"CITIZENS BAND" may not be remembered as the best American movie of 1977, although its artistic claims on that fanciful title are as credible as those of "Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Annie Hall" and "The Turning Point." However, "Citizens Band" is certain to be remembered as the best neglected American movie of 1977. It's in a class by itself for that distinction, the most embarrassing example yet of how a perfectly appealing film can get lost in the shuffle.
"Citizen Band" returns Wednesday for an indefinite engagement at the Inner Circle. The movie never played in the city, although it opened at several suburban locations, including half a dozen drive-ins, last May 18, and closed six days later. In some parts of the country it didn't even last a week.
Several factors conspired to prevent the movie from locating an audience. It was not press-screened; it was not preceded by an arresting or elaborate advertising campaign; and it was not protected by the presence of a single "name" performer. It also opened at the same time as eight other new releases, including "The Greates," "Audrey Rose," "Cross of Iron" and "Between the Lines."
Under the circumstances, "Citizens Band" was almost certain to get shortchanged. A number of reviewers and columnists were off covering the Cannes Festival. Another contingent was heading for New York to cover a preview of "A Bridge Too Far." With "Annie Hall" still packing them in and "Star Wars" destined to monopolize the box-office upon its release on May 25, the odds against a sudden emergence from obscrurity by a movie called "Citizens Band" became insur-mountable.
"Citizens Band" was the victim of wholesale negligence. Paramount didn't know how to attract attention to it. Most reviewers and customers didn't pay attention to it. Finally, it was withdrawn from release before attention could be paid.
The decline of constant, loyal movie attendance has exaggerated the importance of mass advertising and the influence of film critics. Sleepers are more often made than born, and "Rocky" is the latest classic case: a modest production eventually promoted into a major success because its potential appeal was never underated on the way to the marketplace. It's become less and less likely that audiences will discover a picture spontaneously. "Citizens Band" appears to have duplicated the initial booking history of Micheal Ritchie's "Smile," which flopped in every market except Washington. These movies weren't rejected, like "The Exorcist, Part 11." They were simply ignored.
"Citizens Band" might have had a fighting chance had it hung around long enough to be extensively reviewed. According to the director, Jonathan Demme, "Paramount liked the picture. When it did as badly as it did - and it did rotten, just nobody came to see it anywhere - they were so horrified that they decided to pull it before more damage was done. It seemed to be the only way to salvage it later."
Movies are rarely salvaged after getting off on the wrong commercial foot. Over the past decade only "Bonnie & Clyde" and "Billy Jack" have bounced back from first-run disasters. "Citizens Band," an astute but sweet-tempered comedy about small-town Americans whose fantasy lives and subconscious impulses have a funny way of surfacing in their CB radio transmissions, depends on less volatile and exploitable elements. It doesn't come on strong, but you can't believe it would fail to find a public once its appealing qualities were adequately described.
Having failed to rally a public with the initial, nondescript and campaign - "Everybody is somebody else in "Citizens Band"/The Movie, The Ultimate Fantasy, The Comedy" - Paramount felt obliged to cut its losses. Like "Smile," the movie was revived and favorably received at the New York Film Festival. However, the subsequent New York commercial opening, under the new, ironic title "Handle With Care," was not a success, despite critical support from Vincent Canby in The Times and such extraordinary (and perhaps counterproductive) publicity gimmicks as three days of free performances at one location.
Modern films seem to need advance recognition to survive. "Citizens Band" couldn't draw on conventiional forms of recognition. It wasn't based on a best-seller, and it had no stars. The script was an original by a young, unknown screenwriter, 27-year-old Paul Brickman. The cast was composed of relatively new or underrated performers organized into a brilliant comic ensemble.
Demme, the 33-year-old director, had several exploitation films under his belt, but none of these credits - "Crazy Mama," "Caged Heat," "Fighting Mad," etc. - could have prepared the public for the humanity and stylistle, sophistication of "Citizens Band." This movie is a revelation, illuminated by a splendidly lucid directing style and good-hearted attitude. It opens on a bracing note of humor and closes on a touching, festive note of reconciliation. It's often so authentically funny that you're caught halfway between the urge to laugh and the urge to cry.
Once the ad campaign flopped, only massive critical support might have provoked interest in the film. Since Paramount hadn't alerted critics to the film before it opened, that alternative was lost. If reviewers are sometimes guilty of overrating certain movies, one of the causes may be the neglected cases epitomized by "Citizens Band." Reviewers tend to overcompensate when they fear some other picture might be subject to a similar fate.
Imagine the frustration Brickman and Demme must have felt. Not only were they on top of the CB craze, they were also the first filmmakers to lyricize it, to respond sympathetically to the fact that CB radios were an emotional outlet, a channel tuned to the subconscious. Protected by their CB handles, several characters in the film find it easier to express feelings they'd normally conceal and easier to communicate with strangers than the loved ones and family members they need to straighten things out with.
Brickman's plot transposes the enjoyable complications and masquerades of French boudoir farce to an American setting and idiom. The pre-dominant themes and motifs are established in a cunning title sequence, where disembodied voices accompany glittering shots of CB equipment. The first line becomes a crucial refrain: "There are a lot of voices out there, but yours is different; I like it."
A worried male voice asks, "Am I losing my modulation. Last week I lost my modulation and I was depressed all day." We hear the following exchange: "Who are you anyway?" "Wouldn't you like to know?" A young voice exclaims, "I just want somebody to talk to!"
The movie proper begins when a solitary high school boy whose handle is "Warlock" parks in a lover's lane and makes contact with a mysterious seductress who calls herself "Electra." Their suggestive conversation causes a trucker to drive off the road, leaving his s 18-wheel rig, loaded with cattle, at a precarious angle. The trucker, whose handle is "Chrome Angel," requests aid from the local Emergency React station, which is manned by a young and slightly desperate Good Samaritan known as "Spider."
Brickman constructs his ingenious plot around the romantic and domestic vicissitudes of Chrome Angel and Spider. The trucker, played by Charles Napier, is a happy bigamist whose two unsuspecting wives, Marcia Rodd and Ann Wedgeworth, meet while busing to the scene of his accident, a mythical mid-American small town called Union.
The straight-arrow, beautifully played by Paul Le Mat, struggles to keep the airwaves free of illegal transmissions, appease his hostile brother (Bruce McGill), win back his estranged girlfriend (Candy Clark), and break through the mock-senile defenses of his grizzled dad (Roberts Blossom), who acts almost comatose until contacted by one of his CB buddies. The Predicaments of Chrome Angel and Spider are developed along parallel lines and happily resolved in time for a climax that unites the characters in a common purpose and a fadeout that unites them in a common celebration.
It seems absurd that a comedy this perceptive yet affectionate should fail to rally an audience. Brickman and Demme recognize melancholy under-currents in the lives of their characters, but they're too generous to reject anyone, including the potential sickies. Like good shepherds or conscientious workmen, they gather in all the strays and tighten all the loose screws.
Brickman's script is so harmoniously written, and so organically funny that Demme doesn't need to force anything. The situations and performances seem to pop with vitality and wit. Demme establisher subtly revealing perspective and moves so gracefully that you're physically jarred when something mannered or over-dramatic interrupts the flow.
"Citizens Band" is too good to remain obscure. Sooner or later it will take its rightful place among the classic American movie comedies. It would be gratifying if Washington moviegoers played a crucial role in its overdue, well-deserved commercial rehabiliation.