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Director/Coscreenwriter: François Truffaut
By Roderick Heath
The evergreen lustre the early films of the French New Wave still retain stems in part from a tangible quality inseparable from the moment and place of their making. That sense of fleet-footed adventure encoded in their frames, captured by a bunch of ragged young men and women spilling out into the streets, informed by a sense of lawless enthusiasm, both in taking advantage of an urban space teeming with life usually edited out of films, not yet gentrified and legally corralled into sterility as so many big modern cities are becoming, and excited by the very idea of tactile communion with an art they had previously only worshipped from the theatre seats, theory and aesthetic, cliché and revolt suddenly fusing into new forms, art as a form of obsidian ore. One vital element that connected most of the early films the movement churned out was Raoul Coutard’s photography. Somehow raw and stripped of the usual cinematic gloss and yet also humming with a sense of quicksilver beauty and poise all at once, Coutard’s work was a great part of that mystique, with Paris as his set decorator, as if Cartier-Bresson or Capa had taken up shooting low-budget movies. Amongst the critics turned filmmaker who formed the core of the New Wave, François Truffaut had earned himself a measure of infamy as a reviewer for his harshness, to the point where he was refused an invitation to the Cannes festival in 1958. He took all the chances inherent in putting his money where his mouth was when he made his first film, The 400 Blows (1959), only to stun everyone with his dynamic, intimate, alternately gruelling and beguilingly autobiographical debut. Truffaut quickly followed that success by helping write the script for his friend and fellow Cahiers du Cinema critic Jean-Luc-Godard’s debut as director, Breathless (1960).
Faced with the question of what to offer as his own sophomore feature, and with most people expecting him to continue in the vein of serious, evocative cinema he had forged, Truffaut balked at the idea of repeating his breakthrough and the kind of praise he received for it. Choosing instead to perform a seemingly radical swivel from personal artist to entertainer, and make a work purely to please himself and other film lovers, he next set out to make the kind of gamy, dynamic genre cinema fare he loved, particularly American gangster films. He chose as his basis the novel Down There by oft-filmed American hardboiled writer David Goodis. Shoot the Piano Player, as the film is generally known, nonetheless proved if anything an even more radically free-form, eccentric, wildly energetic exploration of cinema’s raw textures and testing ground for the peculiar way theoretically trashy material can mesh with personal perspective and creative audaciousness and come out as something entirely new. Shoot the Piano Player has at once the breezy, cheeky flavour of a Parisian bar-room joke and an ultimately lacerating edge of the genuinely mournful, as well as a certain wry, distanced, but substantial perspective on Truffaut’s coming of age as a filmmaker of repute. Goodis’ novel, depicting a fallen piano prodigy and his ne’er-do-well brothers who inadvertently draw him back into their seamy criminal world, has a fascinating key-note that Truffaut latched onto, the disparity between the way we understand art as a zone of yearning, disciplined, transcendent reach, and crime, a grimy, degrading world, by offering a character trapped between both spheres. Truffaut, who had dropped out of school and taught himself whilst contending with authorities of all stripes and living by his wits before finding new grounding in the world of film, surely could understand such a schismatic worldview.
Trouble was, Truffaut supposedly realised during the shoot how much he detested gangsters and found it stymied his commitment to the story, so he turned increasingly towards comedy and burlesque to defuse his discomfort. Right from the film’s frantic opening shots, it’s instantly obvious that Truffaut had no interest in emulating the poised, technically imperious art associated with Hollywood’s noir masters, however. Basic rules of cinema as largely practiced up to that date are instantly, brazenly ignored, as shots hosepipe dizzyingly, focus drifts in and out, and Coutard’s handheld camerawork records blurry car headlights and scantly-lit nightscapes in impressionist smears. Such rudely chaotic beauty and evocation of vertiginous urban menace seems to set the scene for some wildly paranoid flight, as it becomes clear a man is running from a car trying to run him down. But the plunge into action resolves when the man, Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), collides with a lamppost, a comic diminuendo to an opening that comes on with such nourish menace. Chico is helped up by a passing stranger (Alex Joffé) who then regales him happily about his life with his wife in a scene of ribald conversation: the urgency of a life-and-death chase, the essence of genre storytelling, gives way to its ambling, contemplative, gently humorous dissection. Only when it’s done and they part ways does Chico take off in a madcap sprint once more, as if remembering what movie he’s supposed to be in. Chico’s flight brings him to a bar thrumming with evening life, thanks to the combo playing there, led by the pianist Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour) whose poster is on the wall outside. Chico proves to have a distinct motive for coming here: Charlie is in fact his brother, the once-famous Edouard Saroyan, now leading a determinedly modest workaday life entertaining the flotsam of the night. The two heavies who have been dogging his trail, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), enter the bar, and Charlie helps stall their pursuit as Chico flees out the back door.
This early sequence in the bar, run by the leather-skinned Plyne (Serge Davri), is a marvel of swift-serve incidents and character sketches, quickly establishing the terse, closed-off nature of Charlie, so different to his criminal yet gabby, friendly brother, and the people Charlie works with or entertains. Such folk include the sleazy but perversely sympathetic Plyne, the wary Mammy (Catherine Lutz), Plyne’s estranged wife still working the bar, and roaming waitress Léna (Marie Dubois), the gorgeous but cagey object of Plyne’s desire. Around them flit vignettes and oddball characters. Two gawky onlookers mull the quality of flesh in the bar (“The other night it was first class quality!”). A man assures his dancing partner he’s interested in her chest because he’s a doctor. Chico chats up Mammy with gaudy patter: “You’re desirable—that’s why I desire you…I’m planning on getting married tonight.” A young man dancing with lovely prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier) gets tired of her teasing way and gives her a slap, only to earn himself gentlemanly retaliation from Chico. Charlie leaps back onto the piano to distract the audience from the sudden invasion by the two heavies chasing Chico, inspiring the singing waiter (singer-songwriter Boby Lapointe) to jump up and regale the audience with his bouncy, cheerfully bawdy song about a man driven to distraction by his wife’s breast enlargements, with lyrics spelt out on screen singalong-fashion. The way Truffaut shoots Lapointe’s performance, momentarily pausing the frantic pace of his images only to focus on a performer who throws out words and vibrates with rapid-fire energy to equal the director’s. Here Truffaut calls back to the Hollywood tradition of shoehorning a musical performance into movies for the sake of broadening appeal, and establishes his own work’s intense feel for the local, street-level cultural life, whilst also offering the director’s own spin on the same phenomenon Godard would later pursue more intently: investigating the synergy of art forms purveyed within art forms, giving the movie over to a performer’s use of space and sound to recalibrate how we react to such elements.
Charlie lives in a drab apartment with his youngest brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), with Clarisse his upstairs neighbour and friend with benefits. Clarisse sleeps with Charlie after both get home from their exertions that night, in a funny scene where Clarisse’s pop sponge of a mind lends proceedings a mode of cultural burlesque as she recites jingles and gives critical opinions of a John Wayne film (“It proves America wants peace.”), and stirs Charlie to make his own joke at the expense of film convention, as he covers Clarisse’s bare breasts with a sheet: “In the movies it’s always like this.” His zipless, pay-as-you-go relationship with Clarisse suits Charlie’s disengaged approach to life, but he soon finds the contracts of identity are about to snap into effect: Ernest and Momo start tracking him, hoping to find a way to use him to track down Chico, who, along with the fourth Saroyan sibling Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), has ripped them off after a robbery they staged together. Léna alerts Charlie to the fact they’re following him, and she walks with him through the night as Charlie grapples more with his unspoken attraction to Léna than with the dogging hoods. The next morning, Fido spots the two gangsters lurking outside their apartment block and drops a milk container on their bonnet from the third floor. When Charlie emerges from his apartment block, Ernest and Momo swoop on him and drag him into their car at gunpoint, and they soon pick up Léna the same way, intending to pressure Charlie into leading them to his brothers, and Léna realises that Plyne let himself be bribed into giving the hoods their addresses. Léna’s quick wits see her contriving to attract a policeman’s attention, giving her and Charlie a chance to slip away from their kidnappers. Léna then leads Charlie to her apartment where he discovers that, far from being indifferent to him, Léna has been worshipping him from afar, aware of his real name and former identity as a famous concert pianist.
Charlie doesn’t bear much apparent resemblance to the gutsy, inquisitive, often exasperating Antoine Doinel as introduced in The 400 Blows. Fido evokes Antoine more, with his pranks, quips, mop of Presley-esque hair and finger-snapping pursuit of the right jive rhythm, every inch the natural-born Parisian rascal. Charlie nonetheless offers Truffaut’s first grown-up hero with a sense of linkage to his young alter ego, grown up and offered a taste of paradise only to be defeated by life. Charlie is alternately defined by his cool, detached manner and his almost crippling fear of human interaction, a fear that predates the various traumas that define his life and seem rooted in the act of distinction that cleaved him away from his brothers and set him on a path to refined artistry and success. He recalls young Chico and Richard tossing stones at the car that whisked away to his piano lessons, their mocking reminder, still resonating with Charlie, that in the end he’s still their brother. Charlie’s seemingly stoic, deadpan approach to most situations life throws his way, from gangsters chasing after his brother to the topless prostitute teasing him in bed, belies a deep-set sensitivity, and the voiceover narration Truffaut allows him affects a Bogartian cool but also reveals his timorousness in the face of challenges like whether or not he should try to seduce Léna, and the mantra of noncommittal he repeats to himself when situation get too emotionally charged.
Charlie has been forged by a form of survivor’s guilt, a trait bolstered by the grim fate of his wife and former career, described in a lengthy flashback halfway through the film. The former Edouard, a struggling musician, had nonetheless been happily married to Thérèse (Nicole Berger), who worked as a waitress whilst he tried to kick-start his career: their daily games of “customer and waitress” in the café where she worked attracted the attention of impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann), a seemingly fortuitous meeting that resulted in Edouard’s big break, leading to huge fame as a concert performer under Schmeel’s guidance. But the Saroyans’ marriage started to founder as Edouard finally grew more successful, and eventually Thérèse admitted that Schmeel gave Edouard his chance because she agreed to sleep with him. Thérèse then threw herself to her death after Edouard walked out on her, and he completely left behind his former existence, taking refuge for years in anonymous jobs until one day he worked up the courage to tickle the ivories in Plyne’s café again. Finally, the man reborn as Charlie seems to complete his degradation when he and Léna confront Plyne over his betrayal. Plyne, equally steamed as he realises Charlie has “soiled” the lovely Léna, starts a fight that turns deadly as he tries to choke Charlie, forcing the pianist to stab him in the back.
The greatest quality of Shoot the Piano Player is also the most difficult to fully describe — the blithe way it steps between postures of raucous humour and wistfully earnest feeling, metafictional wiseacrey and waylaying emotional directness. Shoot the Piano Player, amidst the pile-up of jokes, genre touchstones, and romantic ephemera, probes what artistic success means in terms of personal identity, a notion that also extends the attitude of investigation as to what forces define us from childhood to adulthood and what happens to the self when its foundations collapse. This preoccupation would continue to bob up throughout Truffaut’s oeuvre, essayed on an epic scale with his subsequent Doinel films but also evident in works like L’Enfant Sauvage (1969) and The Story of Adele H. (1975). Comedy and tragedy here are wound together like the disparate halves of Charlie/Edouard, right from the opening scene in which thriller canards suddenly swerve into a stranger’s wry but poignant story about how he and his wife got married, had kids, and fell in love in that order, and so has the kind of existence everyone else in the film yearns for but fails at. Even the jokey use of Charlie’s dissonant narration leads in with supple force to a sudden swerve in the way this device is employed, when, during the flashback, Edouard tells himself not to walk out on Therese. His conscious, rational self tries to retain command of his instinctual, emotional self, and fails with terrible consequences. Charlie tries to dispose of the disparity, but such traits remain integral to all human experience, even if some, like Charlie’s brothers and their gangster enemies, operate purely on the level of sensual instinct. This idea is illustrated with bawdy gusto when Ernest raves with wild-eyed glee about erotic wonts and consumerist delights when he and Momo have kidnapped Charlie and Léna. They’re like embodiments of the side of Truffaut’s mind that’s a magpie attracted by shiny objects of all kinds, complete with a watch that rings out the score of Lola Montes (1956).
The New Wave directors were often driven to comment sarcastically on the fame they had been granted by their anarchic, rule-breaking impulses, which edged in some cases into genuinely revolutionary sensibilities, as suddenly a bunch of café bums and movie geeks found themselves media celebrities. Part and parcel with this was their study of their own schismatic sensibilities, their simultaneous immersion in the modes of cinema and self-conscious distrust for it, the critic-intellectual’s unease with the instinctively profligate method of art and the needs of the entertainment-seeking audience. Here Truffaut found a sly way to wrestle with the question of whether such a charmed life could continue, or if selling out would be inevitable. Cleverly, Schmeel, the devil who consumed Edouard’s life, is presented not as a charming playboy but a kindly, fatherly type to Edouard, one who enjoys his pet pianist so much he puts his portrait on his office wall. Charlie’s shyness is initially funny, but we learn Edouard’s anxiety and discomfort in the public eye harmed his personality, as he felt a need to boast and feed on acclaim, and fuelled the mounting sense of crisis in his private life even before that calamitous revelation. Success demands a price, the kind of price that hacks into the presumptions and recompenses of ordinary life. Léna’s adoption of Charlie as lover also identifies him unapologetically as potential gold mine, as she admits to him she wants him to return to his old life to give her a better one. This signals the possibility of a rebirth for Edouard, but also puts Charlie on a collision course with every fact of his identity he’s been ignoring. The bleak side to Shoot the Piano Player is rooted in one basic irony: the reawakening that life demands from Charlie promises rewards but instead simply replays bitter experience. To be alive is to be open to pain as well as joy, and whilst for some that very alternation can be a drug-like habit, for others shutdown is the only option to weather it.
Although general audiences initially met it with bemusement, Shoot the Piano Player became a fetish object for movie lovers in itself for Truffaut’s ebullient cinematic stunts, building upon the remarkable camera freeness and willingness to utilise seemingly antiquated or merely functional effects like the iris shot and the freeze frame with definitive authorial intent. It’s still very easy to see what the fuss was about, as even the following decade or so of pop cinema that would relentlessly mine Truffaut and Godard’s works would rarely recreate the pace and bravura ingenuity with which they’re offered. The rough-hewn, almost home-movie-like crudeness apparent in the film’s earliest shots resolves when Chico enters Plyne’s bar into sudden professional precision, mapping out vignettes with Hawksian concision, but offered with a machine-gun pace that flies far ahead of the more measured studio style. Truffaut’s more ostentatious flourishes come on with real wit and bratty showiness, like a triptych shot of Plyne in negotiation with the gangsters revealing him in different postures ranging from noble stonewalling to money-grubbing treachery. Or, most famously, a sudden cutaway after Ernest swears a story he’s told is true on his mother’s life, only to offer a glimpse an old woman suddenly keeling over from a heart attack. As opposed to Godard’s increasingly studious preoccupation with the semantics of expression through cinema, Truffaut remained far more intuitive, catching ideas and whims and condensing them into visual motifs with intelligence but also carefree zest. One of Truffaut’s greatest stylistic pirouettes comes during the flashback sequence, recounting Charlie’s journey to give an audition for Schmeel: his finger hovers for a moment in giant close-up over the doorbell button, the momentousness of the act for the young, talented, but fatally uneasy man captured in all its epic intimacy.
Truffaut, instead of following Charlie within for the moment of truth, instead tracks the glum-faced violinist who was auditioning before him as she leaves Schmeel’s apartment. The sounds of Charlie’s thunderous romantic strains momentarily make her pause, and continue to resound on the soundtrack as she leaves the building and heads out into the streets, presumably, to a life of anonymity, whilst Charlie has been anointed, with the suggestion, ever so ethereal, that something is wrong. The hints of machinating fate Truffaut offers in this disorientating interlude soon takes shape but offers in its moment an islet of mysterious beauty that suggests another level to Charlie’s journey, the power of music, celebrated again by Truffaut in parentheses with his film. Truffaut returns to the musical interlude motif late in the film, during Charlie and Léna’s flight from the law, shots of the car’s progress along misty highways and into snowy alpine hills set to a languorously romantic song about two lovers who signify their continuing ardour with signs like going bareheaded. Similarly dreamy is a bedroom sequence, as Charlie and Léna make love and sleep peacefully together, counterpointed in aching dissolves with the images of Edouard’s old concert posters on the walls – past, present, and future all in flux. The soft edges of such sequences stand in contrast with the violent filmic syntax elsewhere, as in the rush of shots depicting Edouard’s plunge back into his hotel room and out to the veranda only to see Therese dead far below on the pavement, a moment that communicates the suddenness and horror of such a loss in volubly immediate terms. Truffaut even displays outright contempt for standard movie grammar, as in the concluding moments when the criminal Saroyans and their nemeses flee in cars, Truffaut hacking up the action into summary shots, as if contemptuously farewelling these halfwits and bad seeds who leave human wreckage in their wake.
Truffaut’s admiration for Hitchcock, which he would later try to work out in more belaboured terms in his fascinating misfire The Bride Wore Black (1968), is first sighted here during Charlie’s fight with Plyne, drawing on Dial M For Murder (1953) as a desperate fight for life sees a blade sunk into a spine, in a moment charged with perverse intimacy. But Hitchcockian erotic overtones are swapped for the weird spectacle of apparent masculine bonhomie, as Plyne affects to embrace Charlie after their hot heads have cooled, only to then start throttling him, a spasm of sexual-nihilistic disappointment turning the bar owner deadly as Plyne grunts out his fury for Charlie despoiling his idealised, virginal version of Léna. Earlier on Charlie had given Plyne a sympathetic ear when he confessed his crush on the waitress, revealed in his gruff pathos as he readily admitted he was far too ugly to charm her (“Perhaps it’s glands,” Charlie suggests; Plyne replies, “No, it’s my face.”). Charlie’s defensive killing is witnessed by neighbours, but he thinks he won’t be able to prove the circumstances, so Léna and Mammy hide him in the café cellar and then help him flee to his parents’ house in the Alps, which has already been taken over by Chico and Richard as their hideout. Meanwhile Ernest and Momo kidnap Fido, and force him to take them to the same place.
Aznavour’s lead performance was one Shoot the Piano Player’s great coups, bringing to the part surprising physical wit, his weirdly charming molten-plasticine face, and definite comfort with playing the instrument central to the character’s life and way of mediating the world. Although not at the time an experienced actor, he perfectly embodies Charlie’s bipolar nature and wears his sad-sack suppliance as assuredly as one of the trench coats he wears. Some of his best moments come during his first walk with Lena, counting off steps with his fingers behind his back as he tries to work up the courage to take her arm, before starting to suggest they get a drink together, only to find she’s already flitted off into the night. But the whole cast is excellent, particularly the uncanny trio of ladies around him, Mercier, Berger, and Dubois, each a study in a diverse types demarcating different classes and ways of looking at female archetypes. Mercier the black-haired gamine, Berger the classical cool, continental blonde, and Dubois the fresh-faced, brightly smiling urchin: Berger is particularly effective delivering Helene’s long, confessional monologue, prowling around the hotel room in an inescapable shot, pinioned like a butterfly in a collection. Mercier, who would later find great fame playing the cult heroine Angelique in French films, brings an insouciant delight to her role as a featherlight character happy to play bedmate to Charlie and part-time mother to Fido, but who hits the bottle out of guilt after the hoods snatch Fido from under her nose in a vignette of throwaway pathos.
Dubois, who was Truffaut’s discovery for the film (her real name was Christine Herze), has her finest moments breezily handing Charlie the mission of giving her a better life, which Charlie seems to accept with his familiar deadpan stoicism, only for her then to state, with a show of lancing vulnerability as she farewells him to work, that the only thing she really asks of a man is to tell her when things are over. Later, when Lena drops him off at his parents’ mountain house, Charlie is stricken as he tries to work out how to cast her out of his life now that he seems to have been claimed by the family curse, Aznavour’s face calcified by the conflicting desires to cut himself off from her as he’s sure he’ll bring her doom, and the urge to not let her go, resolving with the unspoken wish, “I wish she’d let me finish drinking that bottle.” The drive into the mountains shifts the film’s gear into a more rarefied realm, charged with an ironically dissonant sense of romanticism and melancholia that cuts across the grain of madcap energy seen in the rest of the film, as Charlie settles down to wait out the night with cigarettes and weltschmerz as his brothers crow that their brother has finally joined them. The dawn brings good news, as Lena returns to tell Charlie he’s been vindicated by the witnesses and can return to the world. But it also brings the two hoods, with the canny Fido snatching a chance to give them the slip.
A gunfight between the two gangs breaks out, with Lena, sprinting through the snow to try and reach Charlie’s side, gunned down accidentally. In spite of Truffaut’s improvisatory shooting style, Shoot the Piano Player manages to coherently encompass its manifold impulses, starting off with shots of Chico running and building to the climactic moment when Lena dashes through the falling snow. The film is offered as an embodiment of perpetual motion until suddenly it doesn’t – the gun cracks, Lena falls, and slides down the snow-crusted hillside like a pathetic toboggan, coming to a halt in anaesthetising snowfall, the streetwise yet innocent young lady finding an unexpected fate worthy of some Thomas Hardy heroine. Charlie and Fido dash to find her, but recover only an ice-caked corpse, whilst the battling nitwits speed away to whatever end they deserve. As for Charlie, Truffaut reveals in his final, delicately poignant last shots, he returns to his former place behind the piano with fingers dabbing the keys robotically, playing with stone-faced detachment, hovering again in a place outside of life’s regular flow. Perhaps it was Truffaut’s peculiar faith that cinema could be anything that he wanted it to be that made him think he could offer a film so expansive and unruly in its sense of life and death and how the two sometimes overlap, affirming even in the midst of tragedy a romantic’s conviction that life without love is meaningless, be it human or artistic.
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Director: Stanley Kubrick
By Roderick Heath
With the mystique sustained by Stanley Kubrick’s reputation for despotic precision and lofty solitude as a mature film artist, it’s at once amusing and fascinating to imagine him as a messily inventive ingénue with the usual roll call of geeky obsessions and filmic touchstones. Kubrick evolved from a camera-happy Bronx teen into a legendarily exacting visionary, and produced one of the most determinedly individualistic oeuvres in mainstream cinematic history, even as Kubrick attempted to hide from posterity the fruits of his apprentice days. Critic Pauline Kael backed him up in this, once commenting that his career began properly with The Killing (1956) and that, like a developed novelist, he ought to have been able to buy up and destroy his first two works. Kubrick almost managed this: thanks to the bankruptcy of its distributor, he was able to hide his first feature, Fear and Desire, for decades, and it has only recently reemerged from the realm of shadowy enigma known only to a handful of scholars and viewers with long memories. His follow-up, Killer’s Kiss, was never effectively impounded. Kubrick, a middling student with literary tastes, found a prodigious success as a photographer in the late ’40s, whilst still in his teens, first as a freelancer and then as a staff member of Look magazine. He married his high school flame Toba Metz, moved to Greenwich Village, and began to teach himself techniques of film production, a hobby that soon turned into an ambition. Kubrick made a handful of short documentaries and a brief foray into TV work before he finally set out to make his first feature-length film at the ripe old age of 25.
The circumstances were hardly auspicious. Kubrick scraped together a budget of about $10,000 for the shoot, mostly thanks to his chemist uncle and his father’s cashed-in life insurance policy. The screenplay was written by another of Kubrick’s high school friends, the budding playwright Howard Sackler, who would later find repute with his 1968 work The Great White Hope. Kubrick had five actors, five crew members (including Toba), and a team of Mexican agricultural workers to lug around the film equipment. Shooting took place in California’s San Gabriel Mountains, and the cast and crew were poisoned at one point by residual insecticide in a crop sprayer being used to create fog. Like most beginner works from notable filmmakers, there are obvious and powerful anticipations of Kubrick’s recurring interests, attitudes, and images. As movies unto themselves, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are near-equal mixtures of successful and unsuccessful elements, but for intriguingly distinct reasons that plainly reveal the young Kubrick trying to balance out the key aspects not only of his aesthetic repertoire, but also his personal intuition, perspective, and intellectual refrains.
Fear and Desire is beset by the limited cinematic scope on offer, with its handful of actors, props, and settings. Kubrick leans heavily on Sackler’s script and the actors to imbue the project with a conceptual scale far larger than the production elements would allow. The film’s literary affectations, replete with broadly obvious metaphors and archly meditative dialogue, often suggest exactly what this project is: a bunch of young bohemian neophytes trying to make a high falutin’ statement about “the nature of war” in such a way that places them on a far “higher” plane than the grunt work of mere genre filmmaking. At times, Fear and Desire recalls Coleman Francis’ Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966) for wedding cheapjack warfare to muddy existentialist posturing. Yet Fear and Desire, even at its most awkward and affected, bears the imprint of real artists, if ones still learning the meaning of art and the specifics of their own talents. Sackler’s dialogue occasionally possesses the music of poetry with hints of the influence of Eugene O’Neill, and Kubrick’s direction is consistently confident and fluent, especially considering the limitations upon him, and occasionally remarkable. Fear and Desire depicts a war without a defined setting, era, or antagonists. It’s conflict boiled down to essentials, a primal saga of lost and maddened individuals seeking personal meaning even in the midst of impersonal and indiscriminate killing, going up against men no different to themselves, emphasised by the fact that Kubrick makes them literal doppelgängers, the actors playing their opposite numbers.
A similar dynamic and mood to Kubrick’s later war films is clearly present in a blunt and embryonic form, as the struggle seems to stumble far beyond its nominal boundaries and the protagonists attempt to keep their heads and their souls together deep in enemy territory, for example, the beset patrols of Path of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the bomber pilots of Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The landscape they fight through is an eerie, atavistic zone of dispute, with a forest out of the Grimm Brothers and a sludgy river that calls to mind Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad. Four soldiers are stranded here after their plane crashes: the educated, slightly supercilious Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), who reflects sardonically on their situation even as he tries to think of a way out of it; the likeable, poetic, but mentally fraying Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky); the stolid Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Coit); and the yearning, working-class philosopher Sgt. “Mac” Mackenzie (Frank Silvera). Stranded several miles from the front line, the quartet decide, after some argument and digression, to build a raft and float down the river to their own lines. They encounter an obviously domesticated dog, which they fear might be a tracker’s animal, but it instead runs off in confusion. As they bundle together logs into a makeshift vessel, a low-flying aircraft shoots over them, and the soldiers are worried that it saw them, but it proves to have landed in a field close to a hut where an enemy general seems to be residing. Desperate for food and weapons, the soldiers stage an assault on an outpost, successfully sneaking up on and killing two enemy combatants dining within, and then killing two more when they arrive.
This sequence is where a future great director seems most clearly emergent, with a burst of technique, rapid montage, which Kubrick offered only sparingly later in his career. He depicts the ambush of the two enemy soldiers, caught eating their dinner, as a frenetic explosion of physical and cinematic brutality, his edits carving them up into furiously squirming limbs, savage and desperate mouths, and spilt food mashed and clawed by desperate fingers into a whirl of corporeal mush. Kubrick entwines sustenance and death into the most basic of the essential parallels that will extend throughout his career, the closeness of primal experience to the surface of the human condition no matter how becalmed and effete its self-erected circumstances. The victorious raiders settle down to claim the weapons of the men they’ve killed and eat their food, with Mac slobbering down stew with wolfish glee, celebrating his victory—his proclaimed right to live another day and beat his competitors—with the most direct of statements and the least evolved animal enthusiasm. The anticipations here are redolent of the Neanderthal discoveries of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The script archly contrasts plebeian vulgarity, embodied by Mac, with the educated Corby’s quietly insufferable pontifications, as when he watches Mac and comments he’s found the perfect metaphor for war, “cold stew on a blazing island…with a tempest of gunfire around it to fan the flames,” and surveys the dead soldiers sprawled in the blank-eyed shock of sudden death and notes, as if sarcastically rebutting the title-expressed thesis of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, “No man is an island? Perhaps that was true a long time ago—before the Ice Age—the glaciers have melted away, and now we’re all islands.”
The enemy general, also played by Harp, shares with his fellow officer this tendency towards overt philosophising, in a darker, even weightier fashion, reclining with distinctly aristocratic poise as he reflects on his status as a destroyer and sacrificer of men with pain and misgiving. The schematic split of the characters remains ponderously obvious even as Kubrick’s cinematic wit and actors try to shake them into independent life. But it’s clear that Kubrick would reiterate the schisms he describes here, in increasingly sophisticated terms, to become statements enacted on macrocosmic and cultural levels in his later works, and most immediately in Paths of Glory and Spartacus (1960), where culturally elevated and educated figures parade their civility as justifications for oppressing others dismissed as subhuman. Mac, for his part, makes a play for existential victory: in recognising his essential inconsequentiality and probable fate after the war is finished to return to a life of effaced labour, he determines to destroy the enemy general, even if it means dying in the process, simply to prove his existence has meaning and effect on the larger scheme of things. To this end, he talks Corby into approving his simple but effective plan to row downstream on the raft and distract the general’s guards, giving Corby and the others time to strike at the general himself. Mac’s voyage down to the river is a thrilling moment sporting the most successful of the film’s attempts at presenting interior monologue, as Mac meditates on his motivations, at once pathetic and transcendent, shot from a low angle by Kubrick with dark sky and looming trees sliding by above and giving mystical force to Mac’s self-constructed destiny.
The film’s second great scene arrives as the team are forced to take a local peasant girl prisoner. The girl has been washing clothes in the river with some other women and comes across the soldiers hiding in the bushes,cueing an electrifying moment when the girl spots the eyes watching her from the behind the leaves and as her own eyes widen in alarm, the men suddenly erupt to grasp her. As even Corby’s interest in their captive seems a touch too intense for a moment, it’s Mac who drawls, half-sarcastically, “Let’s try to remain civilised.” Worried that this girl might have seen their raft, still sitting on the riverbank half-finished, the men tie her to a tree. Corby leaves Sidney to watch over her, but this proves to be a mistake. Sidney’s fermenting trauma from the killings in the hut begins to boil over, and the silent, uncomprehending girl becomes a blank slate for Sidney to write his insecurities and caprices upon, trying to entertain her with a grotesque dumb show in which he pretends to be a general dining, in between molesting her with a pathetic, dissociated neediness. When he unties her because she seems responsive, she runs off, and Sidney shoots her in the back. Sidney spirals into complete madness, randomly quoting The Tempest before dashing off into the woods. Kubrick’s career strand of vividly visualised, fetishistic, erotic textures is insistently nascent here, as he zeroes in on Sidney’s and the girl’s legs as he embraces her when still tied to the tree, his fatigues and combat boots and her bare legs in a sickly dance. Mazursky, who would become a noted director in his own right, offers a performance that anticipates Kubrick’s contradictory fondness for blackly comedic, violently expressive, almost cartoonish performances that would punctuate—and puncture—the veneers of studious realism in his movies. Among such performances are Timothy Carey and Peter Sellers’ turns for him, Malcolm MacDowell’s Alex DeLarge, and Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance.
Mac’s plan proves fairly successful, but he is seriously wounded by fire from the riverbank. He drifts downstream, where Sidney, still deep in delirium, gets on board, and the two pieces of human wreckage float toward their lines. Corby and Fletcher succeed in assassinating the general and his aide-de-camp, with the inevitable irony that they are killing their own doppelgängers: the wounded general drags himself across the floor and out the door and manages to croak, “I surrender!” just before Corby kills him. Corby and Fletcher manage to flee in the general’s plane, making it back to their own base and then trudging back to the riverside to await Mac and Sidney as they drift through the enveloping fog. Kubrick returns to the opening shot of the forested landscape just as the pair on the raft float in toward the pair ashore, with Sidney plainly mad and Mac possibly dead. The haunting, numinous visuals filled with wallowing haze, and the awkward attempts by Corby to find words to rationalise their experience, all look forward to the coda of Full Metal Jacket.
Despite the film’s main fault, an inability to discern and sustain its best instincts, it is, in spite of Kubrick’s later dismissal of it as an amateurish work, actually marked out by a general avoidance of many pitfalls of such low-budget cinema. Kubrick’s blocking of his actors is usually strong, and sometimes he achieves some artful compositions. Kubrick is plainly fascinated by the spectacle and meaning of death, repeatedly presenting moments of demise as first a pounding wallop of mortality and then a sudden emptiness. He constantly returns to study the faces of the dead—the girl’s, the enemy soldiers, the general’s—to contemplate their shocked, staring emptiness, to ram home a sense of curtailed existence, the humanity suddenly gone from these puppets whose strings have been cut.
The initial cost of Fear and Desire was blown out considerably by post-production work, and despite impressing some notable culturati like James Agee and Mark Van Doren, it failed financially. Kubrick hurriedly signed on to make another short documentary for the Seafarers International Union to raise money for his next attempt, but he again needed added help from family and friends to fund Killer’s Kiss. Again, it was almost a one-man production for the erstwhile auteur, but this time, Kubrick firmly made his mark on the people who saw the result. Killer’s Kiss sees Kubrick seemingly more at home in the precincts of Manhattan he had spent his teenaged years haunting as a photographer, to the point where the film often feels less like a narrative movie than a photographic record and portfolio showing off the manifold attractions, both glitzy and seamy, of the cityscape. Certainly, immersing himself in this world allowed Kubrick to fill his film up with cinema verite inserts, and celebrate his native city with a zesty immediacy and authenticity that contrasts the studiously crafted, perfectly controlled facsimiles he came to prefer working in. Killer’s Kiss is an apt follow-up to Fear and Desire in some ways, similarly taking up a hoary situation and endeavouring to essay it with a stripped-down focus on psychological turmoil and experiential intensity. But where the debut film was literary in tone, Killer’s Kiss presents raw cinematic values tethered to a thin story pretext, one that shows Kubrick had been busy consuming movies, particularly recent noir films, as well as a panoply of Expressionist and Soviet filmmakers, and the dean of young America filmic geniuses, Orson Welles.
Kubrick’s subsequent move to always provide himself with a solid literary base for his films explained by the fact that his script for Killer’s Kiss is only sufficient. Sensitive palooka Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) and degraded princess Gloria Price (Irene Kane) never quite feel real as characters, and the story is exceedingly simple. Nonetheless, Killer’s Kiss provides constant hints as to the diastolic nature of Kubrick’s eventual oeuvre. If Fear and Desire anticipates the hemisphere of Kubrick’s work preoccupied by human devolution, violence, and corrosive destruction, most usually apparent in his war films, but often emerging in others, Killer’s Kiss follows on from Sgt. Mac’s existential mission. It presents a hero who is beset by trials on an almost cosmic scale, and the questing protagonist, sometimes heroic, sometime not, but always driven in Kubrick’s films, comes fully to life here in its basic St. George and the Dragon tale of burnt-out boxer Davey who falls for his neighbour Gloria, but has to win her from mid-level gangster Vincent Rapallo (Silvera).
Gloria works in that common euphemistic profession of dance hostess in the club Rapallo runs. Kubrick stages his opening sequence as a study in urban alienation with underpinnings of mysterious connection, as Davey prepares for his evening’s bout and Gloria for a night’s work in their flats with facing windows over a narrow alley. Kubrick makes an oddball visual pun as he peers at Davey through the distorting glass of his fishbowl, likening it to the fishbowl proximity of the two apartments and lives whilst suggesting the perversion of natural community such city living sustains. He follows them as they leave their flats and emerge from the building simultaneously. Welles’ influence is immediately in evidence here in the deep focus and use of distortion effects, but the overall design of the sequence, tracing the two characters in their separate paths to events that will see them both put their bodies on the line for other people’s benefit, evokes more the Russian and German directors Kubrick went to school on: whereas Fear and Desire is replete with Soviet Realist close-ups and edits, here Eisenstein is present in the use of dialectic montage, and the holistic analysis of Dziga Vertov looms, too.
Kubrick dynamically intercuts to continue the sense of synchronicity conjoining the man and woman as Kubrick intercuts Davey having his hands the taped for the fight with Gloria dolling herself up in a dressing room at Rapallo’s club. The synchronicity continues as Rapallo mauls Gloria on the aphrodisiac high of watching Davey on television, as he is pummelled and finally knocked down in a fight scene. Their bout is depicted in a seemingly endless, nightmarish series of shots from below at the very edge of the ring, the fighters looming and reeling with sweat-sodden skin and forming near-abstract patterns of force, whilst Rapallo gathers up Gloria, fingering her back with consuming purpose like a spider crawling on a flower. After his fight, Davey goes home and suffers through a nightmare in which he’s flying along empty city streets rendered in a hallucinatory negative image, anticipatory of no lesser moment than the Star Gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Davey is spiritual antecedent to the peculiar avatars of the human condition who bob up again and again in Kubrick’s films, as a hero who is beset and outmatched by great systems of power, but ennobled by his contradictory mix of civility and brutality to become almost mythic in scale. Whereas this figure became increasingly more ambiguous in Kubrick’s work, Davey’s eventual outright battle with Rapallo over Gloria is simple in the extreme, almost on the level of the scuffle of the apes over the water hole in 2001, a contest for breeding rights.
Davey is awakened from his nightmare by the sounds of Gloria screaming, and he looks through the window to see Rapallo assaulting her. Rapallo flees, and Davey solicitously puts Gloria to bed and watches over her. Gloria explains how and why Rapallo came to be in her apartment, and recounts her tragic life story. She came from a fairly well-off family that sadly disintegrated with her father’s death. Her dancing prodigy sister, who had given up dancing to marry a rich man to help ease the family’s debts, committed suicide, an act for which the young Gloria blamed herself. The insertion of this odd, dreamlike sequence sees Kubrick straining to avoid lapsing into mere conversational filmmaking with sophomoric technique, and coupled with the uncertainty of the writing adds to the patchiness of the film’s total effect. But again, it’s an anticipation of Kubrick’s more concerted, applied games with chronology in The Killing, whilst the contrast of the brutal emotions Gloria describes with the artistry of the dancing on screen predicts Kubrick’s obsessive fascination with immediate contrasts of human civilisation and fragility.
Having at last breached the divide between them, Davey invites Gloria to accompany him as he quits New York and boxing for his family’s ranch near Seattle, and Gloria accepts. When they head to Times Square so Gloria can end it with Rapallo, Davey asks for his manager Albert (Jerry Jarrett) to come and pay him off there. Rapallo’s goons (Mike Dana and Felice Orlandi) mistake Albert for Davey and kill him, and they snatch Gloria away. Following Gloria’s disappearance, Davey goes back to his apartment, only to have to skip out ahead of some policemen who think that he killed Albert. Davey, realising what’s happened, follows Rapallo to a warehouse district, where his goons are keeping Gloria captive, and almost successfully bails them up long enough to get her away; but, of course, no dragon ever gives up a princess easily.
Whereas Fear and Desire saw Kubrick denaturalising his embryonic art by venturing deep in alien territory, Killer’s Kiss sings Kubrick’s familiarity with the environs he’s depicting. The story is plainly an assemblage of elements Kubrick obviously enjoyed in several contemporary noir films, including 99 River Street (1953) and Body and Soul (1947), and Kubrick presents some excellent noir-infused shots and sequences. But Killer’s Kiss still often feels less a genre pastiche than a rough draft for the New York indie film scene, which would explode within a decade, with aspects of cinema verite realism and improvisatory zeal: Cassavettes, Scorsese, Lumet and De Palma are lurking in its genome. Whereas in Fear and Desire there was nothing to point his camera at but the faces of his actors, this movie is often at its most engaging when simply, metaphorically glancing over its shoulder at street scenes and enjoying New York as more than a glorified set, a microcosm where romantic glamour and grit sit cheek by jowl, and the city’s protean strangeness can upset the best laid plans, most fruitfully illustrated when two fez-wearing bohemians at play in Times Square prove a nuisance to Davey, precipitating the narrative’s swerve into melodrama. Whilst the contrast with the stylised, set-bound New York of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is self-evident, the same essential atmosphere is evident, of a world unto itself filled with places offering both romantic sanctuary and soul-distorting experience. Gloria’s pointed, almost brutal rejection of Rapallo as too old (“You smell!”) suggests Kubrick’s understanding of the mercilessness of youth, later crucial to Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, showing that already Kubrick’s sense of character ambiguity and the way biology often trumps civility was even-handed and encompassing.
Kubrick’s visual patterning, so clearly developed in a work like The Shining, is nascent here, as he notes the painted ads for Rapallo’s dance hall with their lacquered, beaming fantasy girls, contrasting the realities of Gloria’s life. This seemingly casual but recurring piece of editorial illustration twins functionally with both Gloria’s ghostly sister dancing in hyper-feminine perfection whilst her sad end is recounted, and the climax, where Rapallo and Davey battle, quite literally, over their mutual object of desire in a space filled with idealised feminine forms— mannequins arrayed in endless variables on the essential human form, headless or handless, smashed as shields and cleaved into fragments in the ultimate dumb-show variation on the film’s obsession with the human body as battlefield. The scenes leading up to this final duel are dazzling in their way, indeed already quite masterly, apart from the awkward moment of Davey’s actual escape by jumping through a window, a stunt that’s poorly staged and a trifle unbelievable. Kubrick’s staging of Davey’s raid on Rapallo’s hideout, his near-defeat by the goons, and the subsequent chase through back alleys and across rooftops, the cityscape stretching around them like an alien landscape, emphasises raw physical force and experience again, with Rapallo leering over the captive Gloria with a punitive blend of erotic delight and fury, mocking her efforts to appease him, and the hero and villains equally composed of nerve, muscle, blunder and skill as they all contend with the danger of the chase. Here the hero and villain, with the villain clutching an axe exactly the same as the one with which Jack Torrance would menace his family in The Shining, are still cleanly demarcated, whereas by Kubrick’s later films, they would often coalesce into Janus-faced singular figures like Alex and Jack. The Welles influence becomes acute again in the mannequin warehouse fight, and possibly that of Michael Powell, too, for as the ballet sequence invokes The Red Shoes (1948), so this scene and aspects of the film in general recalls Powell’s Contraband (1940), where the kidnapping villains were undone in a warehouse full of plaster busts. The film’s final, cheering triumph for assailed lovers right on the cusp of apparent surrender to alienation again looks forward to Eyes Wide Shut.
Kubrick’s collaboration with Silvera in these first two movies is worth noting. Silvera was an African-American actor who was able to get away with playing a wide variety of ethnic roles, and he inhabits the characters of Mac and Silvera with a seamless, professional capacity that the young Kubrick must have appreciated, especially when compared with the more awkward, theatrical performances around him. Silvera offers strikingly different characterisations that sustain a common thread of frustration in being stymied in a desire for the better, sweeter, grander experiences in life, and it’s hard not to empathise with Rapallo’s pungent offence when Gloria spurns him, even if he is a monster. It’s certainly the first of a string of memorable collaborations Kubrick would have with reliable star actors like Kirk Douglas and Sterling Hayden, and, more particularly, peculiar or chameleonic character actors like Peter Sellers, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, and Philip Stone. Kubrick benefited from the changing state of the American film world in the 1950s, as the rise of television and legal blows to the hegemony of the studio system were beginning to create new avenues into the industry as producers and stars looked further afield for talent. Within a year of wrapping Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick would achieve his first truly impressive balance of form and function in The Killing, and within seven years of handcrafting Fear and Desire, he was stepping in to rescue the multimillion production Spartacus. Young Stanley was going places.
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Director: Johnny To
By Roderick Heath
Johnny To has emerged in the past few years as a master of Hong Kong genre cinema, filling the void left by the departure and disgrace of John Woo and other industry notables in Hollywood adventures. To and Woo share characteristics, both concentrating on bristling macho dramatics, each analysing fundamental social, business, and personal bonds through the charged metaphors of the gangster film, and both channelling the influence of foreign masters like Ford, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Leone into their localised aesthetic. They’re very different in other respects, however: where Woo is usually an operatic executor of movies that are fundamentally about movies, reverent of the given structures and precepts of the genre film, To is much more of an ironist, willing to play games with his audience’s expectations in laying out standard elements and then executing simple, but brilliantly effective twists. To’s as strong a stylist as any in modern cinema, but a purposeful, efficient one, saving pyrotechnics for the moment of maximum impact, and with his dancing camerawork, lightning editing, and keen mise-en-scène, he barely wastes a frame. Election proved something of a breakthrough for him in terms of overseas attention, and it’s not hard to see why.
The story is fairly simple, but To keeps his pieces moving on the board so fast it’s a challenge to stay focused. The Wo Sing triad, one of the most notable—but far from only—illegal organisations in Hong Kong is having an election for its chairman, who serves for two-year spells. The tradition of the election is over a hundred years old, and the codes that bind the triad members together go back even further, to the days of resistance against the Manchus and the rebellions of the Shaolin monks. The two candidates to replace outgoing boss Whistle (Chung Wang) are Lam Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), two temperamentally disparate kingpins. Lok is calm, disdainful of showy expressions of power, the kind of guy who walks around his neighbourhood and converses with shopkeepers without a weapon or bodyguards, a detail which speaks of his certainty of power. He keeps a fine apartment with his son Denny (Jonathan Lee). Big D is far less restrained: married to a potent kingmaker wife (Maggie Shiu), he’s a man who smiles and cajoles with excessive pleasantness and explodes in childish tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. And he doesn’t, when, in spite of his carefully administered bribes to some of the “uncles” who form the decisive circle of triad chiefs, Lok wins the election as the most honourable and respectable of the choices.
Big D decides to dispute the election, and kidnaps two of the uncles he blames for his loss, cranky old Long Gun (Yuen-Yin Yu) and dissolute Sam (Robert Hung), whom he’d bribed but who failed to vote for him because there wasn’t enough money to go around. He nails them inside wooden crates, and rolls them repeatedly down a mountainside until they’re bloodied, dazed messes. Calling up Whistle, he threatens their lives unless Whistle helps him in challenging the triad’s guardian of tradition, Teng Wai (Wong Tin Lam); Whistle responds by having a subordinate hide the carved dragon-motif baton that is the symbol of authority in the Wo Sing in mainland China. Big D senses he might still stake a claim to the governorship if he can get hold of the baton by proving that he has the muscle and guts to snatch the baton to those who would still deny his authority.
Getting wind of an impending clash between the quickly polarising sides, the police, commanded by stoic Chief Superintendent Hui (David Chiang), drag in all the uncles, including Lok and Big D, who, still raging at his fellow uncles who he thinks betrayed him, begins kicking Whistle in front of reporters whilst waiting to be taken into the police station. Whistle flees the violence, but is run over by a car and critically injured. The cops, desperate not to see a gang war start, only want to force the uncles to find a way to sort out their problems. But events threaten to spiral out of everyone’s control as rival bands of men loyal to Big D and the other uncles try to fetch the baton from its hiding place in Guangzhou, and an embittered Whistle tries to blab from his hospital bed.
To’s quick eye takes in a raft of small details that fill out the universe of the triad bosses with alternatively disarming and dismaying effect. Most of these gangsters aren’t actually very tough or especially good at their jobs—they’re mostly middle-age men whose days of roughneck street warfare and standover work are behind them. Amongst the younger ones, who include young punks with something to prove, and genuinely fierce warriors in need of a watchful eye, the slickest is the preternaturally cool Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), who distributes bribes and collects debts whilst also attending seminars in finance. Small and large rituals—Teng Wai making tea for the uncles to seal their election decision; a later, full-on, religious-flavoured, blood-brother ceremony—define and seal their society. The power of ritual and tradition is simultaneously endangered, illusory, and still binding in subtle and supple ways. The governorship of the triad is established by totems and oaths, and but these are only emblems of real things, and the competition to command the emblems will finally express the reality of those symbols. As the film plays out, the meanings of those symbols become thoroughly apparent.
Election also hints at broader meanings through its title: the election, the illusion of democracy, is a sanctified ritual in the triad. But it’s only possible because of the mutual consent of powerful men, and To encompasses the history of Hong Kong and the relationship of Chinese society to centuries of hegemonic rulers both foreign and domestic. Simultaneously, what adherence to a creed means is taken seriously all the way through, even though the drama is driven by upstart Big D’s refusal to accept the rules, a breach of the creed. He threatens that if he doesn’t get his way, he will break away and form his own triad, a potent threat indeed as no one wants a war. The police know they can’t stamp out the triads, and are happy to act as something like referees in this game to reduce collateral damage; their attempts to corral the uncles before the situation combusts prove partly successful. In a moment that’s both ribald and telling, Long Gun, whilst berating Sam and Big D for failing to give a big enough bribe, orders a nubile young prostitute to jump up and down for him: those old farts are happy as long as their pockets are stuffed, their dicks are wet, and the world’s jumping to their regulated beat.
In the film’s sustained, exhilarating central movement, the battling factions and the police try to beat each other in ferrying the baton out of China, leading to the teeth-gnashing moment between two intermediate members. Kun (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung), functionary for a boss who’s signed on with Big D because he’ll sell their drugs at a higher rate, beats Lok loyalist Big Head (Suet Lam) with a log to get him to give up the baton, whilst Big Head recites the words of their triad oath, explicating the bizarre bond of corporeal grit and spiritual adherence that keeps the Triad bound together. But then Kun gets a call from his boss, telling him the plan’s changed: he’s now to make sure that the baton comes home to Lok, and he has to apologise to the bloodied, battered Big Head before immediately leaving with the baton, knocking over a policeman in his relentless drive back to Hong Kong. He then passes the baton on to motorcycle-riding, hard-as-nails kung-fu warrior Jet (Nick Cheung), who was first glimpsed in the film taking offence to Big D’s patronising jokes, which caused him to crush up and eat a ceramic spoon as a fuck-you to the wannabe overlord; we know then he’d rather die than let Big D get the baton. With Jimmy Lee, who manages to intercept him, they beat off a mob of his men, Jimmy stuffing one heavy into a barrel and stomping on the lid until he’s trapped like a Looney Tunes character and Jet finishing up with a machete jutting from his shoulder. But the pair’s grit sees them victorious and Lok gains the baton. It’s the most generically satisfying part of the film as a blindingly executed piece of action.
Terrific little details flitter by at high speed, like the “you’re full of shit!” look Jimmy wears in listening to Uncle Sam’s swearing he’s not going to gamble any more, or Teng recalling how the baton once had to be sprayed down with insecticide after the last election because the former holder was such a slob. There are points in Election where even fierce attention won’t really reward a first-time viewer. Many of the bosses and their henchmen are swiftly introduced and barely distinguishable, though that’s probably intentional. Lok’s supine calm and Big D’s hot-headed smarm are, on the other hand, very carefully contrasted to carefully manipulate initial impressions. Lok, with his calm demeanour and general reputation for honour and chivalry within the triad, seems by far the better man, yet one senses that Lok’s security in his sense of power gives him a great capacity for ruthlessness. This is proven when, to make sure Whistle doesn’t blab to the cops, he has Whistle’s son run down by a truck and threatens that his daughter will be next, causing Whistle to commit suicide by pulling out his own life support. Once the baton’s in Lok’s hands, he reaches out to Big D, bringing him into his plan to expand the Wo Sing’s turf by taking over another triad’s territory: Big D pretends then to make an alliance with that triad’s boss, Brother Dinosaur (Bo Yuen), only to team with Lok to kill him, Big D relishing stabbing and kicking the dying man. All suddenly seems right in the Wo Sing world again.
But To saves his most brutal and amazing flourish for the very end: when Lok, Denny, and Mr. and Mrs. Big D share a bucolic afternoon fishing, Big D, pleased by how things are going, suggests that he and Lok share the Wo Sing governorship as some other triad bosses have done. Lok says they’ll have to talk it over with the fellow bosses, and then, when Denny and Mrs. D are momentarily absent, he picks up a huge rock and bashes Big D’s head in with it. Mrs. D sees him and tries to run away, but Lok catches her, throttles her, and buries her with her husband in an unmarked grave, before calmly driving home with his son, who witnessed his violence, in glazed, silent trauma, into a blood-red sunset.
The ending is both a ruthlessly concise trash job on the veneer of gangland civility that brings to mind the climax of Scorsese’s Casino (1995)—indeed, the thought of Scorsese having remade this film rather than the far less inspired Infernal Affairs is a tantalising one—with its galvanising, surprisingly prolonged, and truthful violence, but it’s also a coldly logical culmination of all that has proceeded. Lok’s unremitting execution of his rival and his problematic wife is both power politics defined, and obedience to the creed of the triad. Big D has violated the society’s laws and defied the judgement of the uncles, and he pays the price for that violation in the same way that Big Head defended the laws: at the cost of having his body pummelled, but this time unto death. This hardly leavens the final disturbing vision of Lam Lok as a brutal psychopath, his son’s haunted look saying all that’s necessary about life in this world even as they slip back into their social roles. The savage excellence of this coda elevates Election far above the pack. l