the way she's formally addressed - went rather smoothly in real life.

The film's big disappointment is that its script (by the playwrights) promises heated debates between Snow and Loomis on obscenity and other issues. But these showdowns, obviously seen as highpoints in the stage version (which had starred Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander), never really dig very deep. Worse, the writers are all too clearly on Snow's side, thus taking the bite out of what might have been an exciting series of debates. She's presented as a superb, eloquent writer and speaker, but overly prim and misguided. He's stubborn and irascible, but always in the right.

These scenes lack the edginess of the debates found in both the film and TV versions of The Paper Chase, where law Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) would pose questions to his students then play the Devil's Advocate with their answers. Where those scenes cut through succinctly to the core moral and legal dilemmas, First Monday in October never goes beyond the superficial. With no real meat to the debates, coupled with Matthau's presence, the film at time plays like Neil Simon Lite.

The writers' efforts to open the play up are generally forced; they even give Snow a passion for mountain climbing, purely to give the film a little scenery (it plays no role in the story). The film version also gives Snow an unhappy wife (Jan Sterling in her last theatrical feature), but again this adds up to very little, except hinting at a romance between Loomis and Snow that works against their resolute dedication to the Court. The picture really falls apart in its last third. After carefully emphasizing the formalities and sanctity of the court, the climax improbably finds Loomis snooping around a warehouse like Lois Lane.

Director Neame (whose voice is heard over a P.A. system at a tennis court) lends his smoothly invisible direction, letting the actors loose for their showy monologues. Both Matthau and Clayburgh are, ultimately, much better than the material. In what was an especially extreme example of typecasting, actor James Stephens, who played law student James T. Hart on the TV version of The Paper Chase, plays what might just as well have been the same character in the movie, Matthau's Hart-like law clerk.

Video & Audio

Filmed in Panavision, First Monday in October is in 16:9 anamorphic format and the image is nice and sharp, so clear you can see the clumps of hair coming out of Walter Matthau's ears. The Dolby Digital mono is likewise clean if unimpressive. As with several other recent Paramount titles, there are no alternate audio tracks and no subtitles in French or Spanish. There are also no Extra Features.

Parting Thoughts

In one of those weird Criterion twists (whaddya mean, The Rock!?), Hopscotch was given super deluxe treatment by that label. Conversely, Paramount's First Monday in October is as no-frills as you can get. Truth be told, neither film is especially noteworthy; both coast on Matthau's likeability, but neither ranks very high in the careers of either Matthau or director Neame.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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