Most countries in Europe suffered a lingering malaise after World War II that extended far beyond rebuilding physical, cultural, economic, and governmental structures. Most difficult to navigate was rebuilding trust and national unity. Human nature being what it is, feelings of loss, betrayal, and cruelty burn in the breast with something akin to an eternal flame if not confronted openly. In tiny Luxembourg, a landlocked country sandwiched between France and Germany that owes much of its national culture to both those neighbors, a return to normalcy often meant hiding from wartime crimes. In Tomorrow, After the War, director and coscreenwriter Christophe Wagner attempts to lance the wounds of the past.
A thin layer of snow covers the open fields through which newly freed Resistance fighter Jules Ternes (Luc Schlitz) trudges to his small village following the defeat of Germany and liberation of the lands they occupied, including Luxembourg. He tries the door of his family home, apparently as empty as the streets nearby. Suddenly, his sister Mathilde (Eugenie Anselin) comes around the corner and calls his name. They embrace, and she informs him that their father (Jean-Paul Maes) has not returned from the labor camp to which he was sent as punishment for Jules joining the Resistance. Jules gets more unwelcome news when Armand (Jules Werner), a shady functionary of the village government, comes in and kisses Mathilde, his fiancée.
Jules tries to pick up his life as it was before the war. When he learns his old boss, a Jew, was deported to a concentration camp, he hires on as an auxiliary police officer. He also resumes his romance with Léonie (Elsa Rauchs), who works for a German family who are running a successful farm confiscated during the war by the Nazis. She says they were not Nazis and lent money and protection when possible to locals in need. Of course, the family’s prosperity and nationality now mark them as targets by Luxembourgers wanting payback against Germans and collaborators. Jules, besotted with Léonie, is caught in the middle, a position that becomes even more uncomfortable when the family is found murdered. His probing into the crime, motivated by strong, personal feelings, turns up information that conflicts with the official story, jeopardizing futures throughout the village.
Tomorrow, After the War is fairly derivative of the better detective shows one might find on TV, with its accumulation of clues and lies to be uncovered, and a few sex scenes that no film seems able to do without these days. Nonetheless, Jules is no standard-issue moody detective. He was an ordinary man before the war who became a cop afterward—and not even a full-time cop at that—because there were no other jobs to be had and the chief of police (André Jung) put him on as a favor to Jules’ father, with whom he fought during World War I.
The very ordinariness of Jules gives the film a foundation to look realistically at the compromises that have to be made when life is not proceeding as usual, a lesson that should have ramifications for those of us who haven’t experienced a whole world in upheaval—yet. Almost all of the characters in this film bear some degree of guilt for their actions or complicity in the world order that overtook them during the war years. With one exception, none of them appear to be guilty of much more than wanting to live, however painful their circumstances have been, and none of them is headed for sainthood.
To underscore the real choices that have to be made in extremis, the film depicts violence quickly and effectively. For example, Jules’ comrade is shot in the head for refusing to give up the location of his Resistance cell to their Nazi captors, a graphic horror that terrorizes Jules. His father, semi-crippled in body and mind, is a verbally abusive drunk whose only “crime” was surviving the Battle of the Somme. The murder victims are shown in economical, but vivid detail with shotgun wounds and buzzing flies destroying the pastoral in which they lived.
The cinematography is exceptionally good, with breathtaking landscape shots that add to the moodiness of the story and fine attention to detail, for example, placing an abandoned German tank in exactly the same position as one shown in a still photo of the period. I liked how the opening scene in the snow seems to suggest a world purified after so much bloodshed, interrupted by the figure of a dead horse lying in the field as Jules passes by. As Jules seems to be putting his life back together, a lovely scene of him and Léonie cycling in a bath of sunlight offers them and us a reprieve from the background gloom in which their rekindled love began.
For me, the pièce de résistance is Mathilde and Armand’s wedding. All of the conspirators are gathered to celebrate a festive occasion at last, but Jules, too aware of the thin veneer of civilization all around him, has a final confrontation with his father. Heroism is the ideal, but neither his father nor Jules can live up to what the world expects of them. In the homely scene of a village wedding, we realize our real aspirations are none too lofty. In the end, if we grab for something more ambitious and ideological in dangerous times, we might very well end up paying the ultimate price.
Tomorrow, After the War screens Saturday, March 11 at 4 p.m. and Tuesday, March 14 at 7:45 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
My Name Is Emily: This film about a teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny, as she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
Creator/Writer: Abi Morgan
Directors: Tim Fywell, Jessica Hobbs, and Richard Laxton
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the crowded field of television homicide detectives, the British have offered rabid fans like me their fair share of talented, quirky sleuths. From David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot and John Thaw’s Inspector Morse to Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison and Robson Green as, well, just about everyone, there’s no shortage of obsessive coppers dedicated to bringing murderers to justice for our viewing pleasure.
The latest of this breed is John River, the title character of the miniseries River, played by Stellan Skarsgård. The brilliant Swedish actor, who would have been a natural for the Swedish detective of the Wallander series instead of Irish actor Kenneth Branagh, has largely avoided cop roles since his riveting turn as detective Jonas Engström in the original Swedish version of Insomnia (1997). Perhaps he was avoiding typecasting, as his pale, worried face is a natural fit for the kind of damaged souls writers imagine homicide detectives to be.
That he took the role of River, a taciturn Swedish immigrant who works for London’s Metropolitan Police Service, is perhaps due to the efforts of its creator and writer, Abi Morgan, who brought us such polished British features as Shame (2011), The Iron Lady (2011), and Suffragette (2015). I like to think Morgan might have heard a suggestion James Cagney made about the dime-a-dozen gangster he was asked to play in White Heat (1949): “Let’s make him crazy.” Most TV homicide detectives flirt with the edges of sanity as an occupational hazard; River went off the deep end long ago. He regularly talks to and fights with a bevy of dead apparitions; only his 80 percent clear rate and the protective ministrations of his buoyant partner, Jacqueline “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker), have kept him on the police force.
We meet River and Stevie as they are driving around their precinct. Stevie sings and hand jives to Tina Charles’ uber-catchy disco tune, “I Love to Love,” as River smiles his approval. The pair grows quiet as River spots a car with a dented panel, a clue to his current investigation. He spots the driver in a mini mart and spooks the young man with a hard, penetrating stare. A long chase on foot ensues, with tragic results. River is pulled off the case, ordered into counseling, and assigned a new partner, Ira King (Adeel Akhtar). You see, the case he was working on was Stevie’s murder.
River is shattered by Stevie’s death. Even though he and Ira are reassigned to the electrocution of a construction worker who is hovering near death, he keeps on the hunt for her killer and persuades Ira to help him. Everything he says and does, including advising the construction worker’s wife to tell him what she needs to before his inevitable death in a move judged callous by Ira, is self-reproach for withholding what is plain to viewers: he was deeply in love with Stevie.
Love, trust, and the betrayal of both form the slippery undercarriage of this otherwise fairly standard mystery drama. Morgan assembles a familiar cast of characters: a cop who can’t stand River (Owen Teale); psychiatrist Rosa Fallows (Georgina Rich), who just happens to run a therapy group for people who hallucinate; and River’s sympathetic superior, Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville), who keeps reminding everyone that she lost a friend, too. Morgan also trots out the usual tropes for murdered cops—working on a side case, keeping her investigation secret from the partner who thought he knew everything about her, locating corruption inside the legal system.
Stevie’s Irish family draws instant scrutiny from the seasoned murder mystery fan, particularly when we learn Stevie turned in her older brother, Jimmy (Steve Nicolson), for murder and that he has just returned to the family fold after 16 years behind bars. Her uncle, Michael Bennigan (Jim Norton), has the oily, cheery veneer of all TV Irish patriarchs. Stevie’s mother, Bridie (Sorcha Cusack, of the Father Brown mystery series), is the typical, no-nonsense, blustery Irish matriarch that’s become a cliché, and Stevie’s doughy younger brother, Frankie (Turlough Convery), seems strangely wounded and in need of the protective shield the whole family throws around him.
Other suspects—one might even say the usual suspects in these xenophobic times—emerge as River zeroes in on a Somali man with whom Stevie seems to have been involved. His probing uncovers a small community of immigrants who don’t understand the obstacles and hatred they face from their adopted land. It’s quite a poignant moment when River imagines the voice of his quarry, Haider Jamal Abdi (Peter Bankole), speaking to his wife in a letter Ira has only partly translated; River’s feelings of loneliness and isolation are given voice in the imagined end of Haider’s letter; his emotional projections are the true source of his ghostly visitors.
One projection is hard to decipher: Thomas Neill Cream, a 19th-century serial killer known as the Lambeth Poisoner, the subject of a true crime book River is reading. Cream, played by always reliably creepy Eddie Marsan, announces that he is the anger, rage, and darkest place inside River and urges him to come over to the dark side. Now, it’s true that in the game of cops and robbers, the players can change roles quite easily, but River isn’t playing a game. Cream seems more a device to shoot scenes of River shadow-boxing with a wall or strangling the air than something motivated from within, and I found these scenes incongruous and annoying.
Opposing these are the heartbreaking scenes he shares with the memory of Stevie. Nicola Walker fully embodies the enormous life force that was Stevie, making her murder all the more tragic for us as well as those who knew her. She provides River with intuitive clues to follow, probably much like she did in life. As he circles closer to the solution, she taunts him to really see her, know her—certainly an inner longing River has to be as close to her as possible, a conjoining he could only approximate by laying in her empty bed. His fixation on Rosa, who we think River may be using as a Stevie substitute, actually turns out to be River’s desire to break through his fear of intimacy and love.
Stevie was bringing River to life, and he is blessed to have another partner, Ira, who accepts his mental derangement and tries to befriend him. We very well might wonder why so many people stand by River, but that is all down to Skarsgård’s stunning ability to convey deep pain, shame, and loss while simultaneously trying to reach beyond his limitations to embrace life. We’ve seen detectives like him before, but never one who refuses so mightily to give up on himself. He gets the ending he has earned.
J. P. Marquand had a serious reputation as a writer in the 1930s, but he’s been remembered to posterity chiefly for his sideline in pulp fiction. He created Mr. Moto for the Saturday Evening Post in 1935 as a replacement for Charlie Chan, whose creator Earl Derr Biggers had recently died. Marquand quickly wrote several Moto books. His creation proved popular enough that two years later, 20th Century Fox inaugurated a series built around Moto. But this was not quite the same character. Marquand’s I. A. Moto was an Imperial Japanese agent, superficially genial and eccentric but capable of ruthless action. The Hollywood version was renamed Kentaro Moto and redesignated as an importer with a sideline in private investigation who later was employed as an Interpol agent and teacher of criminology. But he was best described by a character in Thank You, Mr. Moto: “Adventurer, explorer, soldier-of-fortune – one of the Orient’s mysteries.”
Whereas Chan was an avuncular collection of clichéd impressions of Chinese immigrants grafted onto the Conan Doyle template for a genius detective at a time when it was a short cut to popularity to give them distinctive ethnic or physical traits, Moto assembled more than a few Japanese clichés: pebble-lens glasses, big gold teeth, hyperattentive politeness, martial arts adeptness, and so on. Fox cast Peter Lorre in the part and gave him a sartorial makeover. Casting an Austrian Jewish actor as a Japanese gentleman seems a downright perverse idea today, but was hardly strange at the time; Warner Oland and Sidney Toler played Chan and Boris Karloff was both über-villain Fu Manchu and detective Mr. Wong. A big selling point for casting Lorre was that it would show off his thespian dexterity. His Hollywood debut two years earlier with Mad Love had been publicised as the coming to America of a great European actor, one who had electrified audiences worldwide with his performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Lorre, who learnt his lines by rote for his first English-language role in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), was to become one of Hollywood’s indispensible character actors. The Moto films, which occupied him for most of the late ’30s, represented a stint of proper stardom. The role allowed him the widest range within a single part, and even the chance to destabilize presumptions about his character constantly.
Moto, as a skilful detective and globetrotting, multicultural savant, combined aspects of the Sherlock Holmes brand of hero with the physicality of a man of action, a mix that feels more contemporary than most of the era’s pulp heroes. He anticipates later pop-culture titans like James Bond, without his carnal appetites, and Indiana Jones, with whom he shares a fascination with the arcane, with the added complication and fascination of his being a non-Caucasian hero, one who insinuates rather than dominates until he clearly has the upper hand. The Moto series doesn’t entirely transcend the moment of its making. Yellowface bugs many people today and for good reason, and yet the series just as often ridicules, subverts, or inverts such caricatures, often putting the sublimely poised and skilful Moto in the company of clueless Westerners or having him act out caricatures only to throw them off and stun enemies and onlookers. Lorre’s preternatural gifts are also often exploited so that, in the same way that he puts on a new face, Moto turns it about and becomes just about any ethnicity you please, including perhaps his funniest guise in the series in Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938), a German artist who derides a gallery full of modernist work and then shows off his kitschy pictures of kids and kittens.
Several instalments in the series were helmed by Norman Foster, a former actor and a talent whose gifts were apparent enough for Orson Welles to collaborate with him on several projects, including Journey into Fear (1943), which marries Moto-ish settings with a more Wellesian technique. He later made some interesting noir films, like Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), and then moved into TV, where his career extended into the 1970s. Foster also cowrote the first two Moto films, with their backlot settings offering that delicious tang of the faux-exotic, encompassing much of what was wonderful and goofy about old Hollywood, that many filmmakers since have tried to reproduce. The Moto films are lightning-paced, funny, quirky, brief, but packed full of incident, detail, even mystique.
Think Fast, Mr. Moto, establishes Moto and his abilities in an opening sequence that sees him in the guise of a scruffy carpet merchant wandering through San Francisco’s Chinatown on Chinese New Year on the hunt for a lead. He encounters a masked stranger secreted in a wicker basket in the store, where Moto tries to sell a diamond; his Union Jack tattoo will identify him as the man who murdered an investigator. Moto has to fight his way out when an officious policeman who thinks Moto’s an unlicensed peddler enters the scene, sparking a three-way battle in which Moto’s jujitsu abilities triumph. Returning to his hotel, the “real” Moto emerges from under the layers of his disguise, but Moto’s motives and designs remain largely opaque until the climax.
One reason I fell under the spell of Moto as a character when I was a kid stems from this ambiguity. Although toned down from Marquand, Moto is still startling in switches of affect and manner, swinging from beaming friendliness and ready-to-please affability to command or chilling retributory violence according to the needs of the moment. When he confronts the tattooed murderer, who proves to be a passenger liner steward named Carson (John Rogers), Moto’s swerve into cold menace as he faces down and approaches the knife-wielding baddie is impressively badass, and their knock-down, drag-out fight climaxes with Moto heaving Carson over his head and hurling him over the ship’s side like a sack of rubbish. This follows on from an earlier scene in which, dragged into a stateroom by a party of boisterously patronising Americans, he puts up with them until he repays their pushiness by tossing several bodily about the room. It’s a bit of roughhouse payback that Bob Hitchings (Thomas Beck), object of the party and son of the ship’s owner, is good-humoured enough to understand. Moto and Hitchings prove to be linked by both the past—they belonged to the same college fraternity—and by secret, immediate motives; Moto is investigating a smuggling ring that’s been operating through the Hitchings Line, owned by Bob’s father, and Bob, trying to shake off his playboy habits, is heading to take over the Chinese end of the line’s export operations.
Think Fast, scarcely over an hour long, nonetheless sets up Moto as a perfect pulp hero—infinitely talented, complete with an arsenal of awesome headache cures, magic tricks, and cardsharp legerdemain, tough in all respects and yet usually happily plays a pleasant Asian milquetoast, declining alcoholic drinks in favour of milk. Considering how awkwardly a lot of franchise films these days lumber about for hours trying to set up heroic characters, the casual concision of the film still feels like a perfect antidote and model, an engine of humming efficiency that modern Hollywood could do well to study. Foster surrounds Moto with a rich assortment of character actors and teeming settings, as if he wanted to pack in every possible trope of the exotic mystery, from the shipboard setting and romance to the plunge into Shanghai nightlife where White Russian and Sikh gangsters rub shoulders with international flotsam. Foster orchestrates it all with efficient energy: indeed it’s been funny watching recent high-class movies, like The White Countess (2004), Lust, Caution (2006), and Shanghai (2011), tackling the same milieu and failing to feel half as real, lacking that mythic tilt Hollywood once wielded so deceptively and fearlessly. Ironically, recently you have to go to Hong Kong cinema, like Tsui Hark’s work, like Peking Opera Blues (1986), for similar panache.
Think Fast sticks to the basic pattern of Marquand books, as Moto teams up with an American innocent abroad who falls into the orbit of a woman of mystery, in this case, Gloria Danton (Virginia Field). Gloria poses as a wealthy traveller to ensnare Bob, expertly tempting him by feigning initial indifference, but, of course, she actually falls for him and is whisked off the ship by her employer, Nicolas Marloff (Sig Ruman), upon arrival in Shanghai. Marloff runs the International Club, one of those chic nightspots Hollywood would have believed were just everywhere in those days. Bob talks the Hitchings Line’s local manager, Mr. Wilkie (Murray Kinnell) into helping him find Gloria, but it’s Moto who secretly tips Bob off that she actually works as a singer in the International Club, and, of course, Moto has good reasons for bringing all the players together. Just getting to the club proves an ordeal for Moto and Lela, as they’re shanghaied by their rickshaw coolies on the order of Marloff’s agent, turban-clad Adram (J. Carrol Naish), who tries to assassinate Moto. Moto proves better with a gun than Adram does with a knife, winging Adram. Then one of the coolies tries to arrange his death by leaving his rickshaw in front of Bob and Wilkie’s oncoming car.
In good old Hollywood style, once they get to the club, there’s a brief time-out for a song by Gloria (warbling a godawful ditty in which she declares, “I’m just a shy vi-o-let.”). A couple of times during the series, Moto grazes against a love interest, usually a young Chinese-American starlet, but that couldn’t go anywhere with a white guy, even one dressed up as Japanese. Plus Moto’s not exactly the type you see settling down to have 10 kids like Charlie Chan. Here he enlists hotel telephone operator Lela Liu (Lotus Long) to listen in on interesting calls, and then to be his date/back-up on the venture to the International Club. She finishes up getting shot in the back by an unseen villain as she tries to call the police to Moto’s aid, although later we’re assured she survives.
One of the strong qualities of the series is the humour that constantly accompanies the thrills and seriousness, although it sometimes verges on goofy, as here when Moto has a hapless bartender make up a ridiculous hangover cure that includes gin, Worcestershire sauce, and a raw egg. Wryer is Moto cementing his friendship with Bob by revealing they were fraternity brothers; when Hitchings recalls Moto broke a pole vault record, Moto replies, “Now I would only break the pole.” In another example, one of Bob’s society lush pals, after seeing Moto toss her friends about the stateroom, asks in delight, “Hey – do that to me!” When Marloff asks what Moto is writing in Chinese on a menu, Moto replies that it’s an ancient haiku poem—except that when Lela reads it, it translates into a message to call the cops. In later films, Moto’s heroism is taken as a given, but in the first two entries he retains an opacity akin to ’70s antiheroes in his willingness to play dirty when necessary, think on his feet, and seem to ally with the bad guys if it gets him closer to his goal. Because his identity is so hard to nail down, he can get away with such tricks. When Marloff confronts him with the sight of Bob and Gloria trussed up and captive, Moto laughs and casually advises Marloff to keep Bob as a hostage and “slit her throat and be done with it.” This note echoes again in Thank You, Mr. Moto, in which he smilingly tells a woman, in response to her accusation that he killed a man to get hold of a valuable property, “Of course. I thought it was a very good reason.” The finale of Think Fast is a whirlwind of twists and reversals: exposed by the wounded Adram, Moto is shot by Marloff, and seems done for. Marloff prepares a coup de grace, only for Moto to rise miraculously and toss his enemies about the room before revealing his bulletproof vest to Bob and Gloria and slapping handcuffs on Wilkie, who proves to be both the real head of the smuggling ring and Lela’s attempted killer.
The collegial feel of the series is partly due to the stock company of actors who played similar or recurring roles: Ruman and Beck play slight variations on their characters in Thank You, whilst Field popped up again in two more. In Mr. Moto’s Last Warning and Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (both 1939), Moto is “helped” by bumbling Englishmen, inverting the usual diptych of Anglo hero and ethnic sidekick. In another entry, Mr. Moto on Danger Island (1938), Moto gains the aid of good-natured palooka, “Twister” McGurk (Warren Hymer), who becomes Moto’s aide in his eagerness to learn Moto’s great wrestling moves. Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938), the third film, has the film buff’s delight of seeing Moto contending with Keye Luke, playing Charlie Chan’s inimitable Number One son Lee. This was a side effect of the rapid revision of the script, intended for a Chan entry, after Oland’s sudden death. In the film Moto mentions his respect for Lee’s father, and maintains Chan’s solicitude to the extent of having Lee locked up in jail to keep him out of trouble. Another interesting sidekick for Moto came in Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938), where Rochelle Hudson plays an aviatrix who’s also a spy, staging a crash landing in the Vietnamese jungle to seek out the same rebellious conspiracy Moto’s investigating. The strongest villain of the series was also a self-reflexive piece of casting, as Joseph Schildkraut appeared in the final entry, Takes a Vacation, playing a supervillain with a genius for disguise. Like Lorre, Schildkraut was an Austro-Hungarian émigré and spends most of the film made up as another character, successfully impersonating a crusty American scientist before he’s unmasked, rises to full courtly bearing, and lets slip his Germanic lisp.
The whole series is generally a lot of fun, but Thank You, Mr. Moto easily stands tallest. Having established Moto, Norman’s second entry does what good sequels are supposed to do; it gets on with business, but also can be enjoyed by any viewer coming in blind. The opening sequence is a gem of atmosphere, as a caravan crossing the Gobi Desert is assailed by a sandstorm, and one of the travellers, a disguised Moto, contends with the homicidal attentions of another member of the party. Attacked in his tent, Moto battles the assassin by the flicker of an oil lamp, with the desolate wind whistling outside. Moto wins the fight, battering his opponent into submission, but the battle begins again when Moto releases him. This time Moto hacks him to death with a knife and begins digging up the sand under the tent to bury the corpse. Moto reaches Peiping (then the name of Beijing), but runs afoul of Schneider (Wilhelm von Brincken), a supposedly concerned citizen who’s whipped up the police to hypervigilance over smuggled art treasures. Schneider smartly detects that Moto has a scroll painting hidden inside his prop walking cane. Moto snatches the scroll and runs for it, managing to elude capture and make it to his hotel room, where his current valet doesn’t recognise him at first. Moto divests himself of guise and valet and attends a formal garden party being thrown by Colonel Tchernov (Ruman), a wealthy White Russian wash-up. Moto recognises the gamesmanship behind such gestures: “Garden parties are seldom given in Peiping without a purpose.”
That purpose proves to be so Tchernov could invite Prince Chung (Philip Ahn) and his mother (Pauline Frederick), make an offer to buy their family’s collection of scroll paintings and, if they refuse to sell, use coercive means to gain his prize. The party sequence is a another gem, this time of expository staging, commencing with a Hitchcockian crane shot the glides across Tchernov’s ballroom. The villains and heroes of the piece and all congregated with classical dramatic method, with all the major protagonists save the Chungs literally lined up to meet Eleanor Joyce (Jayne Regan), an American Oriental art historian and guest of the Tchernovs. Romantic, young consular official Tom Nelson (Beck) sets out to charm Eleanor with an extended gag about his psychic knowledge of her actually culled from her passport. Moto’s entrance, solitary and singular, is accompanied by a suddenly forceful passage in the dance music, gaining everybody’s interest and cautious attention, especially Tchernov, who invited him to keep an eye on him. This backfires, of course. Moto’s subsequent absence from the ballroom goes unnoticed by everyone except, in a terrific throwaway detail, the waiter carrying his customary glass of milk, as he thwarts Tchernov’s attempt to force Chung at gunpoint to sign over ownership of his scrolls. Foster elides Moto’s intervention; only when Eleanor intrudes, with Prince Chung brushing past hurriedly, does the resolution of the confrontation reveal itself, but through Eleanor’s confused eyes, seeing only Moto and a corpse. Moto convinces her to keep quiet about his and the Prince’s presence so that Tchernov’s death will be ruled a suicide, but finds herself increasingly uncomfortable, believing Moto murdered Tchernov.
The scroll paintings prove to be part of an elegant pulp McGuffin that form a map to the lost tomb of Genghis Khan: the scroll Moto brought back with him from the Gobi is part of the set, deliberately stored away from the others long away to render the map incomplete. Moto has been hired to race against Tchernov’s allies, Schneider and Koerger (Sidney Blackmer), to bring all of the scrolls together and locate the tomb with its fabled treasure. Everyone wants the scrolls, even Eleanor, albeit for her collection. An antiquarian, Pereira (John Carradine, sporting droopy moustache and fez for some reason), tempts her with one, which might be one of the Chungs’ stolen scrolls. Moto rumbles Pereira by visiting his shop and spots the scroll he’s trying to sell as a fake, but also perceives he stole the real scroll. Pereira is gunned down from a car speeding by just as he’s about to tell Moto who hired him for the heist. Moto faces the same sticking point as Tchernov in trying to learn the secret of the scrolls: even with the Prince’s gratitude to Moto for saving his life, the Chungs refuse to part with their legacy and decry the inevitable looting of the Khan’s tomb. The Chungs’ place in this drama generates peculiar emotional intensity, with Madame Chung’s haughty efforts to cling to the last remnants of their clan pride in the chaotic modern world and China’s dismembered state circa 1937—she used to be a lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress—and her son’s arduous position in trying to honour traditional values but protect his mother.
This schism is painfully illustrated as Koerger and company break into the Chungs’ house, tie up the Prince, and, after beating him fails to dent his resolve to keep silent, begin torturing his mother. This proves more than the Prince can resist, and he gives up the scrolls to the villains. Far from being grateful, however, Madame Chung is appalled at her son’s lapse and makes a last-ditch tilt for honour by trying to stab Koerger with a ceremonial knife. Koerger shoots her, and Chung, once freed by Moto and Nelson, stabs himself with the same knife, expiring in convulsions of shame and despair. Ahn’s excellent performance as Chung, genuinely strong and proud, but with his one weakness awfully, tragically laid bare, sells this sequence. It stirs an interesting reaction in Moto, who reveals a streak of serious Buddhist faith and a conscientious determination to avenge his friend and balance his cosmic books. Moto operates throughout the film, as he did in the first one, between worldviews and hemispheric cultural sensibilities, which are tellingly represented by two versions of the same thing: Tchernov, an exiled tsarist, and the Chungs are both fallen aristocrats out of place in the mid-century tumult, but with radically different responses to crumbling values of homicidal rapacity versus suicidal fidelity, and meeting mirroring ends: Tchernov’s fake suicide (“We call it harakiri,” Moto tells Eleanor) and Chung’s real one. Moto, operating according to mercenary requirement (“My mission has been clearly defined,” he tells Chung), nonetheless feels the pull of other values as the mission becomes more urgent.
A new dimension emerges as Eleanor eavesdrops on Tchernov’s wife (Nedda Harrigan) and learns she’s been having an affair with Koerger, which her husband’s death leaves her nicely free to continue. Eleanor becomes the object of Madame Tchernov’s jealousy when Koerger takes her prisoner, a random but felicitous element that gives Moto the key to destroying his enemies. Another interesting prefiguration of many a modern action hero is that way Moto becomes a kind of avenging angel: after the Chungs’ death, Tom and Moto pursue the villainous party who have Eleanor captive and most of the scrolls in hand in a car (“You handle your car quite well.” “It’s not mine, I borrowed it from my boss.”). After being shot at, Tom drives straight into a river, car crashing in the water with an almighty splash, and the pair struggle to escape the wreck and swim to safety under a hail of bullets. Tom is knocked out with an oar, and Moto seems to die from a bullet in the back. The villains set off on the trail to Khan’s tomb on a junk, but find their crew spooked by what they call a demon dogging their path. This is Moto of course, who, soaked and covered in mud and detritus, keeps emerging from the dark and fog to knock off henchmen, including Schneider, until he can crash in on Koerger, whom he keeps at bay in spite of the gun in his hand with an elaborate hail of bluffs. Eleanor proves quick-witted enough to help Moto in this, pretending that she’s also Koerger’s lover, which infuriates Madame Tchernov enough to grab at Koerger’s gun hand—all the window Moto needs.
The very finish sees Moto burning the scrolls to ensure that they won’t ever cause such havoc again and to honour his promise to Chung, rounding off the film with a touch of numinous beauty as Moto prays over the smoking ashes in the flickering firelight of the junk cabin. There’s a haunting note here, with a level of deference for the shared cultural maxims of Chung and Moto that adds up to a rare touch in a genre action movie of the time. Again, Thank You is only 67 minutes long and yet packs in enough narrative layers for a film three times as long. All of the Moto films have solid production values, particularly marked in Thank You, with rich, chiaroscuro evocations of Peiping courtesy of Virgil Miller’s fine photography, with swank Western enclaves, busy street scenes, and gritty, shadow-swamped, almost besieged atmosphere on the fringes where soldiers wait by ancient gates on the edge of sepulchral territories where it seems entirely possible that Moto could be a demon on the hunt for vengeance, although that note is dispelled when he breaks in on Koerger and offers, in his familiarly chirpy way, “Good evening everybody!” The mood echoes back to Josef von Sternberg’s oneiric chinoiserie in Shanghai Express (1932) and forward to Seijun Suzuki’s stylised remembrance in Story of a Prostitute (1964), whilst works of referential pastiche, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Hammett (1982), would later find it a touchstone. The Moto series was ended by the spectre of World War II after eight instalments; the character was left out of the film version of Marquand’s last Moto novel, Stopover Tokyo (1958). Moto’s only comeback has been a cheap 1965 entry played by Henry Silva of all people. Japanese heroes aren’t so verboten now in Western popular culture, though chiefly only the historical kind. I’d love to see Mr. Moto return.
Directors/Coscreenwriters: Albert and Allen Hughes
By Roderick Heath
In the 1990s, following the lead of Spike Lee, a small wave of black filmmaking talents, including Carl Franklin, John Singleton, Kasi Lemmons, Bill Duke, Mario Van Peebles, and the Hughes Brothers, edged their way into Hollywood. Their careers have proven for the most part patchy and their works uneven, but all managed a few strong and significant movies to the extent that the period now looks like something of a renaissance nobody noticed that endured through dogged appreciation and fandom on video. Although many of these filmmakers would resist being pigeonholed to a great extent, all of them to an equal extent tried at times to describe realms of black experience that hadn’t been studied much in the movies. If a film like Van Peebles’ Panther (1995) wasn’t really very good, at least it was a desperately needed study of a vital moment in modern American life. Some of these directors leaned towards the ragged glories of genre film, particularly Duke’s loping, waggish crime flicks and Franklin’s cool and well-honed entries in the same genre, and Singleton’s punchy melodramas like Higher Learning (1995) and Rosewood (1997) that recalled Warner Bros. issue dramas of the ’30s. The Detroit-born brothers Albert and Allen Hughes made their name with 1993’s Menace II Society, a film some preferred to Singleton’s more widely lauded Boyz N the Hood (1992), and its follow-up three years later, Dead Presidents. The brothers’ career has moved in fits and starts since, with only their sadly defanged adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell (2000) and the biblical scifi parable The Book of Eli (2011), whilst Allen went solo in making the initially compelling but overplotted political corruption drama Broken City (2013). Dead Presidents, however, still stands as one of the best, most interesting and coherent films from this period for the scope of its ambitions and the visceral portrayal of things often left out of other takes on its chosen era and milieu.
Dead Presidents’ title conflates street argot for cash and a sense of history in flux and revision. The opening title sequence concentrates on images of cash burning, all those patrician faces and elegant scripts ablaze and drifting on the wind. The film encompasses a common narrative portrayed or alluded to in a lot of ’70s blaxploitation films, and the Hughes reference that mode of filmmaking throughout at a time when it wasn’t yet cool to reference: indeed, Dead Presidents is not just an homage to the blaxploitation creed, but an update of it, looking to the sociopolitical reality of the moment rather than merely its tropes. The scope of the narrative can be described as The Deer Hunter (1978) meets The Killing (1956), although for a real likeness of a narrative that encompasses the experience of a complete epoch, you have to look back even farther to the likes of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). The focus is on a returned black Vietnam War veteran confronted by a changed social scene at home—an idea that recalls not just blaxploitation films like Jack Starrett’s Slaughter (1972) and Fred Williamson’s Mean Johnny Barrows (1976), but also Marvin Gaye’s classic statement album What’s Going On.
The Hugheses start off in a key of funny-melancholy portrait of youth before going off to war: black teens Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) and Skip (Chris Tucker), and their Latino pal Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), have just finished high school and are looking at a leap in adulthood with different ambitions. Gabby, cynical Skip wants to be a pimp, whilst Anthony is being steered toward college like his older brother (Isaiah Washington). But Anthony chafes in the embrace of his relatively middle-class family and craves action, the kind of military action his father (James Pickens Jr.) and his employer, Kirby (Keith David), once saw. Kirby, who runs a pool hall and operates a low-grade numbers operation on the side, clearly favours Anthony like a surrogate son. Kirby employs him as a runner and lets him hang around the pool hall even though he’s underage.
The film’s first third has a loose, nostalgic feel and a quality reminiscent of many a coming-of-age tale, laced with the grittiness of a very urban life demanding quick learning skills and a witty gift for adaptation and a tone often verging on black comedy, like Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers (1979). Anthony loses his virginity with his girlfriend Juanita Benson (Rose Jackson) in a sequence of wry, bawdy honesty, and defies his parents as he announces his intention to join the Marines. Juanita lives with her nurse mother (Alvaleta Guess) and her plucky, flirty younger sister Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), who has put up with the sounds of the teens’ lovemaking when their mother’s on the night shift. Anthony’s education also includes a scary encounter with Cowboy (Terrence Howard), one of the sharpies who hangs around Kirby’s pool joint, who mocks Anthony for his age but then accepts Kirby’s suggestion they go head-to-head for a game. Anthony wins the game, but Cowboy refuses to pay the whole stake; when Anthony complains, Cowboy assaults him and cuts his face with a knife before Kirby and a pal can intervene. Kirby enlists Anthony as a driver when he goes to shake down a guy who owes him money, and standover violence takes on a slapstick edge: Kirby tosses his mark out a window whilst the man’s wife waves a gun at him. Kirby snatches the gun and knocks her out, whilst her husband tries to trip up Kirby by grabbing his leg, only to have Kirby’s prosthetic leg come off in his hands. Kirby finishes up rolling on the ground with the gun stuck up his quarry’s nose, and later stows his false leg on the dashboard and groans that he ought to go back and kill the guy because he made him lose his pack of cigarettes.
The brothers pull off a few terrific stylistic pirouettes through these early scenes. A tracking shot through an apartment where all the young graduates party, glimpsed in vignettes of passion, dancing, drinking, smoking, vomiting—all the follies and pleasures of young adulthood—is aestheticized to an extreme in hues of red and blue. There’s a strong Scorsesean influence here, but also an identifiable quality as a survey blending panorama and enlarged human detail of black artists like Archibald Motley. Later, trying to flee the Bensons’ house before being caught by their mother, Anthony makes a dash through neighbouring yards, leaping over fences and dodging barking dogs, filmed on the fly by the Hughes’ dashing camera, and then suddenly cutting to Anthony again on the run, but this time through the jungle in Vietnam surrounded by fellow soldiers in the midst of battle. This touch recalls the great smash cut that separates the homeland and ’Nam sequences in The Deer Hunter, but given a clever, kinetic makeover, and jarringly describes the distance between the comedy of Anthony’s arrival into manhood and the cruel reality of surviving the version of it his aspirations have plunged him into.
Vietnam movies had all but expended their moment of cultural status by 1995, but the Hughes actually managed to bring something new to the well-worn clichés of the subgenre here by pure dint of both their grittiness and their impassive approach to it. Far from the delirious atavism of Apocalypse Now (1979) or the operatic moralism of Platoon (1986), the Hughes war zone is a place of ferocious, devolving violence that its characters merely treat as a shitstorm to be survived, in whatever fashion they deem fit. With Jose drafted into the Army, Skip joined up with Anthony, and now the two watch each other’s backs in a rough-and-ready force recon outfit, skippered by Lieutenant Dugan (Jaimz Woolvett), and including Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), the son of a minister who’s turned himself into a rampaging devil for the duration of the war, and the ill-fated D’Ambrosio (Michael Imperioli).
The visions of the war zone, including Cleon hacking off the head of a VC and keeping it as a steadily decomposing good luck charm and D’Ambrosio’s capture by the VC, who disembowel him, castrate him, and jam his penis in his mouth, but still manage to leave him alive, contemplate the most terrible aspects of the war with a kind of reportorial immediacy that eschews excess or self-congratulatory zest. Anthony and Skip lean on each other for sanity and support, but the unit has its own embracing camaraderie built around their status as the dudes who brave the hairiest situations under Dugan’s wily direction. Cleon only gets rid of his totem at the insistence of Dugan and the rest of the unit when its stink gets too much, but warns them all that they’ve just thrown away their luck. Anthony passes another, awful hurdle in his education as he obeys D’Ambrosio’s begging to kill him by injecting him with a morphine overdose. Later, the unit is ambushed in a firefight. Skip freezes up and is badly injured, whilst Dugan is killed trying to grab him, forcing Anthony and Cleon to save Skip and fight a rear-guard action before they escape.
A year later, Anthony returns to a home that looks familiar, but soon finds the magnetic pole has shifted. Skip is now an addict living on benefits and suffering from the after-effects of Agent Orange. Cowboy is now a friendly neighbourhood drug dealer. Jose, who was drafted and served in demolitions, lost a hand during the war. Delilah has become a leading figure in a Black Panther-like revolutionary group called the Nat Turner Cadre: she greets Anthony’s arrival with “Welcome to the Revolution,” which, by the way she kisses him, includes the sexual as well as the political kind. But Anthony already has a role mapped out for him as father and provider, because Juanita gave birth to his daughter whilst he was away. He lands a steady job as assistant to a kindly old Jewish butcher, Saul (Seymour Cassel), who strikes up a rapport with Anthony over his name’s ironic similarity to actor Tony Curtis, who, as Saul points out, was another young American busy hiding his roots. But when Saul retires, Anthony finds himself jobless and quickly running out of options. Rubbing his increasingly raw nerves even sorer, Anthony learns that during his absence, Juanita was a part-time girlfriend to a gangster, Cutty (Clifton Powell), who displays outright contempt for Anthony and continues to slip cash to Juanita. When Anthony insists he stop, Cutty sucker-punches him and jams a gun in his face, taunting him in the same way Cowboy once did, except with an even scarier weapon. As Anthony’s feelings of entrapment and castration escalate, he soon begins to think seriously about a robbery plan Jose has proposed, targeting a federal shipment of worn-out currency destined to be burnt.
The Hugheses confirm allegiances with several visual and thematic references to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), although whereas that film was concerned with an individual veteran completely adrift in his society who sees himself strangely plugged into its moral fate, here the Hughes concentrate on Anthony as an avatar of a common experience who maintains connections with other similarly damaged people but is dogged by his inability or refusal to become radicalised. Delilah offers Anthony the chance to find a place amongst the Cadre and the nascent possibility of black brotherhood. But Anthony insists on maintaining an allegiance to ideals of manhood and country that prove illusory, one setting him up to try to live a life that the other can’t or won’t give him. Twisting the usual screen portraits of ’Nam vets as nobly pained or bugfuck crazy, the Hughes brothers offer this motley crew of vets simply as guys trying to endure whatever landscape they’re placed in, facing constantly shrinking options that fit the ways they’ve been trained to survive. The narrative’s inspiration came from a book, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, compiled by Wallace Terry, and specifically, the experiences of Haywood T. Kirkland and his recollections of people he knew. Indeed, in spite of its moments of melodrama and conflation, Dead Presidents maintains a feeling throughout of memoir, something the brothers underline with gruesome piquancy in their war sequences and episodic structuring—the various passages of time are denoted through fades to black and back again and titles giving time and place—and their refusal of any kind of catharsis at the very end.
The Hugheses capture the atmosphere inscribed in Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America” whilst remembering the time when it seemed the revolution might or might not be televised. Dead Presidents’ willingness to study both the milieu of black radicalism and its context in the Vietnam era, and to ponder the relationship between crime and such extremism, is certainly one of its important aspects. Rather than actually present Anthony with an alternative politicised path, Delilah readily signs up with his intended criminal enterprise, lending the operation the faint lustre of a revolutionary act even as it devolves, once again, into mere disastrous bloodletting. Perhaps it’s as good a mission of social anarchy as any other, as well as a play for riches and a focus for violent impulses. Delilah is perhaps the most original character in the film, the character who marks both the disorientating social shift Anthony is faced with once he comes back from the war even as the link between Delilah’s sassy, tomboyish disdain as a kid and her hard, radicalised intent is also signalled: she’s the one who greets him when we first see him go to the Benson house, and the first again when he comes back from war. Her status as the one real militant amidst all these clapped-out soldiers in the narrative suggests an element of dilettante posing found in much of the radical movement, although she proves her willingness to actually use deadly force. Delilah’s downfall is her unreciprocated crush on Anthony, an emotional attachment that, like Anthony’s to Juanita and his other loved ones, dooms him to a course of action that seems inevitable. When Anthony and his cadre actually embark on their robbery mission, they do so pointedly done up in dramatic, visually striking whiteface make-up that evokes Baron Samedi of voodoo lore, the embodiment of the perverse dichotomy of the slave society, the dualistic mix of black and white, owner and owned, command and slavery, eternity and death.
Similarly surreal in his mix of impulses is Cleon, who, since his return from war, has followed in his father’s footsteps and become a preacher, the head-hacking shaman he was in the bush seemingly cast off like a second skin. Nonetheless, Anthony and company approach him to join in their operation: Cleon, to their surprise, readily signs up with vague altruistic hopes for the cash he can net, although he worries Skip might freeze up again and go useless in a tight situation. The robbery, when it comes, is a ferocious sequence of pummelling Peckinpah-esque violence where nothing goes right, except for shedding blood. This climax is particularly good not just in the concussive, gory intensity of the action, but also in the Hughes’ sense of character as fate, which finds precise expression here: Delilah springing out of a dumpster with .45s in each hand blasting away cops with an expression that blends warrior rage and anguish just before getting iced herself; Cleon proving the one who’s unreliable when he can’t shoot down a fellow black veteran turned cop, forcing Skip to shoot the poor guy in the head; Anthony, stung by loss and releasing his rage on the coppers who insist on fighting back, eventually reduced to beating one with his gun when he runs out of bullets; Joe howling with laughter after his explosive device made to blow open the armoured car instead turns the vehicle into a giant ball of fire. There’s a touch of absurdism to this last moment, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of The Italian Job (1969), capping a robbery staged by people more used to violence than they are to planning and executing such a difficult mission. The Hughes present horror and comedy as two sides of the same coin, the result of things spinning far out of anyone’s control, and chaos, as on the battlefield, grips everyone in a ruthless logic.
Dead Presidents finally falls a few rungs short of real greatness, if for relatively subtle reasons. The Hugheses display more discipline here than Spike Lee often has, but lack his and Scorsese’s gift for turning anxiety into an aesthetic key, and the result doesn’t quite annex the realms of truly savage urban warfare in the way a precursor like Across 110th Street (1973) manages. Casting is a bit of a problem, with the supporting players generally more convincing than the leads. Tate is a very likeable actor, and he’s fairly good here, but often seems too lightweight and boyish to inhabit a figure as prematurely grave and seething as Anthony after he returns home, whilst Jackson never quite feels convincing when trying to put across Juanita’s blend of ardour and anger, which means scenes depicting the disintegration of Anthony and Juanita’s relationship don’t blaze with a sufficient sense of mad and inchoate emotion. David is as sourly marvellous as always. The sight of young Howard blazing with mean charisma and punkish swagger in his scenes as Cowboy tantalises with what the film might have been if he had played Anthony, whilst Wright shows real poise and potency in her scenes: in some alternative universe she might have become a real star. Tucker did start on his way towards becoming something of a star, and here his gift for zippy verbal comedy is tethered effectively to his portrayal, as Skip’s confidence in his breezy humour before war and his jittery attempts to maintain it after depict concisely how ruined he is.
In spite of its flaws, Dead Presidents stands as a fascinating, intermittently powerful journey that treads into territory I wish more filmmakers would take up. The disaster of the robbery sets the scene for the steady collapse and defeat of the crew, who manage, in spite of Joe turning the van into a fireball, to get away with a decent haul. But Joe is quickly chased down by police and killed when he shoots the driver of a cop car dead, but the vehicle slams into him. A crumbling Cleon brings down the heat when he starts handing out his cut of the loot to random beggars and people in the street, and squeals when he’s inevitably arrested. The police crash into Skip’s apartment only to find him dead from an overdose, his fish-eyed corpse lying grotesquely before his TV, which broadcasts a jaunty Soul Train performance. Dead Presidents was criticised upon release for its ending, as Anthony is sentenced to a long prison term by a white judge (a cameo by Martin Sheen), a fellow veteran who rejects the idea that the man in the docks deserves clemency for his service and brands him a disgrace instead. Anthony goes berserk in court and is shipped off to prison. This conclusion does have a peculiarly offhand quality, although I suspect that effect is deliberate, as the Hughes brothers fade to black as they have after each episode, only this time there are no more consequential chapters in Anthony’s life. Anthony isn’t granted the kind of glory a shootout like Raoul Walsh’s allowed to his antiheroic gangsters, or the sort of tragic stature filmmakers sometimes choose to extend to the likes of Bonnie & Clyde (1967) or Blow’s (2001) George Jung. He is instead doomed, like another modern Prometheus, to be gnawed at by the decimation of his community and the ambiguity of his own lot, the question of whether he really was a man without choices or the agent of his own destruction. Shit happens, and it just happened to Anthony Curtis.
The New Mexico desert, a vast, flat, seemingly sterile and vacant zone of the Earth, where it seems like nothing can hide for long in the glare of the sun. A police spotter plane contacts two cops in a patrol car, Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake), and guides them in tracking down a small figure wandering in the gruelling landscape. This proves to be a young girl (Sandy Descher), clutching a doll, walking with a glazed and staring expression in a state of deep trauma. Heading to a car and caravan parked nearby hoping to return her to her parents, they instead find the caravan has been violently torn open by some great force, with no sign of the owners, later identified as a couple named Ellinson. Only a weird, unrecognisable animal is print left in sand nearby, and sugar cubes are scattered all over. Ambulance men and lab investigators arrive, take a cast of the print, and load the girl to be taken to hospital. For a moment Ben and a medic are distracted and puzzled by a strange, trilling sound that arises out of the swirling sands near the site – a sound that momentarily stirs the girl. Ben and Ed head to a nearby general store owned by ‘Gramps’ Johnson as a dust storm rises and night falls, and find the store has also been broken into and trashed with incredible ferocity, with a buckled Winchester rifle on the floor and Gramps’ corpse discovered at the foot of steps into the cellar, mangled and bloodied. Ben heads off to bring the investigators over from the caravan, leaving Ed alone. Just as the sound of the car disappears into the night, Ed hears the same trilling call, and heads outside to look for the source. We hear his gun fire and his terrible scream as something launches on him from the dark.
Them! is the greatest atomic monster movie. Made with machine-like skill and chitinous beauty, it’s one of the very few sci-fi classics of the 1950s that feels scarcely dated. Part of its rare value and specific force stems from adopting what was then a radical idea, starting off in a different genre altogether, and proceeding with remarkable swerves of story and expectation. Them! unfolds essentially as a police procedural. Early scenes carefully posit signs of something incredible and far beyond the ordinary, violent death and carnage falling under the provenance of professional lawmen, whose method is linked with that of scientific enquirers, sifting facts and winnowing out inescapable conclusions. Slender threads and long shots are followed, ridiculous suppositions and apparently lunatic stories taken seriously. Director Gordon Douglas only made this single foray into fantastic cinema. Most of the time he made rock-solid westerns and crime flicks. This armed him perfectly to approach this story, however. Them! has familiar elements of both horror and sci-fi, but leads stylistically with a tone of sunstroke noir, like Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Dick Powell’s Split Second (1953), before segueing into the nightmarish scene at the store. Jack Arnold had tackled the desert as a setting of atmosphere and surrealist destabilisation in It Came From Outer Space a year earlier, and Douglas went one better. Here the wind howls through gutted walls and sets the overhead lights dancing, littered with broken bodies and signs of forceful intent at once superhuman in ripping out a wall and finicky in pausing again to steal sugar. The ripped bags and pooled grains are infested with tiny black ants, a coldly witty foreshadowing of where all this is going. White Sands, site of the first atomic bomb test less than a decade earlier, is not far away.
Douglas confronts the once-open American landscape as a place suddenly turned septic and deadly, riddled with monsters, and its taciturn, self-reliant inhabitants with their expert marksman eyes suddenly outmatched and their bones left strewn about, bleaching in the sun. Investigative method is at first is left utterly bemused, noting the damage done to Gramps, including shattered bones, pulverised flesh, and “the one for Sherlock Holmes – there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.” FBI Agent Bob Graham (James Arness) is just as clueless in the face of the details. Wiser, more rarefied intelligences are called for. Soon an unlikely pair of big brains are flown in, chasing a suspicion based on the plaster print: Dr Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, fellow scientist Dr Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon). Bob and Ben smirk and gawk at the site of a good-looking female scientist and a cuddly, absent-minded old professor, but soon find themselves scrambling to keep up with their businesslike attitudes and cryptic suggestions of imminent disaster. Medford uses the scent of formic acid to stir the young girl from her catatonic state: suddenly the girl launches herself from her chair, screaming “Them!” as she cowers in the corner. Medford grows all the grimmer as he makes the lawmen take him and Pat out to see where the print was found, scouring for new prints. Pat finds one, just in time to have the thing that made it come up behind her: an ant, big as an elephant. Medford shouts for the cops to shoot at the creature’s antennae to render it senseless, but it’s not until Ben fetches a machine gun that they bring down this unholy terror.
Medford pronounces his worst suspicion confirmed: lingering radiation from the first atom bomb test has sparked mutation. The ant is the worst possible species to face blown up to hundreds of times its normal size, an animal with great strength, social organisation, martial intelligence, and “savagery that makes Man look feeble by comparison.” If Godzilla (1954) articulated Japan’s sense of being on the receiving end of the atom age’s horrible birth, full of images of soaring, impersonal destruction, Them! is the more paranoid companion piece from the victors. The towering, singular, city-flattening monsters of most atomic monster movies here are exchanged with large and threatening but more immediate and pervading enemies. Manny Farber’s metaphor of termite art never felt more appropriate. The fear articulated in Them! is less of the destructive force of the Bomb itself than of the more insidious threat of radiation. Soldiers were being marched through atomic bomb test sites even as Them! was produced, many later to fall ill. The giAnts could also be seen as a twist on a popular caricature of Communists – monsters with a warlike attitude and perfect, communal organisation, spreading out and infesting the nation. Douglas had already done his best for Cold War acclimatising on I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951).
As Ben and Blackburn explore Gramps’ shattered store, a droning radio in the story broadcasts news from around the world. Reports on diplomatic entreaties and success of vaccination programs, the instability of modern politics and the genius of modern science reported in close succession, investing the scene confront the cops with a portentous mood of diagnosis. Them! depicts the essential conflict between the Janus faces of the atomic age, the forces that created the evil – science and militarism – called in to clean up their own mess, with the moral leadership provided by civil guardians Ben and Bob. “This is the first time I’ve ever given orders to a General,” Ben quips to General O’Brien (Onslow Stevens) as they’re required to work together, because Medford insists on keeping the existence of the giAnts secret as long as possible. With the nature of the beast finally revealed, the job of tracking down the monsters requires searching the desert by helicopter, and Medford calls in O’Brien and aide Major Kibbee (Sean McClory). Finally they glimpse one of the great black beasts standing astride the entrance to the nest, a ribcage in in its mandibles. Medford counsels the need to both exterminate the nest but also to keep it intact and make sure every creature is killed. He comes up with a plan that the two lawmen and two soldiers carry out, firing phosphorous charges at the nest with bazookas to keep the giAnts at bay, and then gas their hive with cyanide.
Bob momentarily balks at having Pat, who needs to do what her elderly father can’t, descend with him and Ben into the nest to survey the damage, but she quickly dismisses his concerns: “There isn’t time to give you a fast lesson in insect pathology.” Pat’s introduction echoes that of Bella Darvi’s similar prodigal daughter of the savant in Sam Fuller’s Hell and High Water (1954): the first sight of her is a sliver of leg in a pump, descending a ladder, astounding the meatheads before quickly and simply laying claim to her place on the team. Fuller’s tone was satiric where Douglas is businesslike, for like Pat he can’t stand distractions and pointless arguments. It could be one of the most significant early rumbles of feminism on film: Pat does scream queen duty early on but after that is a model of cool and purpose, and as much as it makes Bob look gassy, he’s forced to concede Pat’s point. After that it’s never mentioned again. This aspect is perfectly contiguous with the film’s survey of a new landscape where the pace of change, and evolution itself, is outpacing comprehension. George Worthing Yates, who wrote the original story for Them!, would return to the same feminist slant, if more awkwardly, on It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955).
Descent into the ant nest sees the nightmarish tint of the store sequence shift into the realm of the truly strange and mythic as Ben, Bob, and Pat roam the labyrinth, where gas clouds swirl and demonic forms lie slumped and twisted. Two ants from a walled-up section of nest break out and attack, but Ben manages to cook both with his flame thrower, that great catch-all weapon of any self-respecting monster hunter. But the most disturbing and threatening discovery in the nest is an absence, as Pat recognises the importance of some large, empty egg shells. New queen ants and male consorts have hatched and left the nest, meaning that new colonies will be founded someplace else, and the cycle will start again. The film’s lengthy mid-section returns to the investigative theme as our small band of heroes rustle up government support, but still keep their operation small and low-key as they sift through leads extracted from an avalanche of reports encompassing weird and unusual events. In this situation, the more bizarre and lunatic-sounding the story, the more meaningful it is, one of the cleverest conceits of the script (by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes). The team get their best clue from a shaky Texan aviator, Alan Crotty (Fess Parker, pre-Davy Crockett), who’s been shut up in a loony bin because of his report of nearly flying into UFOs shaped like ants. More crucial leads come from a theft of a load of sugar from a parked railway car, and from a loopy alcoholic, Jensen (Olin Howlin), whose reports of seeing giant ants crawling about the LA River bed and flying about in model aeroplanes would be dismissed as DTs by most but set the hairs on our heroes’ necks standing.
Them! stands tall not just in the annals of monster movies but in movie history in general for the way it balances two qualities required for great storytelling which can seem contradictory: the concision of its storytelling, both visually and in its writing, with lean ferocity to the plot and pacing, coexisting with enriching distractions – comic asides, incidental vignettes, and moments of human intensity. The comedy is good: the railway security man who’s been arrested because he employers believe he must have been complicit in the sugar theft scoffing, “You ever hear of a fence for hot sugar?”, Crotty bleating that the staff in the hospital won’t even give him “anything to hold up my pants!” two old souses arguing the ethics of evening wear, or Jensen chanting “Make me a sergeant, charge the booze!” when he thinks Kibbee wants to draft him. The heroes and their motives are straightforward, with only Ben’s tight-wound desire to settle a score against the things that killed his partner and turned his beat into a war zone offered as an aside to the general business of social dedication, whilst romance between Bob and Pat is noted but not belaboured. Otherwise they get along with their jobs with the dedication of experts. Even with this terse attitude, though, Them! manages to be revealing, as with Medford’s habitual insistence on calling his daughter doctor when they’re discussing business, and Pat’s concern for the old man’s health. Gwenn, long a scene-stealing actor, delivers a peach of a performance, at once a source of frail but plucky humanity, as when he splutters irascibly at being lectured on how to use a two-way radio, and then delivers the regulation voice of pseudo-poetic wisdom beholding the terrors of a new age.
The necessity of the heroes doing that job is illustrated and made urgent by the repeated motif of interrupted lives, and children left endangered by the deaths of parents – the Ellinsons at first and then the two sons of Mrs Lodge (Mary Ann Hokanson). The hunt for the ants comes to Los Angeles in probing the sugar theft, and quickly a new ant colony in the storm drain system under the city is identified, in part because of an even more random lead, when Ben and Bob check out the body of a man who crashed his car but had clearly been violently mutilated beforehand. This man, Lodge, was a working man who took his children out on Sunday mornings, the only time he had for them, and it’s clear that this time it ended in violent tragedy. Finding what happened to Lodge’s children and where proves to the key to mystery and the stake for the finale. This aspect of the story does more than serve a plot function: it situated Them! in a real world that many such films never even graze, particularly in today’s genre film. The most powerful images here aren’t of battle and monstrosity but of human reaction. The first, of the Ellinson girl stirred from her traumatic bubble to jump up, face distorted by terror and proximity to the camera and screaming the title, is designed and executed as a perfectly iconic moment, capturing the leap from rigid anxiety to explosive, cathartic hysteria – the essence of the atom age conflated into a child’s face. Another moment, bordering on arch and yet remaining starkly serious, comes after the first giAnt is killed, with the sound of its fellows ringing eerily out of the dust storm, and Medford speaks a faux-Biblical quote that underline the mood of imminent apocalypse and primal threat: “And there shall be destruction and darkness come over Creation – and the beasts shall reign over the Earth.” The rhyme to the Ellinson girl’s violent display comes towards the end when Mrs Lodge hears her boys are alive, with Douglas cutting to a close-up as she buckles in sudden relief, a moment that packs emotional wallop no matter how many times I watch the film.
No monster movie is better than its monster, of course. As Steven Spielberg would to great effect years later with Jaws (1975), Them! keeps its beasties off screen for a long time – nearly a third of the film. The first appearance is a piece of brilliant mischief on Douglas’ part, as Pat kneels by a print she finds and scans her surrounds, unaware that a colossal monster is rising up over the sand dune just behind her, a giant something seeming to crawl out of infinite nothing, before fixing on the small, juicy human with beady eyes. I remember the first time I ever saw the film as a kid and being utterly bewildered as to what kind of threat was going to turn up until that most memorable reveal. The effects used to animate the giAnts aren’t always convincing, and aren’t as artful as the stop-motion work by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. But the decision to eschew miniatures and use puppets and large-mock-ups gives them a sense of size and imminence, bristling threat and an aura of brutish savagery. When the ants do show up, just as importantly, they don’t shrink as threats – rather the opposite. Even when not seen that eerily memorable sound effect of their call (actually the massed sound of a species of tree frog) signals their presence and builds atmosphere. One of my favourite moments in the film, which feels to me again like an encapsulation of the era’s taut nerves and sense of dark wonder at the newly threatening frontiers of existence, is when a report comes through to the government about another ant nest having hatched out on a ship at sea. Medford cranes over the shoulder of a signalman typing up a furiously tapped Morse code message. Douglas zooms in on the signalman’s headphones, dissolves to a shot of the ship at sea, then to the hand tapping out the message – a hapless sailor trying to get out his message as the giAnts careen through the ship consuming men and bashing through walls.
Them! as an artefact vibrates with intimations of a novel and alien age, Douglas and Hickox seeking out odd visual textures to underline a headlong rush into an enclosing modernity and pestilential menace. When the first giAnt appears, the humans in the scene are dehumanised by the goggles they wear against the sand, making them look a bit ant-like themselves (whilst Weldon’s tightly cinched waist is insectoid as anything in the film), whilst the irradiated desert anticipates a post-apocalyptic world. LA’s vaulted roadways and cemented rivers, and the storm drains where the army ventures on the hunt for the ants, becomes a maze of blank and glistening concrete, like a rough draft for some futuristic city, the kinds seen on a hundred scifi pulp novel covers. Bronislau Kaper’s scoring mimics the churn of radio signals and the pulse of Morse code and singing telephone lines as the action plays out on arrays of communication that suck in all the information of the world in a new network to be disseminated by our heroes.
Them! benefits from its relative privilege, a long time before Star Wars (1977), as a film from a genre usually relegated to cramped budgets and expedient filmmaking in those days, made with something like the care and production heft of a top-line movie, apparent not just in the special effects but also the technical elements including Sidney Hickox’s photography and especially Bronislau Kaper’s thunderous music score. Whitmore’s performance as Ben anchors the film with his restrained humanity and everyman quality, a quality that makes him seem like a prototype for a brand of movie hero who was still to have his day in the future, whereas Arness’s jut-jawed company man feels more like a familiar type of the day, especially as he gets befuddled around Pat’s aura of competence. Ben is also a tragic hero, dying whilst saving the Lodge kids from an army of the ants in the storm sewer, managing to hoist the two lads to safety only to finish up mangled between two massive mandibles – a bloodcurdling moment remarkable not just in its cruel verve but in carrying through on the violent threat to its hero with a gutsiness still few films can claim. When, a few minutes later, Bob gets trapped by a collapsed roof in a section of tunnel with more of the beasts, the narrative’s rude and declared disinterest in the usual niceties makes the moment all the more thrilling, with Bob becoming the image of a frontline warrior with machine gun blazing in desperate last stand against the ultimate enemy – monsters of the id turned flesh.
Though the two films belong technically to the same subgenre, if Godzilla, released in Japan less than four months later, defined the giant monster movie forever, Them! has surely had as permanent effect on a smaller-scaled brand of man-versus-whatever drama – there’s something of its mutant DNA in films as diverse as Jaws and its many rip-offs, The Birds (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Aliens (1986), and the Jurassic Park films, both on the level of narrative patterning and on the crudely but effectively phobic level of exploiting the dread of being eaten by something with a lot of teeth and legs. But there are also the seeds of concerns filmmakers like Robert Aldrich, with Kiss Me Deadly (1955), John Boorman, with Point Blank (1967), up to and including Michael Mann, would later enlarge upon, surveying the wilderness of the new with anxiety rather than triumph. The enemy is defeated and exterminated in the very last moments of Them!, but not without a sense of both regret, as the human protagonists look down upon the last of a new species writhing in streams of fire, and also, vitally, a sense of menace contained but not quelled. As Medford’s hokey but effective last speech states and Douglas’ bleakly revelling images convey, it won’t be the last horror the brave new world will have to stare down.
Thomas Pynchon has long been considered an unfilmable author. The celebrity-averse writer’s absurdist, metastasizing narratives and quintessentially postmodern, metafictional conceits, wrap the reader in material wrought from a heated blend of cultural detritus. Pulp novels, B-movies, history books, philosophy volumes, underground comedy skits, comic books, urban legends, paranoid nightmares—anything that gives off a strange and lively psychic radioactivity helps build his byzantine worldview and heady conceptual universes. Such tales usually prove too dense, too eccentric to wrangle within the acceptable demarcations of a feature film. Enter Paul Thomas Anderson, unafraid of a challenge.
Anderson’s only other proper novel adaptation was his revision of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! for There Will Be Blood (2007), a radical variation on a theme that allowed him free space to construct his own vision. With Inherent Vice, Anderson faced a more difficult task, not the least of which is satisfying Pynchon’s cult, though the novel was greeted as one of Pynchon’s less complex and most accessible works, if also one of his less powerful. The invocation of the hectic, distrustful, whirlwind energy of hippie-era SoCal offered Anderson a landscape to lose himself in and another stage of modern American history to infiltrate and anatomise. The decline and decay of the 1960s counterculture fits between the ’50s imperial flimflam of The Master (2012) and the devolved hedonism of the ’70s in Boogie Nights (1997). But Inherent Vice allows Anderson to go one better, because Pynchon’s tale is a pop cultural core sample that presents a host of subterranean connections between modes of Americana.
Rather than return to the balletic ebullience of Boogie Nights or channel the frenetic pop-art accent of much ’60s cinema, Anderson takes a different tack, adopting his hero Larry “Doc” Sportello’s frazzled, spacey, mesmeric rhythm of perception, enforced by his steady diet of strong weed, as the aesthetic key. Anderson breaks up the world not into pop fantasias but into free-floating surveys that occasionally resolve in startling moments of revelation and visions of clarity. Doc is essentially a professional hippie, but he’s also a licenced private eye who got into the business tracking down criminals who skipped out on their bail and found himself adept enough at it to make a tolerable living while living in a hash haze. One day, his ex-girlfriend, would-be actress and former surfer chick Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), turns up at his beachfront shack looking urbane and trendy. She appeals for Doc’s aid with a moral conundrum on the verge of becoming a dangerous situation. Shasta is the kept woman of wealthy property developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and is worried Mickey’s wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and her personal trainer/boyfriend are plotting to shanghai Mickey into a funny farm and annex his fortune. Shasta wants Doc to try to head off the plot before she is forced to make an unpleasant choice between survival and collusion.
Through some eerie conjunction of unlucky stars, Doc quickly finds himself embroiled in other cases that all seem connected by mysterious threads and cross-currents of coincidence and conspiracy in the covert Los Angeles social war. Black power tough Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams) hires Doc to seek out a prison friend of his, Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), who’s a member of the White Power motorcycle club Wolfmann uses as bodyguards, to help get weapons for the revolution. When Doc is knocked unconscious whilst visiting a brothel on the fringes of LA, he awakens in a car park next to Charlock’s corpse and Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), with a mass of coppers itching to pin the murder on him. Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) hires Doc because she was married to one of Shasta’s friends, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a surf rock saxophonist who supposedly overdosed, to investigate rumours Coy isn’t as dead as he’s supposed to be. Bigfoot, Doc’s police persecutor/contact, has personal reasons to be interested in one of Charlock’s fellow Nazi thugs, Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine), who works as muscle for professional assassin Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie) and may have facilitated Mickey’s disappearance for various colluding forces. Doc has found a new part-time squeeze in Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), uptight deputy D.A. by day and pot-smoking cool cat by night, though that relationship isn’t going far even before Penny hands him over to the FBI, which might have played a part in Mickey’s disappearance. One of the prostitutes from the brothel, Jade (Hong Chau), alerts Doc to the danger of the Golden Fang, the name of a mysterious schooner often seen off the coast. Or it might also be a drug cartel dug as deep as a tick into the fabric of the new, groovy American life. Or it might just be the tax dodge of a bunch of dentists. Or it might be…
The hilariously convoluted plot does in the end make a kind of sense, the mimicry of forms and protocols from decades’ worth of private eye fiction ingeniously sarcastic. A femme fatale breezing in and out of reality like a conjured dream calling the hero into the netherworld. Down these mean streets stumbles a man who is himself not mean. Dense and mysterious connections between the seedy back alley and the mansion on the hill. A plethora of come-ons from exotic lovelies and sneak-peeks into the sordid delights of fame and power. Friendly antagonism with the respectable forces of law and order. A double-cross and a fight for survival. A host of oddball foes and friends, alliances and chance encounters. The P.I. genre was always popular because it offered the chance of ennobling justice pursued by nonofficial forces, gratifying the courage of the everyday rather than the occupation of the state. On another level, the story is mere mass distraction, a random free-for-all of worldly nonsense that impedes Doc’s ability (and desire) to recognise crucial facts, immediate dangers, and the reality of the relationships that define his life.
Doc is no Mike Hammer, but he isn’t clueless either, constantly revealing a streak of native wiliness and survival instinct that seems to have been honed rather than dulled by his druggy lifestyle. His perpetually fazed state usually synchronises functionally with the surreal barrage of events he’s faced with. Indeed, as presented, the landscape Doc inhabits might only be tolerable whilst stoned and make sense only when filtered with the specific mix of detachment and the preternatural powers of perception imbued by heavy cannabis input. His tale is narrated by his astrologer and soothsayer friend Sortilege (played, in a genius stroke of casting, by folk singer Joanna Newsom), whose drawling, blowsy voice weaves soft as smoke through the tale, matching Anderson’s recurring use of wide master shots gently prodded toward focal points in creating a sense of blasé estrangement. Inherent Vice elides ramming home points about the decline of the counterculture but does so through inferences that are bitterly amusing, particularly in the inevitable corruption of the drug scene, which is indeed the deepest, truest satiric target and essential theme of Inherent Vice, formulating too much of then-modern American life as “something to be run away from,” but also depicting the very thing you want to flee ready to meet you on the far side of the rabbit hole.
Rather than subdivide the realities presented through Doc’s fuzzy-headed narrative, the film keeps them all connected literally or spiritually in a roundelay of perversity. This refrain is perfectly in keeping with Anderson’s fascination with the manifold and defining ways of life in a modern western state, refusing the simple division of the ’60s landscape into one of squares and longhairs—a division that suited both camps—and contemplating the woozy, iniquitous nature behind much of the “liberation.” Pynchon’s tale, readily understood by Anderson, comprehends the foul meeting place of haute capitalism and hapless counterculture in the perfect enterprise—illegal drug retail. The Golden Fang, or whatever it is, deals out both addiction and redemption, financing rehabilitation facilities where junkies can dry out, tune back in, and start their journey back toward the point where they want to get high, in perfect tune with the circadian rhythms of the nation.
The doppelganger aspect of this is drawn out by Doc’s love-hate relationship with Bigfoot, a policeman who wants to be Joe Friday and also wants to be a media star, and is constantly caught short of his many all-American ambitions. He torments Doc, going so far as to bash and kick him when he catches him trying to speak to Sloane Wolfmann and taunting him with the suggestion that Shasta might be dead, but then admitting she’s only missing. But Bigfoot also seems to desperately rely on Doc in some fashion as his alter ego, his smothered conscience or unconscious, his drop-out double, calling him up in the middle of the night essentially to hear the voice of someone he doesn’t owe anything to. Ironically, the first glimpse of Bigfoot comes when he, in his half-assed acting career, plays a hippie with a giant fake afro flogging Wolfmann’s tacky new real estate (“…and best of all, a view of the Dominguez Flood Control Channel that can best be described in two words—right on!”). As if in obedience to the mysterious cue in the coincidence, Doc is already making himself over by sporting an afro.
Doc’s first stop on his mission is the brothel, lazily disguised as a massage parlour, set up in a demountable on the fringes of Wolfmann’s latest crime against the landscape overlooking LA, building an unbearable future through which a mysterious army of men scuttle and dive to the dirt avoiding Doc’s gaze. Within, Doc encounters Jade, who starts casually making out with coworker Bambi, ignoring Doc’s status as private eye. A hidden assailant clops him on the head with a baseball bat, and he awakens sprawled on the dust of the estate next to Charlock’s dead body, amidst fluttering, red plastic flags and a row of cops aiming guns at him. All this is scored sublimely by Lex Baxter’s “Simba,” one of the composer’s popular “exotica” recordings that evoke communing with the wild and tribal via the hi-fi in plastic suburbia. Anderson’s ear for music to pervade his work is just as clever and telling elsewhere, particularly in the use of German psychedelic band Can’s throbbing, percussive, alien music rather than the sound of a more familiar band from a nearby scene, like The Doors, Love, or Jefferson Airplane.
Inherent Vice shudders with rattled nerves. Doc’s segue into searching for Coy Harlingen evokes the most fervently paranoid side of the era’s fantasies, probably the most famous of which is the “Paul’s dead” rumour communicated through signs and symbols permeating the Beatles’ output that Paul McCartney, despite all signs to the contrary, was actually dead and had been replaced by a lookalike. Funny thing is, Coy really does turn out to be alive, having faked his death to end his destructive relationship with Hope. Coy took an offer from a morals crusade group that wanted him as an agent to infiltrate the hippie scene, but has been forced onto a treadmill of fake identities and ridiculous assignments, like pretending to be a hippie scum protestor at a Nixon speech. Of course, the morals crusade is actually the Golden Fang’s public face, and Coy is trapped with no way back to his personal reality.
Doc’s first meeting with Coy comes at a classic noir location, a fog-shrouded pier, perfect for swapping mythologies of the night and anguished personal lessons, for ghost ships to cruise the harbour, for men returning from the dead and melting back into the murk. Later, Doc has to track Coy down to where he’s currently operating undercover: Coy has slotted himself back into a band he used to play in—they’re too drug-addled to recognise him—for the sake of an investigation, living in a record exec’s rented house that’s become a kind of commune for bohemian brethren who divvy up pizzas in a burlesque of Last Supper art. Coy has been nominated as hipster Jesus, seeking his return to life after his sacrifice. Anderson tips his hat most explicitly to long-time influence Robert Altman here, who used the same joke in MASH (1970). The atmosphere and essential conceit of Inherent Vice recalls Altman’s similar defloration of the Marlowe myth in his flaky take on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1974), whilst the visual language often recalls early ’70s Altman’s love of wide shots and slow zooms.
It would be easy to overstate the Altman imprint on the film, however, as Anderson seems to have other models equally in mind. Anderson fashions the film in complete opposition to the hallucinatory, chiaroscuro approach to the Californian alternative scene Oliver Stone wrought so well in The Doors (1991), though that style would have seemed apt for adapting Pynchon’s novel. Pynchon’s writing has long shared the antic, near-cartoonish quality that was popular in much ’60s culture, sharing that quality in common with figures like MAD Magazine artist Mort Drucker, the early films of Richard Lester, and Pynchon’s fellow black-comedy writer Terry Southern, who penned the novel Candy and cowrote Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Easy Rider (1969). Anderson tweaks Bigfoot in a fashion that recalls Easy Rider’s tragic character George Hanson, portrait of trapped America, a man so busy playing parts demanded of him that he doesn’t quite know who he is anymore.
Anderson generally takes his cues from a different strand of moviemaking from the period, particularly Arthur Penn, whose Alice’s Restaurant (1969) was the first post-counterculture film that came out when the movement was cresting, and Penn’s revisionist take on the private eye flick in the light of shifting modern mores, Night Moves (1975), as well as Lester’s radical turnabout Petulia (1968). The inner thesis of the film also invokes the famous “high and beautiful wave” passage of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Wim Wenders’ early works also feel like powerful influences on the film’s serious substrata, particularly his American debuts Hammett (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984). The former film walked the detective drama through reverent genre pastiche, but also adopted a similarly opiated, abstracted sense of time and sad learning as well, studying the distance between the odd comfort found in the terse, distorted world created on page and the actual spectacle of a deeply corrupt world, and the latter’s intimate, emotionally gnarled anatomisation of formerly happy, wayfaring lovers wrecked on the shoals of an unforgiving land. Anderson, whose jesting, yet penetrating vantage on his native land has defined his work to date, seems to want to adopt the same stranger’s-eye view. And indeed, that suits Doc’s status as self-imposed exile in his own land.
Doc is presented as a classic kind of comic character on the surface, the guy who stumbles blithely through danger, a figure that threads through the history of movie comedy from Harold Lloyd to Inspector Clouseau and Frank Drebin, with just a little of Groucho Marx’s shyster ingenuity, and, of course, his name pays tribute to Groucho’s progeny Bugs Bunny. But Anderson, via Phoenix’s dextrous performing, confirms there’s a real person buried under the shaggy hair and patchouli cloud, a man trying to fly over petty abuses and major heartbreaks inflicted by the ways of the world, from losing Shasta to a rich man to getting knocked over by cops like schoolyard bullies. Late in the film, when Doc converses with smooth, cold-blooded lawyer Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), who may be connected to the Golden Fang and have arranged the murder of his wayward daughter’s lover, Doc meets Fenway’s sneering depreciation of his worth with, “Well I might not be as well connected, and for sure not as much into revenge as you folks are, but if you jive with me, my man—’ and makes a clicking sound as if cocking a gun. Phoenix expertly twists this line, eyes bugging out like Jack Elam after a bender, so that it comes out as both punch line and exact character signature.
Inherent Vice neglects Anderson’s theme of master-pupil relationships, perhaps because The Master signalled a natural end to them, all the better to concentrate on his twinned rivals and doppelgangers, another constant refrain in his work. Equally, Inherent Vice’s official status as comedy, however uneasy, suddenly gives new dimension to the farcical impulses throughout his films, like There Will Be Blood’s invocations of Tom and Jerry, Coyote and Roadrunner, and the Three Stooges. Turning Coy into hippie Jesus readily evokes the many profane temples constructed by Anderson’s characters in their searchings, his pilgrims in a land without holy places, and evokes the purest side of the counterculture in its search for things worth honouring distinct from the interests of commerce and state. Woven throughout all the dope and derring-do is a meditation on Doc and Shasta’s relationship, tethered to the drama overtly and spiritually. A flashback depicts the couple in their happiest moment, when, strung out during a weed famine, they consulted Sortilege who made them try a Ouija board; the board immediately gave them a street number to what seemed to be a connection, only to belong to an empty lot. Doc heads to the same spot on an impulse and finds an oddball modernist building now in the space. Moreover, the building proves to house the Golden Fang, or at least a Golden Fang, a collective of dentists headed by depraved Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short, bless him) who has a massive stash of heroin under his desk he shares happily with Doc before dashing off for a quickie with his vinyl-clad secretary Xandra (Elaine Tan). Then Fenway’s professionally maladjusted daughter Japonica (Sasha Pieterse) turns up, having just escaped from the institution her father exiled her to after Doc tracked her down on an earlier case, to resume her corrupt ways with boyfriend Blatnoyd. Somehow Doc finishes up in a car with this twisted duo and his pal and protégé Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn), stopped by cops who have been told, post-Manson family, to look out for cults. But the invisible hand of some defender stops them all getting busted. Blatnoyd turns up dead shortly thereafter, having fallen off a trampoline and then been mauled on the neck; Doc suggests to Bigfoot that he investigate to see if Blatnoyd was killed with actual golden fangs.
The scenes with Blatnoyd mark the most overtly rompish passage in the film, whilst the subplot of the boat that also bears the name of the Golden Fang, upon which Doc suspects Wolfmann, Shasta, or both may have been borne across the seas, provides a host of connections with pulp fiction, particularly the otherworldly junk bearing human cargo in Albert Zugsmith’s proto-psychedelic epic Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962). The voyaging motif that popped up throughout The Master returns here, postcards from far off places touched with hints of enigmatic benediction and longing. Doc’s marine lawyer pal Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro, in a marvellously dry performance) clues Doc in on the Golden Fang’s mysterious past, including a sojourn into the Bermuda Triangle when owned by once-blacklisted, now anti-communist movie star Burke Stodger (Jack Kelly). Meanwhile, Sauncho happily gives advice with equanimity to Doc and Bigfoot, because Doc never pays him and, well, he’s a marine lawyer. Doc eventually does track down Mickey, finding him installed in a Golden Fang front, a rehab facility, where Coy is also installed on one of his missions. Mickey is a wreck painful to behold, mumbling through the haze of detox about his epiphany that his business depredations were evil, a portrait of cynic turned loopy, drug-fuelled idealist now being forcibly transformed back into his previous condition because too many people, from his wife to the U.S. government, require it. Anderson abruptly and disorientingly has Doc’s seemingly all-consuming investigation fold in upon itself in tragicomic diminuendo, as Mickey returns to business and Shasta suddenly appears again as she did at the beginning, fetching beer and questioning Doc about his requirements in women.
Here, crucially, the underlying tone of something darker, rawer, in Anderson’s enquiry leaps to the fore, hinted at throughout the early scenes with a cheeky sensibility, as he notes that the sexual liberation surveyed in the LA scene is too often rather an elaborate form of prostitution, particularly around Wolfmann’s house, where Anderson places his camera at Doc’s sitting eye line, so both sexy housemaid Luz (Yvette Yates) and Sloane’s trainer and lover Riggs (Andrew Simpson) are both objectivised as bodies. Upon her return to Doc, Shasta strips off and lays herself across his lap, taunting him with a long story of being reduced to Wolfmann’s concubine, brought in as if she ought to be on a leash in secret dens where plutocrats meet and shared around as common property. Shasta’s long monologue, delivered in a slurred testimony replete with disquieting, simultaneous urges to be chastised and purified but also have stirred masochistic, anti-human impulses sated, drives Doc to spank her and fuck her in a spasm of powerful anger and desire.
This astounding vignette drives the film into radically different territory, Waterston’s quake-inducing performance evoking Nastassja Kinski’s haunted reverie in Paris, Texas and Last Tango in Paris (1972) in grazing the edges of sexuality’s intense, troubling ambivalence, and also a hint of Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate (2007), which similarly explored the problems of love interwoven with hate through a prism of pulp fiction. The notion that too much of human life is, under all the flashy surfaces and propaganda, a case of people seeking power over others and the strange, contorted ways the dominated react proves a secret thesis of Inherent Vice, and the throughline of the entire affair, Doc’s attempt to bury and forget the plain fact that his girlfriend left him for a rich man and now comes back to the better man only to test him, is simplicity itself. But, of course, the encounter concludes with Shasta’s reminder that “This doesn’t mean we’re getting back together.”
Shasta’s mysterious return begs as many questions as it answers, but it’s Coy who then haunts Doc; just as Bigfoot is Doc’s doppelganger, Coy is Shasta’s, another free spirit similarly erased from reality by the forces of iniquity. This drives Doc to foolishly brave the lair of the one definite (and perhaps, in the end, only) spider in the Golden Fang tree, Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie), who seems to have killed Bigfoot’s partner and is perfectly willing to get rid of Doc’s pestering presence by having Puck take him captive and arrange his death by forced overdose. Doc battles for his life with the kind of streetwise skill that’s always been lurking under his ridiculous exterior. The sense of threat Anderson has managed to infuse amidst all of these antics pay in off in a sudden burst of real and thrilling violence—except Doc, in his peerless fashion, cries out, “Did I hit you?” moments after unloading a load of bullets into a man’s face. This sequence would have made an old-school noir filmmaker proud, proving Anderson’s gift with nuts-and-bolts cinema is still tuned whilst still defiantly maintaining his chosen style, via an oblique framing of captive Doc and Puck through a window.
Inherent Vice ultimately belongs in a genre that is infamously difficult to pull off and even harder to sell: profound farce, a vision of hapless humans entrapped by their own unruly impulses within a society defined by the same impulses, shot through an ironic, but still correct sense of the unity of opposites. Even in Bigfoot’s final, near-fatal betrayal of Doc we find the opposite, a gesture of desperation and hunt for comradeship that the cop can’t quite acknowledge. Inherent Vice is a thoroughly immersed period piece, but sustains a peculiar blend of the hazily remembered with the immediate: Anderson knows that Doc’s desire to excise himself from the pains of living in the world is an ancient and immediate ambition. Anderson cuts him a little more slack than Pynchon. Where Boogie Nights wrapped up with the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” as it elegy to happy endings after nightmares, Anderson leaves off with Doc and Shasta adrift on the highway, Doc keeping one suspicious eye on trailing headlights, knowing evil is always lurking, but feeling that a puce knight like him stands a chance of fighting it off.
From 2004 through 2007, “We Used to Be Friends,” the dreamy, edgy song performed by the Dandy Warhols, opened “Veronica Mars,” a television series that created such a loyal following that it survived low ratings to last three seasons and encouraged more than 91,500 people to contribute to a Kickstarter campaign so successful that we now have a movie based on the series. What was it about this series that had people of all ages and backgrounds—including me—glued to the tube each week?
The series, which featured Kristen Bell as the title teenage gumshoe, was much more than the updated Nancy Drew or straight-playing “Twin Peaks” it seemed to be. Its essence was noir, with corruption at the heart of its original through-story of Veronica’s investigation into the murder of her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), in the fictional town of Neptune, California, a playground for the rich and famous with a soft underbelly reminiscent of the Los Angeles of Chinatown (1974). Veronica, daughter of ex-sheriff and current P.I. Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), ran in the rarefied circles of Neptune’s power elite, but remained a resolute outsider by dint of her lowly financial status and exposure to the ruinous power of wealth and influence as exemplified by the campaign of the 1% to run her dad out of office for daring to come after one of their own. Many fans of the series believe, in the words of the Film Noir Foundation, that “it’s a bitter little world,” and despite the futility, it still felt good to see our wry, savvy antiheroine act like Sam Spade: “When a (girl’s best friend) is killed, (s)he’s supposed to do something about it.” We thrilled, too, that like Spade, she fell like a ton of bricks for the wrong person—troubled rich kid Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring)—possessive, violently protective, and oh so sexy.
When the series ended, it seemed like Veronica had put her demons behind her and followed her father’s advice to get out of the cesspool of Neptune and make a normal life for herself. The movie picks up at the point where Veronica, a recent law school graduate, is interviewing for a job at a top New York law firm and living with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), her kind-of boyfriend during her undergraduate days at Hearst College. A high-profile murder in Neptune grabs her attention—pop singer Bonnie DeVille (Andrea Estella), nee Carrie Bishop of Neptune, Logan’s girlfriend, is found electrocuted in her bathtub, and Logan stands accused of murdering her. One text from Logan that he needs her has Veronica on the first plane out, assuring understanding Piz that she will be there only a couple of days to help him choose a defense attorney.
Logan, now an officer in the U.S. Navy, greets Veronica at the airport wearing his dress whites. She is dazzled and says, “You should always wear that,” but as they say, love is blind—the uniform fits him like a laundry bag and makes him look like the prototypical pencil-necked geek. How he managed to maintain a relationship with a junkie pop star while in the Navy is beyond me, but thankfully, he wears civvies for the rest of the film and seems to have been able to make bail—he is filthy rich, after all. This series’ version of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Scooby gang—computer geek Mac (Tina Majorino), gofer/buddy Wallace (Percy Daggs III), and Latino tough Weevil (Francis Capra)—have all grown up into responsible adult positions, with Mac making a very nice living in IT, Wallace a school teacher at their former high school, and Weevil a married man and doting father.
Veronica Mars is a solid, if unremarkable film whose hole-filled scenario is, as Rod pointed out about the plot of another noir, The Big Sleep (1946), rather beside the point. What fans of the series and viewers of the film will most enjoy is a chance to visit with or revisit some beloved characters indelibly created by the prodigious talent of the actors who played them, their acting chops better than ever, and especially the incredible chemistry between Bell and Dohring and the close relationship Veronica has with her father.
Veronica gets drawn back into her former life and her former love, reflecting in the noirish voiceover narration that peppers the film that she is an addict of sorts of both. But then, the script doesn’t make Veronica’s law career seem very exciting. When she interviews with attorney Gayle Buckley (Jamie Lee Curtis), she is told that the firm tries to keep its corporate clients out of court as much as possible—so, in fact, if Veronica takes the job, she will be spending her days literally settling. Once she’s caught up in the adrenaline rush of the investigation to exonerate Logan, she knows that all she really wants to do is get people—the bad guys—into court. Working as she did in high school, investigating her classmates who may have graduated from smaller stuff like test rigging and cyberbullying to actual murder while her father investigates even more grown-up stuff like systemic corruption in the police department, is just like old times.
Yet Veronica’s quest for a safe and normal life seems to have changed her, made her more vulnerable. While still verbally quick, she has slowed down a bit, preferring direct actions like punching a bitchy former classmate to cutting her with her rapier wit—then again, this scene plays like a rip-off of the Indiana Jones and the Arab swordsman scene. A more genuine moment shows Veronica hiding from a killer, panting with terror and thinking as fast as she can for a way to save herself while obviously flailing at the unexpectedness of her plight. The scene is beautifully choreographed and builds tension that the film sustains to the end. The film is also ably aided by its moody look and a soundtrack as edgy and dreamy as its theme song.
One change from the TV series to the movie is Veronica’s heavy use of her smartphone. I thought this was natural for someone well versed in the use of surveillance equipment and an early adopter of new technology, and yet, Veronica seemed to be the only person glued to the screen in her hand. She happens to appear in Neptune the weekend of her 10th high school reunion and is dragged there by the Scoobys. As if by some time-travel miracle, virtually no one was checking their phone every few minutes or texting someone. A crucial plot twist shows a similar stupidity about the power in everyone’s hands these days, though we could possibly blame drugs and alcohol for this particular lapse. Similarly, the Neptune police seem not to have given much thought to the audio/video capabilities of cellphones and are repeatedly recorded doing things they oughtn’t, including unprovoked violence against some defenseless teens. Viewing this film on the heels of seeing the footage from Ferguson, Mo., was a truly eerie experience.
Still, the main event is Veronica and Logan. Their mutual attraction burns a hole through every scene they share, though Logan keeps a gentlemanly distance, even when he is blindsided and momentarily made jealous by Piz’s appearance at the reunion. A flash of his old protectiveness goes overboard when the reunion committee decides to humiliate Veronica by projecting an old sex tape of her. His rage precipitates the equivalent of a barroom brawl from a creaky Western, a truly shoddy piece of comedy that undercuts the Veronica Mars vibe. While this display from Logan would have sent the Veronica of old packing, the more vulnerable version may actually feel the need for a man who can mix it up, and when he saves her father from an attempt on his life, he becomes plainly irresistible. I have read some criticism of this relationship that it supposedly reinforces the idea that women are looking for sexy bad boys when they should be attracted to nice guys. Of course, it’s ridiculous and futile to tell hearts and genitals what they should want, but in fact, Veronica is a bad girl and thus a perfect match for Logan.
Most fans of the series are crazy about Weevil, and I was disappointed that this complex character had so little to do and ended the film on a note that seemed all wrong. Daggs, also a fan favorite, is just as good in the movie, but again, has little to do. Colantoni is a veteran actor whose presence is felt in any project in which he appears. In Veronica Mars, he is every bit the sympathetic dad and quietly persistent private eye he was in the series, and he and Bell continue as one of the best fictional father/daughter duos anywhere; his joy at being surprised by Veronica’s sudden appearance at his office is a delightful and truthful moment. While Bell has maintained an active career on television, neither she nor the inexplicably lesser-seen Dohring has ever made the impact they did with “Veronica Mars.”
In the end, this pastiche of filmic styles takes it final cue from Casablanca (1942). In their version of “We’ll always have Paris,” Logan and Veronica repeat some words from the series:
I thought our story was epic, you know, you and me. Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, bloodshed. EPIC.
As Logan heads back to the Navy, Veronica goes back to being a gumshoe, apparently with the Scoobys back by her side fighting the bad guys, as though listening to the words of Victor Laszlo: “Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.”
“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” – Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”
Raymond Chandler, a former oil company executive who had found himself jobless in his forties, turned to writing crime fiction for survival and to expel the cynical passion that had built up inside him. Inspired by the genre’s early master, Dashiell Hammett, who had already lapsed as a novelist, Chandler began writing short detective stories before achieving a smash with his first novel, The Big Sleep. Where Hammett’s diamond-hard prose and stringent sense of human motive blended a peculiarly Dickensian imagination with a hard-earned understanding of street realities, and Chandler’s rivals like James M. Cain and Jim Thompson were paring down their words to hard blocks of chilly analysis, Chandler brought intricate, even florid, visual and experiential prose as well as literary awareness to the form. He turned the private eye tale into a type of neomythology. Chandler’s singular hero, Philip Marlowe, became his tarnished knight-errant, anatomising a corrupt society whilst retaining his decency under a veneer of cool scorn and world-weary alienation.
Chandler’s writing was inimitable on the page but he swiftly inspired a raft of strong cinema. The first film based on his work was Murder, My Sweet (1944), taken from his second novel Farewell, My Lovely, and cleverly cast Dick Powell as Marlowe, his boyish face from his ingenue days turned anxious and leathery and thus a good mix for embodying Marlowe’s peculiar persona. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), greeted as shambling revisionism in its time, actually got to the heart of Chandler’s often outmatched, fool-of-fortune hero to a striking degree. Dick Richards’ more traditional Farewell, My Lovely (1974) cast Robert Mitchum as a tough, aging man tormented by his own failures. But the best known and arguably most perfectly iconic Marlowe, however, was Humphrey Bogart, who played the role for Howard Hawks in The Big Sleep.
Playing private eyes, gangsters, and other urban warriors was already second nature for Bogart, who had finally cemented his film stardom by playing Hammett’s distinctly grubby Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Bogart was an unlikely figure for such roles, as he came from a blue-blood New York clan, but youthful experiences in World War I, where according to lore he received a facial injury that gave him his signature lisp, and a spell of rank poverty during the Depression chiselled worldly knowledge deep into Bogart’s face and voice. He became American cinema’s image of the tough, savvy man of action until his death from cancer in 1956. The Marlowe Bogart plays in The Big Sleep isn’t quite the sad-sack he increasingly became in Chandler’s books, but a swift-tongued, poised, occasionally insolent swashbuckler with a moral streak that never feels forced, but rather flows from his refusal to be bullshitted.
Hawks made The Big Sleep as a follow-up to his and Bogart’s first collaboration, To Have and Have Not (1944), which had made a star out of model Lauren Bacall. Bacall and Bogart’s on-screen chemistry lit up the screen, whilst their off-screen affair was common knowledge and ended Bogart’s troubled second marriage. Hawks and his formidable task force of screenwriters, including future Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner, sought to create another vehicle for the couple’s electric appeal. They seized on Chandler’s work, even though they couldn’t work out who killed whom at one point, and soon found the author couldn’t remember either.
Of course, The Big Sleep, although a mystery and a crime drama, isn’t really about its plot. Its connective tissue is provided by entwined incidents of romance and evil, rather than riddle. Narrative velocity is provided as Marlowe sinks up to his neck in the proliferating consequences of the perversities of a family of American aristocrats, who have turned the national dream into an id-inflected nightmare purely by dint of self-indulgence. The animating mood of Chandler’s novels, captured beautifully in this film in spite of its buoyant segues, is one of miasmic corruption and evil welling out of a still-callow, urban America that’s infected with secret appetites fed by feudal princes of the underworld, creating a noxious symbiosis that can only be battled by someone who understands it intimately. Bogart, who had found his real break in cinema playing hood-eyed heels ready to break teeth and plug bellies, was ideal to play such an intimately conversant hero, hard knocks and rude facts impressed upon his persona. Marlowe’s first appearance in the Sternwood Mansion sees him immediately fascinated by effetely competent butler Norris (Charles D. Brown), and the thumb-sucking teenaged seductress Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), who, as Marlowe puts it, tries to sit in his lap whilst he’s standing up.
Marlowe is hired by Carmen’s decrepit, wheelchair-bound but still whip-sharp father General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to find the most sensible way to get rid of a blackmailer who’s calling in Carmen’s gambling debts. Marlowe’s interaction with Sternwood is a marvellous introduction to the strange adventure upon which he’s about to embark, the General mentioning that he imagines his daughters “have all the usual vices besides those they’ve invented for themselves,” and coolly notes, “If I sound a bit sinister as a parent Mr. Marlowe, it’s because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy.”
Sternwood is quietly pained by his recent abandonment by personal bodyguard and companion Sean Regan, who usually took care of such unpleasant business for Marlowe. Marlowe soon realises that Regan’s disappearance is on the minds of others, as Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Bacall) tries to find if he’s been hired to find Regan. Marlowe rebuffs her in a verbal skirmish of quips, insults, and innuendo, and then gets busy tracking the apparent blackmailer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) to a rare bookstore he owns. There, Marlowe pretends to be a camp dilettante, annoying Geiger’s chicly dressed, but covertly brassy shopgirl Agnes (Sonia Darrin) and noting the apparently forbidden trade of the shop. Marlowe consults an employee in a neighbouring shop (Dorothy Malone) who is able to point out Geiger to him. Marlowe follows Geiger to his house and whilst staking the place out hears multiple shots, followed by two cars fleeing. He finds Geiger dead and a very high Carmen sitting by the body.
The most difficult challenge for Hawks and crew wasn’t Chandler’s knotty plot, but rather the litany of crimes, depravities, and illicit acts encompassed by the story, nigh impossible to portray under the rules of the Production Code. Carmen’s drug addiction, Geiger’s pornography racket that has her in thrall, Geiger’s gay relationship with his gunsel Carol Lundgren (Tommy Rafferty), and sundry other aspects had to be conveyed via nudge-and-wink devices, like Marlowe glimpsing a flustered-looking man looking for access to the locked back room in Geiger’s store’s, or Marlowe recoiling when he sniffs a concoction near Carmen in Geiger’s house, the girl not stark naked as she is on the page, but draped in a Chinese bathrobe. Major story developments had to be changed, too. Regan could no longer be Vivian’s husband as he was in the book, just as the identity of his killer had to be carefully smudged. Yet The Big Sleep still conveys an atmosphere of impeccable sleaze, as the dialogue and action constantly trace the sordid world it sees lurking behind urban brickwork, suburban rose bushes, and brownstone mansions alike. Hawks and company even make an overt joke out of the barely censored material when he has Agnes repeatedly cut off from finishing her angry description of a hood pal as “a pain in my—”. The Big Sleep conveys a pervasive relish of the dark side of American life that makes it stand apart from a lot of the noir films that would follow it, feeling closer in spirit to the boastful, struttin’ blues of guys like Muddy Waters and, much later, many a hip-hop star.
Like those artists, The Big Sleep simultaneously brags and conspires with the audience to delight in its carnality and brutality in a manner partly detached from the oncoming noir pattern of stark moral parable. Toughness, terseness, cool under pressure, a capacity to look at the meaner things in life and love and still sling off a devastating wisecrack: not only does the film revolve around such traits, but positively fetishizes them. Sometimes it does this to a grimly hilarious extent, like the traditionally shoehorned time-out for a song, where Bacall warbles lyrics bouncily reporting the tale of a “sweet, sweet guy” who socks his lady in the choppers.
The specific appeal of the private eye genre has always been about the detective’s independence from the state-sponsored moral force represented by the police. Marlowe’s breezy confidence in sticky situations is quickly confirmed, as he spirits Carmen from Geiger’s house, tells Norris and Vivian how to handle the situation, and then returns to study the crime scene and work out what happened. A police inspector pal of Marlowe’s, Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey), calls him out to a seaside pier, where a car containing the Sternwoods’ murdered chauffeur Owen Taylor has crashed into the water. Ohls, who recommended Marlowe for his current job, half-jokingly suggests Marlowe might have rid the family of a problem by killing Taylor.
Marlowe soon strides with characteristic directness into the thicket of double-crosses Geiger’s death causes amidst his coterie of associates, including reputed creep Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), who may or may not have killed Taylor for Carmen’s porn pictures, but who’s certainly trying to squeeze the Sternwoods again with them, with Agnes as grouchy confidant and Lundgren gunning for whoever he thinks killed Geiger. Events and personalities collide in Brody’s apartment in a hilarious and then brutal critical mass that sees Marlowe sarcastically outwitting not just Brody but also Vivian, who tries to cut a separate deal, and then Carmen, who turns up wielding a pistol to collect her photos. Many directors might have let this sequence devolve into an extended exposition punctuated by random, gun-wielding interlopers. Hawks turns it into a bedroom farce, linked to the screwball comedies he helmed in the 1930s and would direct again in the near future, except with blackmail and murder added to sex. Marlowe casually calls out Agnes and Vivian out from the curtain behind which they are hiding, with Marlowe and Vivian’s frenetic argument interrupted by an exasperated Brody.
Later, in a subtle, but brilliant encapsulation of Hawks’ technique, Marlowe, now holding the gun and the aces, grills Brody over his actions before Taylor’s death. Brody sits in a chair and Marlowe prowls on the far side facing the camera. Brody shifts his position as he explains, trying to avoid Marlowe’s excoriating gaze, and the camera pans slightly back and forth, tracing this little dance of power, with Brody quite literally shifty, Agnes looking on poised like a praying mantis dying to chew Brody’s head off, and Marlowe’s potency visually stated. A moment like Marlowe kicking Lundgren in the chin after challenging him to pick up a gun only confirms his mastery, a spasm of physical violence as precise and immediate as any kung-fu battle and quicker to the point. Of course, Marlowe was also himself perhaps the most knocked-out and beaten-up hero in the history of literature, and here he gets the crap knocked out of him by a couple of stand-over artists and his lights turned off by a thug with a fist full of pennies. The Big Sleep is set in wartime, instead of being a quasi-period piece, an off-hand detail confirmed by the rationing stickers on the cars and the habit of chief villain Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) referring to Marlowe as “Soldier”—which he is, lone warrior keeping the home front in order.
One fascinating aspect of The Big Sleep is that as an action film made during World War II, the age of Rosie the Riveter, Hawks is in a wonderland where his love of gender blurring can be given free rein, free from the usual justifications for having the classic Hawksian lady on hand, as female taxi drivers who can flirt hot and drive cool could be introduced without comment. Marlowe has starkly memorable interactions not just with appointed love interest Vivian but with a complement of strong vivid, hardboiled gals of various persuasions, from Agnes to Carmen, to cute librarians, cigarette girls, gangland wives, and, most deliciously, Malone’s embodiment of an everyday wet dream, the trimly bespectacled geek girl who archly transforms into drop-dead babe for a bout of backroom sex between incidents in the case. Malone’s star was as instantaneously sealed by her appearance here as Bacall’s was giving whistling instructions in To Have and Have Not. Vickers is similarly marvellous as the protean Carmen, swerving from frightened kid to coquettish seducer to wrathful dope freak, and yet, amazingly, her career never went anywhere after this. This was also true of Darrin, who’s brilliantly spiky as Agnes (“Whadda those look like, grapefruit?”), the proverbial cookie full of arsenic.
No director of his—or perhaps any—era had such finite understanding as Hawks of the film actor as a lodestone of both singular personality and ensemble reaction, and how to use this to enrich rather than take over a film, especially when it came to the ever-mercurial nature of sex appeal. In Bogie and Bacall’s combusting on-set romance he had a force of nature at his disposal, and yet The Big Sleep had to be retooled to make the most of it to ease studio worries over Bacall’s less well-received sophomore work in The Confidential Agent (1945). So, scenes were added sporting charged conversations where the couple assess each other’s sexual style through horse racing metaphors, and a late scene is laced with intimations of S&M as Vivian voraciously kisses a trussed and bloodied Marlowe. The whole thing adds up to one of the sexiest films ever made, a rare achievement not just considering the time of its making but also its usually more businesslike, overtly macho genre. Part and parcel, too, of the film’s greatness is the almost relentless stream of great dialogue provided by the awesome trio of screenwriters, with Jules Furthman rounding out the work by Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Speech in The Big Sleep is not, however, just a series of verbal displays of cleverness like too much modern film and TV writing. It’s given form and shape by the niceties of streetwise communication, and usually predicated on characters testing each other, feeling out motives, fishing for revelations, toughness made apparent not just in slugging and shooting, but also in verbal wit and dexterity and their capacity to hold onto knowledge, another form of power. The General’s aged, ruined form (“I seem to exist mostly on heat, like a newborn spider”) conceals a man who has no need to ration truth, which puts him at an advantage over just about everyone else, but also signals how far out of the running he is now.
Verbal currency is certainly at stake during Marlowe’s first conversation with Vivian, where she tries to wheedle facts out of him, but is instead provoked to quick displays of anger. Bogart’s Marlowe turns his weaknesses into strengths through his verbal nimbleness. “So you’re a private detective,” Vivian greets him, “I didn’t know they existed except in books or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you are a mess, aren’t you?” An opening barrage many could not recover from, but Marlowe replies, undaunted, “I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket.” There’s a pair of clever in-jokes lodged in this line, as Bogart had been forced to wear platform shoes opposite Ingrid Bergman on Casablanca (1943) and had often ridiculed his early career playing Joe College types who say “Anyone for tennis?” Marlowe’s quip deprecates both himself and the actor playing him, but in a way that gives both stature and potency. Similarly knowing are Marlowe’s exchanges with Carmen, where he calls himself Doghouse Reilly in parody of stock tough-guy shtick, the filmmakers wise to Chandler’s strategy of kidding the genre’s clichés just a little to clear ground for his own. By comparison, Marlowe’s interactions with Mars see two alpha males assessing each other’s qualities almost delicately, though even Mars is finally driven to note irritably, “You take chances Marlowe.” “I get paid to,” the private eye replies. Ridgley’s performance is nicely understated, never trying to come on like the tough guy.
Mars is a gambling boss who proves to be shepherding the Sternwoods’ darkest secrets even as his associates, like Geiger, try to profit from them. Even when the case seems over, with the Sternwoods’ blackmailers dead or locked away, Marlowe comprehends that some deeper game is being played, especially when Vivian is apparently robbed by one of Mars’ goons after a big roulette win. Marlowe realises the robbery has been staged, and is seemingly connected to the disappearance of Mars’ wife, who supposedly ran off with Sean Regan. Marlowe cops a beating for his continued interest, but then encounters Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), Agnes’s diminutive but poised boyfriend, who offers to sell interesting information. Before Marlowe can pay him off, he witnesses a unique bit of cruelty, as he spies on Mars’ main thug Canino (Bob Steele) extracting Agnes’ whereabouts from Harry, who’s loyal enough to lie, and then bullying him into drinking poison. Even for Marlowe, it’s so nasty and depressing a spectacle that he spends the rest of the film restraining a glimmering ferocity that finds equal expression in forcing Mars’ wife Mona (Peggy Knudsen) to recognise the monster her husband is. Marlowe finds Mona with the help of Agnes, whose words of regret for Harry’s death are, “I got a raw deal.” Agnes puts Marlowe onto the actual whereabouts of Mars’ wife, and he arrives at a rundown service station where a kick on the door brings out the gun-wielding, nerveless owner Huck (Trevor Bardette) and, more portentously, Canino, solicitously inviting Marlowe in to make an easier catch.
Hawks’ classical, spacious mise-en-scene is at its most open and free-flowing through The Big Sleep. Cuts only come when necessary, as Hawks generally prefers to choose camera set-ups that allow for nimble shifts of focus. His camera drifts with and amidst characters in settings like the Sternwoods’ mansion and Mars’ gambling palace, where geography is at once carefully unified and hard to read, camera peering through into adjoining rooms and the sense of secret forces always at work, a notion confirmed when Mars offers to let Marlowe see the rooms behind the gambling tables. Marlowe replies, “No thanks, I’ll go out with the rest of the suckers.” Hawks avoids the more expressionistic edge of noir for the most part except for odd moments, as when Marlowe eavesdrops on Jones’ death, the silhouetted victim and villain seen through glass with the camera deftly taking up a position where it can see Canino through a gap in the door, privileging the viewer. Yet the frames are often flooded with darkness, the lighting a careful alternation of dark zones and hazily embracing lights.
The camera quite often becomes the observant eye that Marlowe is, reading promissory notes, car registration slips, street signs, or spying on a stick-up going down. Such are the readily absorbable details of the modern world, the signs and wonders Marlowe’s understanding depends upon, but, of course, nothing compared to reading people, like Vivian’s insolent mandarin visage when Marlowe first sees her. Praising any single performance in The Big Sleep feels pointless because of the general excellence, the machine-tooled refinement of the actors’ rhythms, which make the film seem to work like a racing engine, fast and efficient and utterly integral. Hawks’ beloved, rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue patterns turn all that great dialogue into an aural dance of precise musical intensity.
The typically cheap Warner Bros. sets, swathed in mist and rain (more rain falls in the course of the film probably than in the average L.A. year), nonetheless imbue the film with its pervasive air of enclosing gloom, and even when Marlowe heads out of town the landscape offers no respite. Even a moment of overt slapstick to relieve the mood—Huck running for the hills at a shot from Marlowe—is still rendered as a moment of hysterical energy, particularly thanks to Max Steiner’s scoring. In spite of its nominal pretences as an account of the very real dangers and depths of American society and idealised vision of the battle against them, some perhaps well known to members of the cast and crew, The Big Sleep, as its weird, pithily poetic title suggests, is far from realistic. It is indeed one of the most fervently delirious works from classic Hollywood, moreso than John Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s most stylised creations in The Maltese Falcon (1941). This is a world of golems lurking in the shadows (Canino), lesser imps and demons (Brody and Lundgren), capricious witches (Agnes and Carmen), royal priestesses (Vivian), ruined kings (Sternwood), and thieving pretenders (Mars), with Marlowe as muddied knight-errant. The tale occurs in a zone of the fantastic, a grotesque netherworld where every character is harbinger of either sex or death.
The evolving relationship of Marlowe and Vivian, who turns out to be hiding with Mona in a last-ditch effort to put Marlowe off the scent, pays off naturally as she not only frees him, but proves gutsy and loyal enough to help him trick Canino. Canino finishes up on his back with a gut full of bullets, and Marlowe sets out to entrap his boss. In the book, it was revealed that Carmen shot Regan in a moment of druggy, jealous anger when he rejected her advances, and that Mars has both covered up the crime but used it as a way to siphon the Sternwood fortune. Here that’s passed over and inferred in favour of a fiendishly nasty climax (one Hawks would later recycle in 1966’s El Dorado) that sees a casual aside earlier in the film, Mars’ invitation for Marlowe to step outside when his goons are patrolling, turned into a trap. Marlowe drives the criminal out of Geiger’s house so that his own thugs machine-gun him down, his fate traced out with ghoulishly memorable concision by a line of bullet holes erupting through a door before his limp and perforated body falls back. Hawks fades out on the sound of police sirens as Marlowe and Vivian face each other in a moment of triumph, but before their besiegement actually ends, poised between past and future, with the pure moment of anticipation now theirs—the immediate prospect that at last someone’s going to get laid. However you view it, The Big Sleep is one of the classics that define classic Hollywood.
The shadow of Fritz Lang’s early work still falls heavily not just upon many filmmakers, but also upon a swathe of modern pop culture. The remarkable run of movies he made before he was driven to leave Germany by the Nazi ascension helped define, if not originate, a handful of major film genres: the cliffhanger action film, with The Spiders (1919-20); the historical epic, with Die Nibelungen (1924); the science-fiction dystopia with Metropolis (1926); the spy thriller, with Spione (1927); the space opera, with The Woman in the Moon (1929); and even, in his first sound film, M (1931), the serial killer drama. Lang and his major collaborator and wife, the writer Thea Von Harbou, didn’t invent all of the elements loaded into these films, but their increasingly expensive and prestigious explorations of each mode codified these different genres in visual and narrative terms, becoming inescapable points of reference for genre artisans, apprentice filmmakers, and film scholars alike ever since.
Lang’s works also reveal common roots in a stock of archetypes, basic concepts, and linking thematic concerns that Lang was able to transfer onto almost any genre. When he made The Spiders, Lang had clearly been under the immediate influence of Louis Feuillade’s serials, with their secret criminal organisations and insidious masterminds at the centre of an international web of intrigue. With The Weary Death (1921) and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Lang developed that world into something deeper and richer. Dr. Mabuse became one (or, rather, two) of the most legendary works of the silent era, properly defining Lang’s artistry not only in its moment, but for the next 40 years, as he returned to the film’s evil genius twice more, each at a crucial moment in his career, including his swan song.
Luxembourg writer Norbert Jacques’ novel provided Lang and Von Harbou with a template for a new take on Feuillade’s semi-surreal universe, as Jacques had taken Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and evolved him from the hero’s sketchy antagonist and mirror into a major protagonist, even antihero, overshadowing the law enforcers who chase him. His capacity for evil suddenly matches the modern world’s dark psyche, feeding off both its septic spirit and its dehumanised systems. Mabuse’s DNA is shared by the many nefarious protagonists who followed him—Superman’s Lex Luthor, Batman’s Joker, Ian Fleming’s Blofeld, George Lucas’ Palpatine, and even John le Carré’s KARLA. Whilst Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu did something similar almost concurrently to Jacques’ creation, Fu was more safely rendered as an Other, an exotic fiend, whereas Mabuse is the spidery genius who is both king and exile within his own society. The influence of Mabuse is not just restricted to comic books and pulp fiction, though. Lang helped create the artistic mode that became cinema’s first great aesthetic movement, German Expressionism, when he cowrote the script of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1919) for director Robert Wiene. F. W. Murnau, Lang’s greatest rival in Germany at the time and a subtler visual stylist, took the style further with Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and codified the horror genre in the process.
With Dr. Mabuse, Lang began to render the expressionist visual language in a subtler, less pervasively unreal manner, continuing to cloak sets in chiaroscuro shadows and offering lighting and design effects that take on a quality of abstraction that acts only an overlay on otherwise lifelike methods. The result surely helped transfer Expressionism from a fantastic niche to mainstream cinema and planted seeds for French Poetic Realism and Hollywood’s widespread embrace of a similarly restrained Expressionism that culminated in film noir. The first part of Dr. Mabuse, subtitled “The Great Gambler: An Image of the Age (Der große Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit),” kicks off with an epic sequence of analytical cinema that may well have pollinated Sergei Eisenstein and the Moscow film school’s imaginations as they were thinking about how to encode intellectual analysis into the structure of film, and left some ideas for generations of filmmakers making everything from heist movies to documentaries. With a title card kicking off the epic as “He – and his day,” as Lang depicts one of Mabuse’s plots in systematic detail, from when the villain wakes up in the morning through to the culmination of his plot. Along the way his henchmen stage an intricate robbery, knocking out a diplomatic envoy on a train and stealing a portfolio containing a secret commercial treaty between Switzerland and France from him. The theft has been arranged to send the stock market into a selling frenzy, allowing Mabuse to buy up stock cheaply. He does so whilst standing on a pillar above the churning mass of brokers who hysterically give themselves up to the panic Mabuse has inflicted on them.
Mabuse then contrives to have the treaty discovered. The market rises, and he sells his stock for a vast fortune. All in a day’s work for the extraordinary mastermind, but his thrill is not money, but power—power he works in subtle, intimate, interpersonal ways much more than on a national level. For a 1922 German audience, the inference here would have been clear and frightening, as the country was in the depth of an economic crisis with skyrocketing inflation. Early in the film, Lang depicts Mabuse readying himself for his enterprise by thumbing a set of photos of apparently highly disparate men like a set of tarot cards: this has a sequel at the conclusion of the opening, as Lang holds on a shot of the empty, desolate stock exchange and shows another succession of faces, each of which has been involved in the deception and each revealed to be a different disguise of Mabuse. Whilst aspects of Dr. Mabuse are ripe melodrama, this sense of the tale being based in the bleak realities and the vague but vital workings of modernity’s new, interconnected financial and industrial zones gave Lang’s film a peculiar and important stature. Paranoia was the underlying state of the German psyche, the sense that somebody, somewhere was responsible for the national collapse.
The beauty and alarming quality of Jacques’ creation was that Mabuse was able to take on more definitely political inferences than predecessors like Moriarty, Fantômas, Count Fosco, and Svengali—indeed, Jacques had intended him in that fashion. He sits upon modernism’s fault lines, easily tweaked to become a figure of left-wing paranoia as a titan of predatory capitalism, or more reactionary viewpoints, as he also offers an emblem of new-fangled psychiatry (his actual medical profession) and traditionally immoral pursuits like gambling, which the film presents as the last and greatest existential rush for a rotting society through its capacity to make or strip fortunes according to chance, but with Mabuse subverting this by getting his kicks from eliminating chance and playing the player. Lang already seems to be subverting a familiar structure even as he’s erecting it, as he introduces Mabuse and his aides up front, making them more familiar to the audience than the traditional hero figure whose perspective it is usually forced to take. In spite of his myriad sidelines, Mabuse continues to don disguises and delight in fleecing the indolent sons and daughters of the upper classes by mesmerically manipulating them into losing at cards. Mabuse’s network of agents includes his spindly, cocaine-addled manservant Spoerri (Robert Forster-Larrinaga); Pesch (Georg John), his driver and hitman; and Hawasch (Charles Puffy), who runs a counterfeiting operation for his overlord that employs a gaggle of blind men in a dingy cellar. Such a plot touch carries a hint of Edgar Wallace’s grotesquery and also a kind of grim psychological symbolism.
Another of Mabuse’s best agents is a Folies Bergère dancer, Cara Carozza (Aud Egede-Nissen), who is able to collect information on high rollers who come to see her performances and pass it on to Mabuse. Attending one of her shows, Mabuse sets his sights on a new victim she points out, young heir Edgar Hull (Paul Richter), and hypnotises him from afar. Calling himself Hugo Balling, Mabuse directs Hull to give him admittance to his gentleman’s club, and there begins to fleece the young man by forcing him to play badly. Once Mabuse has his fill, he gives Hull a card with the address where he can come to pay his debt. Hull, when he snaps out of his stupor, naturally puzzles over what’s happened, and begins to dig, visiting the address and finding that a real Hugo Balling lives there and has no idea what Hull wants. Word of Hull’s vexing enigma soon attracts the attention of State Attorney Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke), who contacts the young man and begins to theorise about a hidden criminal mastermind he dubs “The Great Unknown.” Wenk’s entrance into the story gives Dr. Mabuse a hero, and his job, distinct from that of policeman or private eye, gives him both a level of power and status, and flexibility in investigating his white whale. Wenk strikes a deal with Hull to follow him into the city’s gambling communities (which city never quite stated) in search of the mysterious mastermind in an underworld, rubbing shoulders with social elite, gathering in seedy dives and upscale palaces, in search of the same secret nerve of a corrupt society that Mabuse himself has located and presses with sadistic pleasure.
With The Spiders, Lang had suggested a penchant for décor effects that lent his cinematic images a quality of stylisation close to cubism and other nascent forms of modern art, a quality that Caligari made far more explicit than Lang preferred. Here, Lang’s style comes into fuller fruition, before Die Nibelungen would see Lang push his stylisation to extremes. The world he creates in Mabuse is more restrained whilst grazing the edges of an equally strange and dreamy netherworld, full of framings that place characters in traps of space with mysterious design motifs and incipient shadows, and interiors replete with an art deco designer’s idea of limbo’s antechambers. Lang throws in an aesthetic in-joke that partly disguises a serious subtext, as a toff asks Mabuse in his professional guise what he thinks of Expressionism; Mabuse replies with sagacious dismissal, “Expressionism is a mere pastime — but why not? Everything today is a pastime!” Mabuse’s disdain for artistic fashion matches his contempt for the arts he himself has mastered as a healer, which he turns to the only pursuit he does not see as a pastime—the acquisition of power. But Lang’s mise-en-scène contradicts, entrapping and enfolding character, and seems to become all but animated and nearly literal by the diptych’s hallucinatory finale. Lang’s most dynamic cinematic effects are mostly employed to force the audience to share Mabuse’s viewpoint as he commits his criminal acts, with iris shots and crowding fields of black mimicking Mabuse’s intent as he zeroes in on new victims and begins to work his hypnotic will, usually intercut with the victim’s vision of Mabuse’s false faces in leering close-up. Mabuse’s hypnotic gifts coincide with Lang’s filmmaking vision, rupturing holes in reality.
The first encounter between Mabuse and Wenk takes place at the gaming table, except with the two men both in disguise: Mabuse wearing a perversely hooked nose and tufts of wild hair and Wenk done up as a middle-aged milquetoast. Mabuse tries to hypnotise Wenk with his pair of glasses, which Wenk recognises as Chinese-made. “Yes, from Tsi-Nan-Fu,” Mabuse replies. The name of this city becomes a charged and mystic utterance that takes over Wenk’s mind, appearing as printed words on his cars and glowing through the woodwork of the gaming table. Wenk manages to throw off Mabuse’s influence, and with it his disguise, chasing his quarry out of the den and to the Hotel Excelsior. But Wenk is foiled by one of Mabuse’s agents who drives a taxi fitted out with gas to knock out hapless passengers. Wenk, unconscious, is set adrift in a rowboat, but he’s rescued by the coast guard. The close call drives Mabuse to order the deaths of both Wenk and Hull as the duo continue their excursions to night spots. Mabuse assigns Carozza to get close to Hull. She pretends to respond to his playboy charms to insinuate her way into his house and find out what the dynamic duo are up to. When the trio visits a swanky new gambling house, Carozza leads them into a trap: Hull is shot by one of Mabuse’s men, but manages to tell Wenk of Carozza’s involvement before dying. Carozza, fleeing the scene, is encircled and captured by hordes of policemen.
In spite of its influence, Dr. Mabuse stands at a distance from the contemporary thirst for backstory and tales of formative influence on titanic heroes and villains. This is however not quite the same thing as the role-casting of rank melodrama, but something else again: Mabuse is not a type but a force, a product, a symbol. Mabuse’s background is unimportant; he comes from nowhere, and his motives are reduced to singular need, a fully formed monstrosity spat up by the diseased sectors of modernism’s psyche. He exists only insofar as he acts, dedicating himself entirely to mastery of any situation, and succeeds. He is infinitely malleable rather than specific, capable of becoming any figure of covert or overt power, from labour leader to stockbroker to mystic to physician, drawing secret analogies between such roles and conflating worlds that begin to mimic each other—the gaming table and the spiritualist’s séance, the aristocratic drawing room and the sailors’ pub. As physically real as Mabuse is, he retains emblematic power—indeed Lang’s later instalments took him to the edge of noncorporeal subsistence, surviving as a force of will. Wenk’s chief quality is his singular strength of mind which allows him to resist the villain, but even that only stretches so far.
The clash of Mabuse and Wenk hinges around two women and two men who represent uneasy partnerings loaded with deception. Carozza’s fake romance with Hull makes a mockery of the expected niceties of romance between pretty young things living the high life, because Carozza loves Mabuse with a fixated ardour, at once obsessively morbid and yet finally transcendent in her pure worship of Mabuse as a being of Nietzschean power amongst social cattle. Even when thrown into prison, Carozza’s obeisant loyalty cannot be shaken; indeed, it becomes all the more exultant in the chance to prove her sublime devotion. The second coupling is the Count Told (Alfred Abel) and his wife, Countess Dusy Told (Gertrude Welker). Their home life seems pleasantly dull, the Count a childish soul who delights in games and toys. As a result, the Countess haunts the gaming rooms to watch the gamblers in the throes of agony and ecstasy as a druglike salve for her own lack of sensation, almost a caricature of privileged weltschmerz as she opines, “I fear there is nothing in this world which can interest me for long – Everything that can be seen from a car or an opera box is partly disgusting, partly uninteresting, always boring!” Wenk meets her in the course of his journey through the underworld, and the two connect as outsiders fascinated by the underworld. Wenk even helps Dusy make a getaway when her husband unexpectedly turns up at one of the gambling dens.
Yet, Dusy is linked more precisely with Mabuse in their mutual pretensions to standing above the harrying world and studying the patterns created by the meshing human life driven by desire, greed, and the need for pleasure—except that Dusy remains aloof, whereas Mabuse manipulates. Not surprisingly, then, the Countess becomes an object of erotic obsession for Mabuse once he encounters her. One of Lang’s constant fascinations, especially in his films written by Von Harbou, comes to the fore as destabilising force of sexual obsession rattles humans with pretences to omnipotent power. When he is invited to the Tolds’ townhouse as Mabuse the reputed psychiatrist, the villain stands apart from the Count and his friends as they play cards, discovering kinship with Dusy as an observer with pretences to godlike disinterest and insight. He starts to school Dusy in the nature of his idea of godlike power as he hypnotises her husband and drives him to cheat during a game, prompting a walkout by his friends and the Count’s complete desolation. Then, he subdues Dusy and kidnaps her. The Tolds came into Mabuse’s sights when he attends a séance with the couple, and more properly because of Wenk, who asked Dusy to pose as a prisoner and be locked up with Carozza, a task that turns into an interlude of startling emotional intensity for the two women, as Carozza easily discerns Dusy’s purpose and dazzles the worldly cynic with her own transfiguring faith in Mabuse.
Dusy is profoundly affected, not in being awed by Mabuse, but by the spectacle of Carozza’s ardour, and she writes a letter to Wenk swearing off further involvement because, instead of encountering alienated evil, she met a source of overpowering emotional force that, regardless of its purpose, convinces her that love exists. It’s not a sentimental kind of love that Lang and Von Harbou envision: it’s a deep-riven blend of erotic and emotional sustenance that shatters strong psyches, cripples geniuses, and transfigures the mundane. In that regard, it’s the only force equal to Mabuse’s evil. For his part, once Mabuse ensnares Dusy, his own competence and psyche begin to slip. The great climax of the first part ends on a cliffhanger, with Mabuse apparently triumphant, with Dusy in his clutches and Wenk stymied. The second part, entitled “Inferno: A Game for the People of Our Age (Inferno: Ein Spiel von Menschen unserer Zeit),” sees his victories continue, but with intimations of growing hysteria, as he kills off anyone who could offer a lead to his whereabouts to Wenk, who is hunting him. These victims includes his agent Pesch (Georg John), who is captured after unsuccessfully bombing Wenk’s office, and is shot during a proletariat uprising stirred by Mabuse, and Carozza herself, who is ordered to commit suicide in her cell even after resisting all of Wenk’s entreaties.
If the driving motif of the first part is images of masses of people playing with fortune, whether in gambling houses, stock exchanges, or séances, then the second is dominated by two sequences of mental disintegration. The first comes as Mabuse, playing the psychiatrist again, manipulates Count Told, perfectly under his power, promising to control the compulsion that made him cheat, his bogus “helpful” advice turning him into a sequestered prisoner cut off from the outside world and Wenk’s help. Mabuse tries to blackmail the Countess into yielding to his erotic demands by promising to destroy the Count, and finally he does, sending Told off into a spiral of depressive hallucination where he sees his ancestors, all wearing his face, holding up card hands and displaying the black ace. Told cuts his throat in his bathroom, and his body is discovered by his servant. This maniacal achievement in sadistic legerdemain from Mabuse proves the start of his undoing, however, as it allows Wenk to connect Mabuse with the Count’s death.
Two filmmakers immediately inspired by Lang’s early work were Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock, who both laid down their involvement in film to the aesthetic impact of The Weary Death. Yet, here in Dr. Mabuse, innate and prototypical, I find Buñuel’s viscous, permeable sense of reality and amused punishment of material anomie and Hitchcock’s conspiratorial universe where ordinary people are ensnared in abstract webs. Here, too, is Carol Reed’s third man squirming his way through tightening nets of justice in the sewers, the churning, chiaroscuro moral maelstroms of Josef von Sternberg, Georg Pabst, and Orson Welles. Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) reflected the idiot-savant Mabuse, readying his urban fortress for attack. Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman explicitly drew on Lang’s model for his shadowy villains, whilst Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) repainted its kingpin in shades of Lang as a shadowy unknown and tweaked the cabal of blind counterfeiters into a similar operation of naked women employed as cocaine sifters.
Lang’s edge of oneiric strangeness gives Dr. Mabuse immediate connection to the singular spiritual fable of The Weary Death, with its similar pivots between languid, otherworldly torpor and ecstatic, transcendental passions (Goetzke had played Death in that film). Mabuse’s fantastical present tense also connects inevitably with Lang’s upcoming parables of past and future. As in Die Nibelungen, Richter plays the traditional pretty-boy hero who finishes up as a sacrificial victim to insidious, merciless power-driven plotting. In the film’s coda, Mabuse envisions a monstrous mechanical creation as the image of his own machinations and his personal inferno, looking forward to Die Nibelungen’s dragon and Metropolis’ vision of a great engine as a monstrous visage swallowing workers: the supernatural, symbolic terrors of distant history become the consuming, mindless aspect of modernity, terrifying even Mabuse—or, perhaps, especially Mabuse, whose campaign to gain the untrammelled power of a feudal conqueror works a spell on those around him but finally is defeated not so much by the forces of modern statism, represented by Wenk, as by the impossibility of his ambition to become bigger than the systems surrounding him.
The inevitable, climactic revelation of Mabuse’s identit(ies) to Wenk finally arrives as Mabuse lures the State Attorney into a trap, cunningly approaching Wenk as himself, supposedly to warn him that Told died because he was under the influence of a strong and destructive mind. Mabuse offers a culprit, a stage hypnotist named Weltemann, and Wenk attends the man’s show, only to realise too late that Weltemann is Mabuse: the revelation echoes the early, successive superimpositions as Mabuse’s faces pass before Wenk’s eyes, peeling back each layer until he sees Mabuse for what he is just before he gives in to his mesmeric power. Mabuse sends Wenk out under hypnotic influence from the theatre to drive off to a fiery death, a relished plan to eliminate his enemy with an overt display of power while maintaining a seemingly perfect guise.
But the plot is forestalled by Wenk’s attentive men, who manage to prevent his death. The finales of Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Scarface, and half of the Bond films, as well as the quiet note of assailed solitude of Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se Lève (1939), are all presaged as Wenk leads an attack on Mabuse’s lair. This tumultuous sequence comes in clashing perspectives, as troops pour from trucks to assault the lair, Mabuse’s foot soldiers dying one by one or collapsing in fear like papier-mâché without his will to hold them together amidst a hail of bullets and tear gas. Mabuse’s own attempt to flee with Dusy sees him forced to abandon her and escape by the skin of his teeth to plant seeds of evil somewhere else. Mabuse’s graduated schemes finally do him in as he reaches the hideout where the blind counterfeiters work and finds himself accidentally locked in by his minions’ excess cleverness: in this trap, the lunacy that’s been percolating under Mabuse’s surface emerges in a sequence where, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, the hallucinated shades of Carozza, Told, Hull, and Pesch appear, Told’s prosecutorial vision now Mabuse’s. The mastermind begins to hurl his counterfeit funds about like confetti before the vision of a mechanical monster chews his mind to pieces. The darkly sarcastic title card that greets Wenk’s arrival on the scene describes the husk on the floor as “The Man Who Was Mabuse,” and yet, this phrase signals it’s not exactly a total triumph. Whilst Mabuse the flesh-and-blood being has collapsed, Mabuse the idea, the entity, has slipped such bonds and become legend, perhaps even a world-spirit. Lang revisited the material next in 1933, but found the new film banned because something frighteningly like Mabuse had just taken control of his country.
In an unnamed town on the fringes of the desolate Australian interior where half-hearted suburban tracts abut soul-wearying, bone-dry flatlands and stony hills, a truck driver discovers the corpse of a teenage aboriginal girl named Julie stashed in a drain under the highway where the ominously named but completely dry Massacre Creek sometimes flows. Called out to investigate the crime scene is Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an indigenous policeman newly returned to the district after being trained elsewhere and promoted to detective. His roots are old and deep in the locality, starting with his father, a famed stockman who seems to have died of alcoholism. He finds himself confronted by laxity bordering on contempt by his colleague Roberts (Robert Mommone), whilst his sergeant (Tony Barry), dully lets him investigate but won’t treat the occurrence as an overriding priority. Mystery Road fills Swan’s return to his homeland with evil portent and dissonant messages.
Swan’s colleagues, particularly the drawling, mordant Johnno (Hugo Weaving), are an odd bunch, and the feeling that something’s going on with everyone around him looms inescapably. Local crime has apparently gotten out of control; Johnno is supposedly on the brink of a major break in a drugs case, which the sergeant seems more interested in. Whilst it quickly becomes apparent that the two cases are going to intersect, Swan has to feel his way in the dark, but soon begins to suspect that local pastoralist Bailey (David Field) and his son Pete (Ryan Kwanten), both swaggering racists, might be involved in both cases, and that they might have powerful friends in the illicit drug trade.
Mystery Road is a work of artisanal intimacy for Ivan Sen, serving as director, writer, editor, music composer and producer—whatever else you can say about it, it’s clearly a work of concentrated and individual personality. Sen’s debut film, Drifting Clouds (2002), was a classic variety of an earnest young filmmaker’s first work, a quasi-neorealist tale of two indigenous teenagers travelling from the far fringes of the outback to the city, dogged by racism, romance, and pursuing police. Sen’s formal gifts were strongly evident, but the film was hampered by poor acting and dialogue. Still, Sen became, for a brief moment, a media darling. Armed with youth, leading-man looks, and aboriginal heritage he’s happy to make the subject of his art, he seemed exactly what Aussie screen culture needed and wanted at the time. Sen dropped out of sight for several years in the aftermath, but returned to screens with Fire Talker (2006), a documentary about Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, and the barely released features Dreamland (2009) and Toomelah (2011). With Mystery Road, Sen has reclaimed some of his early promise, and his pretences are better served by how he incorporates his socially conscious interest in rural prejudice and his familiarity with indigenous characters caught between worldviews. The best aspect of the film is that the flexibility of the noir tale as a tool of milieu portraiture plays readily into Sen’s plan, as he deftly describes the psychic harshness of the town, with its air of eerie isolation, inverse claustrophobia sparked by the surrounding flatness, the wayward and dissolute state consuming everyone, and particularly the young aboriginals.
The sharpest moment of racial conflict comes when Swan interviews the taciturn farmer Bailey who quietly needles Swan by mentioning how young aboriginal kids keep stealing things from his property. Swan replies with disingenuous obtuseness, by admiring the expanse of Bailey’s property (“as far as you can see”) and congratulating him on having something to leave to his kids, a remark both men know is actually about whose land it was originally. Bailey’s property lies near Massacre Creek: keeping a vigil close to the murder site, Swan spies an interaction between two men in a car and the driver of a truck stopped on the highway that looks awfully like a drug pickup and payoff. Swan follows the car to a shack on Bailey’s property and is stricken with electric fear and paranoia. It’s very clear something evil’s going on beyond the immediate exigencies of Swan’s case, as the local police force is still smarting after one of its one, Bobby Rogers, was killed in an unsolved shooting a year earlier. As Swan digs, he talks to the dead constable’s wife Peggy (Samara Weaving), who believes he was called out on the night of his death by a fellow cop because of the way he was speaking. But who the cop was and why he called remain mysteries. Early in the film, Swan sits in glum silence at a farewell dinner for an older cop on the force as the sergeant voices his determination to “stop the rot,” because “for some us, it’s the only home we’ve got.”
Home is a troubling concept for Swan, who’s triply alienated as an aboriginal lawman held in disdain by both the local youths (“We shoot coppers ’round ’ere,” a tyke on a bicycle informs him) and many colleagues and townsfolk. He lives in his family’s large, old house, and is starkly alienated from his former lover Mary (Tasma Walton), who has hit the bottle hard and lives in a seamy, fibre-cement house with his daughter Crystal (Trisha Whitton), who has joined the ranks of brooding, determinedly blasé teens with faces constantly in their cell phones. He recognises sadly that both have succumbed to the entropy that consumes everyone except those determined to resist it: “What happened to you?” he asks Mary in unconcealed disgust when he catches sight of her feeding coins into a slot machine, to which she ripostes with the classic reversal of many a damaged person: “At least I know my problems.” Mystery Road borrows a lot of cues from Westerns, but in some ways it’s a thematic reversal of the classic Western, where the lone lawmen’s private code represents the introduction of civilisation—here it often feels more like a rear-guard action. “For some people, this is already a war zone,” Swan ripostes to his boss’s baleful warnings about what the town might become if its theoretical delicate equilibrium is interrupted.
Swan searches for Julie’s missing cell phone, and finds it in the possession of another black kid on a bike: the kid exchanges it for an opportunity to fondle Swan’s pistol, which the policeman doesn’t begrudge him, after unloading it, of course. He understands that he has given the lad a bit of stature before his mates and an understanding of the compact force of the weapon: the lad fondles it like a holy icon that promises delivery from banality and boredom. Swan finds photos on the phone of Crystal, Julie, and another pal, Tanni (Siobhan Binge), confirming their close links, which might have extended to a particularly creepy rumour Swan’s heard, that the local teen girls prostitute themselves out to the passing truckies. The case then begins to creep ever closer and more cruelly close to home. After Tanni is found dead, killed in the same way as Julie, Crystal seems to be the inevitable next target. The girls have all been tied together by one of their illicit escapades, which pissed off the wrong people, a picture that begins to resolve after Swan interviews and almost beats up cocky weed dealer Wayne Silverman (Damian Walshe-Howling). Sen’s most intelligent and effective point about such places lies in the canny observation that almost any kind of sensation becomes welcome respite from tedium and economic deprivation, in addition to the special malaise of the indigenous folk still tied to ancestral lands but with their relationship to it and each other poisoned by a modern lifestyle grafted onto it. Sen repeatedly cuts to high overhead shots of the town streets that make the town look like an experimental moon base erected in a suitably raw location.
The best-adjusted younger person Swan encounters, Jasmine (Angela Swan), is kept on a short leash by a determined, religious grandmother (Lillian Crombie). But the lone figure of good cheer about the place is Swan’s uncle, Old Boy (Jack Charles), an older aboriginal man Swan pays for street gossip who promptly blows it on penny-ante gambling ring with a cheery kind of dissolution that delivers him from gnawing angst. Sen’s gift for drawing portraits of pained humanity fleshes out two of the film’s most striking scenes: when Swan goes to tell Julie’s mother Ashley (Jarah Louise Rundle) that her daughter’s dead, Ashley already looks like she’s survived a battle and scarcely bats an eyelid when she hears the news.
Another superlative vignette comes when Swan visits Mr. Murray (Jack Thompson), an aging farmer who reported seeing a severed hand in the jaws of a wild dog that might have belonged to yet another victim of the killer; Murray is quietly furious and heartbroken after wild dogs ripped apart his pet chihuahua. Thompson’s excellence here is both stirring and sad, as the former golden boy of Aussie acting, terribly misused by some directors lately, including Baz Luhrmann in Australia (2008), looks and sounds as old as the hills and effortlessly projects a grim wisdom. His wearied visage effortlessly projects metaphorical weight for Sen in portraying a land that exhausts us pitilessly: despite its brevity, it could well be the performance of Thompson’s career.
Mystery Road is, however, far from a flawless work. Sen’s ear for dialogue remains occasionally weak and largely humourless. Even as he tries admirably to create scenes charged with a constant—perhaps too constant—sense of elusive, cryptic menace, he undercuts the effect with clanger exposition lines like, “But then, your old man was the head stockman around here for ages,” when the sergeant comments on Swan’s eye for horse flesh. One significant hesitation of Mystery Road is that, like a relatively long list of Aussie films that try to crossbreed genre storytelling with artier postures (The Boys, 1997, Lantana, 2001, Animal Kingdom, 2010), it thinks it’s being subtle when it’s actually all but beating you over the head with obviousness, from the sergeant sucking on an ice cream with gauche disinterest (apparently he couldn’t get donuts that morning) to the sign-posted place names, or Johnno, bathed in bloody red light leaning in on Swan and asking him what he’d do if he ever killed someone accidentally: it’s almost like a set-up for a The Simpsons gag. Such an emphasis on an even surface texture starts to feel phony after a while. Sen’s visuals quickly create a beautifully paranoid evocation of a far west landscape, and yet the sustained mood of ominous tidings, replete with charged silences, loaded conversations and red-herring characterisations, border on excess all the more for the attempts at minimalist rigour.
Moreover, the film isn’t particularly abashed about its obvious influences: the wedding of noir tale to racial themes strongly evokes In the Heat of the Night (1967), whilst the visuals shout out variously to Don Siegel, Sam Peckinpah, and the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) and No Country for Old Men (2007), as well as Cormac McCarthy in general. The emphasis on the spacious menace of the Aussie outback as a perfect place to set a murder mystery/horror film echoes Road Games (1980) and Wolf Creek (2005), and there are casual shout-outs to Friday the 13th (1980) and From Dusk ’Til Dawn (1996).
Aussie cinema’s long wariness of genre filmmaking has been easing lately, particularly since the ironic rediscovery and legitimisation of the “Ozploitation” trash epics of the late ’70s and ’80s. Mystery Road is also rather reminiscent of Bill Bennett’s lauded Kiss or Kill (1996), with which it shares a mesmerised fascination with the desolation and menace of the great expanses of the Australian outback, upon which it hangs a fairly standard, if obliquely told noir tale. In a similar fashion, Sen’s work suggests a certain pretentious queasiness about being a genre film. Unlike Bennett, at least Sen doesn’t feel the need to start off with a poetic quote to assure his audience that this is self-conscious, pop-art-like exploitation of pulp motifs. But the film’s title points to a knowing approach to the ritualised patterns underlying such storytelling that are, cumulatively, a bit fetid: a body is found at the outset near Massacre Creek, and later our hero arranges a rendezvous for a shoot-out finale at “Slaughter Hill—off Mystery Road.” Well, thank you for the road-map-cum-story-chart, Ivan.
Equally, a rather silly flourish introduced at the start and recurring throughout refers to the wild dogs that haunt the locality and chewed at Julie’s body. When the coroner (another Aussie movie veteran, Bruce Spence) reports back to Swan, he mentions that the saliva traces suggest some kind of “super dog,” which Swan dismisses as trivia; this weird, quasi-scifi stuff proves to be more laboured symbolism, particularly at the end when a violent clash segues into howling in the hills. More effective as visual explication of an interior theme is a scene in which Swan performs a bit of target shooting with his father’s vintage Winchester rifle, aiming not at empty beer bottles, but at full ones, his private declaration of war on the culture of oblivion-seeking around him. The authority of Sen’s visuals goes beyond mere pictorialism, but rather coherently charts mental and physical straits, sustaining both a sense of menace and blasted beauty in the soul-churning blaze of silhouetting sunsets and dawns, and the skewering brightness of days that offer no sanctuary. There’s a tingling sense of vulnerable solitude when Swan tracks the drug pickup back to Bailey’s place, and effective, clear-cut, visual exposition throughout to counter the murkiness of the dialogue. It’s good, too, that Mystery Road gives Pedersen the perfect star vehicle he’s needed for 20 years.
One particularly good sequence sees Swan tracking Silverman and witnessing his kidnapping and execution by the villains. Johnno’s actual place in the seeming conspiracy infecting the town remains moot, however, as his question about accidental killing seems to have been motivated by an experience that resulted in his outback exile and current, tight-lipped efforts to prosecute his own case. But he also solicitously rescues Silverman from Swan’s interrogation, which turns violent when Silverman makes a quip about Crystal. Johnno proves to know enough, at least, to prod Swan’s awareness that Crystal is the next target, a subterranean warning that sends Swan off in anxious search for the McGuffin. Said McGuffin drives the last part of the story, as Swan tries to head off further bloodshed, but instead reaps a shoot-out that makes up for some of the longeurs leading up to it. Sen takes the amusing and original tack of making most of his gunfighters terrible shots, with victory belonging not just to the best shot but to the coolest under fire. Sen pushes to the edge of farce with the crappy, point-blank marksmanship on display, whilst exchanges of long-range gunfire are depicted with exacting, thrilling verve keen to the specific difficulties of sniper marksmanship, whilst also, of course, fulfilling earlier glimpses of Swan’s skill. The very finish offers a break in the generally depressive landscape with a rather arbitrary, but thankfully restrained reunion that signals that Swan’s battles have not been in vain.
For Sergio Leone, making Once Upon a Time in America was a 15-year labour that consumed the bulk of his directorial career. By the mid-1970s, Leone seemed to be washed up. The genre he had done so much to codify and popularise, the spaghetti western, had burnt out. Leone’s tilt at making a defining western saga, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), was mutilated and dismissed in the US, and Duck, You Sucker (1972) was similarly lost in the shuffle. Although he continued to produce odd projects and stepped in to help direct some without credit throughout the ’70s, Leone was left perched between worlds. He rejected advances from Paramount Pictures to direct The Godfather (1972), as he was fascinated instead by a purportedly autobiographical novel called The Hoods by former gangster Harry Goldberg, who published under the name Harry Grey. Leone finally put together a big $30 million budget. His ambition seemed to pay off as the 4.5-hour epic earned a standing ovation upon its premiere at Cannes. Triumph quickly curdled, however, for such expansive vision was conspicuously out of favour. A hacked-down version of the film released in the U.S. was a colossal flop, and the calamity on top of an arduous shoot helped kill Leone 5 years later. The 229-minute European cut, however, retained a strong reputation for those who could see it, as I first did, on a brick-thick VHS set.
Aside from its length, Leone’s film is challenging and commercially tricky, as Leone created a deeply ambiguous work, an apogee of the director’s individual temperament. Contradiction was Leone’s defining quality: A high stylist with a gift for lowdown art. A realist with a love of mythology. A romantic with a fetish for brute violence and sexuality. An Italian with a predilection for American pop culture and a gift for creating synergy between the spacious, aestheticized approach of European film and the gritty sturdiness of American argot and actors. A revisionist and Socialist-tinted historian, picking at the scabs of worldly motives, always looking for the carnal and corruptible underpinnings of human impulses, and yet conjuring dreamlike, mythopoeic visions of that history shot through with quixotic longing and melancholy. Once Upon a Time in America is a film where the audience is faced with mirroring ironies that fold time and tale back in on itself.
Leone employed seven screenwriters to build upon his ideas, including an uncredited Ernesto Gastaldi and snappy English dialogue by Stuart Kaminsky, and yet each touch was subsumed into Leone’s, as the film is more visual than verbal. It also both extends and contrasts the methods of Leone’s westerns. The long, elliptical, carefully rhythmic and internally rhyming structuring of Leone’s direction, as small plays of character and power and build-ups to violence are detailed with nerveless intensity, were retained. But whereas Leone’s westerns were defined by space, both in the environs of the open range, and crisp widescreen compositions based on horizontal lines, …In America is dense and baroque, the blasted colours and sunstruck brightness swapped for saturated tones, deep-etched darks and opiated atmosphere.
…In America has been characterised by some as one long drug dream, taking place in the mind of antihero David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) as he lies in an opium den. The movie starts there and finishes there, moving in an Ouroboros sort of pattern. Noodles has retreated to the den behind a Chinese shadow-puppet theatre to forget the consequences of the pivotal act of his life, an act that’s communicated in impressionistic fragments of sound and vision. The first scene of the film depicts his girlfriend Eve (Darlanne Fluegel) being shot dead in their apartment by gunmen on the hunt for him, with the strains of Kate Smith’s operatic take on “God Bless America” echoing in the background. Noodles’ friend, restaurateur and bar owner Fat Moe Gelly (Larry Rapp), is beaten to a bloody pulp by the same mob enforcers until he gives them Noodles’ location. A telephone rings like a jackhammer, burrowing into Noodle’s consciousness through the blur of the drug, conflating a call warning Noodles to flee, and, in his dazed reveries, a phone call he seems to have made to a policeman and the ringing bell of a fire truck at the remembered scene of a conflagration where corpses are laid out, variously scorched and bullet-riddled: Noodle’s pals and partners in crime Max Bercovicz (James Woods), Patsy Goldberg (James Hayden), and Cockeye Stein (William Forsythe), killed, it seems, by some connivance of Noodles’.
This opening manages at once to be allusive and almost psychedelic, but intelligibly puts in play both the taunting mysteries of the oncoming drama and the urgency of the immediate danger to Noodles, who has to flee the den and save Moe. This he does, in a scene that recalls the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West. Where that film had a windmill and a steam train on a flat plain, here there’s an elevator and interior heights, appropriate for the vertiginous moral chasms and landscape of the city. The elevator works laboriously, motor grinding and mechanisms shaking, to the floor where Moe is laid out like a carcass and a waiting assassin patiently awaits its passenger to alight. Instead, a bullet explodes out his forehead, fired by Noodles, who took the stairs. As well as being a quintessential Leone moment of surprise violence, Noodles’ wiliness is revealed here, a gift the film recapitulates many times, but also repeatedly counterpoints with his endless capacity for self-sabotage.
A talismanic key is taken from Moe’s grandfather clock, a key that fits a locker in Grand Central Station, but to Noodles’ evident shock and disappointment, the suitcase within only contains a bundle of newspapers instead of the expected fortune. Noodles has no choice but to keep running from the vengeance he has set in motion. He steps out of the frame, the camera zeroes in on an art deco poster for Coney Island and a wall mirror. Noodles re-enters the shot, reflected in the mirror, balding, doleful, and tense. The artwork is now a pop art mural, a version of “Yesterday” rises to displace “Night and Day” on sound, and without a line of dialogue, we know Noodles has returned to New York in the late 1960s.
This cunning leap forward touches on one essential aspect of …In America, which is as much about time and what it does to people and what they do to themselves in the eye of it, as it is about individual circumstances. It’s also one of the greatest explorations of the transporting intensity of remembering. Leone and ever-attuned composer Ennio Morricone even twist the potentially cheesy idea of using “Yesterday” as a leitmotif for aging regret to work for them by pushing it to a limit with a muzak-flavoured cover: nostalgia is another pop value. Noodles and Moe meet again, tired and on the wane, defined by a past that went magnificently and seemingly irreparably wrong. Moe’s bar is an islet of the past in a former Jewish neighbourhood, now filled with the new wave of Puerto Rican immigrants. Moe certainly didn’t pilfer the million dollars in the locker, Noodles now sees, and he explains the ominous yet seemingly casual missive that’s brought him back to New York, a letter that confirms someone knows where he’s been hiding and has now summoned him back for a reckoning. Longing for a chance to repair the past and pining for the flare of youth’s energy and vision transfigures Noodles. But he was not a good man, not even one ennobled by the Corleones’ familial ethos. Rather Noodles was, as the idol of his life, Moe’s sister Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), once diagnosed, a guy always doomed to be a two-bit punk. Noodles’ return home sees objects take on transformative power, recalling distant times and people: in the back of Moe’s bar is a peephole, and looking through it like a cinema audience conjures a young Deborah (Jennifer Connolly) as a vision of youth’s hope.
That youth is revealed as hardly an idyll, however, as Noodles and his pubescent pals were dirty-minded, fun-loving, budding criminals. To make money off local standover man Bugsy (James Russo), Noodles (played young by Scott Tiler), Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curran), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi), burn down a newspaper stand. They also rob drunks and blackmail an obnoxious cop (Richard Foronjy) after they photograph him having sex with underaged sexpot Peggy (Julie Cohen). Leone’s young imps are little pishers, glimpsed squirting lighter fluid as if they’re pissing on the newspapers. The boys encounter Max (Rusty Jacobs), a junkman’s son who foils one of their criminal enterprises with cheeky humour and then joins them. Success continually raises the stakes for the boys’ misadventures: gaining control over the cop places them in the path of Bugsy, who has Noodles and Max beaten up. When Noodles and his pals outmanoeuvre Bugsy in ingratiating themselves with the mafia, the older punk sets after them with a gun.
These ’20s sequences are majestic in their blend of the hazy immigrant remembrance that was popular in the newly ethnic-conscious and historically attuned American cinema (The Godfather Part II, 1974; Hester Street, 1975; Ragtime, 1981), but far outstripping most for evocativeness and exactitude of milieu—Leone’s period worlds are characters in themselves. One of his keenest gifts lay in creating organic milieus in particular places where social forces are in constructive flux. Leone’s crack team of filmmakers—cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, editor Nino Baragli, art director Carlo Simi, costumer Gabriella Cespucci—helped to make his old New York a place of dirty wildernesses of brick and cobble where the criminal lads dash and dance like Our Gang turning into Dead End Kids. Rooftop empires of bird shit, flapping laundry, and illicit sex and empire-planning. Harbours flooded by fog, zones of mystery and adventure. Above all, nascent industrial might symbolised by the Manhattan Bridge, like living in the shadow of a pyramid, the New World’s expression of communal power and hubristic desire. The neighbourhood around Moe’s place evolves in obedience to the zeitgeist. The old kosher restaurant run by the Gellys where young Moe (Mike Monetti) labours is a popular community crossroads. It gives way to a speakeasy, popular with a panoply of the urban melting pot, housing both underworld and elite. Finally, it becomes the clapped out, run-of-the-mill bar where Moe has to pay protection to a Puerto Rican standover man. When Noodles is fatefully carted off to a juvenile prison, both the prison and the opposing warehouse wall against which his friends range to see him swallowed by the beast emphasises the impersonal scale and fetid, rotting atmosphere of the urban landscape in a fashion that feels the oncoming age of oppression.
The very American tale of the immigrant experience, defined by the simultaneous, wrenching, gravitational fields of ethnic community and eruptive New World mores (young Noodles refuses to go home because “my old man’s praying and my old lady’s crying and the light’s turned off”), is crossbred with the Italian cinematic tradition for looking back in pained wistfulness at the birth pangs of modernity in films as diverse as The Leopard (1963), The Voyage (1974), and 1900 (1976). There’s also the equally Italian delight in describing the raw side of entering adulthood: the young hoods are obsessed with sex, whilst wrestling angrily with their weaknesses and deeper desires. Although the protagonists of …In America are unusual in the ranks of screen hoods for being Jewish, they’re exceedingly Italian in spirit, calling to mind the libido-addled adolescents of Fellini’s 8½ (1963) and Amarcord (1973). There is also, of course, deliberate recapitulation of classic movie themes, specifically, the gangster film, laced with references: the rise-and-fall stories of Little Caesar (1930) and Scarface (1931); the immigrant angst and youth-to-nefarious age drama of The Public Enemy (1931); and remixes of those themes in the tempted street kids of Angels with Dirty Faces (1937) and the generation-tracing arc of The Roaring Twenties (1939). Also, the galvanic punch and sociological notation of Don Siegel, Roger Corman, and Sam Fuller in the ’50s and ’60s, and the political awareness and epic tone of The Godfather. One original aspect of the story, anticipating Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), is the way its narrative centres on a character who could be perceived as peripheral, even a loser. Whereas James Cagney’s and Paul Muni’s gangsters always fell eventually but became colossal in their defiance or their tragic qualities, Noodles becomes not a fallen warrior, cautionary example, criminal overlord, or even really a proper antihero. Rather, he remains something of a fool of fortune doomed to keep losing great chunks of his life to his antics and poor judgement.
Youth is brought to an end through a series of rolling events, and indeed all three epochs described in the film detail long plot arcs dotted with vignettes and climaxing in dramatic severances. The greatest moment of the lads’ youth comes when they convince a mafia overlord to try their invention, involving flotation balloons and counterweights of salt, which can refloat cargos of liquor dumped in the river to avoid patrols. Waiting on a boat in the harbour in a dreamy mist that slowly unpeels over a grimy industrial waterway, the boys see their invention work and celebrate, with Max and Noodles falling overboard: Max plays a prank on Noodles, pretending to drown, before reappearing in the boat, flashing his mocking grin. Much later, Noodles plays the same gag on Max. The two friends, closer than brothers, also constantly try to get one over on each other, treating life almost like a huge practical joke. The folie à deux aspect of their friendship defines the entire narrative. Deborah mockingly describes Max as Noodles’ mother, constantly calling him, but for criminal hijinks. Max first appears on a garbage cart, and steals a watch from a drunk the others wanted to roll, motifs that double and reverse in the finale. Bugs shoots Dominic, who dies with pathos in Noodles’ arms, his felling filmed in slow motion, severing youth from adulthood. Noodles, in a lunatic fury, knifes to death both Bugsy and a cop who tries to intervene, and is imprisoned. He’s released years later as an adult, when Max and the others have become successful bootleggers and entrepreneurial criminals.
Max greets Noodles upon release with a present that combines Leone’s love of bawdy sexuality and morbid humour: Max has a hooker (Ann Neville) laid out like a corpse, pretending to be dead, only to drag Noodles in to prove they’re both very much alive. As the famous quote from …In the West says, Leone’s heroes have “something to do with death,” yet sex and death are constantly correlated with insistent, Freudian power, particularly in this film, where both impulses are seen as the logical extremes of life, whilst most nebulous needs, like love and power, have a grip of religious insubstantiality to them. Whereas love was something Leone’s gunslingers spurned in pursuit of revenge, or had lost and spurred that revenge, Noodles is fatally split by his base instincts and higher aspirations. Carnality is its own strength: when he’s returned to Moe’s, Noodles encounters an older Peggy (Amy Ryder) who’s now a rotund madam-cum-earth mother who sells it profitably “by the pound.” Reunited with his pals, Noodles is brought in on a heist job shopped out to them by made man Frankie Manoldi (Joe Pesci) and his acquaintance Joe Minaldi (Burt Young), who’s got wind of a lucrative diamond shipment he wants them to rob. This turns out to be a double-cross, as the gang’s really been hired to kill Minaldi, and take the diamonds as pay by Manoldi.
Young’s hilariously grotesque cameo as a kind of simian throwback jammed into a suit, telling the story of how he got the tip-off about the diamonds via an anecdote involving insuring his penis, calls back to the shambling, ill-shaven untermenschen that dogged the heroes of Leone’s westerns. Those heroes are by contrast pre-modern but not uncivilised men who seem to share the distant bloodlines of Titans in their gifts that elevate above the common run. The double-cross assassination takes place in another peerlessly atmospheric setting, a foggy canalside littered with beached steamboats and industrial detritus, and plays out with deliriously intense staging. Cockeye shoots Minaldi point-blank through his jeweller’s glass, the gang rake his car with a tommy gun, and Noodles chases an escapee into an eiderdown factory, where he catches his prey and guns him down in a shower of whirling feathers. Noodles performs well, proving he’s still a man of action, but is irritated at having not been told what was going down. He vents his irritation at Max and the others with loopy humour by driving their car off a pier, suggesting that even now, with their extremely grown-up sex and violence, they’re still kids delighting in mayhem and tomfoolery. An aspect of this extends through a ribald subplot: during the robbery of the diamonds, Noodles was pulled into a play-act rape of the jeweller’s secretary, Carol (Tuesday Weld), actually the inside snout who tipped off Minaldi and a deeply kinky broad who gets off on illicit thrills. When she coincidentally turns up at Moe’s as a customer, the gang greet her wearing the handkerchief masks they used in the robbery, with their dicks out, so she can pick out her prior acquaintance. But Carol picks Max, and becomes his girlfriend.
The more “elevated” influence on Leone’s tale was The Great Gatsby, which informs the longing quality of Noodles’ attraction to Deborah and all that she represents, both in youth, as a creature of grace and purity in a mucky world, and in manhood, as a woman going places in the world legitimately. Unlike Daisy Buchanan, however, who was a gossamer idyll formed by an elusive precinct of aspiration, Deborah actively constructs herself, knowing full well the world she lives in and the nature of Noodles. She puts on airs and wheedles her way out of chores by dint of her exceptionalism, as she’s trained in arts that may take her places, including feminine arts both full of mystique and irritating power over Noodles. The childhood friends who take different roads is another old motif of the gangster film (Little Caesar, Manhattan Melodrama, Angels with Dirty Faces) crossbred here with romantic longing, but developed in highly unexpected ways because one of Leone’s darkest themes here is betrayal and the damage people who love each other can do. One of Deborah’s fateful acts, locking Noodles out of the restaurant and refusing to answer his cries for help after he and Max are beaten bloody by enemies, suggests that Noodles will always be on the outside, calling for Deborah, and also informs his later act of brutal revenge on her, inextricable from his erotic and emotional obsession. The film’s apogee of romanticism depicts Noodles trying finally to consummate his love for Deborah with his ill-gotten fortune, taking over an off-season hotel for the night in a show of spectacular courtly advance shot through with intimations of grandeur and sadness; this scene captures the essence of Fitzgerald’s book better than any straight adaptation has so far achieved.
Yet it also provokes and feeds into Leone’s own Janus-faced sensibility, as Deborah maintains her focus and tells Noodles she’s leaving for Hollywood in the morning. He, smouldering with anger whilst they’re being driven back to the city, viciously and punitively rapes Deborah on the backseat until the chauffeur pulls over and puts an end to it. A supremely disorienting and ugly scene (though fascinatingly undercut by the chauffeur’s agency, as he even refuses Noodles’ money; in most melodramas with a crime of this sort, the functionary would be assumed to be a moral null), is one of Leone’s singular accomplishments, as it so utterly debases the usual core of sentimentality found in the gangster film, forcing a radical audience reorientation of where its sympathies lie. Early in the film, Noodles’ hunters had shot Eve, Deborah’s worldly substitute, and, with electric provocation, one tweaked a society lush’s nipple in the opium den with his pistol. Sexual violence adds an uneasy, potent undercurrent to the film as a whole. With Noodles’ assault on Deborah, it becomes clear that Noodles’ lifestyle and milieu, far from being redeemed by Deborah, has instead poisoned him, his expectations of women and life in general. Indeed, what was pseudocomic and anticipatory in Noodles’ and friends earlier sexual encounters with Peggy and Carol becomes appalling.
Leone reaches for and achieves Dostoyevskian stature in his depiction of madly clashing impulses inside characters, as Noodles is at once exposed in his reactive cruelty: he essentially treats Deborah in the same way he did Bugsy, with the blind anger of a kid who feels he’s had something treasured stolen from him. He also defeats himself utterly, and feels immediate, crushing shame, as he watches Deborah leaving for Hollywood on a train the next day, amidst a swirl of steam on the platform, like he’s a phantom his own life, which indeed is what he becomes. There’s a moral precision to this even as Leone largely rejects simple moral readings—all his characters here are cruel to each other on some intimate level, of which physical violence is only one variant. Earlier, young Deborah had charmed Noodles and sustained his fantasies by reading to him from the Song of Solomon, but roughing up the sublime poetic metaphors by comparing the idealised creatures on the page with Noodles, hanging onto her words with increasing torment as she stated “he could never be my beloved.” Deborah’s ironic reading elucidates Leone’s art: alternations between lofty yearnings and expressions of sublime emotions jarringly interpolated with vulgar and cynical sophistication. Equally strong and just as auspicious as Noodles’ crush on Deborah is Noodles’ bromance with Max, whose enticingly wicked grin and humour casts a different spell. Max’s spying curtails Noodles’ one kiss with Deborah just before Bugsy’s beating, signalling Max’s impact on their fate, and also, as later events confirm, exploring the synchronicity of their identities.
Leone’s critical understanding of capitalism threads throughout the film, as it did in …In The West where Frank (Henry Fonda) gazed with admiration and frustration at the apparatus of fiscal power after he has done the work of annihilating the small-time speculator for the profit of the big operator. Here Noodles has the gift for creating and putting over a stratagem, but it takes evolving tycoon Max to utilise them as part of a larger project. One provides the labour and invention, the other exploits. This film deals with characters who are villains in Leone’s other films, though Cockeye, like Harmonica in …In The West, carries an instrument (a piccolo), and Noodles feels the righteous spur to revenge on Bugsy, an urge he will later, importantly, quell and reject. As in Leone’s westerns, community exists, but the heroes do not protect it, exemplify it, or even really blend into it, but are rather cordoned off in a way John Ford only did with final deliberation: when young, the boys are constantly filmed in empty streets at the fringes of activity, or on rooftops, whilst Deborah passes through the midst of crowds, both at one with them but moving against the tides. The beating Noodles and Max receive from Bugsy occurs after the rest of the street has deserted with the residents heading off to the synagogue. Even when Max finds security and insider status under an assumed identity and fortune, he cannot join the crowds in his house, and spies instead on his son as he greets his pretty girlfriend and enjoys all the joys of his aristocratic youth, bought with so much bloodshed and loss.
When Noodles first returns to his old street in 1968 and nears Moe’s, he is confronted by the momentarily surreal sight of a gravestone lifting into the air from behind a brick wall by a front-end loader, as the old immigrant graveyard is being disinterred. The motifs are trebled here, as both the memento mori hanging over Noodles is literalised, the notions that graves are opening and the dead walking is first hinted, and the unavoidable fact of the past being consumed by the present. Later, he finds his friends have been granted an ornate mausoleum, which, a sign says, was paid for by Noodles himself. There he finds another totemic key to the same old locker at the station containing a suitcase full of money: Noodles is being given one last job. A scandal is playing out on TV with a face Noodles recognises: union boss Jimmy Conway O’Donnell (Treat Williams), who the old gang once saved in their finest deed, supporting striking Teamsters, by using wit as well as weapons to combat a plutocratic manager, his goons, and his pet cop, Chief Vincent Aiello (Danny Aiello). Leone goes to town in a bright, relieving comic movement staged with impudent vivacity to “The Thieving Magpie,” as the gang swap babies in their hospital cribs, including Aiello’s, repeating their earlier act of blackmail to impress a cop. Leone pulls off a mirthful, technically superb overhead shot of a nurse frantically trying to calm the crying babies who have just been swapped, visualising the thematic notion spoken subsequently, that the gang have just played god and reapportioned destinies to each character. As Max says, “We’re better than fate. We give some the good life, give it to others right up the ass.”
The gang’s swashbuckling efforts on behalf of the unionist prove they still have emotional ties to the cause of working men. This proves a double-edged sword, as they put O’Donnell in debt to the mafia. Noodles rejects the oncoming age of corporatized criminality, which Max, O’Donnell’s political overlord, and Manoldi begin to build to carry them past the end of Prohibition. Indeed, the film examines a common point of fascination for modern gangster movies and popular history, digging into the complex relationship between organised labour, organised crime, and progressive politics. There’s the suggestion that in the formation of a new bloc of power out of divergent interests to counter settled oligarchies, helped define modern America. Max, alone amongst the gang, sees the possibilities, and he takes his chance to complete his own version of Deborah’s dream to completely transcend his roots and become a great American. Noodles’ rejection of the combination vision sets in motion Max’s master plan even as he seems to acquiesce, and his plot plays out under the guise of suicidal madness, as he proposes an impossible heist. Rather than let his friend push along with this seemingly mad intention, Noodles then counters with his own calculated betrayal, setting up the gang to be arrested on their last liquor run. But Noodles is absent, knocked out by Max seemingly in an unstable rage, and the story begins to catch up with itself, as the early glimpses of the aftermath of the set-up have already told us how this ended. Or did they?
The return at last to 1968 to play out the final stages, comes with the revelation that not only is Max alive, now known as Bailey, but he has wormed his way into the highest reaches of society and political life and seduced Deborah. This fact revealed to Noodles in his poignant, inevitably tentative reunion with her after a stage performance, or rather when the reunion concludes: Deborah’s face, swathed in stage make-up, is despoiled as she rubs it off, identity seemingly smudged as dimensions of her character Noodles never imagined are opened up. The face of her son (Rusty Jacobs), who arrives whilst they’re talking, instantly rewrites the past—he has Max’s young face, stamped by preppie innocence and confusion. Noodles’ contrition at what he did to Deborah is matched by her and Max’s guilt at having destroyed him to gain their own lives.
“Bailey” and his works are unravelling, however, thanks to the still-lingering ties to O’Donnell and the mob, and the final truth that emerges is that he only delayed, rather than avoided, the same reckoning that Noodles has long since made: finding Max heals rather than hurts Noodles, and he’s revealed in their final exchange as an almost monkish penitent, calmly and sadly refusing Max’s request for a friend to shoot him rather than some anonymous assassin, whilst recalling their shared youth, a time that involved and led to horrible things, and yet was still youth. The ambiguous, even surreal final moments of the film provoke both frustration and wonderment, and yet can be coherently read. Max seems to follow Noodles out from his house only to disappear into a passing, peculiarly menacing garbage truck, evoking one tale about Jimmy Hoffa. But does he kill himself, or is he killed? Either way, he goes out the way he came into Noodles’ life, in the back of a garbage mover, moments after he held up that watch, that talisman of the past.
The final images of the film circle back to the past, then, as Noodles is passed by ghostly, yet rowdy apparitions of parties past, as Jazz Age roadsters tear by, and then Noodles himself, a young man again, crawls into the opium den, returning to where we found him: indeed, did he ever actually leave? Was it all a dream of anticipation, a drug-enabled psychic fit? Or did, as I tend to think, Noodles realise on some level not unlocked until he got high, that Max had faked his death, and the practical joke was ongoing? Of course, Leone designed his narrative carefully to refuse exact explanations or interpretations, as so many of the film’s devices, scenes, and settings have recapitulated the notion that everything finally ends up back where it started.
As ever with a Leone film, the indispensable aesthetic capstone is Ennio Morricone’s scoring, which swings from florid, operatic feeling to jazzy jaunt. Just as Morricone’s scores for the westerns constantly nudged the atmosphere of Leone’s film toward both expressionist weirdness and the cultural gravity of Latin America through his instrumentations, so, too, does his work here, constantly punctuated by panpipes, give the film an exotic, haunted quality, as if ghosts are crowding the margins of the lives on screen. The cast is superlative. De Niro’s turn as Noodles is low-key, and yet represents one of the actor’s best achievements, in how concisely he portrays a man who ages 30-odd years, avoiding all of his familiar actor’s mannerisms whilst conveying deep, if taciturn emotion. By contrast, Woods is electric as Max, a less subtle role but one that requires the dash and indivisible mixture of charm and visceral scorn he’s invested with, whilst Weld is wickedly good as the masochistic, yet somehow dominating Carol. Even with its deliberate mysteries and the elisions, which may finally be partly plugged by longer forthcoming editions, Once Upon a Time in America is a cinematic pinnacle.
David O. Russell is a filmmaker for whom I’ve maintained a certain wary admiration since first encountering his work with Flirting with Disaster (1998). Amidst the directors who emerged from highly idiosyncratic independent filmmaking in the early to mid-1990s, as Russell did with Spanking the Monkey (1994), Russell’s specific interest was in observing natural oddballs in their native habitat. As such, he seemed to maintain links not just with the Robert Altman-derived strand of modern American cinema but also with a variety of frenetic comedy associated with the screwball works of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and the Marx Brothers, except that his character types are rooted securely in naturalistic environments. Yet Russell doesn’t have Altman’s covert grace or political and cultural wit, whilst his humour is far more forced and jumpy. He is a product of a snarkier, more fiercely hip age, with characters that thrash about trying to generate comedy and action rather than enacting the farces elegantly served up to them by masterminds. I have no great liking for Three Kings (1999), which gained a lot of cool-kid traction because of its shallow critique of the Gulf War while being only a flashy variation on certain, better ’60s war movies.
When Russell came back from exile with The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), he was obviously playing by house rules, which made his films both more humdrum, but also, ironically, more enjoyable, injecting eccentric invention into standard narratives. American Hustle represents a compromise, mixing a populist brand of sarcastic frolic with his fascination for unruly dispositions. Whilst the Altman-esque element is still apparent in American Hustle, the style here is plainly a mild annexation-cum-parody of Martin Scorsese, borrowing devices and flourishes like his driving edits, alternately explanatory and dissenting voiceovers, signature inrushing camera dollies to punctuate scenes, and evocations of the simultaneous earthiness and brash flash of ’70s Americana. Whereas Scorsese usually situates his narrative perspectives deep within the often unpleasant headspaces of his characters, however, American Hustle remains determinedly exterior, watching its character types eddy in their fetid pools of temperament.
The film is based loosely on the infamous “Abscam” stings run by the FBI that took down several on-the-take bigwigs in the wide-open post-Watergate era, already touched on cinematically in another sub-Scorsese hit, director Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997). Russell takes the tale and inverts its tabloid meaning, making grifters, corrupted leaders, and phonies the heroes and the driving investigator a self-interested, nutty villain, as if The Sting (1973) had been reset in the same era it was showing in theaters. Russell kicks off with an arch but fitting sequence. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) carefully hides his bald pate with a combination of comb-over and toupee, only to have it ruined by aggressive FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) as the two men argue about proceeding with their current sting operation and the woman between them, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), tries to maintain working equilibrium. Flashbacks reveal how this unlikely team came together. Irving, a glass salesman with a sideline in fake art and bogus loan agenting, met Sydney, a Midwestern blow-in with a penchant for putting on an English accent, at a party, where they bonded over their mutual love of the elevating pleasures of Duke Ellington. After they hooked up, they found a deeper accord in their love of covert role-playing and profitable deceit. They’re a match made in Hades, except for the complication that Irving is already married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a young single mother he wed essentially out of charity.
The scenes recounting Irving and Sydney’s union are played with an interesting mix of dreamy wonder and raconteurism, as each narraties what they were thinking and feeling, stricken by recognition of a kinship that can, perversely but logically, find its best expression in criminal behaviour: Love, Underworld Style. Sydney’s adopted persona as a veddy British dollybird proves to facilitate Irving’s loan scams perfectly, as she pretends to have connections to a reputable London banking firm. They’re undone, however, when one potential client is Richie working undercover, and Irving semi-wittingly manages to leave Sydney holding the bag because she seemed to be flirting with Richie. Richie cuts a deal with the deceitful duo to use their talents to catch corrupt officials, promising they can walk away after three operations.
Richie sets his sights on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the go-get-’em, regular-Joe mayor of Atlantic City who’s trying to rebuild the city as a tourist mecca. After much bickering and backbiting, Irving sells Richie on the idea of putting together a scam wherein they pretend to be connected to a zillionaire Saudi sheikh who wants nothing more than to invest in Polito’s vision of a reenergised boardwalk. Tensions simmer constantly between this potentially explosive mix of personalities: bullshit artiste Irving is forced into unfamiliar zones of emotional intensity, constantly seething with jealousy as Sydney punishes him for sticking with Rosalyn by holding him at arm’s length and half-faking a romance with Richie. Irving also begins to squirm in contemplating the damage the scam is going to do to Polito, with whom he becomes fast friends, and the potential of mob reprisal, as the boardwalk project demands they make deals with Meyer Lansky associate Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro).
On a superficial level, American Hustle keeps bouncing along merrily, driven not by the mechanics of the Abscam plot, which is quite garbled at points and generally played as a farcical, even counter-productive proposition, nor in generating tension with the story beats. Russell only milks the most salient absurdity from the plot, when Richie has Latino FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Peña) to pose as the mythical “Sheikh Abdullah” rather than Irving’s first choice of an actual Arab pal (Saïd Taghmaoui). This choice sparks both humour at Hernandez’s inaptitude at the role and then suspense, in one of those by-rote post-Goodfellas “tension when talking to the gangster” scenes, as he’s presented to Tellagio, who reveals an unexpected gift for speaking Arabic. American Hustle is rather a wobbly highwire trick, trying to gain propulsion from volatile character interactions, putting Irving and Sydney in constant danger by placing them in the hands of various lunatics. Richie sees himself as a brilliant but stymied law enforcer, but he’s actually a sexually repressed, brattish self-promoter with a bizarre, ultra-Catholic mother. He’s faced with the disdain and disregard of immediate superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), and keeps trying to guess the moral to a long-winded anecdote Thorsen tries to tell him; eventually Richie physically assaults Thorsen in frustration. Nonetheless, Richie gets his way and fends off repercussions by appealing to state’s attorney Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola, done up to look like Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II), who’s as greedy for high-profile arrests as Richie. Richie’s an interesting study in pathology and an ironic depiction of law enforcer as a case in arrested development, evoking FBI kingpin J. Edgar Hoover. Like Irving and Sydney, he’s on the make and doesn’t care who it hurts so long as he realises his vision of triumph, but unlike them, he is convinced of his own rectitude.
American Hustle is clearly a movie moulded to fit a fading ideal of popular cinema—actor-based but kinetic, taken from true life but rendered much larger than life. And yet’s it’s a peculiar, frustrating failure that manages to stay in a state of flux, emotionally and artistically, for over two hours. The acting is exciting and hammy in roughly equal measure. Cooper’s excessively mannered, and finally downright irritating performance stretches out the manic phases of his character from Silver Linings Playbook to fill an entire movie like being stuck in a phone booth with a well-groomed chimpanzee, and fails the film because it renders Richie too discursive an antagonist. Similarly, Bale pulls off one of his impressive ACTOR! transformations by becoming a paunchy, drawling, oh-so-Noo Yawk operator, but Irving isn’t deeply compelling as a protagonist even when facing a problem of conscience. Where a charismatic actor closer to the required physical type like Paul Giamatti might have made Irving interesting, with Bale he remains a dead spot. The emotional crux of the film is supposed to be Sydney and Irving’s combative reaction to the pain of loving each other counterbalanced by the quiescent, often cross-purpose desire of both to achieve authenticity and realise their private fantasies. But the film’s too skittish to let this underlying earnestness stand, too vague about those fantasies, and not sure which way is up when it comes to authenticity. For instance, Russell can’t resist playing the film’s real climax—when Irving admits all to Polito and tries to warn him what’s coming—as farce. He cuts into the scene halfway through the conversation, so there’s no sense of tension about the building emotion and unease, and then provides laugh-line-like jump cuts to shots of Polito’s kids all crying as word gets around. Not surprisingly, Polito throws Irving out, and Irving suffers a brief spell of shamed hyperventilation before getting on with saving his own ass, but the reckoning is stated rather than felt. This is a notable example, but far from the only one that shows Russell closing off avenues to real substance.
Rosalyn becomes the narrative joker in the deck: because Sydney’s been cast in another “role” in their comedy, Irving needs Rosalyn to be his wife in the scams without quite letting her in on what’s going on. Rosalyn, in spite of her kookiness, is smart enough to know something’s up, and harbours her own suddenly nascent intent to emerge as a social butterfly. Thus, with madcap bravado, she overcomes her professed anxiety and outpaces the scammers and the feds in making friends not just with Poliltos, but also the mafia hoods insulating Tellegio. Lawrence helps to crystallise the film’s most interesting themes, including the notion that elaborate plots and constructs are found in all walks of life, but that the borderlines of the scam are smudged by the very human aspirations of the players. She charms the Politos and helps sell both her own, Irving’s, and Carmine’s fantasy worlds by being herself, warts and all, going on a memorable rant about nail polish that ends in her tumbling tipsily from a restaurant booth. Russell gets far too cute with her character, however, as her loose-cannon approach gets more dangerous, tipping off one of Tellagio’s lieutenants (Jack Huston) that Irving’s running a con, and then fudging as to whether Rosalyn is actually some kind of idiot savant of plotting, putting her husband on the spot to come up with an exit strategy, or just a flake who happily claims flukes as her genius. This comes after she’s had a flagrantly weird and bracing sing-and-dance-along to Paul McCartney’s theme song for Live and Let Die, gyrating with malicious glee as if she’s gotten beautiful revenge on Irving. There’s such compulsive kineticism and unrestrained loopiness here that it almost wills itself into making sense. And yet, the feeling that Rosalyn stands in for an artist-director creating in the same improvisational way comes to the fore.
The part depends greatly on the audience’s lingering affection for Lawrence, as Rosalyn is presented as scary-exciting, but Rosalyn is really an awful creature in many ways—capricious, disturbed, and destructive, only partly elevated by her own desire to become a self-actuating person. If Russell had cast not the delicious Lawrence but someone closer to Irving’s nominal age, Rosalyn would look much more like a sitcom caricature. Lawrence shocks it into life with that gift she has, badly frustrated in her headlining films but keenly understood by Russell, for playing brittle personalities: her Rosalyn has the authentic flavour of many half-wonderful, half-disturbing people out there in the world. More often, she’s depicted as Irving’s ball and chain, tethering him to an unbearable state of reality to which his flights into fancy with Sydney are only temporary reprieves. Then, arbitrarily, after a long sequence fuelled by this dynamic, with Irving raving on in thin-wedge frustration like a reject from a Neil Simon play, Rosalyn, suddenly lets him off the hook, as if Russell couldn’t think of a believable way to get Irving loose of her and end his movie. The stage is then set for Irving to pull off a clever last-act twist that nets him and Sydney a sweet paycheque and Richie a seemingly well-deserved humiliation.
As a whole, American Hustle made me curious in all the wrong ways. Part of this curiosity lay in trying to work out what it is. Is it a satire? A screwball farce? A caper flick that riffs jauntily on a true-life episode of venality? A tragicomic study in absurd people searching for legitimacy? Yet another piece of cinematic reference that looks back nostalgically to ’70s fashions in film and clothing? A collection of acting exercises cut together with great skill? Well, it’s all these things, and none of them; at least, not any one of them to a satisfying or complete degree, except perhaps the last two. Russell reveals a strong level of wry affection for a bygone era of American life where regular guys got together and sang along to Tom Jones with a good stiff drink in the hand, and ladies piled their hair in absurd concoctions, wore fur, and mocked the workings of a microwave.
The film’s best scene, which really does hit a remarkable, almost transcendent note, sees Russell cutting between Irving and Carmine engaged in such a singalong, roaring with impudent, drunken life and hope for a reborn American dream, whilst Richie and Sydney enact another version of the same thing, dancing in a disco to Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s mighty “I Feel Love,” whereupon they retreat into a toilet and make not love but a pact of ardour. Richie’s thrilled that he might be about to escape the strictures of his life, and Sydney releases a tile-cracking whoop of joy, a moment that feels utterly random and yet a logical endpoint for the thrill of being alive, and for Sydney not so much for love of Richie, as she’s really playing him, but of excitement at the feeling of being master of her destiny again. Otherwise, however, Russell remains at arm’s-length from both considered feeling and lacks sociological depth. Irving’s line of crap about a fake Rembrandt that’s become real from effort echoes too many others films of last year, notably Trance and Blue Is the Warmest Colour, that try to fool you into thinking they’ve got something profound to say about their own self-awareness when they’re just tritely spelling out the theme for you.
Whereas a close antecedent like Boogie Nights (1997) wrestles with an entire zeitgeist, for Russell it’s mostly window dressing, reducing character arcs to a series of well-described impulses of a misfiring nervous system. He has great capacity to get his cast fired up and his visuals flowing in propulsive manner, but little gift for the kinds of pivots in tone and aesthetic that regulate intake and make for a deeper kind of film experience that can infuse even a pop bauble. American Hustle is certainly blatantly sceptical of the presumption of mutual exclusivity in the motives of con men and police in an America where everyone’s on the make in some way, an idea that’s endlessly reiterated in dialogue. People in government are occasionally self-serving and career-minded? Wow, that’s profound. Phonies might desire to be, like, real? Blow my mind why don’t you. More interestingly, it touches on the notion that sometimes corruption in government may be a mere adjunct to other, better motives and actions: the film makes the point that all the Abscam operation succeeded in doing was bringing down some lawmakers, many of whom were enticed into illegal acts and like Polito, were trying to do some good. But this idea isn’t particularly well-served in a film that lets Irving and Sydney smarmily off the hook because Richie’s a prick, and politically it’s a damp squib. It’s also—and this might be its chief crime—not really that funny.
The unstable mixture and uncertain aim of the film confirms that when Russell isn’t being corralled into commercial moulds, his own are too shallow to contain all of what he creates. Some people love that sense of filmmaking without a net, but Russell isn’t actually uncontrolled or ebullient enough to truly cut loose, nor is he ever discomforting in his irony like Altman often was. Whereas Scorsese, even when presenting the gaudiest, most stylised visuals, presents them with illustrative framing and punctilious cuts, and Altman held back to give the impression of random discovery, Russell pushes in more tightly and cross-cuts, feeding off and repurposing the energy of his actors. That’s why many scenes feel as if they’re about to burst at the scenes—because in cinematic terms they are.
Renner and Adams give the film’s most measured performances. Adams is particularly good as Sydney, with her habitual lapses in her British accent, a mixture of operator ruthlessness and hopeful pathos inflecting her scenes. Renner is low-key as Polito, at once charming and persuasive as a populist leader, but also vulnerable in his streak of blue-collar sentimentality. The idea that Carmine, as a tragic hero, was a potentially more interesting protagonist than the ones foregrounded, who are essentially supporting grotesques placed centre-stage, occurred to me, especially as the central proposition of the film, the troubled but supposedly magnetic attraction of Irving and Sydney, never feels particularly vital, certainly never as vital as anything that occurs between Irving and Rosalyn, who remains, as Irving says in voiceover at the end, always interesting. And so, too, ultimately is American Hustle. It’s neither a mere polyester shindig nor a covert artwork, but something intriguingly misbegotten, far less than the sum of its parts but more than a lark in the meadow. It’s something, but I’m not sure what.
The ’00s are already starting to feel like a long time ago. The first decade of the new millennium, an age of gorging excess for a select number which ended up in a giant socioeconomic car crash from which we’re still recovering, is going to look ever stranger for people as they look back on the time—its naked money worship, the War on Terror hysteria, the gaping voids of thought and substance all too ably recorded for posterity by reality TV, and the new internet-fuelled super-pop culture. Just lately, I’ve started to get the feeling that filmmakers, particularly those from the independent scenes, have become canaries in the cultural mines the way poets used to be, registering changes in the zeitgeist with a peculiar speed that is perhaps indicative of how much quicker cinema production can be today and how much more engaged filmmakers are with the evolving social discourse. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring throws its mind and mood back to around 2008-9, when the bogus rhetoric of “aspiration” as justification for incredible greed and new forms of social exclusion was both at its height and about to meet the cold reality of boom-bust cycles, which here comes in the form an even more immediate, pitiless wake-up call.
The Bling Ring adapts a real incident, via a Vanity Fair article that was called “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” a jaunty title that identifies the brand-name-emblazoned mindset of the criminal gang whose activities comprise a weird mixture of delinquency and absurdity. A group of teenage friends, all children of affluence and times of plenty, engaged in a string of comically easy robberies of the houses of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, and Megan Fox, filching money, jewellery, and clothes. This allowed them to hit the L.A. highlife, where everybody’s a wannabe, with impudent élan. Fox famously has a freely quoted line from King Lear tattooed on her shoulder, “We will all laugh at gilded butterflies,” a jab in the original context at the kinds of well-dressed empty vessels who flock around the flames of power. Are The Bling Ring the butterflies, or the laughers? Is there a difference anymore, in a time when everyone is both complicit and detached, observer and observed?
This crime wave is sparked by Asian-American high schooler Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang), who sees nothing wrong with stealing cash from parked cars and random houses in prosperous suburbs, even jacking a Porsche with blithe confidence. The ring begins to take shape when she ventures into Hilton’s manse when her pal Marc Hall (Israel Broussard) finds out online that she’s out of town. Marc, gay, dowdy, and awkward, is socially adopted by Rebecca when, like her, he’s forced to attend a public school after being kicked out of a private one. Rebecca offers Marc the chance to make glamorous associations and become a cool kid, as she’s friends with would-be model and fashionista Nicki Moore (Emma Watson). Nicky is enthused about the idea of stealing, and she brings her pal Chloe (Claire Julien), her younger sister Emily (Georgia Rock), and adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) into the ring.
After returning to Hilton’s house multiple times, the ring begins to branch out and target other celebrities’ houses, after Marc does his quick research on the net to make sure when they’re away. Sam’s boyfriend Rob (Carlos Miranda) joins them on some raids, whilst Chloe and Marc sell some of Orlando Bloom’s Rolex watches to Chloe’s boyfriend, sleazy nightclub manager Ricky (Gavin Rossdale). Emily joins the gang when they need someone small to slide through Fox’s dog door. Their raids on Hilton’s house go undetected for a long time, because the owner leaves the keys under the welcome mat and they resist stealing any major items. Later, when robbing the house of TV host Audrina Patridge, they’re caught on camera as shadowy invaders. Their crimes become an open secret amongst the people they know and the scenes where they hang out, and they even display their exploits on social media. Finally, they’re rounded up and prosecuted after Rebecca, fleeing from tension at home to live with her father in Las Vegas, unwittingly makes Marc her accomplice in taking stolen goods over state lines.
Fragments of interviews taking place in the future with the ring, particularly Marc, give some context and perspective. Marc’s shift from teenage dirtbag to budding fabulousness is glimpsed in casually employed shots of him hovering before his webcam wearing lipstick and lounging about in a pair of stolen pumps, offering the only real signs of traditional character growth and identification, and a mischievous understanding of the protean forces at work for such a person. But Coppola really only gives us these bones because Marc is the gateway. Otherwise, the Bling Ring members are shallow, deliberately so. There’s little point in listening to them talk, because they talk crap; they’re well versed in brand names and designers but empty of other concerns. They’re pretty average young people, actually, save for the circumstances of their youth as citizens of L.A. and therefore faced with constant proximity to the promise of the high life in an imperial capital. Watching The Bling Ring, I had an insight into the way “we” morally respond to movies, via an element that has haunted Coppola with particular doggedness since her directing career began—that she’s a spoilt rich girl making films about same. Her perspective on the rapacious abyss that certain aspects of capitalist triumphalism conceal has become plainer and less generous since the playfully sardonic Marie Antoinette (2006) was infamously jeered at Cannes for making the link between modern consumerism and imperial downfall not just bitingly plain, but genuinely funny. The Bling Ring, whilst dealing with immediate, almost ripped-from-the-headlines fare, is certainly a thematic follow-up.
Coppola’s emotionally immediate, but conceptually slightly laboured Somewhere (2010) indicated that she had listened to her critics on one level, and adopted a more distanced and elusive take on the “white people problems” she was portraying, but in a manner that felt hackneyed on some levels. The Bling Ring benefits from both intimate knowledge of what she speaks and also definite, ironic amusement, delivering her least conventional narrative yet, shorn of many external complications and dramatic niceties. The film received a largely admiring but cool reception, and part of me began to wonder as I watched it if this wasn’t due to how successfully ambiguous is Coppola’s stance towards her teenage anti-Robin Hoods. The Bling Ringers engage in criminal acts according to sketchy, but carefully hinted personal needs and desires that are channelled into an official, overarching project of socioeconomic parasitism. If they were doing what they were doing for, say, the reasons that the rich-kid anarchists of this year’s The East do what they do, or rebelling or bringing down their idols with any purpose, or even acting out lodes of emotional disquiet that can’t be repressed by affluent suburban conformity a la Rebel Without a Cause (1955), they would immediately become heroes for the audience—naughty, nonviolent Dadaists making a mockery of wealth and fame and the pretences to possessors of such to exceptionalism, finding keys under the doormat to multimillion-dollar mansions and paltry security defending the castles of the new elite.
But the Bling Ringers remain well beyond the easy empathy of the audience because they seem, at least superficially, to be moving like baleen whales, sucking in both their sustenance and other people’s property thoughtlessly on a kind of emotional-moral autopilot. Not that they’re amoral or even particularly mean-spirited, though there are flashes of such qualities, especially when the temptation to posture according to the pop culture stricture toward ironclad egocentrism, arises. In just about the film’s only scene of traditional tension, Sam takes hold of a pistol Nicki finds in a house and waves it in Marc’s face, shifting into a movie-derived attitude of untouchable self-righteousness and threatening cool, and there’s momentary uncertainty of just how far Sam wants to take the act, if it is an act. She then sneaks into Rob’s bedroom to do the same thing with him, only for the gun to go off, luckily only putting a hole in his mattress.
Rebecca’s early larcenous behaviour seems the more familiar behaviour of a troubled teen, but it swiftly transforms into a much less common project. The ring tend to believe, not without some justification, that the world of the rich and famous is a smorgasbord from which they can partake without consequence, because everyone has plenty, and they’re entitled to a piece of it. Rebecca, for example, hopes to be a successful fashion designer—nay, intends and expects it—but in the meantime, finds that many of the privileges and perks of the level to which she wants to be elevated can be more easily obtained simply by stealing them. When the ring raid Patridge’s house, Coppola’s camera notes it all in a slow, inward-zooming longshot, framing the glowing house against the L.A. skyline like some temple of money, touching this and other midnight odysseys with a near-religious awe. There is an added layer here in that the camera also mimics the vantage of a CCTV camera, and the film segues into eerily green-tinged surveillance shots that turn what from a distance seemed to be a cubist delight of space and light into a trap.
For Marc, in particular, these ventures offers the chance to invent himself free of social judgment. The ring engage in acts that look and feel quite anarchic, illicit, and subversive, but only accidentally: their actual desire and intent is to enjoy the lifestyle without any concept of critiquing it or subverting it as class rebels. From a distance, and even pretty close up, they’re vacuous rich kids getting off on being naughty. Coppola’s already made withering mirth from a particular species of Hollywood dipstick—Anna Faris’ starlet Kelly—in Lost in Translation (2003), but here the likeable, witty audience avatars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson provided are missing; even a figure like Somewhere’s Johnny Marco, who was suffocating in an empty existence, has been excised. The closest thing to a substantive adult presence in The Bling Ring is Nicki’s mother Laurie (Leslie Mann), who home-schools Nicki and her sisters in deliciously, deliriously Californian New Age fashion, complete with prayer circles in which vaguely religious bromides-cum-pep talks are delivered. Laurie, far from a countervailing presence, is the film’s purest vehicle of satirical humour: when one of her home-schooling sessions is glimpsed, she holds up a handmade chart festooned with pictures of Angelina Jolie as an example of an inspiring role model, except that when she prods the girls why they might admire her, Sam suggests, “Her husband.” Other parents do appear, but they’re mostly onlookers, dissociated from their children’s lives. Marc has a father who’s “in the biz” as a film marketer. Jessica’s broken home seems to have played a part in her blithely larcenous behaviour. But Coppola avoids as much as possible making a cautionary tale of wild amoral teens with ignorant parents, like every teen crime flick going back to the Ed Wood-scribed The Violent Years (1956) and including another of this year’s films, the lauded but laboured Spring Breakers, which stands at a fascinatingly fantastical remove from The Bling Ring. Spring Breakers offers a (middle-aged, male, “edgy”) filmmaker’s take on a similar motif of teen girls becoming criminals for profit and fun, except that everything in it is made to circle back to the filmmaker’s sexual fetishism of their actions—just like The Violent Years.
In The Bling Ring, Coppola tries to avoid as many clichéd stances as possible. Rather than give us a malefic sense of things spinning out of control as the Ringers indulge in cocaine-charged nightclub partying, she makes them dreamily beautiful. There’s an implicit link to her The Virgin Suicides (1999) even as it seems to be making a directly opposite point. Whereas in the earlier film, adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ pseudo-mythopoeic novel, the young women were innocent nymphs wilting from being caged by outdated moralism, here the girls are unscrupulous sexpots free both to mimic and exemplify immediate cultural maxims of louche self-indulgence. What unites them, however, is Coppola’s manner of shooting them, daubed in rich light and colour and vibrating to furiously onanistic club beats, in a style that makes clear that the fresh bloom of youth is a fleeting moment of protean wonder. Of course the Bling Ringers want to get high, dance, and be rich: these are pretty familiar and commonplace impulses, and when they’re loose in their moments of heedless joy, however they’ve paid for it, they are like everyone else rejoicing in the moment of their youth. Laurie does, accidentally almost, introduce one important idea to The Bling Ring when she advises her children, “We have to be really careful who we surround ourselves with, because we wind up being the average of those people.” Nicki later tries to use this as her out when justice comes knocking, trying to blame the company she’s kept for getting involved with crime, but finally being convicted for just that reason, indicted by her own propensities.
The Bling Ring, as a title, has ironic inferences: “bling,” of course, is probably the most popular phrase to emerge from hip-hop slang (and it comes, in turn, from comic book representation, a kind of visual onomatopoeia that could easily be projected onto Coppola’s colourful, epic surveys of jewels and designer shoes without making them anymore cartoonish). The ring, especially when Jo finds that gun, almost manage to live up to a peculiar schism that underlies a lot of contemporary pop culture: the rejoicing of flashy wealth coexisting with trashier values of physical strength and fitness, pistol-packing invulnerability, and posse-trailing imperiousness that also comes from hip-hop and represents a driving force behind the popularity of the Fast and Furious movies. Lana Del Ray and Frank Ocean are a couple of pop musicians who had made notable inquiries into this spirit lately. Del Ray’s upper-class jeune filles delighting in becoming concubines to blaxploitation villains could represent the fantasy lives of the ring, whilst Ocean’s druggy “Super Rich Kids” turns up, almost inevitably, over the end credits. The ring don’t physically hurt anyone, because they’re actually all wusses, and their criminal success occurs only because the people they’re targeting don’t believe criminals would dare rob them. Indeed, the culturally ingrained barriers, the aura of awe and distance that surrounds the modern media celebrity as the new aristocracy, is more effective than CCTV cameras and burglar alarms, a barrier that only a gang of kids from the same world would dare violate. Of course, many of the pleasures the ring derive from their actions are eminently, classically criminal: they can live beyond their means after brief spells of risky work, feel important and illicitly clever, and enjoy the notoriety their transgressions earn them.
It’s entirely apt that the ring’s first and repeated target is Paris Hilton, an ideal celebrity of a new brand of aristocracy famous for absolutely nothing other than being rich and telegenic enough to profitably show it off, whose house is revealed as a distressing trap of narcissism and tawdriness, complete with at-home pole dancing parlour (a common motif of Coppola’s fascination/repulsion for the modern highlife). Hilton, unlike the Bling Ring themselves, seems to know that she’s an interloper without talent whose only trick is the willingness to turn her entire existence into an act of pop art—or she’s completely blind to her own existence. The cleverest aspect of Coppola’s narrative patterning, though it’s one that contributes to the film’s slightly imbalanced quality, is that she largely reduces the middle hour to a flow of instant gratification: little small talk, minimal character development, just a series of criminal forays that offer the illicit thrills of exploration, like a sort of pirate edition of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” and the payoff of hard partying and private delight in shiny things. Coppola makes the audience complicit in their adventures, offering racks of designer goods for the eye-dazzling pleasure of plenty, and the repetitive acts of incursion, theft, and escape.
When the cops do come knocking, there’s an obvious affinity again with Coppola’s earlier work, this time with the climax of Marie Antoinette when the revolution calls: paradise lost, lives ruined, and the plenty that came so easily suddenly, cruelly severed. Rebecca tries to fake her way through a police interview, confident she’s disposed of all the booty after Marc called to warn her of their impending arrival, but her smug smile disappears when they turn up items she’d forgotten. Nicki screams with panicky despair as she’s handcuffed and hauled away. Marc is branded as a rat by the media, because after being arrested, he carelessly told the cops about his accomplices. But once arrested and indicted, Nicki treats it all like an audition as she tries to decide on the perfect outfit for a court date, and the infamy their arrest brings them is registered by Nicki only as the fame she’s always planned for. She’s interviewed for the Vanity Fair profile, fending off her mother’s goofily agreeable attempts to interject and add details, irritated that Leslie keeps trying to get in on her media moment. The law, historically arranged to powerfully favour property owners and now carefully tailored to the needs of modern consumerist society, falls upon the kids with such heaviness that they become exactly what they would never seem to be: martyrs for the sake of offended people of wealth. Concluding shots of Marc being hustled away with other orange-jumpsuited convicts, strike a surprising note of melancholy, the awareness that the fun and games have ruined lives, and the slightly bitter volte face that notes that a bunch of dumb kids have been hit with the full force of law.
Given the quality of The Bling Ring, it’s hard to admit, but also certain that the film doesn’t always sustain its best ideas: the observational sharpness that defines Nicki, Marc and Laurie doesn’t touch the other characters. Coppola’s last two films bear signs that she’s trying annex aspects of the more aloof, pseudo-objective filmmaking that art house figures have leavened in the past decade or so. But this affectation works against her own best qualities as the Molière of San Fernando, capable of both smiling as a ruthless satirist but also offering expansive empathy and cinematic expressivity. Nonetheless, to a great extent, Coppola’s decision to pare back standard dramatic development helps emphasize the film’s sociological qualities, the precise sense of how aspects of modern youth culture are branded; thus character is expressed through the accumulation of affectations rather than actual personality.
Broussard, Chang, and Farmiga are excellently naturalistic, whilst Watson leaves behind Hermione Granger here in playing the most polar opposite temperament her age bracket could offer, giving a convincing performance as a merrily vain moon unit. If the last sight of Marc suggests surprising tragedy, Nicki, bound to emerge from every situation as the winner because she’s been programmed to, rounds off the film with unsurprising gall. She’s last seen being interviewed about her arduous 30 days in prison, relieved by the fact that the girls’ idol and robbery target, Lindsay Lohan, was in the same boat, and leaves off with a plug for her website, NickiMooreForever.com.
In 2002, the filmed version of the Bob Fosse/Kander and Ebb musical Chicago won the Academy Award for best picture. It was a stunningly great film with a message for our media-manipulated times. The genesis of these works, as well as William Wellman’s 1942 film Roxie Hart, was a hit Broadway play from 1926 by Maurine Watkins, a Chicago Tribune reporter who sensationalized the stories of two female murderers and contributed to their acquittals at trial. One of the killers was Beulah Annan, a glamorous and adulterous party girl who, in 1924, shot her lover, Harry Kalstedt, when he announced he was leaving her. The other was Belva Gaertner, a cabaret singer who gunned down her lover Walter Law as he sat in his car. The larger-than-life producer and director Cecil B. De Mille grabbed the rights to the play, and the result is the 1927 film Chicago.
Chicago takes up the story of only one of the murderers, Beulah Annan, who from this film onward becomes Roxie Hart. Played by Phyllis Haver, she is a beautiful, golden-haired waste of space who is only interested in money and fame. Her straight-arrow husband Amos (Victor Varconi) adores her. He picks up one of her garters as she sleeps, a gaudy contraption with bells on it, and shakes it lovingly near his ear. Later, he waits on a man at his tobacconist shop. This man, Rodney Casley (the great character actor of silent and sound pictures Eugene Pallette), takes an interest in some cigarettes for ladies whose advertising suggests your woman will stay with you if you buy her these cigarettes. Casley laughs that he’s trying to unload his woman. Amos drips that if Casley had his wife, he’d never want to be rid of her. In fact, we learn they are talking about the same woman, Roxie, when Casley fumbles in his pocket for his wallet and comes up with the other silver-belled garter.
Casley goes to meet Roxie to end their affair. She persists in trying to keep him, but he pushes her roughly against the wall and knocks her bureau over. Out spills a gun. As Casley opens the door and steps out into the hall with the words “I’m through” on his lips, Roxie says, “You’re through, all right,” and shoots. A bullet shatters a mirror on the door, and passes through, hitting Casley. The broken mirror is a brilliant spidery image, followed by an equally brilliant depiction of Roxie’s reaction to what she’s done. We never see Casley’s body, only Roxie looking at it as she tries to maneuver around it. You can see the wheels turning in her, trying to figure out what to do, wondering if he’s really dead, being disgusted by the dead body in her front room. She tears the piano roll out of the player piano; this is a reference to the Annan murder in which it was reported that a recording of “Hula Lou” was playing on Annan’s victrola as Harry lay dying in a pool of blood.
Roxie calls Amos, who comes running and phones the police. They and a male reporter show up. Amos tries to take the blame, but the sly assistant district attorney (Warner Richmond) traps Roxie by saying Amos said she did it. She goes ballistic, accusing her husband of ratting her out. Of course, he did no such thing, and the heartless Roxie realizes she’s been set up. Nonetheless, the reporter is thrilled by her seductive good looks and has his cameraman pose her as remorse itself while a cop stands in for the dead man on the floor.
The scenes in prison while Roxie awaits arraignment are clever and all too short. Roxie’s all-out fight with another woman on murderer’s row, who is strapped into a hip-reduction machine, is comic and a little frightening. The wit and sardonic humor of this film is just as piercing as in the 2002 film, and most of it is done without words. Haver gives a knockout performance, showing the difficulty Roxie has being anything but a chippie. When her attorney Billy Flynn, played with cynical grace by Robert Edeson, has her rehearse her brave, sweet, innocent, and noble looks before they face the jury, she needs a lot of coaching. He puts her in a cream puff of a dress that we are told is pink and has her carry a bouquet in her hands. She looks like an overgrown infant with a nosegay to ward off the smell of her own rotten character. The trial ends with Flynn snatching the bouquet from her hands, tossing it to the floor, and crushing it underfoot, a symbol of delicate womanhood threatened by a guilty verdict. Roxie flings herself on the broken blossoms and passes out. “The defense rests,” Flynn murmurs. You bet it does!
The director of record was Frank Urson, but the hand of De Mille is in clear view. The basis of the real murder, sex, shows how the canny De Mille always had one eye on the box office in his choice to produce the film and in the bawdiness of many of the scenes. Filming the entire murder sequence with Haver in a negligee starts the ball rolling. Of course there is nothing like a balls to the wall catfight to stir the blood. During the trial, a clever sequence showing Roxie’s legs and the curled toes of the male jury shows the Little Bo Peep routine to be a variation on the sex with a schoolgirl fantasy.
De Mille the moralist shows up in the end, of course, preserving his reputation as a God-fearing man with Urson as his front for the smut on display. Amos Hart is on screen way too much, stealing money from Flynn to make up the rest of the $5,000 he needs to hire the lawyer for Roxie in a completely unnecessary scene, and flinging Roxie into the streets, trashing the apartment, and stomping on her photo in a moralistic rage, knowing that he helped her get away with murder. The film should have ended with Roxie disappearing into the crowd on the uncaring streets of Chicago, but we are shown that good triumphs as the Hart’s maid Katie (Virginia Bradford) cleans up the apartment and is poised to become the good wife Amos always deserved. Too late. The phony melodrama of the main story flings the straight-up melodrama of the happy ending into the brass spitoon where it belongs.
Really, Howard? You’re in film noir! Of course your partner was going to kill your hostage!
On Saturday, January 26, I had the unique thrill of being at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the premiere of the restored 35mm print of Try and Get Me! at Noir City 11. Try and Get Me!, whose original title The Sound of Fury was scrapped, changed to something more lurid, and remarketed for national distribution when the film flopped in California, isthe powerful film that blogathoners turned out in force to support during 2011’s For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, thanked a large coalition of organizations and people whose efforts were responsible for bringing this film back to pristine condition for future generations; yes, blogathoners, you received your due and the grateful applause of a sold-out audience.
From working with the Film Noir Foundation on the blogathon, I knew this film pushed the warning needle far into nasty. However, I was not adequately prepared for its visual and narrative power, or the nakedly emotional performances of Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, and Kathleen Ryan. Based on a real incident that took place in San Jose, California in the 1930s, Try and Get Me! is one of the darkest—and best—noir films I have ever seen.
When we first meet out-of-work ex-GI Howard Tyler (Lovejoy), he is in Seattle convincing a truck driver to give him a ride back to his California home. His young son Tommy (Donald Smelnick) is sassing his mother Judy (Ryan) when Howard comes through the door and gives his son half-a-dollar so that he can go to a baseball game with his friends. Judy is overjoyed that this extravagance indicates that Howard has found work—but he hasn’t.
One afternoon, after trying and failing to get day work, Howard heads for a bowling alley to get a beer. He ends up talking to Jerry Slocum (Bridges), fetching the conceited bowler’s shoes and following him home when Jerry hints that he knows about a job for Howard. He throws Howard an advance on his pay, and the elated man runs home to treat his family to gifts, groceries, and a good time. He has second thoughts when his job turns out to be getaway driver for stick-up man Jerry.
After the duo commits a series of robberies, Howard’s discomfort grows unmanageable. Jerry says they will commit the inevitable “one last job” that will set them on Easy Street for good: the kidnap for ransom of a rich man’s son. Snatching Donald Miller (Carl Kent) goes smoothly, but when the three men go to a quarry where Jerry says they will hold Donald, Jerry orders Howard to tie the victim’s legs with a belt and push him down a gravel pile. The kidnappers follow, and Jerry bashes Miller’s head in with a rock. He and Howard dump the body in the water at the bottom of the pit and leave town with Jerry’s girl Velma (Adele Jergens) and Velma’s friend Hazel (Katherine Locke) to provide themselves with an alibi. Eventually, Miller’s body is found, and Hazel, who thinks Howard is single and interested in her, soon learns from the conscience-stricken man that he and Jerry killed Miller and turns them in. Newspaper columnist Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson) and his profit-minded publisher Hal Clendenning (Art Smith) try the case in the press, and public sentiment turns ugly. Stanton realizes too late that his appeal to emotion has set irrepressible forces into motion that will mean a horrible end for Howard and Jerry.
Lovejoy fills Howard with a genuine pathos, portraying a man too desperate to understand what kind of person he has gotten himself mixed up with. Jerry treats him like a lackey from the start, having him fetch his shoes and fasten his cufflinks, bullying him into increasingly reckless crimes. Any confidence and command Howard might have had drained out of him long ago; his son loves him, but runs wild, and his wife’s quiet acceptance of their situation is almost worse for Howard. He feels he is not good enough for them, and his rapid slide into crime seems almost a fatalistic attempt to get out of the way of a better future for his family, a wish he eventually voices explicitly in the last act of the film. Howard has our sympathy, a decent man with a loving but stressed family life, whose own lack of guile brought him a form of mob justice we feel he doesn’t deserve.
Lloyd Bridges is insanely good as Jerry. A supreme narcissist without the brains to pull off anything as sophisticated as a kidnapping for ransom, his Jerry seems entirely without conscience. Obviously a sociopath, he knows a patsy when he sees one and closes one door after another behind Howard until there is no hope for escape. His partying with Velma, a blonde B-girl whose instinct when at the courthouse where Jerry and Howard are being arraigned is to pose seductively for the photographers, shows that he hasn’t given Donald Miller or Howard, for that matter, a second thought. When the angry mob forms outside the jail where the two men are being held, Jerry moves like a caged animal, pacing rapidly in his small cell, rattling the bars, bashing his head against the cell wall, and whining in a pained panic. His fear gives way to defiance: “Try and get me!” he challenges. Howard’s worried face is almost too painful to watch.
Ryan, playing a version of her loyal Kathleen Sullivan from the British noir Odd Man Out (1947), Irish accent and all, is quite affecting in pleading with Stanton not to characterize her husband as a monster. Her understated fear runs as a steady undercurrent throughout the film and economically characterizes the financial hardships and privations so many families felt in postwar America, the unease that defines much of what we call film noir. Katherine Locke has a truly kooky role—the plain friend of the sexpot Velma who lives in a fantasy of finding true love, believing Howard is actually her boyfriend whom she has a right to scold for his drinking. We’d laugh at her in another film, but she has just enough edge of crazy to her to make us hold back. Cliff Clark brings a no-nonsense authority to his supporting part as the town sheriff trying to uphold the law and keep his prisoners safe.
What makes Try and Get Me! truly extraordinary is Cy Endfield’s direction, his last major American film before the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s gobbled him up and forced him into exile in England, where he continued to make powerful films such as Hell Drivers(1957) and Zulu (1964). His camera is always on top of the action, as we can practically feel Miller rolling down the hard gravel to his doom and imagine his murder from indistinct movements Howard only hears and interprets with a wretched, horrified face. I have always wondered how a well-guarded jail could be breached by a mob. Now I know. Endfield’s climactic scene builds in intensity as the mob masses and works together like a colony of army ants to overpower the tear-gas-wielding cops with fire hoses and pull open the doors of the jail with gangs of men pulling on ropes in unison to the cries of “heave, heave, heave.” The audience in the Castro Theatre was breathless with horror, watching with compulsive fascination the extraordinary staging of one of the most compelling scenes ever committed to film.
Endfield was radicalized by the Depression of the 1930s, an era that produced Fury (1936), Fritz Lang’s version of this true story that accorded more with the zeitgeist of its time. Try and Get Me! appeared just as audiences and critics alike were turning against dissent and discord to achieve the artificial peace of the 1950s. Endfield’s nihilistic vision of group think and the court of public opinion was not destined to find favor in its own time. Looking at the film now, it seems timeless in the brutality of its psychology, making the haves of society as represented by Stanton and his circle seem decadent and profit-driven, and showing how desperation and lack of opportunity can prove a breeding ground for criminality of every type. Blogathoners, you should be very proud to have contributed to bringing this important, brilliantly realized film back to life for future generations to view and ponder.
Over the past week, Chicago cinephiles have been treated yet again to another installment of Noir City, the celebration of film noir staged by the Film Noir Foundation each year. As a satellite festival of FNF’s 10-year-old main event in San Francisco, Noir City Chicago has brought film fans out to the historic Music Box Theatre for only four years, but presenter Alan K. Rode, a good friend made during our fundraising blogathon for FNF, has assured us that the festival in Chicago will continue as long as the current level of enthusiasm and support remains. That’s good news for film buffs in search of the rarities regularly presented at the festival alongside the more famous fare that forms essential viewing for film neophytes.
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is just such a rarity. While not completely unknown or forgotten, the film has never been officially released on VHS or DVD. Most people who have seen it remember it from commercial television in the 60s or 70s, or misremember seeing it because it shares the same title as the famous ballet set to Richard Rodgers’ music and committed to film twice, first, with the original Balanchine choreography in On Your Toes (1939) and then in 1948’s Words and Music, with new choreography by Gene Kelly. While Laven’s Slaughter includes the Rodgers music, rendered in a tasteful, effective score by Herschel Burke Gilbert, the film bears no resemblance to the ballet’s story of a love triangle that ends in murder.
Instead, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue has been hung with the unfortunate label of stepson to On the Waterfront (1954). While both films focus on mob corruption in New York’s longshoremen’s union, each deals with it in its own way and from different angles. Elia Kazan’s masterwork, told from the point of view of the longshoremen, is greatly elevated by the towering performances of Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, and Karl Malden, whereas Slaughter’s cast, though fine, is packed with yeoman actors like Dan Duryea, Charles McGraw, and Sam Levene, and anchored by a much weaker leading man, Richard Egan. Slaughter has one virtue On the Waterfront lacks: based on the nonfiction book The Man Who Rocked the Boat cowritten by former New York district attorney William J. Keating, it tells in compelling fashion the true story of the only murder conviction achieved against a mobbed-up union official from the prosecutor’s point of view.
In a very suspenseful opening sequence, we watch three men arrive at an apartment building on 10th Avenue and spread out to cover all exit routes, climbing on the roof and entering the stairway from the top and stationing themselves in blind spots from below. A car pulls up in front of the building—it is Benjy Karp (Harry Bellaver), who always gives his friend Solly Pitts (Mickey Shaughnessy) a ride to work. Solly’s wife Madge (Jan Sterling) yells down that Solly will be right there. After some affectionate banter, Madge hands Solly his metal lunch box and sends him off with a kiss. Moments later, Solly is cornered and gunned down. As the gunmen flee, Madge runs to her husband who says, “‘Cockeye’ Cook (Joe Downing) and two of his gorillas did it.” He is taken to the hospital, gravely injured.
DA Howard Rysdale (Levene) sees the Pitts shooting as an impossible nut to crack, another of the 150 waterfront murders unsolved because of witness fear and payoffs. ADA Keating (Egan), two months on the job, steps forward to take the case: “I have to catch one of those sooner or later.” Rysdale, his resources spread thin, reluctantly agrees. Keating works with police lieutenant Anthony Vosnick (McGraw) to locate witnesses and build a case.
Slaughter is a police procedural in The Naked City mold that has more in common with the politically conscious films of the 1930s than with the postwar fatalism that informs the thoroughly pessimistic outlook of many classic noir films. Keating, the son of a union coal miner, is a crusader for justice for a man who dared to stand up to the mob and paid the ultimate price, but he’s strictly by the book, not shadowed by a painfully guilty past. Vosnick, a trusted member of the waterfront community, is more the pragmatic veteran who convinces a reluctant Benjy and Madge to testify and gets Solly to change his “I didn’t see them” statement on first being shot to repeating what he told to Madge. But because he does it “off the record,” he jeopardizes Keating’s case when extremely crafty mob attorney John Jacob Masters (Duryea) casts reasonable doubt on the defendants’ guilt by highlighting the flip-flop statements (even calling into question Solly’s deathbed testimony) as evidence of police coercion. The fragility of truth and justice does get a slightly noirish sort of airing, but this film doesn’t admit those noir shades of gray in depicting its battle between good and evil.
Nonetheless, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is extremely satisfying. Sterling’s performance as a tough-minded widow is beyond good, showing the various emotions of a worried wife tending to her dying husband and a strategic witness who avoids taking the stand until after Christmas to ensure that the killers will be convicted and get the electric chair. Duryea, not at his most evil but certainly at his most articulate, has a field day with the excellent dialogue and legal logic screenwriter Lawrence Roman provided to him; Duryea certainly is one of the best actors to emerge from mid-century American cinema. A wonderful turn comes from diminutive Nick Dennis, who plays a longshoreman nicknamed Midget who goes ballistic the day after the attack on Solly, drinking and cursing the union bosses who had him hit. As the goons who shot Solly chase him around and through the dock machinery, we see how vulnerable a single man is, with only his speed to keep him ahead of deadly force, as his coworkers opt to keep their mouths shut to live to see another day. Mickey Shaughnessy spits his contempt for the men who attacked him during his deathbed deposition, lifting his hospital gown to show “Cockeye” exactly what his guns did; while we see only blood-stained gauze, the gesture is still shocking. Julie Adams plays Keating’s fiancée and wife with more presence and authority than her “little woman” role normally would have afforded her.
Egan is a bit pallid as our central character—Laven reportedly wanted Robert Mitchum in the role—but he is believable as a straight arrow dedicated to upholding the law. When he gets involved in a wildcat strike on the docks, he forgets himself and behaves as he did when at his father’s side on the picket lines, slugging it out with the hired muscle trucked in to quell the protest. It would have been nice to see more of that side of Keating from a dramatic point of view, though I imagine this fight was a script embellishment, not reality.
A surprise is seeing Walter Matthau in his fourth big-screen appearance as union boss Al Dahlke. His charisma is unmistakable, but his acting, sliced, would go well with cheese on rye. He is both too big with his sarcasm and oily “friendship” and too small with his menace. He comes off more as a skinny bully made bold by having big guys surrounding him than a genuine made man with the notches on his gun to prove his mettle.
DP Fred Jackman Jr. makes the most of the dockside settings (Long Beach, CA, doubling for New York) to lend a verité look to the film, and his lighting and camerawork in the stairwell where Solly is shot is appropriately ominous; kudos to film editor Russell Schoengarth for making that scene coil and pounce with thrilling menace.
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue should have been a contender, because it’s got class written all over it. Here’s hoping more people will take the chance to enjoy the action and artistry of the talented cast and crew who made this fine mid-century movie.
You can view the entire film for free here on YouTube.
In cinema, even documentary cinema, the question of who we think we see on screen and who is actually on screen are two different things, fueling all kinds of existential fun and games for the astute filmmaker and receptive audiences. Identity as a motif has preoccupied numerous filmmakers, from Ingmar Bergman (Persona) to Monte Hellman (Road to Nowhere) to Abbas Kiarostami (Close-up). Identity is often tied up with psychosis, and psychotics frequently feature in horror and suspense films because they channel the nameless, faceless Id that resides in all of us that, on some level, we all would like to release in all its rampaging glory once in a while. The idea that any one of us could become a gruesome killer if someone or something pierced our social conditioning is at the heart of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure. Kurosawa, interested in the shocked comments people invariably make after a neighbor or acquaintance commits a brutal murder (“He was such a nice man. They were an ordinary couple.”), explores the nature of identity and whether our bodies and minds are mere vessels waiting to be filled.
On a busy street in Tokyo, a man (Ren Ohsugi) walks through a damp tunnel as cars pass on his right. A fluorescent light illuminating the tunnel blinks and buzzes. We next see the man in a hotel room with a naked prostitute. He is moving about the room, and she is sitting up in bed. Suddenly, he grabs a pipe and bashes her twice on the head. When next we enter the room, it is filled with police investigators. The lead detective, Kenichi Takabe (Kôji Yakusho), observes that a deep “x” has been cut across the prostitute’s neck and chest. The man is found naked, hiding in an air duct in the hallway. When he is questioned at police headquarters by Takabe and police psychiatrist Makoto Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), the man has no idea why he killed the woman. The case resembles other murders under investigation where a similar “x” was carved into the victims.
Takabe will have several more such murders to investigate as the film goes on, but he must balance this puzzle with the increasing burden posed by his wife Fumie’s (Anna Nakagawa) mental deterioration. We first see Fumie talking with her psychiatrist (Toshi Kato) as an outpatient and observe her attachment to the story of Bluebeard. She tells the doctor that she knows how the story ends—Bluebeard is killed by his wife. Fumie doesn’t appear capable of murder, but the worry she causes Takabe, the things she does that drive him crazy, the loss of companionship he experiences by her disconnectedness certainly must cause a kind of death to his spirit. Not being able to talk to her about the pain of his work is especially difficult for him.
As other “x” cases come to the fore—a young man kills his wife of two years, a police officer shoots his partner in the head, a doctor kills a man in a public bathroom and peels his face away from his skull—we and Takabe slowly discover what links them together: a young amnesiac who is soon identified as Kunio Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a medical school dropout whose disheveled home reveals shelves of books about psychiatry, psychosis, and works about and by Franz Mesmer, a German physician who developed the idea of animal magnetism, or in the term used in the film, hypnosis, to influence behavior. We saw the young husband, Tôru Hanaoka (Masahiro Toda), encounter Mamiya on a beach and after Mamiya collapses, take him home. Mamiya questions him over and over about who he is and asks him questions about his wife Tomoko (Misayo Haruki) while transfixing Tôru with the flame of his cigarette lighter. As Mamiya bounces from one encounter to another—Hanaoka takes him to the police station, where he mesmerizes Oida (Denden), the cop, before being sent to a hospital to put Dr. Miyajima (Yoriko Dôguchi) under his spell—the daisy chain of violence barely outpaces Takabe’s efforts to unravel the mystery before he himself is drawn under Mamiya’s influence.
As with most detective-centered stories, Takabe is no ordinary cop. He is intelligent and tormented, a Japanese version of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and his complexity makes him a Rorschach image of good for his evil opposite Mamiya. Mamiya entices Takabe with an accurate assessment of the detective’s torment, mentioning a vision Takabe had of Fumie hanging dead in the couple’s kitchen that incited the detective to helpless wailing. Of course, as a mesmerist, Mamiya causes his victims to conjure such visions by helping them to access their deepest fears and hatreds through his highly developed gift for hypnosis. Only by remaining empty himself can Mamiya be the master rather than the victim.
It is Mamiya’s conviction that most people don’t know themselves, the many selves hidden under the surface, the duality of their generous and vicious impulses. He considers Takabe extraordinary, like himself, for recognizing the split in himself—trying to be a loving husband while seeing the worst in human nature on a daily basis. The encounters Takabe has with Mamiya create convulsions of emotion in him, signaled not only by his violent outbursts toward Mamiya but also toward some of his colleagues; in fact, when Takabe tries to turn the tables on Mamiya by forcing him to look at his own lighter while incarcerated, a vision of a rain-collapsing ceiling overwhelms Takabe, and the lighter goes out. It appears to have been put out by the rain water, but my guess is that while Takabe was having the visions, Mamiya merely blew the lighter out. But, of course, this wouldn’t be a horror story if we didn’t give ourselves over to wondering if the strange sights on screen are real or imaginary.
Kurosawa’s camerawork is beyond good. He scouted locations in and around Tokyo that reek of decay, giving us a fair approximation of a haunted house in the penultimate scene where the final showdown between Takabe and Mamiya takes place. He combines handheld work with static long shots of great beauty and atmosphere. He knows how to create tension by considering the images outside the frame that haunt our imagination, for example, having Sakuma enter Mamiya’s cell, which has a short wall hiding the toilet area in which Mamiya is standing. We don’t see the prisoner, but we know what he’s capable of, and the fear of actually looking at him infuses this scene powerfully. In a later scene, we see one handcuff hanging from a pipe, and the story a cop tells Takabe about it creates the image of the body that had been attached to it in our minds in an uncomfortable parallel to the way Mamiya was able to create images in the minds of his victims. Indeed, Mamiya is rather like a filmmaker, bringing us under his spell, finding our triggers, conjuring images through exposition and suggestion.
But Cure does more than that. It makes us wonder what Takabe achieved by resolving the murder investigation. The last two scenes are powerfully suggestive, but also highly ambiguous. Takabe has put his wife in a psychiatric hospital, and we see a very brief scene at the hospital in which the image of a corpse with the telltale “x” appears. Takabe is later seen eating heartily and happily in his regular diner, apparently cured of his previous troubles. His waitress removes his plates and is called over to speak to her boss. Calmly she moves to a station and picks up a large chef’s knife. Has Takabe taken over where Mamiya left off, or has our experience of the film left us imagining the worst?
It’s 40 years now since The French Connection was released, soon to capture the Best Picture Oscar, set up William Friedkin as a directorial talent with the world before him, and make Gene Hackman a top film star, pushing age 40. From such a distance, during which time the film’s status as a classic has wavered and Friedkin’s career has never quite lived up to its great early promise, now the cultural bullseye The French Connection scored seems ever more peculiar. Not simply in that it’s a crime flick, not a prestigious genre, lacking the epic pretensions of The Godfather which would win similar garlands the following year, but also in the rich yet radical, machine-like beauty of its filmmaking, the eerie disquiet of its ending, the oft-ugly ferocity of its pig-faced bog Irish cop hero, and tangible atmosphere of then-decaying New York. The two French Connection movies are coarse, bloody, rapidly paced, unswerving and experiential rather than analytical. The first entry is a police procedural that seeks for the most part to clearly, intricately, and excitingly describe a fictionialised version of one of the biggest drug busts in history, with as much nuts and bolt detail about both smuggling and policing as any film ever made. Lacking big stars, romance, moralising, and even much action except in the central, ever-impressive chase sequence, The French Connection brutally contrasts much of what passes as popular filmmaking today, and Friedkin’s film and its sequel by John Frankenheimer constitute summits of mainstream American movie-making.
Friedkin’s film, moreover, always strikes me as a different movie each time I watch it. Initial viewings are almost a sensory overload: there’s little that is overtly tricky about Friedkin’s filmmaking, but the depth of his reliance on visual storytelling, the alertness to environment, to detail, to nuance of behaviour essayed at such rapidity, infuse the screen with a lustre that only seems to increase as time passes. With repeated viewings the potency of Friedkin’s conception of Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle’s cat-and-mouse game with drug kingpins as a form of class warfare jumps out at me. Anti-drug messages were big at the time of the film’s production, in the waning phase of the counterculture and the onset of the Nixon-era mood of social depletion, and that possibly gave The French Connection the right gilt of nobility to swing its Oscar victory, whilst it was in line with the short-lived affection for gritty fare inaugurated by Midnight Cowboy (1969). Nonetheless, it’s fascinating how little The French Connection is actually about the white powder over which lives and punishing effort are expended. The only user seen in the film is the slick-mouthed long-haired chemist (Pat McDermott) who tests the purity of the imported heroin for a small amount of it. Yet the junk seems indivisible from the snatches of blasted and sorry suburbs of the city, filled with urban decay, cheerless wintry wastelands, and infested with small-time dealers, which Friedkin describes with chilling efficiency throughout. In this vision of a contemporary American metropolis, white cops beat hell out of black dealers in scenes of predatory flushing and catching of the prey, yet there’s a pall of certainty around both sides that they’re both stuck inhabiting the same wilderness, fighting on the level of primitives for the scraps society is casting down their way.
Popeye and his partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) have the best arrest record in their department, but they’re all too acutely aware, as their superior Simonson (Eddie Egan) reminds them, that in essence their labours are petty and ineffectual. But then, after a bust that sees Russo get a slice on the arm and the perp (Alan Weeks) angrily knocked about and bullied, the two retire to an up-market tavern for some R’n’R, only for Popeye’s raptor-like eye for criminality to zero in on a gathering of underworld figures out wining and dining their women, including Sal Boca (Tony LoBianco), tossing around money. Popeye talks Russo into following them about, and eventually they’re stunned to find that Sal returns early in the morning to his teenaged wife and a tiny diner business. Popeye is immediately convinced that Sal is connected in some serious fashion, and he’s dead right. Sal is arranging the Stateside end of a massive heroin deal, of junk being supplied from Marseilles by Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), which will be brought into the country inside a Lincoln Continental by French TV star Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale). Popeye’s convictions are patronised by his senior and by FBI agent Mulderig (Bill Hickman) attached to the case. The past, which involved the accidental shooting of a fellow cop, dogs Popeye as wickedly as the hangovers he nurses each morning after drinking himself stupid. But the team’s work begins to pay off when Charnier and his pet thug Nicoli (Marcel Buzzoffi) arrive in town to make the deal, and they link Sal to Weinstock (Harold Gray), a financier for traffickers, whom Sal is trying to get to invest in the deal.
Although it’s most certainly not a documentary, The French Connection gains a lot of its pep from practically neo-realist elements. Those include the casting of non-professionals like the real-life analogues of Doyle and Russo, Egan and Sonny Grosso, and Irving Abrahams, who plays himself in the car-stripping scene. The immersive vision of a gritty metropolis offers glimpses of men lying sprawled on the pavement, filth-crusted subway tunnels, and camerawork in the street where it’s clear the crowd, constantly glancing at the camera, aren’t extras. The film probably gave Scorsese some permission to explore his city in similar fashion with Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976). The method Friedkin adopted, with his toey but unaffected handheld camerawork in many scenes, lends physical energy to the essentially observational sequences, whether they’re about Doyle and Russo trying to eat whilst freezing their asses off on a surveillance job, or, most memorably, the sequence in which they strip down the Lincoln in which they think the shipment has been hidden, bringing to the fore the amazing amount of empty space in such a seemingly solid car, and the increasing frustration of the cops as they fail to find anything before Russo’s observations about the car’s weight lead to a sudden, successful realisation. A peculiar quality of The French Connection, one that its sequel shares, is that it’s a beautiful-looking film, with Owen Roizman’s photography absorbing colour in variegated patches that come to resemble a Rauschenberg artwork. An arsenal of New Wave tricks, from zoom shots to disjunctive sound and vision, sees the film accumulate in layers, offering an aspect of raggedness that conceals the great filmic talent at work behind it. That talent is clearly at work in the dance of actors and imagery in Popeye and Charnier’s amusing hide and seek in the subway, in the cold-blooded assassination Nicoli commits after the deceptively ambling opening shots (complete with tearing off a hunk of his victim’s bread loaf), and of course at a much higher volume in the chase scene and the violent finale.
The French Connection’s monomaniacal bent in sticking almost purely on the matter at hand is often why it’s been discounted as a simple cop flick by many over the years, and yet I feel it’s precisely there where its greatness lies, in refusing to linger on extraneous detail or pompous presumptions of socio-political and aesthetic import, whilst still concisely evoking them. Early in the film, when Popeye and Russo visit the tavern in which they first make Sal, The Three Degrees, a black girl group, croon lyrics that point neatly to the irony that this generation, sending rockets to the moon, is also the one living in decaying tenements, beating hell out of one-another, and stuffing drugs into its veins. Otherwise the context is simply there to be read, in the lives its heroes lead and those of the villains. Popeye inhabits a boxy little apartment in a grim tower block, and the only pleasures he gets are liquor and sex, at which he’s fortunately adept at getting, as when he picks up a bicycling girl, cueing the film’s lone islet of bawd as Russo, coming to Popeye’s place to talk over a new development in the case, finds him handcuffed to his bed and the girl still darting naked about the flat. But life is otherwise not much fun for these guys, and Friedkin makes a marvellous, almost Chaplin-esque visual suite out of the scenes in which Doyle and Russo try to cram their faces with pizza and terrible coffee whilst Charnier and Nicoli dine in a ritzy restaurant. Whilst Popeye’s behaviour demands tempering empathy for him with wariness of his fiery brutality and racism, here the pendulum shifts his way: you can practically feel Doyle’s white-hot antipathy in Hackman’s grimace as he watches the pair, not only a personal resentment owing to his own working-stiff righteousness, but in the already clearly conceived detestation of people who are getting seriously rich by eating out what’s left the fabric of his city and world.
Daryl F. Zanuck warned Friedkin that if the film wasn’t done right, he’d end up with a glorified The Naked City episode, and Friedkin’s answer to that was to invest Popeye with his voluble ambiguity; by turns, Popeye, with his signature pork pie hat and trenchcoat, is a swashbuckling hero and a scary prick. His maniacal dedication to the case at hand is both his great virtue and great weakness, blind to other matters, whether it be mangled car wreck victims in a scene where he comes to blows with Simonson and Mulderig, and finally accidentally gunning down Mulderig in the finale when he’s chasing Charnier, barely blinking when he and Russo discover the mistake and keeping after the villain. That closing moment is one that Friedkin shoots in the environs of the ruined warehouse where the drug deal was going down, and through which Popeye dashes off, as if he’s disappearing into an existential void in keeping after Charnier, emblem of a world beyond his grasp and comprehension. I suppose it could be said that the great chase sequence that is the film’s centrepiece betrays the texture of the film’s realism, but of course it’s also the bit you look forward to, as the eruptive elegance of Jerry Greenberg’s editing and the brilliant shooting of Friedkin and Roizman converge here for a masterpiece of its kind. The chase starts when Nicoli makes an ill-fated attempt to rub out Doyle, recognising that it’s his drive that is sustaining the threat to the deal. Nicoli instead finishes up plugging a carriage-pushing mother and a railway guard, driving a train driver to have a heart attack, and causing a train wreck, as Doyle all the while chases at high-speed through busy streets in a commandeered car. The hood-mounted camera shots of speeding motion through the streets giving the sequence its sense of hurtling doom, and the sequence resolves with brute frankness as Doyle plugs Nicoli in the back when he tries to run. Other cops objected to this touch, but Egan gave Friedkin the nod to include it: even in adding some pizzazz to the film, the integrity of its unromantic take is retained. Scheider, who was cemented in the cinemagoers’ mind in ’71 with this film and Klute, is terrific even in playing a relative second fiddle. His peerlessly pronounced retort to Mulderig’s comments about his partner, “Shove it up your ass,” is one of the summits of on-screen profanity.
French Connection II seems at superficial attention to announce some unfortunate aspects of Hollywood’s nascent sequel culture: it was the first major Hollywood sequel to have a simple numeric attached to the title, a touch that was in keeping with the film’s veneer of terseness and yet soon to become a signature of corporate Hollywood laziness. It also moves away from the reportage of the original for a fictional continuation, more dialogue-heavy and melodramatic in form. Yet such descriptions are deceptive, as French Connection II is as good as, perhaps better than, the first film. Friedkin, who had moved on to his other best-known movie, The Exorcist (1973), didn’t return for it; instead John Frankenheimer, the solidly established and lauded hand from the precursor generation of new-style American directors, took over. He retained key aspects of the first film’s style, whilst also refining it and making some innovations of his own. It stands as possibly also Frankenheimer’s last truly great film, for a similarity of both his and Friedkin’s careers was their early brilliance and their shaky later oeuvres. A key linking element of the two films, other than Hackman and Rey, is Don Ellis’ nervy, vibrant scoring, accented with elements of jazz, funk, spurts of musique concrete, and even modernist atonal passages that infuse the cityscapes with alien vibes. The sequel picks up spiritually where the original left off, with Doyle still chasing Charnier, having been sent to Marseilles as the only man who can certifiably recognise him, to liaise with the local detective chief Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), who treats him with dismissive contempt and relegates him to a desk next to the men’s room door. Popeye doesn’t realise that he’s actually been sent to lure Charnier out, and, worse, he’s really being set up by other cops back in New York whom Charnier bought off, hoping he’ll get killed.
Inevitably, Popeye is a fish out of water in this world, and scenes in Frankenheimer’s film carefully mirror some in Friedkin’s. This contrasts his earlier behaviour and former competence, as when Popeye chases down a suspect running from the scene of a sabotaged narcotics lab, only for Barthélémy and his men to drag him off, because the guy’s actually an informant, underlining the irrelevance of Popeye’s racial assumptions and his inability to recognise the lay of the land he’s so sensitive to back home. Popeye’s head-on policing style in such a circumstance seems doomed to cause havoc, his signature bullying tactics and verbal tirades are reduced to a comedy routine before a laughing, uncomprehending prisoner, and his declarations of determination to nail Charnier seem like so much empty rhetoric. Alienated by Barthélémy, he instead starts pounding the streets in trying to catch a glimpse of his quarry. One night, after chatting up a beach volleyball player (Reine Prat) and being spied doing so by Charnier, he’s kidnapped by Charnier’s thugs, and one of the tailing policemen Barthélémy has on Popeye is run over and killed. Charnier has Popeye kept prisoner in a seamy hotel filled with drug addicts and prostitutes, and pumped full of regular doses of heroin for three weeks, partly to extract what he knows about Charnier’s new operation, which is nothing, and also in a precisely sadistic vengeance on the most implacable of anti-drug enforcers, reducing him to a robotic dependent. Finally Popeye is given a hot dose and dumped outside the police station, and Barthélémy and doctors fight to save his life.
Frankenheimer, who had worked on French location several times before, uses a mostly French crew, including DOP Claude Renoir. The filmmaking team’s eye for picturesque decay invests Marseille with the same mix of lively affection and squalid authenticity as New York received in the first film, with labyrinthine, rubbish-strewn poor quarters lurking behind the ritzy harbour surrounds. If Friedkin’s film has its roots in the docudrama of ‘50s crime flicks, Frankenheimer’s is closer to genuine film noir, and, in a way, can be seen as a stealing back of that tradition from the New Wavers. Such a perspective is implicit in the way the film offers a deglamourized and peerlessly tangible sense of the locale that anticipates, and possibly laid seeds for, modern French crime films like Un Prophet (2009) much more than it resembles the icy but aestheticised, denaturalised works, from the likes of Godard, Melville, and Chabrol, of the time. There’s as much procedural detail in this sequel as in the original, as Charnier’s innovative new smuggling methods, including in tomato cans and on ship hulls, are carefully depicted, but whereas the first film is to a large extent “about” that detail, here it’s more functional within a cohesive, driving plot. French Connection II is more concerned with exploring Popeye’s gruelling journey and penitential suffering, in being almost destroyed by Charnier and his own arrogance, before resurging with (literally) fiery wrath.
Popeye seems initially like the quintessential ugly American in his insensibility to warnings and blithe indifference to local niceties, as Barthélémy needles him into getting on the street. Popeye begins to adapt, slowly: in a terrific early scene, Popeye strikes out with a couple of local ladies but finds a sort of a pal in a bartender (André Penvern) with whom he gets tanked and reels about the streets with, and his capture by Charnier comes after he’s managed to score with said volleyball player, proving he’s still got his mojo working. Meanwhile Charnier has returned to his piss-elegant lifestyle: dialogue scattered in both films suggests that his actual background, in spite of his mansion and purebred young wife, is in the working class and the docklands. He is arranging a new big shipment now with multinational collusion and finance, with the aid of an American General, Brian (Ed Lauter). With its suggestions of wider conspiracies and higher levels of malfeasance, French Connection II subverts some of the presumptions of the original, becoming in effect a Watergate movie in which Popeye finally finds a better working partnership with the Frogs than he did with his own feds.
Hackman had won the Best Actor Oscar for the first film, a deserving win in a strong year for contenders. But he’s even better – perhaps the best in his career – in the sequel, particularly in the lengthy, grinding scenes in which Barthélémy helps him through going cold turkey, a regimen Barthélémy insists on because it would be the end of Popeye’s career if his state becomes a matter of record. We find out things about Popeye here that explain a lot about him, like the reason for his surprising athleticism – he was once a baseball player who instantly joined the cops when he caught a glimpse of a young Mickey Mantle – as well as his fixated intensity, and the despair within him that addiction reveals rather than causes, previously anaesthetised with booze and work, but given free reign by a junkie’s pathos. Hackman’s opinion of his character was low – “Doyle is a fascist,” he said unequivocally, whilst reporting that cops generally loved the honesty of the portrayal – but his reserve against the character’s stridency and cruelty falls away in the sequel. The central, achingly sustained scene of the film comes when Popeye rambles on to an attentive but largely bewildered Barthélémy, who’s guilty at Popeye’s fate and his own not being able to rescue him. Popeye tries to demonstrate baseball moves with chicken drumstick and orange, in between contortions of withdrawal and desperation, struck through with the impossible need for friends and familiar things in going through hell, in a city that just doesn’t offer them, from hamburgers to people who know who the hell Mickey Mantle is. His stay in the hotel, where he’s visited by an aged English addict (Catherine Nesbitt) who soothingly rambles to him about her own past whilst stealing his watch, has a bleak cul-de-sac of the soul atmosphere to it reminiscent of the boarding house in The Seventh Victim (1943), the perfect place for Popeye to be lost in a haze of his failings as well as heroin.
To a certain extent, this whole narrative movement serves a not dissimilar purpose for Popeye as Indiana Jones’ encounter with the black sleep of the Kalimar in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): the protagonist, partly defined hitherto by antiheroic traits, goes through an ordeal that makes him look into his dark side, and emerges newly fired up for total war. There’s an implicit approval of Popeye’s reckless style, and yet another message is quite clear, that if he and Barthélémy had worked together properly from the start, his ordeal could have been avoided, and the last act sees the policemen working together in a purposeful unit. The other actor the two films share is of course Rey, who was reportedly accidentally cast in the original when Friedkin requested “that guy from the Bunuel films”, meaning Belle de Jour’s Francisco Rabal, and the casting agent signed up Rey so quickly there was no time to renegotiate. It was a happy accident, if true, because Rey’s excellence is in how utterly un-villainous his Charnier seems, a dapper and affable man about town whose ruthlessness and cleverness are only hinted at in his insolent little wave to Doyle in the first film, and then revealed in the most specific circumstances. His best moment in the sequel comes when Charnier first spots Doyle in Marseilles, acute anxiety charging his features before resuming normal operations, and adopting a cobra-like chilliness when he later interrogates his cop prisoner. Once he recovers, Popeye embarks on a campaign of purification, fending off Barthélémy long enough so that he can track down the hotel himself. Pouring petrol about the place, he sets it ablaze to drive out the denizens like rats, flushes out Charnier’s goons, and releases his now deeply personal sense of grievance and frustration on the only scale that can satisfy it. It’s a typically outsized reaction from Popeye, but it does work: he gets a lead on Charnier’s new deal. He and Barthélémy almost manage to capture a new shipment where it’s being extracted from the hull of a Dutch freighter in a dry dock. But they barely survive an encounter there with Charnier’s new number one henchman, Jacques (Philippe Leotard), who wields a German army machine gun with brutal aplomb and kills Barthélémy’s subordinate Miletto (Charles Millot), before letting the sea into the dry dock.
Popeye saves Barthélémy’s life when he’s knocked out by a falling spar, and the French cop repays the favour by helping Doyle stay, when his superiors want him kicked out of the country, and acting on Doyle’s hunch, watching the Dutch ship’s captain (Raoul Delfosse), who leads them to Jacques. The cops track him back to the warehouse where they’re able to bust the whole of Charnier’s operation. Barthélémy gains some vengeance when he dispatches Jacques, who, trying to escape with some of the drug shipment in a truck, instead crashes into the warehouse doors Barthélémy sets closing: Jacques is hurled out through the windscreen. Meanwhile, Popeye chases Charnier on foot through the city. Amongst the many felicities of his filmmaking, Frankenheimer engenders the visuals with a sense of physical connection to Popeye, painstakingly portraying the delirium and liquid sense of time and care when he’s under the influence, his attempts to get back in shape after he’s recovered. This pays off in the finale’s lengthy foot chase, the modulated soundtrack and the lunging POV shots conveying Popeye’s exhaustion, so that the audience practically share his burning lungs and aching feet. Inevitably, this sequel risks being more prosaic as it finally gives Popeye the closure he sought, and yet there’s still an existentially gruelling aspect to his chase, running without gaining. It finally resolves in one of the sharpest and nastiest comeuppances in movie history, as Charnier, right on the threshold of again cheating Popeye of his prize, hears his cry from the quayside seconds before bullets smack into his body, and Frankenheimer cuts directly to black. The final effect is both satisfying and chilling, and one of the most perfect endings anywhere.
“Jesus, I love to shoot film.”
“Look out, Haskell, it’s real!”
Although Monte Hellman did not cite it has an influence, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) was the film that came to mind as I watched Hellman’s first feature film in more than 20 years. Road to Nowhere is a film about filmmaking, and the love Hellman has for the form permeates this film. So, too, does Hellman employ a documentary style to expose the bones of the filmmaking process for his film within a film. However, neither the film Hellman stand-in Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) makes, nor the fact-based story on which it is based is at all real. The fun for audiences is not just in trying to make sense of the reflexive storytelling, but also in recognizing how we, like the directors, love to lose ourselves in making the unreal real.
In this particular film, the “real” story collides with the film Haven is making (also called Road to Nowhere) in the form of Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), an unknown actress he casts to play Velma Duran, a woman mixed up with corrupt politician Rafe Taschen, to be played by A-list actor Cary Stewart (Cliff de Young). Political blogger and scriptwriter Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain) says the pair faked their own deaths to perpetrate an insurance fraud, and flashbacks of Laurel confirm that she was hired to play Velma in “real” life in the North Carolina town where the suicides were staged to preserve the lives of Nestor Duran’s (Fabio Testi, also in Hellman’s Iguana) family in Cuba, though why they would be in danger, and from whom, is never made clear. It appears that North Carolina insurance investigator Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne) posed as a construction worker at Haven’s home with the express purpose of slipping a DVD of Laurel, whom he thinks is Velma, to Haven during the casting process and ingratiating himself as a location adviser to keep an eye on her; he doesn’t have to talk Laurel up to Haven, who is bewitched by her and turns down an offer by Scarlett Johansson to play Velma for scale to pursue his obsession.
Hellman has crafted two intriguing and very different films. Haven’s Road to Nowhere is slow and contemplative, making stunning use of the Smoky Mountains location and Sossamon’s enigmatic face to create a mournful atmosphere that is as enveloping as the low-hung clouds that roll off the mountains and across the water where Taschen’s plane goes down. A scene whose portent we won’t discover until nearly the end of the film shows Sossamon drive to a tunnel, walk in, and double over in an agonizing gut-wrench of emotion; carefully shot so we don’t see the other opening of the tunnel, this is indeed the titular road to nowhere.
Hellman’s outer shell of Road to Nowhere is caught up almost completely in the mechanics of filmmaking. We witness Haven’s arguments with his screenwriter Steve Gates (Robert Kolar) over casting, the endless ad libbing on set, the build-up of Laurel’s role, and the accompanying requests by increasingly marginalized cast members for more lines. Such is Haven’s obsession that Gates and the rest of the company are reduced to being his yes men and women. Cary Stewart is shown on the phone with his agent complaining about how the movie has shifted him into a supporting role; when asked if anything can be done contractually, he responds to what he hears on the phone with “Yes, we should have asked for more money.” Haven does a preproduction interview with real Variety reporter Peter Bart, implying that he doesn’t get romantically involved with the people on his shoots, and then sharing a room with Laurel on location.
What really put me in the same place as Haven was his evening occupation with Laurel—watching DVDs in their barebones hotel room using equipment he brought for that purpose. His film choices—The Lady Eve, Spirit of the Beehive, and The Seventh Seal—are as different from each other as Hellman’s two Road to Nowhere films, yet Haven proclaims each of them masterpieces. When Laurel asks how many films he has seen, Haven scolds her for the question: “Never ask a director how much time he spends watching other directors’ dreams.” “Then, am I your dream?” asks Laurel. Indeed she is, and other writers have suggested that Hellman’s one-time paramour Laurie Bird, his star in Two-Lane Blacktop, has uncomfortable parallels to Laurel.
Certainly, Hellman’s film is chockablock with references to his life and movies in general. Writing in an insurance investigator (and possibly cuing our memories with a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle) certainly calls to mind Double Indemnity. Several of his characters and the production team for the Haven film share the same first initials as he and other members of the production team. In fact, his fondness for cutesy names, like the matinee idol mash-up Cary Stewart and the destined-to-blog Nathalie Post, is a quirk meant to suggest types more than people, I imagine, but one I find more cheesy than effective. The extremely literal lyrics of the songs contributed to the film by alt-country singer-songwriter Tom Russell also seem to slam us over the head with the film’s theme. Perhaps this is Hellman’s sly trick on the Hollywood dumb-down most films must get before they can be marketed to the widest possible audience internationally. However, Hollywood isn’t the only target to get blown a raspberry—the lingering cheesecake shot of Swain’s curvaceous butt and one of Laurel taking a phone call while sitting on the toilet seemed like they escaped from a recipe book for audacious indie filmmaking.
A friend I spoke with after the screening couldn’t believe how appallingly bad Sussamon was, but Laurel insisted to Haven that she wasn’t really an actress. Her performance in the scenes we see in Haven’s film certainly are quite wonderful, and if she was trying to play an actress who couldn’t act, as I believe she was, she did a very fine job. In fact, I would say that generally speaking, the other performances don’t quite measure up to hers.
The climax of the film is the part that evoked Medium Cool most strongly for me. “Look out, Haskell, it’s real,” is a famous line from Wexler’s film, a reference to tear gas police shot into the crowd of protesters of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In fact, there was no tear gas where Wexler was shooting, and the line was dubbed into the film. In the same way, Haven shoots Bruno in a rage with the line, “You brought a gun into the scene,” a suggestion that the murder was an unplanned part of Hellman’s film. Wexler’s film ends with a camera pointing at the audience, whereas we get to see the murder scene and the police stand-off through Haven’s HD camera viewer—and a shot of Hellman’s crew filming it all.
Road to Nowhere is an intriguing film that will appeal most strongly to the serious cinephile who has wrestled with the implications of cinema as a voyeuristic and reflexive art form. In the final analysis, however, Hellman’s film has a valedictory feel to me, a summation of a life in the movies by one of its most staunchly independent elder statesmen.
In life and art, the blackest of humor has always been a part of the Irish sensibility. Although the lace-curtain Irish have fought for respectability against the more anarchic elements that surface regularly from the Irish collective unconscious, their own rioting at the premiere of John M. Synge’s patricidal and immodest Playboy of the Western World shows a nature that simply won’t be denied. Odd Man Out provides another unflattering portrait of the Irish, mixed with the noble image they tend to have of themselves and their struggles. In the end, only love proves honest, if not entirely honorable.
Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is the head of an unnamed organization no one could fail to recognize as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He has barely paused to take a breath following his release after a long stretch in prison before getting back to business, meeting with his compatriots at the Belfast home of Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) to plan a payroll robbery to help fund the organization. Guns are issued, and as Pat (Cyril Cusack) brandishes his buoyantly, Johnny scolds him not to be quick to use it. Johnny’s second in command, Dennis (Robert Beatty), urges him to sit out the robbery, observing that he seems shaky. Kathleen, who is in love with Johnny, agrees with Dennis, but Johnny feels that he needs to assert his command and that his rightful place is alongside those taking the risks.
Johnny and his three co-conspirators walk into the mill they plan to rob and empty the contents of the office safe into their valises. As they make their way down a hall, the alarm sounds. As the others exit and hop into the getaway car, Johnny is momentarily dazzled by the sunlight. A guard catches up with them and wrestles with Johnny, shooting him in the shoulder. Johnny draws his weapon, kills the guard, and is dragged alongside the car by two of his men as Pat speeds away. Pat takes a sharp turn, and Johnny is flung free of the car. As Pat argues with his comrades about his fears of capture if he backs the car up to rescue their fallen leader—making his argument legitimate by wasting oodles of time—Johnny staggers to his feet and disappears around a corner.
Johnny’s gang exemplifies the opposite of the discipline and loyalty that would have characterized the IRA when Johnny and Dennis were coming up. Dennis is aghast that the gang left Johnny behind, but it’s clear that Pat was only thinking of himself. Pat’s lies to Dennis about why Johnny didn’t make it back with them forces Dennis into the streets to find his comrade.
Johnny evades capture when Dennis, having located him, lures the cops away by pretending to be the injured Johnny and rather carelessly sacrificing his own freedom by punching a couple of cops on a crowded bus. Johnny gets past a roadblock in a hansom cab that the police searched earlier. The cabbie (Joseph Tomelty), astonished to see Johnny in his cab, settles him into a washtub discarded in a dump on the edge of town. There Johnny sits, ridiculous, with snow falling around him, until a ratty little man named Shell (F. J. McCormick) finds him and contemplates whether to turn him in to the police to collect the sizeable reward on his head or negotiate with Father Tom (W. G. Fay), the priest the Catholic community turns to when looking out for their own best interests.
At this point, the story veers sharply from the IRA story and transforms into a strange burlesque in which Johnny becomes almost incidental, serving merely as the catalyst by which we view the Irish character as it is constellated by a talented and varied cast. Shell favors amusing, elliptical blarney to communicate his insider information, for example, bringing one of his pet birds to Father Tom and using it to allude to his discovery of Johnny in the washtub. He goes from planning to claim the £50,000 reward to agreeing to come to terms with the priest, though it’s pretty clear that he’ll probably get nothing but a florid thank-you. Is he inept? A fool? A patriot? McCormick dances with the highly literate dialogue provided by F. L. Green, screenwriter and author of the novel on which the film is based, and transforms Shell into a Beckett character, waiting for his ship to come in, yet seeming to conspire to ensure that it won’t.
The other half of this Godot pair is the iconic mad artist, here named Lukey and played broadly by Robert Newton. Lukey lives in the same tenement as Shell and waylays him whenever possible to pose for endless hours as a model for a series of Christ paintings. When he finds out that Shell has a lead on Johnny, Lukey is overcome with the idea of being able to paint the eyes of a dying man. The machinations that get Johnny out of a private booth in the Crown Bar (shot on location in Belfast) and in front of Lukey are too absurd to detail here. The stereotypical Irish thirst for booze and brawling takes the spotlight as Johnny hallucinates the heads of people he’s spoken with during the day in the bubbles of beer spilled on his table.
The outside world is a mixed bag that Reed carefully locates with his set decoration in the various strata of Belfast society. Two women trained in first aid during the war come to Johnny’s aid, and bring him into their thoroughly bourgeois home. Their goodness won’t allow them to turn him in, but they disapprove of him and don’t want to be mixed up in his criminality. War profiteer and vice lord Maudie (Beryl Measor), on the other hand, lives in a resplendently tacky home that has its own phone booth. Maudie is a Mother Courage knock-off—not so far from Reed’s most famous character, Harry Lime—selling Pat and his comrade out to protect her interests with the police. In this sense, what goes around comes around for the selfish and stupid Pat.
You couldn’t ask for a better-looking, more atmospheric film than Odd Man Out. Many noirish elements, including deep shadows, nighttime exteriors, shooting down stairwells, skewed camera angles, cages, and bars mark Johnny as a trapped animal. During Johnny’s fevered meanderings through Belfast, director Carol Reed treats us to frightening and absurd hallucinations, like the aforementioned, surreal “bubble heads,” but more poignantly, Johnny’s hallucination of his jailor as he hides in the air raid shelter and imagines it is his cell. We come to understand Johnny better from his imaginary conversation with this jailor than in many of the real-world interactions he has.
James Mason emphasizes his character’s weakness, not strength, his foolishness, not his resolve. Johnny’s self-defeating pride, his wavering commitment to armed resistance to achieve a united Ireland while failing to take his own advice to Pat, his offhandedness about Kathleen’s love, and his relative passivity as he’s passed around like a hot potato by wary locals make him less a Christlike figure than a pawn, an idea.
But it’s not that he doesn’t have a prayer—in fact, Kathleen intends to escort him to Father Tom while they wait for a boat that will take them to freedom. Of course, the symbolism of the boat signals death (one is reminded of James Mason on another boat—a cursed ship in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), and Kathleen provides an angel’s love to escort him beyond life to a place where she can protect him for all eternity. Kathleen seems to be the moral center of this film because of the purity of her love that seems very motherly (is she chaste as well?), but the life of the guard Johnny killed means nothing to her in the grand scheme of her devotion.
Most of the characters in this film seem quite childish. In an early scene, a group of children are playing soccer in the street when their ball lands at the feet of a grown man. Instead of passing it back to them, he kicks it as hard as he can in the opposite direction—a nice device that eventually will lead to Dennis’ discovery of Johnny, but also a needlessly mean and infantile reaction from the man. Late in the film, Johnny quotes a famous line he learned from Father Tom: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Ironically, Johnny’s pangs of adult conscience and an awareness of mature feelings for Kathleen are only awakened when he is at his most helpless and dependent—in the last hours of his life, after he learned he had killed a man. Odd Man Out is an Irish tragedy indeed.