First things first; Jaws is not about a shark. It may have a shark in it – and indeed all over the poster, the soundtrack album, the paperback jacket and so on. It may have scared a generation of cinemagoers out of the water for fear of being bitten in half by the “teeth of the sea”. But the underlying story of Jaws is more complex than the simple terror of being eaten by a very big fish. As a novel, it reads like a morality tale about the dangers of extramarital sex and the inability of a weak father to control his family and his community. As a film, it has been variously interpreted as everything from a depiction of masculinity in crisis to a post-Watergate paranoid parable about corrupt authority figures. But as a cultural phenomenon, the real story of Jaws is how a B-movie-style creature-feature became a genre-defining blockbuster that changed the face of modern cinema. In the wake of the epochal opening of Jaws 40 years ago, the film industry would find itself on the brink of a brave new world wherein saturation marketing and mall-rat teen audiences were the keys to untold riches. To this day, many consider the template of contemporary blockbuster releases to have been laid down in the summer of 1975 by a movie that redefined the parameters of a “hit” – artistically, demographically, financially.
According to David Brown, one of the film’s producers: “Almost everyone remembers when they first saw Jaws. They say, I remember the theatre I was in, I remember what I did when I went home – I wouldn’t even draw the bathwater.” I was no exception. I first saw the movie at the ABC Turnpike Lane in north London at the age of 12. It was a Sunday afternoon and I’d had to catch two separate buses to get to the cinema. I sat on the right-hand side of the packed auditorium and I remember very clearly finding the opening sequence so alarming that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through the rest of the film. As I told director Steven Spielberg several decades later, watching poor Susan Backlinie being dragged violently back and forth by an unseen underwater assailant, screaming blue murder, I genuinely feared that I would lose control of my bodily functions (“I like that!” laughed the director).
The lenient A certificate had meant that I’d been able to see the movie on my own, without an accompanying parent or guardian, merely the warning that “the film may be unsuitable for young children”. But the entire cinema seemed utterly traumatised by that unforgettable opening sequence, and in the wake of this ruthlessly efficient curtain-raiser (you see nothing, but fear everything), two people hurried to the exit. As they left, I remember whispering to myself in a state of sublime terror: “I am never going swimming again, I am never going swimming again…”
This, of course, had been the reaction of millions of cinemagoers in the US, where Jaws had become a summer movie sensation. In his influential essay, The New Hollywood, film historian Thomas Schatz notes that Jaws “recalibrated the profit potential of the Hollywood hit and redefined its status as a marketable commodity and cultural phenomenon as well”. Significantly, it achieved this success at a time when “most calculated hits were released during the Christmas holidays”. Not so Jaws, which according to David Brown was “deliberately delayed until people were in the water off the summer beach resorts”. Indeed, one of the film’s most memorable tag-lines was “See it before you go swimming!”. Yet it wasn’t just the resorts where Jaws showed its box‑office teeth.
Despite the fact that the summer months had traditionally been slow for cinemas (why go to the movies when the sun is shining?), Spielberg’s brilliantly constructed shocker struck a nerve with young audiences whose natural environment was not the beach but the shopping mall. Between 1965 and 1970, the number of malls in America had grown from 1,500 to 12,500 and Jaws rode high on the growing wave of multiplex cinemas that these urban meccas increasingly housed. Along with confirming “the viability of the summer hit, indicating an adjustment in seasonal release tactics”, Schatz also argues that Jaws struck a chord with a new generation of moviegoers who had “time and spending money and a penchant for wandering suburban shopping malls and for repeated viewings of their favourite films”. It didn’t hurt that these malls were air-conditioned, with the multiplex cinemas they increasingly housed providing a cool alternative to the sweltering summer heat.
In the wake of Jaws’s extraordinary success, film-makers and studios started to see the summer months not as dog days but as prime time, something that had previously only been true for the declining drive-in market. “The summer blockbuster was born on 20 June 1975, when Jaws opened wide,” wrote the Financial Times’s Nigel Andrews, adding: “In the years after Jaws, the entire release calendar changed.”
This change was apparently confirmed two years later by the May 1977 opening of George Lucas’s Star Wars, with its sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi setting new benchmarks for seasonal franchise profitability. In the process, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas became two of the most influential people in Hollywood, the men who, according to popular folklore, had invented the “summer blockbuster”.
Jaws opened across North America on 464 screens amid an unprecedented publicity blitz: $2.5m was spent on promotion, a substantial chunk of which went on TV advertising, still a novelty at that time. Promotional tie-ins, including Jaws-themed ice-creams, were everywhere. I remember being on holiday in the Isle of Man long before the film’s UK opening (it didn’t arrive here until December) and buying the novel, the T-shirt and a garish Jaws pendant, all on the strength of the insane levels of news coverage that the film’s US opening provoked. “Lifeguards were falling asleep at their stations,” remembered the film’s other producer, Richard Zanuck, “because nobody was going in the water; they were on the beach reading their book”. In the first 38 days of its release, Jaws sold 25m tickets; its rentals in 1975 were a record-breaking $102.5m. When adjusted for inflation, the film’s total worldwide box office is now estimated at close to $2bn.
Such staggering success proved game-changing, establishing the financial merit of the “front-loading” strategy, which used saturation marketing to turn a movie into an event. According to Carl Gottlieb, who shares Jaws’s screenwriting credit with Peter Benchley: “That notion of selling a picture as an event, as a phenomenon, as a destination, was born with that release.”
Today, received wisdom has it that Jaws essentially redefined the economic models of Hollywood. This change led to some staggering box-office bonanzas, but it has come at a price. “My husband keeps citing this as the movie that changed the way movies are made,” says Jaws actress (and wife of former Universal boss Sid Sheinberg) Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody) in the 1997 BBC documentary In the Teeth of Jaws. “It got us to where we are today, which is, if it’s not a hundred-million-dollar movie, it doesn’t get the kind of support it needs from the studio. It was a good thing at the time [but] it’s an awful legacy to now have everyone used to an enormous hit-you-over-the-head television campaign which costs so much money.”
Whether or not Jaws really did change the film industry for ever is one of the subjects to be debated at the Jaws 40th Anniversary Symposium at De Montfort University, Leicester, later in June. Here, prominent academics Peter Krämer and Sheldon Hall will go head to head on the still-heated question of whether Jaws was indeed the “first blockbuster” (Hall thinks not), while others debate subjects as esoteric as “masculinity and crisis in Jaws”, “Jaws and eco-feminism” and (most tantalisingly) “Jaws: the case of the archetypal American villain as queer dissident attacking the heteronormative”.
Conference convener Ian Hunter says that the purpose of the event is to investigate the movie’s progress from popcorn hit to cinema classic. “The thing about Jaws is that it’s open to so many interpretations,” says Hunter. “It can be about Watergate, or the bomb, or masculinity, or whatever. Some critics have claimed that it marks the point that Hollywood became more interested in archetypes than characters, but it was also the birth of a new kind of family film. I remember seeing it in Plymouth on Boxing Day 1975 and thinking that this was really a film for us, for the generation of The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, offering the kind of thrills that had previously been the domain of X-rated movies. For me, it remains one of the truly great and lasting classics of American cinema, a perfect piece of movie-making.”
Jaws began life as a 1974 novel by Peter Benchley about a seaside resort named Amity that is terrorised by a great white shark. Police chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider in the film, orders the beaches to be closed, but the mayor and local businessmen insist they stay open – with tragic results. Eventually, Brody is forced to take to the sea with professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to hunt down the shark and save the town.
Film rights were secured by Zanuck and Brown for $150,000 (plus $25,000 for a first draft of the script) before the novel had been published (the book sold 5.5m copies before the movie opened). After potential director Dick Richards reportedly blew the assignment by repeatedly referring to the shark as “a whale”, the producers turned to rising director Steven Spielberg, who had just finished work on his feature debut, The Sugarland Express, and had made waves with the TV movie Duel, which pitted an emasculated Dennis Weaver against a giant, predatory truck.
“I always thought that Jaws was kind of like an aquatic version of Duel,” Spielberg told me in 2006, when I interviewed him for a BBC Culture Show special on the eve of his 60th birthday. “It was once again about a very large predator, you know, chasing innocent people and consuming them – irrationally. It was an eating machine. At the same time, I think it was also my own fear of the water. I’ve always been afraid of the water, I was never a very good swimmer. And that probably motivated me more than anything else to want to tell that story.”
The production of Jaws proved problematic from the outset. First, there was the screenplay, which was still in flux when principal photography began in May 1974 (Richard Dreyfuss famously declared: “We started without a script, without a cast and without a shark”). Three drafts of the Jaws script were produced by Benchley before playwright Howard Sackler was brought in to do uncredited rewrites. But still things weren’t quite right and 10 days before the shoot Carl Gottlieb was enlisted to work with Spielberg on some dialogue scenes, bringing more warmth and “levity” to the often unlikable characters. Gottlieb would continue to do rewrites throughout the production, often incorporating material improvised in rehearsal by the cast, with added input from John Milius.
With a projected budget of between $3.5m and $4m, filming got under way at the Massachusetts resort of Martha’s Vineyard. Several residents were cast in minor roles, but a few feathers were ruffled by the prospect of a Hollywood production rolling into town. “Martha’s Vineyard is a very upmarket place,” says Nick Jones, producer/director of In the Teeth of Jaws. “There is a somewhat snobby element of the super-rich, but the businesses rely on tourist dollars. So there was a little tension between those who wanted the film crew there and those who didn’t. For example, when the production needed to build Quint’s shack on a vacant harbour lot, they were refused planning permission even though it was only a set. Finally, they were allowed to continue on the proviso that they put everything back exactly the way it was, including the trash!”
Nowadays, Martha’s Vineyard attracts a steady stream of tourists eager to visit the locations where Jaws was filmed. “It really is like walking around a movie set,” says Jones. “Before Jaws, there was a certain notoriety from the Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick scandal, but the movie really eclipsed that. When we were making the documentary, we went with Lee Fierro [the Martha’s Vineyard resident who plays Mrs Kintner in the movie] to the stretch of coast where the beach scenes for Jaws were filmed. It’s very exciting to see those vistas that have become so iconic. And we got taken out to the wreck of the Orca [Quint’s boat], which was just a shell sticking out of the edge of the water. It was bizarre; we stood in it and touched it – it was like touching a piece of the true cross.”
The Jaws shoot was originally scheduled for 55 days, but the production swiftly turned into a logistical nightmare when the mechanical shark (three full-size, pneumatically animated models were constructed) consistently failed to play ball. Nicknamed Bruce after Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce Ramer, the shark had been built by Bob Mattey, who had created the giant squid for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The models worked fine in the warehouse, but the minute they were dumped into seawater, they started to malfunction. Day after day went by without any usable footage being shot, storms and seasickness the film-makers’ only reward.
Recalling the ordeal of the shoot, Spielberg told me: “Jaws to me was a near-death experience – and a ‘career death’ experience! I went to a party on Martha’s Vineyard and a very well-known actress came over to me and said, ‘I just came back from LA and everybody says this picture is a complete stinker. It’s a total failure and nobody will ever hire you again because you’re profligate in your spending and you’re irresponsible. Everybody’s calling you irresponsible!’ I had never heard the scuttle before, I didn’t ever hear the noise that was coming from Hollywood about me. So I was halfway through shooting the picture and this person tells me that my movie’s a disaster, and I am a disaster, and it’s over. And I really believed for the second half of the film that this was the last time I was ever going to shoot a film on 35mm.”
The lengthy shoot took its toll on the cast too. In particular, tensions emerged between Dreyfuss and Shaw to match those between their respective characters, ichthyologist Matt Hooper and crusty shark-hunter Quint. Partly modelled on local character Craig Kingsbury (who has a small role in the movie as the ill-fated Ben Gardner), Quint is a hard-drinking troublemaker who takes pleasure in taunting his city boy colleagues. It was a role into which Shaw threw himself with scene-stealing gusto, to the alarm of Dreyfuss. “There was a kind of sparring that went on between us,” Dreyfuss told the BBC in 1997. “It was both playful and – on my part – desperate. [Shaw] knew how to dish it out so you had to learn how to dish it back. He could be very vicious and his humour could be very cutting.” And, like his character, Shaw enjoyed a drink.
But while Shaw proved a somewhat volatile presence, his work on screen was note-perfect, which was more than could be said for the shark. By the time the film-makers had enough usable footage in the can, the production was more than 100 days over schedule, with the budget spiralling toward the $9m mark, $3m of which had been blown on what Spielberg derisively called “the special defects department”. Yet Bruce’s failure to function proved the making of the film. Unable to get the shark action shots he wanted, Spielberg was forced to take a more Hitchcockian approach, working with editor Verna Fields to conjure tense sequences in which what we don’t see is more important that what we do. Meanwhile, composer John Williams filled in the gaps where the shark should be with an ominous score that has become as synonymous with screen terror as Bernard Herrmann’s themes from Psycho. The result was pure magic, causing Spielberg to concede that “had the shark been working, perhaps the film would have made half the money and been half as scary”.
It wasn’t until Jaws was test-screened at the Medallion theatre, Dallas, in March 1975 that the film-makers got the sense that they were on to a hit. “That was the first time I realised that the shark worked, the movie worked, everything about it worked,” Spielberg told me. “The audience came out of their seats. Popcorn was flying in front of the screen twice during the movie. And then I got greedy and thought, gee, could I make the popcorn fly out of their boxes three times? And that’s when I shot that scene in my editor Verna’s pool. I had this idea that maybe when Richard [Dreyfuss] goes underwater to dig the tooth out [of the sunken boat], what if Ben Gardner’s entire head comes out of the hole? And so I shot it in her pool with a prosthetic head and a plywood boat.”
The scene of Ben Gardner’s mutilated head floating into view did indeed prove a showstopper. It was just one of a number of intense, gory sequences that earned Jaws the reputation of being the most shocking movie ever to be awarded a family-friendly PG rating in the US. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, critic Charles Champlin complained that “the PG rating is grievously wrong and misleading… Jaws is too gruesome for children and likely to turn the stomach of the impressionable at any age.” (The Motion Picture Association of America defended its lenient rating by pointing out that “nobody ever got mugged by a shark”.)
All of which brings us back to the thorny question of what Jaws is really about. For years, I have insisted that Jaws is a classic monster movie “morality tale” in which the watery fate of potential victims is sealed by their on-land behaviour. Stephen King memorably wrote: “Within the frame of most horror tales we find a moral code so strong it would make a Puritan smile”, and that certainly seems to apply to Jaws. Key to this reading is the character of Hooper, who [plot spoilers ahead!] dies in the novel after having a sordid fling with Brody’s wife, Ellen, but miraculously survives on screen, largely because the affair doesn’t happen in the film. Benchley, who makes a cameo appearance in the movie as a news reporter, remembers that the very first thing Zanuck told him when writing the script was to lose “that love story, the whole sex nonsense”. Spielberg agreed, confirming to me that “my first impulse was to get rid of the melodrama and the soap opera aspects of the novel, the whole love affair with the ichthyologist and the police chief’s wife”. Instead, he wanted to “go right for that third act”, cutting to the chase with dramatic results. But once the affair had been removed, so too was the subtextual justification for Hooper’s violent death.
Although the official explanation for Hooper surviving the shark-cage attack was the unplanned wrecking of the empty cage by a real-life predator (and stuntman Carl Rizzo’s understandable reluctance to get back in the water), it seemed clear to me that without the infidelity subplot Hooper became a heroic character who had to live. When I interviewed Spielberg in 2006, he reluctantly conceded that there was some logic in this. But by the time I spoke to him again in 2012, for BBC Radio 5 Live, he wasn’t buying it.
“The shark doesn’t care whether you’re married or single,” he laughed. “It just wants to eat ya!” But what about Hooper’s survival? I insisted. Surely that only makes sense because you cut out the affair? “Well, I cut the soap opera because I wanted to go out and do a sea-hunt movie,” Spielberg demurred. “I wasn’t interested in doing Peyton Place.”
So, Jaws isn’t a film about infidelity? (Or masculinity? Or Watergate? Or whatever?)
“No,” replied Spielberg definitively. “It’s a film about a shark.”
King Kong (1933)
King Kong is one of the seminal films of the sound era and this early monster movie pointed the way toward the current era of special effects, science fiction, cataclysmic destruction, and nonstop shocks. "King Kong" is the father of "Jurassic Park," the "Alien" movies and countless other stories in which heroes are terrified by skillful special effects.
I've seen "King Kong" (1933) many times, most memorably in its re-release in the 1950s, when it did indeed scare me. In recent years I have focused on the remarkable special effects, based by Willis O'Brien and others on his f/x work in "The Lost World" (1925) but achieving a sophistication and beauty that eclipsed anything that went before. The movie plunders every trick in the book to create its illusions, using live action, back projection, stop-motion animation, miniatures, models, matte paintings and sleight-of-hand. And it is not stingy with the effects; after a half-hour of slightly lumbering dialogue and hammy acting, the movie introduces Kong and rarely cuts away from sequences requiring one kind of trickery or another.
But "King Kong" is more than a technical achievement. It is also a curiously touching fable in which the beast is seen, not as a monster of destruction, but as a creature that in its own way wants to do the right thing. Unlike the extraterrestrial spiders in the "Alien" pictures, which embody single-minded aggression, Kong cares for his captive human female, protects her, attacks only when provoked, and would be perfectly happy to be left alone on his Pacific Island. It is the greed of a Hollywood showman that unleashes Kong's rage, and anyone who thinks to exhibit the beast on a New York stage in front of a live audience deserves what he gets--indeed, more than he gets.
The movie was directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Scheodsack, and produced by them with the legendary David O. Selznick, then head of RKO Radio Pictures. Selznick took little credit for the film, saying his key contribution was to put O'Brien's f/x techniques together with Cooper and Schoedsack's story ideas.
Although it has the scope and feel of an expensive epic, "Kong" had a relatively moderate budget of about $600,000. Sequences that would take weeks these days--such as when Kong shakes a log to dislodge the men clinging to it--were done in two days, and the giant wall that separates the island villagers from the monster was a set originally built as the Temple of Jerusalem for Cecil B. DeMille's "King of Kings" (1927). Although Fay Wray had been in movies since 1923 and was a B-list star, her leading man, Bruce Cabot, was appearing in his first picture after having been spotted by Cooper as the doorman in a Hollywood club.
The story is not sophisticated. A movie director (Robert Armstrong) hires a ship, recruits his leading lady from off the streets of New York at the last moment, and sails for a mysterious Pacific island he heard about in Singapore. The island contains a legendary giant ape, which he hopes to use as the star of his movie. Fay Wray plays Ann Darrow, Kong's co-star, and Cabot is the sailor who falls in love with her and saves her from Kong.
Modern viewers will shift uneasily in their seats during the stereotyping of the islanders in a scene where a bride is to be sacrificed to Kong (it is rare to see a coconut brassiere in a non-comedy), but from the moment Kong appears on the screen the movie essentially never stops for breath. In an astonishing outpouring of creative energy, O'Brien and his collaborators (including RKO's legendary visual effects artist Linwood Dunn and sound man Murray Spivack) show Kong in battle with two dinosaurs, a giant snake, a flying reptile and a Tyrannosaurus rex. Later, in New York, he will climb to the top of the Empire State Building and bat down a biplane with his bare hand.
The visual techniques are explained by film historian Ron Haver, whose commentary track on the 1985 Criterion laser disc was one of the first ever recorded. He is amusing in describing how some live-action scenes were miniaturized to make the Kong model look larger; searching for the right screen to project them on, the filmmakers hit on a screen made of condoms, to the consternation of a nearby druggist who could not understand their orders for a gross at a time. Haver also observes how Kong's fur seems to crawl during several scenes; the model was covered with rabbit fur, and the fingers of the stop-action animators disturbed it between every stop-action shot. The effect, explained by the filmmakers as "muscles rippling," is oddly effective.
From the moment of its making, "King Kong" fell under the censors' scissors. Cooper himself removed one notorious sequence after the world premiere: The men shaken from the log fell into a chasm where they were devoured by giant spiders, but the effect “stopped the picture in its tracks,” people walked out, and Cooper cut it. Another scene was taken out after the Motion Picture Code came into being. It shows Kong curiously removing some of Wray's clothes, tickling her, and sniffing his fingers. Closeups of humans being crunched between Kong's jaws were also cut for various versions, but now the movie is intact again--except for the spiders.
How terrifying was it, really? Variety's original 1933 review conceded that "after the audience becomes used to the machinelike movements and other mechanical flaws in the gigantic animals on view, and become accustomed to the phony atmosphere, they may commence to feel the power." The showbiz Bible Variety complained, however, "it's a film-long screaming session for [Wray], too much for any actress and any audience." Yes, but nobody has ever forgotten that performance. (At a Hollywood party in 1972, I saw Hugh Hefner introduced to Fay Wray. "I loved your movie," he told her. "Which one?" she asked.)
Variety then and now was hard to impress, but my guess, based upon my first viewing as a teenager, is that audiences found it plenty scary. In modern times the movie has aged, as critic James Berardinelli observes, and "advances in technology and acting have dated aspects of the production." Yes, but in the very artificiality of some of the special effects, there is a creepiness that isn't there in today's slick, flawless, computer-aided images.
In "Jurassic Park" you are looking, more or less, at a real dinosaur. In "King Kong," you are looking at anideaof a dinosaur, created by hand by technicians who are working with their imaginations. When Kong battles the large flesh-eating dinosaur in his first big battle scene, there is a moment when he forces its jaws apart, and the bones crack, and blood drips from the gaping throat, and something immediate happens that is hard to duplicate on any computer.
There are of course questions we cannot help asking. Haver asks one: Why did the natives build a door in their wall, so that Kong could come through? Common sense asks another: How tall is Kong, really? (The filmmakers take poetic license: He's 18 feet tall on the island, 24 feet on stage, 50 feet on the Empire State Building.) Even allowing for its slow start, dated acting and wall-to-wall screaming, there is something ageless and primeval about "King Kong" that still somehow works.
Roger Ebert, 2002
Kubrick considered "The Killing" (1956) to be his first mature feature, after a couple of short warm-ups. He was 28 when it was released, having already been an obsessed chess player, a photographer for Look magazine and a director of "March of Time" newsreels. It's tempting to search here for themes and a style he would return to in his later masterpieces, but few directors seemed so determined to make every one of his films an individual, free-standing work. Seeing it without his credit, would you guess it was by Kubrick? Would you connect "Dr. Strangelove" with "Barry Lyndon?"
This is a heist movie. Like horror films, heists are a genre that make stars not so necessary. The durable form inspires directors to create plots that are baffling in their complexity or bold in their simplicity. In "Bonnie and Clyde," the gang parks in front of a bank, walks in with guns, and walks out (in theory) with the loot. In David Mamet's "Heist," the characters are involved in interlocking levels of cons being pulled on each other. In "Rififi," a theft involves a plan of almost unnecessary acrobatic ingenuity. Kubrick's plan here for a race track robbery involves two of those plot aspects; not so much the acrobatics. His narrative approach seems blunt, but the narrative itself is so labyrinthine we abandon any hope of trying to piece it together and just abandon ourselves to letting it happen. We feel in safe hands.
Perhaps a motif can be found in the movie's storefront chess club which, I learn, Kubrick frequented as a kid. His gang leader Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) goes there to meet a professional wrestler named Maurice, played by a professional wrestler named Kola Kwariani. Maurice is big and strong and is needed to start a fight at the race track bar to divert attention during the heist. Like all the members of Johnny's team, he has no idea of the overall plot. He just knows his role and his payoff, and knows Johnny enough to trust him.
The game of chess involves holding in your mind several alternate possibilities. The shifting of one piece can result in a radically different game. Johnny Clay has devised a strategy seemingly as flawless as Bobby Fischer's "Perfect Games," but it depends on all the players making the required moves on schedule. If a piece shifts, everything changes, a possibility Johnny should have given more thought to.
The movie is narrated in an exact, passionless voice by the uncredited Art Gilmore, a veteran radio announcer. He places great emphasis on precise dates and times of day, although really only one day and time are crucial--4 p. m., the starting time of a $100,000 high stakes horse race. The rest of his narration serves only to confirm what we can see for ourselves, that the events on screen are not happening in chronological order. The plot jumps around like a chess player's mind: "If he does this, and I do that, and then he.."
In the few days before the heist, Johnny makes the rounds of his team members. We meet them at the same time. There's a large cast, made easy to follow because of typecasting and the familiar faces of many supporting players. Let's see. In no particular order (which would please the narrator), there are Fay (Coleen Gray), Johnny's girl; Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), an old friend who is putting up the cost of the operation; Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia), a crooked cop; Sherry Peatty (Marie Windsor), a gold-digging floozy; her husband George Peatty (Elisha Cook), a weakling race track cashier who hopes to buy her affection; Val Cannon (Vince Edwards), Sherry's actual lover; Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer), the racetrack bartender who needs money for his sick wife; Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey), a rifle sharpshooter; Leo the Loan shark (Jay Adler), and assorted others. Kubrick brings all these types onscreen, makes it clear who they are and sees that we will remember them, while only gradually revealing their roles in the heist.
Filmed largely in San Mateo and Venice, Calif., and at the Bay Meadows Racetrack, the movie has the look and feel of glorious 1950s black and white film noir. On a budget of $230,000, Kubrick uses a lot of actual locations. We see a shabby motel with residential rooms by the week or month, the low-rent "luxury" of the Peatty's apartment, the sun-washed streets. Many heist movies feature a chalk talk in which the leader explains the scenario to his gang so that we can visualize it; Jean-Pierre Melville's version of this scene adds immeasurably to "Bob le Flambeur." Kubrick puts his pieces in place but only when the actual plan is underway do we understand them. We go in like a chess player who knows what the Rook, Knight and Queen do, but doesn't know what will happen in the game. Nor, it turns out, do they all know the rules.
I wouldn't think of giving away the game. The writing and editing are the keys to how this film never seems to be the deceptive assembly that it is, but appears to be proceeding on schedule, whatever that schedule is. We accept even action that makes absolutely no sense, as in a crucial moment involving Nikki the sharpshooter. Required to hit a moving target with a rifle with telescopic sights, he inexplicably parks his sports car, a convertible with the top down, in plain view in a parking lot so that anyone can see him take out the rifle, aim and fire. In theory they're looking elsewhere. In practice his personality gets him in trouble.
Sterling Hayden was a considerable screen presence with his tough guy face and his pouting lower lip. His gravel voice lays out instructions and requirements in a flat, factual manner; his gang members take them at face value. He never displays much emotion, not even at the end, when a great deal might be justified. We don't see passion, fear, greed. He could be a chess player in the Zone. He has a streak of nihilism. The most colorful players are Marie Windsor, famously known as Marie Windsor, and Elisha Cook, famous for playing milquetoasts and chumps in the movies of four decades. She wraps him around her little finger, and he comes back for more.
Considering that it cheerfully abandons any attempt at chronological suspense, "The Killing" is an unreasonable success. The prize will be $2 million--the day's expected total receipts at the track. This heist is worth a lot of planning, and Johnny has gone the distance. In his mind his plan is superb. All it depends upon is everybody doing exactly what is required of them, exactly when and where. The word that occurs to me in describing Kubrick's approach to Johnny and the film, is "control." That may suggest the link between this first mature feature and Kubrick's later films, so varied and brilliant.
In his films, he had the plan in his mind. He knew where everyone should be and what they should do. Such a perfectionist was Kubrick that he knew every theater his films were opening in, and the daily grosses. It's said that a projectionist in Kansas City received a phone call from Kubrick in England, informing him that the picture was out of focus. Is that story apocryphal? I've never thought so.
THE MALTESE FALCON
Among the movies we not only love but treasure, “The Maltese Falcon” stands as a great divide. Consider what was true after its release in 1941 and was not true before:
(1) The movie defined Humphrey Bogart's performances for the rest of his life; his hard-boiled Sam Spade rescued him from a decade of middling roles in B gangster movies and positioned him for “Casablanca,” “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The African Queen” and his other classics.
(2) It was the first film directed by John Huston, who for more than 40 years would be a prolific maker of movies that were muscular, stylish and daring.
(3) It contained the first screen appearance of Sydney Greenstreet, who went on, in “Casablanca” and many other films, to become one of the most striking character actors in movie history.
(4) It was the first pairing of Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, and so well did they work together that they made nine other movies, including “Casablanca” in 1942 and “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1944), in which they were not supporting actors but actually the stars.
(5) And some film histories consider “The Maltese Falcon” the first film noir. It put down the foundations for that native American genre of mean streets, knife-edged heroes, dark shadows and tough dames.
Of course film noir was waiting to be born. It was already there in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, who wrote The Maltese Falcon, and the work of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, John O'Hara and the other boys in the back room. “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” wrote Chandler, and that was true of his hero Philip Marlowe (another Bogart character). But it wasn't true of Hammett's Sam Spade, whowasmean, and who set the stage for a decade in which unsentimental heroes talked tough and cracked wise.
The moment everyone remembers from “The Maltese Falcon” comes near the end, when Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) has been collared for murdering Spade's partner. She says she loves Spade. She asks if Sam loves her. She pleads for him to spare her from the law. And he replies, in a speech some people can quote by heart, “I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. . . . The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.”
Cold. Spade is cold and hard, like his name. When he gets the news that his partner has been murdered, he doesn't blink an eye. Didn't like the guy. Kisses his widow the moment they're alone together. Beats up Joel Cairo (Lorre) not just because he has to, but because he carries a perfumed handkerchief, and you know what that meant in a 1941 movie. Turns the rough stuff on and off. Loses patience with Greenstreet, throws his cigar into the fire, smashes his glass, barks out a threat, slams the door and then grins to himself in the hallway, amused by his own act.
If he didn't like his partner, Spade nevertheless observes a sort of code involving his death. “When a man's partner is killed,” he tells Brigid, “he's supposed to do something about it.” He doesn't like the cops, either; the only person he really seems to like is his secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick), who sits on his desk, lights his cigarettes, knows his sins and accepts them. How do Bogart and Huston get away with making such a dark guy the hero of a film? Because he does his job according to the rules he lives by, and because we sense (as we always would with Bogart after this role) that the toughness conceals old wounds and broken dreams.
John Huston had worked as a writer at Warner Bros. before convincing the studio to let him direct. “The Maltese Falcon” was his first choice, even though it had been filmed twice before by Warners (in 1931 under the same title and in 1936 as “Satan Met a Lady”). “They were such wretched pictures,” Huston told his biographer, Lawrence Grobel. He saw Hammett's vision more clearly, saw that the story was not about plot but about character, saw that to soften Sam Spade would be deadly, fought the tendency (even then) for the studio to pine for a happy ending.
When he finished his screenplay, he set to work story-boarding it, sketching every shot. That was the famous method of Alfred Hitchcock, whose “Rebecca” won the Oscar as the best picture of 1940. Like Orson Welles, who was directing “Citizen Kane” across town, Huston was excited by new stylistic possibilities; he gave great thought to composition and camera movement. To view the film in a stop-action analysis, as I have, is to appreciate complex shots that work so well they seem simple. Huston and his cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, accomplished things that in their way were as impressive as what Welles and Gregg Toland were doing on “Kane.”
Consider an astonishing unbroken seven-minute take. Grobel's bookThe Hustonsquotes Meta Wilde, Huston's longtime script supervisor: “It was an incredible camera setup. We rehearsed two days. The camera followed Greenstreet and Bogart from one room into another, then down a long hallway and finally into a living room; there the camera moved up and down in what is referred to as a boom-up and boom-down shot, then panned from left to right and back to Bogart's drunken face; the next pan shot was to Greenstreet's massive stomach from Bogart's point of view. . . . One miss and we had to begin all over again.”
Was the shot just a stunt? Not at all; most viewers don't notice it because they're swept along by its flow. And consider another shot, where Greenstreet chatters about the falcon while waiting for a drugged drink to knock out Bogart. Huston's strategy is crafty. Earlier, Greenstreet has set it up by making a point: “I distrust a man who says 'when.' If he's got to be careful not to drink too much, it's because he's not to be trusted when he does.” Now he offers Bogart a drink, but Bogart doesn't sip from it. Greenstreet talks on, and tops up Bogart's glass. He still doesn't drink. Greenstreet watches him narrowly. They discuss the value of the missing black bird. Finally, Bogart drinks, and passes out. The timing is everything; Huston doesn't give us closeups of the glass to underline the possibility that it's drugged. He depends on the situation to generate the suspicion in our minds. (This was, by the way, Greenstreet's first scene in the movies.)
The plot is the last thing you think of about “The Maltese Falcon.” The black bird (said to be made of gold and encrusted with jewels) has been stolen, men have been killed for it, and now Gutman (Greenstreet) has arrived with his lackeys (Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr.) to get it back. Spade gets involved because the Mary Astor character hires him to--but the plot goes around and around, and eventually we realize that the black bird is an example of Hitchcock's “MacGuffin”--it doesn't matter what it is, so long as everyone in the story wants or fears it.
To describe the plot in a linear and logical fashion is almost impossible. That doesn't matter. The movie is essentially a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes. It's all style. It isn't violence or chases, but the way the actors look, move, speak and embody their characters. Under the style is attitude: Hard men, in a hard season, in a society emerging from Depression and heading for war, are motivated by greed and capable of murder. For an hourly fee, Sam Spade will negotiate this terrain. Everything there is to know about Sam Spade is contained in the scene where Bridget asks for his help and he criticizes her performance: “You're good. It's chiefly your eyes, I think--and that throb you get in your voice when you say things like, 'be generous, Mr. Spade.' “ He always stands outside, sizing things up. Few Hollywood heroes before 1941 kept such a distance from the conventional pieties of the plot.
This movie made my heart glad. It is filled with innocence, hope, and good cheer. It is also wickedly funny and exciting as hell. "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" is a movie like "The Wizard of Oz," that you can grow up with and grow old with, and it won't let you down. It tells a story about friendship and love. Some people are a little baffled when they hear it described: It's about a relationship between a little boy and a creature from outer space that becomes his best friend. That makes it sound like a cross between "The Thing" and "National Velvet." It works as science fiction, it's sometimes as scary as a monster movie, and at the end, when the lights go up, there's not a dry eye in the house.
The Great Movies Read Ebert's essay on what makes "E.T." one of the great movies. "E.T." is a movie of surprises, and I will not spoil any of them for you. But I can suggest some of the film's wonders. The movie takes place in and around a big American suburban development. The split-level houses march up and down the curved drives, carved out of hills that turn into forest a few blocks beyond the backyard. In this forest one night, a spaceship lands, and queer-looking little creatures hobble out of it and go snuffling through the night, looking for plant specimens, I guess. Humans arrive-authorities with flashlights and big stomping boots. They close in on the spaceship, and it is forced to take off and abandon one of its crew members. This forlorn little creature, the E.T. of the title, is left behind on Earth--abandoned to a horrendous world of dogs, raccoons, automobile exhausts and curious little boys.
The movie's hero is one particular little boy named Elliott. He is played by Henry Thomas in what has to be the best little boy performance I've ever seen in an American film. He doesn't come across as an overcoached professional kid; he's natural, defiant, easily touched, conniving, brave and childlike. He just knows there's something living out there in the backyard, and he sits up all night with his flashlight, trying to coax the creature out of hiding with a nearly irresistible bait: Reese's Pieces. The creature, which looks a little like Snoopy but is very, very wise, approaches the boy. They become friends. The E.T. moves into the house, and the center section of the film is an endless invention on the theme of an extra-terrestrial's introduction to bedrooms, televisions, telephones, refrigerators and six-packs of beer. The creature has the powers of telepathy and telekinesis, and one of the ways it communicates is to share its emotions with Elliott. That's how Elliott knows that the E.T. wants to go home.
And from here on out, I'd better not describe what happens. Let me just say that the movie has moments of sheer ingenuity, moments of high comedy, some scary moments and a very sad sequence that has everybody blowing their noses.
What is especially wonderful about all of those moments is that Steven Spielberg, who made this film, creates them out of legitimate and fascinating plot developments. At every moment from its beginning to its end, "E.T." is really about something. The story is quite a narrative accomplishment. It reveals facts about the E.T.'s nature; it develops the personalities of Elliott, his mother, brother and sister; it involves the federal space agencies; it touches on extra-terrestrial medicine, biology and communication, and still it inspires genuine laughter and tears.
A lot of those achievements rest on the very peculiar shoulders of the E.T. itself. With its odd little walk, its high-pitched squeals of surprise, its tentative imitations of human speech, and its catlike but definitely alien purring, E.T. becomes one of the most intriguing fictional creatures I've ever seen on a screen. The E.T. is a triumph of special effects, certainly; the craftsmen who made this little being have extended the boundaries of their art. But it's also a triumph of imagination, because the filmmakers had to imagine E.T., had to see through its eyes, hear with its ears, and experience this world of ours through its utterly alien experience in order to make a creature so absolutely convincing. The word for what they exercised is empathy.
"E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" is a reminder of what movies are for. Most movies are not for any one thing, of course. Some are to make us think, some to make us feel, some to take us away from our problems, some to help us examine them. What is enchanting about "E.T." is that, in some measure, it does all of those things.
THE GRADUATE (NOVEMBER 2019)
If ever a movie captured the audience’s imagination with its musical soundtrack, it was The Graduate, that irresistibly watchable 1967 classic, starring Anne Bancroft as the sexy and jaded fortysomething Mrs Robinson, who seduces 21-year-old Ben, played by the young Dustin Hoffman – that muddled young man whose sentimental education begins only after he graduates college.
Simon and Garfunkel’s eerie and sublime The Sound of Silence perfectly captures both Ben’s alienation and bewilderment about what he should do with his life, and then his postcoital disenchantment and self-loathing. And Here’s to You Mrs Robinson, with its gentle reassurance that Jesus loves her, provides a note of final gentleness and forgiveness for this character that is really nowhere in the script. It is, incidentally, very different from Billy Paul’s woozily sensual soul song Me and Mrs Jones, which came out four years later.
The Graduate itself does not seem the same in 2017 as it did in 1967. Then the emphasis was on sophisticated black comedy with a hint of 60s radicalism and student discontent – mediated through the older generation of suburbanites. It was a guy’s fantasy: Ben gets the older woman and his own Alfa Romeo (the “little red wop car” as his father’s friend charmlessly puts it).
Watched in the present day, the element of predatory abuse is inescapable. You cannot see it without wondering how it might look and feel if the sexual roles were reversed. But a modern audience might also, paradoxically, be much less content with the villainous role the film finally assigns to Mrs Robinson, be more sympathetic to her midlife crisis, and remember the pathos of her abandoned interest in art. Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s screenplay, adapted from Charles Webb’s 1963 novel, cleverly allows you to wonder if Mr Robinson was, in some conscious or subconscious way, complaisant in his wife’s adventure. The excellence of Katherine Ross as Mrs Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, is often overlooked. A hugely pleasurable film.
The year 1973 began and ended with cries of pain. It began with Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers,” and it closed with William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” Both films are about the weather of the human soul, and no two films could be more different. Yet each in its own way forces us to look inside, to experience horror, to confront the reality of human suffering. The Bergman film is a humanist classic. The Friedkin film is an exploitation of the most fearsome resources of the cinema. That does not make it evil, but it does not make it noble, either.
The difference, maybe, is between great art and great craftsmanship. Bergman’s exploration of the lines of love and conflict within the family of a woman dying of cancer was a film that asked important questions about faith and death, and was not afraid to admit there might not be any answers. Friedkin’s film is about a twelve-year-old girl who either is suffering from a severe neurological disorder or perhaps has been possessed by an evil spirit. Friedkin has the answers; the problem is that we doubt he believes them.
We don’t necessarily believe them ourselves, but that hardly matters during the film’s two hours. If movies are, among other things, opportunities for escapism, then “The Exorcist” is one of the most powerful ever made. Our objections, our questions, occur in an intellectual context after the movie has ended. During the movie there are no reservations, but only experiences. We feel shock, horror, nausea, fear, and some small measure of dogged hope.
Rarely do movies affect us so deeply. The first time I saw “Cries and Whispers,” I found myself shrinking down in my seat, somehow trying to escape from the implications of Bergman’s story. “The Exorcist” also has that effect--but we’re not escaping from Friedkin’s implications, we’re shrinking back from the direct emotional experience he’s attacking us with. This movie doesn’t rest on the screen; it’s a frontal assault.
The story is well-known; it’s adapted, more or less faithfully, by William Peter Blatty from his own bestseller. Many of the technical and theological details in his book are accurate. Most accurate of all is the reluctance of his Jesuit hero, Father Karras, to encourage the ritual of exorcism: “To do that,” he says, “I’d have to send the girl back to the sixteenth century.” Modern medicine has replaced devils with paranoia and schizophrenia, he explains. Medicine may have, but the movie hasn’t. The last chapter of the novel never totally explained in detail the final events in the tortured girl’s bedroom, but the movie’s special effects in the closing scenes leave little doubt that an actual evil spirit was in that room, and that it transferred bodies. Is this fair? I guess so; in fiction the artist has poetic license.
It may be that the times we live in have prepared us for this movie. And Friedkin has admittedly given us a good one. I’ve always preferred a generic approach to film criticism; I ask myself how good a movie is of its type. “The Exorcist” is one of the best movies of its type ever made; it not only transcends the genre of terror, horror, and the supernatural, but it transcends such serious, ambitious efforts in the same direction as Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is a greater film--but, of course, not nearly so willing to exploit the ways film can manipulate feeling.
“The Exorcist” does that with a vengeance. The film is a triumph of special effects. Never for a moment--not when the little girl is possessed by the most disgusting of spirits, not when the bed is banging and the furniture flying and the vomit is welling out--are we less than convinced. The film contains brutal shocks, almost indescribable obscenities. That it received an R rating and not the X is stupefying.
The performances are in every way appropriate to this movie made this way. Ellen Burstyn, as the possessed girl’s mother, rings especially true; we feel her frustration when doctors and psychiatrists talk about lesions on the brain and she knows there’s something deeper, more terrible, going on. Linda Blair, as the little girl, has obviously been put through an ordeal in this role, and puts us through one. Jason Miller, as the young Jesuit, is tortured, doubting, intelligent.
And the casting of Max von Sydow as the older Jesuit exorcist was inevitable; he has been through so many religious and metaphysical crises in Bergman’s films that he almost seems to belong on a theological battlefield the way John Wayne belonged on a horse. There’s a striking image early in the film
that has the craggy von Sydow facing an ancient, evil statue; the image doesn’t so much borrow from Bergman’s famous chess game between von Sydow and Death (in “The Seventh Seal”) as extend the conflict and raise the odds.
I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won’t be one, because what we get here aren’t the delicious chills of a Vincent Price thriller, but raw and painful experience. Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all? It’s hard to say.
Even in the extremes of Friedkin’s vision there is still a feeling that this is, after all, cinematic escapism and not a confrontation with real life. There is a fine line to be drawn there, and “The Exorcist” finds it and stays a millimeter on this side.
FRIDAY The 13th
It may be hard to remember, but there was a time when the name Jason Vorhees wasn’t part of the horror lexicon. In 1980 director Sean S. Cunningham unleashed the original Friday the 13th, a film that would go on to define the slasher era through sequel after profitable sequel (though Jason’s iconic hockey mask wouldn’t actually show up until the third installment in 1982). On May 9, 1980, The Hollywood Reporter published its review of the film:
Gruesome violence, in which throats are slashed and heads are split open in realistic detail, is the sum content of Friday the 13th, a sick and sickening low budget feature that is being released by Paramount. It’s blatant exploitation of the lowest order.
Produced and directed by Sean S. Cunningham through Georgetown Prods., there is nothing to recommend about this ghastly effort, which simply details a series of grisly murders. The script by Victor Miller introduces a group of young people who are working to reopen a summer camp, which had earlier been the scene of several unexplained murders and which is called Camp Blood by the locals. From there on out, the kids are knocked off one by one, with the killer and cliched motivation finally being revealed in the final sequence.
Cunningham seems obsessed with shock value, which is the only thing he achieves during the 91-minute running time. The performances are credible, although no real acting is required, and the technical production is slick, including Barry Abrams’ photography and Bill Freda’s editing, which allows the full impact of the mutilations but which mercifully cuts away quickly.
ALPHAVILLE (September, 2019)
At a time when 10,000 of the world's leading physicists are holed up in a Swiss bunker engaged on a project that may one day enable them to pretend they understand the nature of the universe, Alphaville has never seemed more timely.
Jean-Luc Godard's film – "a science fiction film without special effects" in the words of the critic Andrew Sarris; "a fable on a realistic ground" in Godard's own description – is a cry of protest aimed at the worshippers of science and logic. Unlike Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which now resembles a picturesque relic of long-abandoned aspirations, Alphaville still seems to be watching the world come to meet it. And the world is very much closer to the director's creation than it was back in 1965.
To have seen it in its time – in my case at the Moulin Rouge cinema in Nottingham, which alternated the latest from Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni and Fellini with the creampuff-porn nudist flicks of the pre-Confessions era – was to have been astonished and delighted. The passage of almost half a century has done nothing to dim its stylishness, blunt its humour or extinguish its piercing message.
Eddie Constantine, the expatriate American actor, had already played the weatherbeaten FBI agent Lemmy Caution in several French films based on a series of novels by the British writer Peter Cheyney (sample titles: Dames Get Along and This Man Is Dangerous). Godard invited Constantine to reprise the role and sent Caution into the future, keeping the B-movie conventions intact along with his personal accoutrements – American car, Zippo lighter, raincoat, trilby, button-down shirt. Caution arrives in Alphaville on a mission to find a lost agent and assassinate Professor von Braun, the architect of a state whose people are ruled by logic and science and have been purged of emotion.
All the elements combine beautifully. Raoul Coutard's black-and-white photography turns everyday objects and settings – a hotel lobby, a swimming pool, a room full of mainframe computers, a jukebox, a Kodak Instamatic, the Paris suburbs at night – into the props of a convincingly dystopian futureworld whose philosophy is outlined in voiceover by the grating, inhuman tones of Alpha 60, the computer that regulates life in Alphaville. (Godard had the lines intoned by an actor who had lost his larynx and spoke through an artificial voice-box.) Paul Misraki's excellent score enhances moments of tension with warning stabs of low brass.
Anna Karina, meanwhile, is at her most darkly luminous as Natacha von Braun, the great leader's daughter. Her programmed responses slowly break down as the hardboiled detective gives his "pretty sphinx" a copy of poet Paul Eluard's Capital of Pain and introduces her to the concepts of "conscience" and "love" – words with which she is unfamiliar, since they have been progressively redacted from the dictionary that is the Bible of her father's totalitarian state. "Nearly every day, words disappear because they are forbidden," she tells him. "They are replaced by new words expressing new ideas." Orwell hovers around this film, along with Borges and Céline.
This was Godard's ninth feature film in six years, a rate of production resembling that of Beatles albums. There are signs of haste and improvisation, so Alphaville is much the better for its ability to make us think and trigger our feelings. At times it is a cartoon (the shootings, the use of negative images to convey disorientation) but at others it is more chillingly prescient than ever.
Yet Godard ends the piece on a note of romantic optimism, with Lemmy and Natasha escaping their pursuers and a dying world, fleeing to safety through intersidereal space (otherwise known as the Boulevard Périphérique) as the girl learns a new phrase: "Je vous aime ..."
KILL BILL Vol.1 (August, 2019)
"Kill Bill, Volume 1" shows Quentin Tarantino so effortlessly and brilliantly in command of his technique that he reminds me of a virtuoso violinist racing through "Flight of the Bumble Bee" -- or maybe an accordion prodigy setting a speed record for "Lady of Spain." I mean that as a sincere compliment. The movie is not about anything at all except the skill and humor of its making. It's kind of brilliant.
His story is a distillation of the universe of martial arts movies, elevated to a trancelike mastery of the material. Tarantino is in the Zone. His story engine is revenge. In the opening scene, Bill kills all of the other members of a bridal party, and leaves The Bride (Uma Thurman) for dead. She survives for years in a coma and is awakened by a mosquito's buzz. Is QT thinking of Emily Dickinson, who heard a fly buzz when she died? I am reminded of Manny Farber's definition of the auteur theory: "A bunch of guys standing around trying to catch someone shoving art up into the crevices of dreck." The Bride is no Emily Dickinson. She reverses the paralysis in her legs by "focusing." Then she vows vengeance on the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, and as "Volume 1" concludes, she is about half-finished. She has wiped out Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), and in "Volume 2" will presumably kill Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), Budd (Michael Madsen) and of course Bill (David Carradine). If you think I have given away plot details, you think there can be doubt about whether the heroine survives the first half of a two-part action movie, and should seek help.
The movie is all storytelling and no story. The motivations have no psychological depth or resonance, but are simply plot markers. The characters consist of their characteristics. Lurking beneath everything, as it did with "Pulp Fiction," is the suggestion of a parallel universe in which all of this makes sense in the same way that a superhero's origin story makes sense. There is a sequence here (well, it's more like a third of the movie) where The Bride single-handedly wipes out O-Ren and her entire team, including the Crazy 88 Fighters, and we are reminded of Neo fighting the clones of Agent Smith in "The Matrix Reloaded," except the Crazy 88 Fighters are individual human beings, I think. Do they get their name from the Crazy 88 blackjack games on the Web, or from Episode 88 of the action anime "Tokyo Crazy Paradise," or should I seek help? The Bride defeats the 88 superb fighters (plus various bodyguards and specialists) despite her weakened state and recently paralyzed legs because she is a better fighter than all of the others put together. Is that because of the level of her skill, the power of her focus, or the depth of her need for vengeance? Skill, focus and need have nothing to do with it: She wins because she kills everybody without getting killed herself. You can sense Tarantino grinning a little as each fresh victim, filled with foolish bravado, steps forward to be slaughtered. Someone has to win in a fight to the finish, and as far as the martial arts genre is concerned, it might as well be the heroine. (All of the major characters except Bill are women, the men having been emasculated right out of the picture.) "Kill Bill, Volume 1" is not the kind of movie that inspires discussion of the acting, but what Thurman, Fox and Liu accomplish here is arguably more difficult than playing the nuanced heroine of a Sundance thumb-sucker. There must be presence, physical grace, strength, personality and the ability to look serious while doing ridiculous things. The tone is set in an opening scene, where The Bride lies near death and a hand rubs at the blood on her cheek, which will not come off because it is clearly congealed makeup. This scene further benefits from being shot in black and white; for QT, all shots in a sense are references to other shots -- not particular shots from other movies, but archetypal shots in our collective moviegoing memories.
There's B&W in the movie, and slo-mo, and a name that's bleeped entirely for effect, and even an extended sequence in anime. The animated sequence, which gets us to Tokyo and supplies the backstory of O-Ren, is sneaky in the way it allows Tarantino to deal with material that might, in live action, seem too real for his stylized universe. It deals with a Mafia kingpin's pedophilia. The scene works in animated long shot; in live action closeup, it would get the movie an 18.
Before she arrives in Tokyo, The Bride stops off to obtain a sword from Hattori Hanzo ("special guest star" Sonny Chiba). He has been retired for years, and is done with killing. But she persuades him, and he manufactures a sword that does not inspire his modesty: "This my finest sword. If in your journey you should encounter God, God will be cut." Later the sword must face the skill of Go Go Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), O-Ren's teenage bodyguard and perhaps a major in medieval studies, since her weapon of choice is the mace and chain. This is in the comic book tradition by which characters are defined by their weapons.
To see O-Ren's God-slicer and Go-Go's mace clashing in a field of dead and dying men is to understand how women have taken over for men in action movies. Strange, since women are not nearly as good at killing as men are. Maybe they're cast because the liberal media wants to see them succeed. The movie's women warriors reminds me of Ruby Rich's defense of Russ Meyer as a feminist filmmaker (his women initiate all the sex and do all the killing).
There is a sequence in which O-Ren Ishii takes command of the Japanese Mafia and beheads a guy for criticizing her as half-Chinese, female and American. O-Ren talks Japanese through a translator but when the guy's head rolls on the table everyone seems to understand her. Soon comes the deadly battle with The Bride, on a two-level set representing a Japanese restaurant. Tarantino has the wit to pace this battle with exterior shots of snowfall in an exquisite formal garden. Why must the garden be in the movie? Because gardens with snow are iconic Japanese images, and Tarantino is acting as the instrument of his received influences.
By the same token, Thurman wears a costume identical to one Bruce Lee wore in his last film. Is this intended as coincidence, homage, impersonation? Not at all. It can be explained by quantum physics: The suit can be in two movies at the same time. And when the Hannah character whistles the theme from "Twisted Nerve" (1968), it's not meant to suggest she is a Hayley Mills fan but that leakage can occur between parallel universes in the movies.
THE STING (July, 2019)
THE STING reunites the co-stars and the director of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," a movie I thought was overrated.
The director is George Roy Hill, and the stars are those two good old buddies Paul Newman and Robert Redford. This time, they play con men who methodically and with great ingenuity fleece a rich mark (Robert Shaw). Their methods are incredibly complex (it would take all of today's space to attempt to explain them.) A lot of the fun in the movie is watching Hill and his screenwriter, David S. Ward, keep the plot straight.
The movie is set in Chicago of the 1930s, and many of the outdoor scenes were shot here (including an effective platform shot at Union Station). We see a big, confused, lusty, brawling city where the big guys with the muscle are somehow always losing to the guys with the confidence angles. Robert Shaw never figures out what hit him. Shaw is a high-stakes gambler who first gets hooked during a poker game between New York and Chicago on the 20th Century Limited. Newman and Redford spot him, mark him and begin to manipulate him. He never figures out they even know each other, and that's part of the charm: They have to play a lot of scenes for him as complete strangers, as Redford casually lets drop that he knows the location of the biggest wire room in Chicago.
The idea, Redford explains, is to allow Shaw to win big on a fixed horse race in order to . . . but I wasn't kidding when I said the scheme is complicated. Paul Newman operates the wire room. Or should we say it appears to be operated by Newman. Or, more accurately, it appears to be a wire room, because the entire operation is simply a theatrical set, and everybody in the room is an actor, and the "broadcasts" from the track actually are being made up by an announcer in the back room.
The movie has a nice, light-fingered style to it. Hill gently kids the 1930s with his slight exaggerations of fashions and styles. He tells his story episodically, breaking the movie down into the various plateaus of the con game. And he's awfully good at maintaining a kind of off-balance pacing; we can never quite pin Newman and Redford down. They're always sort of angling into scenes, making enigmatic statements under their breath and staying at least a step ahead of us. Hill's visual style is oblique; instead of stationing his actors in the frame and recording the action, he seems to sneak up on it. Newman and Redford almost seem on their way to another movie. If that sounds like a criticism, it's not meant as one: The style here is so seductive and witty it's hard to pin down. It's like nothing else I've seen by Hill, and at times, it almost reminds me of Jacques Tati crossed with Robert Altman. It's good to get a crime movie more concerned with humor and character than with blood and gore; here's one, as we say, for the whole family.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (June, 2019)
The abiding terror in Alfred Hitchcock's life was that he would be accused of a crime he did not commit. This fear is at the heart of many of his best films, including "Strangers on a Train" (1951), in which a man becomes the obvious suspect in the strangulation of his wife. He makes an excellent suspect because of the genius of the actual killer's original plan: Two strangers will "exchange murders," each killing the person the other wants dead. They would both have airtight alibis for the time of the crime, and there would be no possible connection between killer and victim.
It is a plot made of ingenuity and amorality, based on the first novel by Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), who in her Ripley novels and elsewhere was fascinated by brainy criminals who functioned not out of passion but from careful calculation, and usually got away with their crimes. The "criss-cross" murder deal in "Strangers on a Train" indeed would have worked perfectly -- except for the detail that only one of the strangers agrees to it.
Guy Haines, a famous tennis player, is recognized on a train by Bruno Anthony, whose conversation shows a detailed knowledge of Guy's private life. Guy wants a divorce from his cheating wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers), in order to marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a U.S. senator. Over lunch in his private compartment, Bruno reveals that he wants his father dead, and suggests a "perfect crime" in which he would murder Guy's wife, Guy would murder Bruno's father, and neither would ever be suspected.
Bruno's manner is pushy and insinuating, with homoerotic undertones. Guy is offended by the references to his private life, but inexplicably doesn't break off the conversation -- which ends on an ambiguous note, with Bruno trying to get Guy to agree to the plan, and Guy trying to jolly him along and get rid of him.
But Bruno does murder Guy's wife, and then demands that Guy keep his half of the bargain. As a plot, this has a neatness that Hitchcock must have found irresistible -- especially since Guy has a motive to murder his wife, was seen in a public fight with her earlier on the day of her death, and even told his fiancée he would like to "strangle" Miriam.
Hitchcock said that correct casting saved him a reel in storytelling time, since audiences would sense qualities in the actors that didn't need to be spelled out. Certainly the casting of Farley Granger as Guy and Robert Walker as Bruno is crucial. Hitchcock allegedly wanted William Holden for the role of Guy ("he's stronger," he told Francois Truffaut), but Holden would have been all wrong -- too sturdy, too put off by Bruno (despite the way Holden allowed an aging actress to manipulate him in "Sunset Boulevard").
Granger is softer and more elusive, more convincing as he tries to slip out of Bruno's conversational web instead of flatly rejecting him. Walker plays Bruno as flirtatious and seductive, sitting too close during their first meeting, and then reclining at full length across from Guy in the private compartment. The meeting on the train, which was probably planned by Bruno, plays more like a pickup than a chance encounter.
It is this sense of two flawed characters -- one evil, one weak, with an unstated sexual tension -- that makes the movie intriguing and halfway plausible, and helps explain how Bruno could come so close to carrying out his plan. Highsmith was a lesbian whose novels have uncanny psychological depth; Andrew Wilson's 2003 biography says she often fell in love with straight women, and her stories frequently use a buried subtext of unstated gay attraction -- as in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," made into a 1999 movie in which her criminal hero Tom Ripley falls in love not so much with his quarry Dickie Greenleaf as with his identity and lifestyle.
Although homosexuality still dared not speak its name very loudly in 1951, Hitchcock was quite aware of Bruno's orientation, and indeed edited separate American and British version of the film -- cutting down the intensity of the "seductiveness" in the American print. It's worth noticing that Hitchcock also cast Granger in "Rope" (1948), based on the Leopold-Loeb case; it was another story about a murder pact with a homosexual subtext.
"Strangers on a Train" is not a psychological study, however, but a first-rate thriller with odd little kinks now and then. It proceeds, as Hitchcock's films so often do, with a sense of private scores being settled just out of sight. His obsession with being wrongly accused no doubt refers to a traumatic episode in his childhood, when his father sent naughty little Alfred to the police station with a note asking the sergeant to lock him up until called for. Interesting, in this context, is Hitchcock's casting of his own daughter, Patricia, as the outspoken young Barbara Morton, kid sister of Guy's fiancée Anne. Patricia Hitchcock and Kasey Rogers look a little alike and wear very similar eyeglasses; Bruno is playfully demonstrating strangling techniques at a party when he sees Barbara, flashes back to the murder, and flips out. The kid sister gets the creepiest lines in "Strangers on a Train," especially during an early meeting involving Guy and the senator's whole family; she keeps blurting out what everyone is afraid to say.
Hitchcock was above all the master of great visual set pieces, and there are several famous sequences in "Strangers on a Train." Best known is the one where Guy scans the crowd at a tennis match and observes that all of the heads are swiveling back and forth to follow the game -- except for one head, Bruno's, which is looking straight ahead at Guy. (The same technique was used in Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent," where all the windmills rotate in the same direction -- except one.)
Another effective scene shows Guy floating in a little boat through the Tunnel of Love at a carnival; Miriam and two boyfriends are in the boat ahead, and shadows on the wall make it appear Bruno has overtaken them. In a scene where Guy goes upstairs in the dark in Bruno's house, Hitchcock told Truffaut, he hit on the inspiration of a very large dog to distract the audience from what he would probably find at the top.
Then there's the famous sequence involving a runaway merry-go-round, on which Guy and Bruno struggle as a carnival worker crawls on his stomach under the revolving ride to get to the controls. (This shot was famously unfaked, and the stunt man could have been killed; Hitchcock said he would never take such a chance again.) Another great shot shows Bruno's face in the shadow of his hat brim, only the whites of his eyes showing.
Hitchcock was a classical technician in controlling his visuals, and his use of screen space underlined the tension in ways the audience is not always aware of. He always used the convention that the left side of the screen is for evil and/or weaker characters, while the right is for characters who are either good, or temporarily dominant. Consider the scene where Guy is letting himself into his Georgetown house when Bruno whispers from across the street to summon him. Bruno is standing behind an iron gate, the bars casting symbolic shadows on his face, and Guy stands to his right, outside the gate. Then a police car pulls up in front of Guy's house, and he quickly moves behind the gate with Bruno; they're now both behind bars as he says, "You've got me acting like I'm a criminal."
The Robert Walker performance benefits from a subtle tense urgency that perhaps reflected events in his private life; he had a nervous breakdown shortly after filming was completed, was institutionalized for treatment, and died of an accidental overdose of tranquilizers. (Leftover closeups from this film were used to finish his final film, "My Son John.") Although Hitchcock said in Francois Truffaut's book-length interview that he didn't much like either of the actors, Walker's Bruno has been called one of Hitchcock's best villains, and Hitch agreed with Truffaut that the audience sympathy was more with him than with Granger's playboy.
The movie is usually ranked among Hitchcock's best (I would put it below only "Vertigo," "Notorious," "Psycho" and perhaps "Shadow of a Doubt"), and its appeal is probably the linking of an ingenious plot with insinuating creepiness. That combination came in the first place from Highsmith, whose novels have been unfairly shelved with crime fiction when she actually writes mainstream fiction about criminals.
There's an intriguing note from a user of the Internet Movie Database, claiming to have spotted Highsmith in a cameo in the film. She's behind Miriam in the early scene in the record store, writing something in a notebook. No Highsmith cameo has even been reported in the movie's lore (all the attention goes to Hitchcock's trademark cameo) but you can look for yourself. To think she may have been haunting it all of these years.
CASABLANCA (May, 2019)
If we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that “Casablanca” is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is not only able to imagine winning the love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.
No one making “Casablanca” thought they were making a great movie. It was simply another Warner Bros. release. It was an “A list” picture, to be sure (Bogart, Bergman and Paul Henreid were stars, and no better cast of supporting actors could have been assembled on the Warners lot than Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and Dooley Wilson). But it was made on a tight budget and released with small expectations. Everyone involved in the film had been, and would be, in dozens of other films made under similar circumstances, and the greatness of “Casablanca” was largely the result of happy chance.
The screenplay was adapted from a play of no great consequence; memoirs tell of scraps of dialogue jotted down and rushed over to the set. What must have helped is that the characters were firmly established in the minds of the writers, and they were characters so close to the screen personas of the actors that it was hard to write dialogue in the wrong tone.
Humphrey Bogart played strong heroic leads in his career, but he was usually better as the disappointed, wounded, resentful hero. Remember him in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” convinced the others were plotting to steal his gold. In “Casablanca,” he plays Rick Blaine, the hard-drinking American running a nightclub in Casablanca when Morocco was a crossroads for spies, traitors, Nazis and the French Resistance.
The opening scenes dance with comedy; the dialogue combines the cynical with the weary; wisecracks with epigrams. We see that Rick moves easily in a corrupt world. “What is your nationality?” the German Strasser asks him, and he replies, “I'm a drunkard.” His personal code: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
Then “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” It is Ilsa Lund (Bergman), the woman Rick loved years earlier in Paris. Under the shadow of the German occupation, he arranged their escape, and believes she abandoned him--left him waiting in the rain at a train station with their tickets to freedom. Now she is with Victor Laszlo (Henreid), a legendary hero of the French Resistance.
All this is handled with great economy in a handful of shots that still, after many viewings, have the power to move me emotionally as few scenes ever have. The bar's piano player, Sam (Wilson), a friend of theirs in Paris, is startled to see her. She asks him to play the song that she and Rick made their own, “As Time Goes By.” He is reluctant, but he does, and Rick comes striding angrily out of the back room (“I thought I told you never to play that song!”). Then he sees Ilsa, a dramatic musical chord marks their closeups, and the scene plays out in resentment, regret and the memory of a love that was real. (This scene is not as strong on a first viewing as on subsequent viewings, because the first time you see the movie you don't yet know the story of Rick and Ilsa in Paris; indeed, the more you see it the more the whole film gains resonance.)
The plot, a trifle to hang the emotions on, involves letters of passage that will allow two people to leave Casablanca for Portugal and freedom. Rick obtained the letters from the wheedling little black-marketeer Ugarte (Peter Lorre). The sudden reappearance of Ilsa reopens all of his old wounds, and breaks his carefully cultivated veneer of neutrality and indifference. When he hears her story, he realizes she has always loved him. But now she is with Laszlo. Rick wants to use the letters to escape with Ilsa, but then, in a sustained sequence that combines suspense, romance and comedy as they have rarely been brought together on the screen, he contrives a situation in which Ilsa and Laszlo escape together, while he and his friend the police chief (Claude Rains) get away with murder. (“Round up the usual suspects.”)
What is intriguing is that none of the major characters is bad. Some are cynical, some lie, some kill, but all are redeemed. If you think it was easy for Rick to renounce his love for Ilsa--to place a higher value on Laszlo's fight against Nazism--remember Forster's famous comment, “If I were forced to choose between my country and my friend, I hope I would be brave enough to choose my friend.”
From a modern perspective, the film reveals interesting assumptions. Ilsa Lund's role is basically that of a lover and helpmate to a great man; the movie's real question is, which great man should she be sleeping with? There is actually no reason why Laszlo cannot get on the plane alone, leaving Ilsa in Casablanca with Rick, and indeed that is one of the endings that was briefly considered. But that would be all wrong; the “happy” ending would be tarnished by self-interest, while the ending we have allows Rick to be larger, to approach nobility (“it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”). And it allows us, vicariously experiencing all of these things in the theater, to warm in the glow of his heroism.
In her closeups during this scene, Bergman's face reflects confusing emotions. And well she might have been confused, since neither she nor anyone else on the film knew for sure until the final day who would get on the plane. Bergman played the whole movie without knowing how it would end, and this had the subtle effect of making all of her scenes more emotionally convincing; she could not tilt in the direction she knew the wind was blowing.
Stylistically, the film is not so much brilliant as absolutely sound, rock-solid in its use of Hollywood studio craftsmanship. The director, Michael Curtiz, and the writers (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) all won Oscars. One of their key contributions was to show us that Rick, Ilsa and the others lived in a complex time and place. The richness of the supporting characters (Greenstreet as the corrupt club owner, Lorre as the sniveling cheat, Rains as the subtly homosexual police chief and minor characters like the young girl who will do anything to help her husband) set the moral stage for the decisions of the major characters. When this plot was remade in 1990 as “Havana,” Hollywood practices required all the big scenes to feature the big stars (Robert Redford and Lena Olin) and the film suffered as a result; out of context, they were more lovers than heroes.
Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it. The black-and-white cinematography has not aged as color would. The dialogue is so spare and cynical it has not grown old-fashioned. Much of the emotional effect of “Casablanca” is achieved by indirection; as we leave the theater, we are absolutely convinced that the only thing keeping the world from going crazy is that the problems of three little people do after all amount to more than a hill of beans. (ROGER EBERT).
BEING THERE (April, 2019)
On the day that Kasparov was defeated by Deep Blue, I found myself thinking of the film "Being There'' (1979). The chess champion said there was something about the computer he did not understand, and it frightened him. There were moments when the computer seemed to be . . . thinking. Of course, chess is not a game of thought but of mathematical strategy; Deep Blue has demonstrated it is possible to be very good at it without possessing consciousness
The classic test of Artificial Intelligence has been: Can a computer be programmed to conduct a conversation that seems human to another human? "Being There'' is a film about a man whose mind works like a rudimentary A.I. program.
His mind has been supplied with a fund of simplistic generalizations about the world, phrased in terms of the garden where he has worked all his adult life. But because he presents himself as a man of good breeding (he walks and talks like the wealthy older man whose house he lived in, and wears the man's tailored suits) his simplicity is mistaken for profundity, and soon he is advising presidents and befriending millionaires.
The man's name is Chance. We gather he has lived all of his life inside the townhouse and walled garden of a rich recluse (perhaps he is his son). He knows what he needs to know for his daily routine: Where his bedroom and bathroom are, and how to tend the plants of the garden. His meals are produced by Louise, the cook. The movie provides no diagnosis of his condition. He is able to respond to given cues, and can, within limits, adapt and learn.
Early in the film he introduces himself as "Chance . . . the gardener,'' and is misunderstood as having said "Chauncey Gardener.'' Just the sort of WASP name that matches his clothing and demeanor, and soon he is telling the President: "Spring, summer, autumn, winter . . . then spring again.'' Indeed.
Chance is played by Peter Sellers, an actor who once told me he had "absolutely no personality at all. I am a chameleon. When I am not playing a role, I am nobody.'' Of course, he thought himself ideal for this role, which comes from a novel by Jerzy Kosinski. Sellers plays Chance as a man at peace with himself. When the old man dies, the household is broken up and Chance is evicted, there is a famous scene where he is confronted by possible muggers, and simply points a channel changer at them, and clicks. He is surprised when they do not go away.
Sellers plays Chance at exactly the same note for the entire film. He is detached, calm, secure in his own knowledge, unaware of his limitations. Through a series of happy chances, he is taken into the home of a dying millionaire named Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas). The millionaire's wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine) establishes Chance in a guest suite, where he is happy to find a television (his most famous line is, "I like to watch.'')
Soon the rich man grows to treasure his reassuring friend. The family doctor (Richard Dysart) is perceptive, and begins to have doubts about Chance's authenticity, but silences himself when his patient says Chauncey "has made the thought of dying much easier.'' Chauncey is introduced by Ben to the president (Jack Warden), becomes an unofficial advisor, and soon is being interviewed on television, where his insights fit nicely into the limited space available for sound bites.
Satire is a threatened species in American film, and when it does occur, it's usually broad and slapstick, as in the Mel Brooks films. "Being There,'' directed by Hal Ashby, is a rare and subtle bird that finds its tone and stays with it. It has the appeal of an ingenious intellectual game, in which the hero survives a series of challenges he doesn't understand, using words that are both universal and meaningless. But are Chance's sayings noticeably less useful than when the president tells us about a "bridge to the 21st century?'' Sensible public speech in our time is limited by (1) the need to stay within the confines of the 10-second TV sound bite; (2) the desire to avoid being pinned down to specific claims or promises; and (3) the abbreviated attention span of the audience, which, like Chance, likes to watch but always has a channel-changer poised.
If Chance's little slogans reveal how superficial public utterance can be, his reception reveals still more. Because he is WASP, middle-aged, well-groomed, dressed in tailored suits, and speaks like an educated man, he is automatically presumed to be a person of substance. He is, in fact, socially naive ("You're always going to be a little boy,'' Louise tells him). But this leads to a directness than can be mistaken for confidence, as when he addresses the president by his first name, or enfolds his hand in both of his own. The movie argues that if you look right, sound right, speak in platitudes and have powerful friends, you can go far in our society. By the end of the film, Chance is being seriously proposed as a presidential candidate. Well, why not? I once watched Lamar Alexander for 45 minutes on C-SPAN, as he made small talk in a New Hampshire diner, and heard nothing that Chance could not have said.
The film is not flawless. There are two sex-oriented subplots, and neither one is necessary. The story of the president's impotence could have been completely dispensed with. And the seduction attempt by Shirley MacLaine, as the millionaire's wife, requires her to act in a less intelligent way than she should. MacLaine projects brains; she, like the doctor, should have caught on, and that would have created more intriguing scenes than her embarrassing poses on a bear rug.
In the much-discussed final sequence of "Being There,'' Chance casually walks onto the surface of a lake. We can see that he is really walking on the water, because he leans over curiously and sticks his umbrella down into it.
When I taught the film, I had endless discussions with my students over this scene. Many insisted on explaining it: He is walking on a hidden sandbar, the water is only half an inch deep, there is a submerged pier, etc. "Not valid!'' I thundered. "The movie presents us with an image, and while you may discuss the meaning of the image it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier--a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more,'' etc.
So what does it show us? It shows us Chance doing something that is primarily associated with only one other figure in human history. What are we to assume? That Chance is a Christ figure? That the wisdom of great leaders only has the appearance of meaning? That we find in politics and religion whatever we seek? That like the Road Runner (who also defies gravity) he will not sink until he understands his dilemma?
The movie's implications are alarming. Is it possible that we are all just clever versions of Chance the gardener? That we are trained from an early age to respond automatically to given words and concepts? That we never really think out much of anything for ourselves, but are content to repeat what works for others in the same situation?
The last words in the movie are, "Life is a state of mind." So no computer will ever be alive. But to the degree that we are limited by our programming, neither will we. The question is not whether a computer will ever think like a human, but whether we choose to free ourselves from thinking like computers.(Roger Ebert, 1997).
DIAL M FOR MURDER (March, 2019)
Note: The following review discusses the anatomy of one crucial scene, but does not give away the ending to the film.
In the early 1950s, Warner Bros. had gone crazy for 3-D, and mogul Jack Warner wanted Alfred Hitchcock to experiment in the effect. Hitchcock, of course, had been experimenting in film style for years: the long-take, highly specialized and wholly unique camera movements, confined quarters, unreliable narrators, etc. It seem like the director who would seemingly try anything would embrace the opportunity to work with new technology, but he was smart enough to tell the difference between cinematic possibility and fleeting fad.
Despite his healthy skepticism, he signed on to produce Dial M for Murder utilizing the 3-D effect, chiefly because he knew fulfilling a certain favor could keep the shifty eyes of the studio off his back and let him work uninterrupted. In the fall of 1952, while in New York, he had seen British playwright Frederick Knott's stage play of the same name, about a man who plots to have his adulterous wife murdered in order to secure her hefty fortune. The murder goes awry, and the husband has to cover up his steps – the kind of story right up Hitchcock's alley. And, to add icing to the cake, Cary Grant was interested in playing the husband.
But like the murder itself, things began to slide off the tracks from the very beginning. The budget for Dial M for Murder was extraordinarily tight, and nearly all of Hitchcock's concessions were due to money. Warner vetoed filming on location in London (he didn't want the studio's only 3-D camera traveling overseas), and Warner vetoed Grant (too expensive, plus he claimed audiences wouldn't buy the shift away from lighter fare, which completely ignores Suspicion and Notorious). Production had to begin quickly and end quickly, so there was no time to get into Knott's play and re-tool it extensively for a cinematic rebirth, which left the setting to be very much a "stage." And even though Hitchcock had lost Grant, there still wasn't room in the budget for the lead actress to be anyone greater than a virtual unknown.
Yet what makes Hitchcock great is that when things began to slide away from him, nine times out of ten he could get away with it nevertheless. Dial M for Murder isn't among his banner productions, and it's only referenced in passing in his interviews or writings on him, but it is a remarkable film in many ways, one of his abandoned darlings that teaches us a great deal about what kind of filmmaker he was and happens to be quite entertaining in the process. From a purely cinematic vantage, part of its immense joy is how little the story is changed from the original theatrical production and how Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks literally seem to stage a play. A filmed play is, technically, the best way to describe Dial M for Murder, although its triumph is that it doesn't feel like it. (Note how each time Hitchcock filmed something in a small, enclosed space – Lifeboat, Rope, Rear Window – he filmed it differently.)
With Grant out of reach, the lead role of former tennis star Tony Wendice went to Ray Milland, who in my opinion is perpetually underrated. Tony has left the sport at the request of his wife Margot (Grace Kelly, at the time still relatively unknown), and their marriage can't be described in any way as truly satisfying. Margot is unaware that Tony knows of a previous relationship she had with a crime writer named Mark (Robert Cummings, who played lead in Saboteur). Tony blackmails a former classmate of his going by the name Lesgate (Anthony Dawson, who played the same role in the New York stage production) to kill Margot. When Margot survives, Tony has to juggle Margot, Mark, and a curious and determined inspector.
The story is tight, and overall the film is gripping, if not slightly long. Milland is grand and meticulous, even though Cummings is ... well, Cummings. In the twelve years that passed between Saboteur and Dial M for Murder, Cummings didn't become spectacularly telegenic, and when stacked against Milland, it's easy to tell which of the two had won an Oscar for Best Actor. The real draw to Kelly, who is lovely in Technicolor, in her first of three consecutive Hitchcock roles. Margot doesn't have as prominent of a role in the play as Tony or Mark, so it does feel like there is a large empty space on screen sometimes when Kelly isn't there. (But that's what generally happens when a mesmerizing actor or actress isn't there.) Because of the small sets (and the 3-D process), it was necessary for the camerawork to be as nimble, and Dial M for Murder is a great example of a Hitchcock film where you can detect the director's slightest presence in every shot, particularly the ones that seem to explode across the screen with his typical and artful delicacy.
When Dial M for Murder premiered in May of 1954, Hitchcock's dismissive attitude of 3-D as a mere fad had proved clairvoyant. Almost as soon as it had exploded in popularity, it had imploded and shrunk away lusterless. Dial M for Murder only played in 3-D in selected theaters upon its first run, but subsequent revivals have brought it back to be shown as it was intended. I've never seen it in 3-D, and look forward to the day I might be able to, but what I've read about it normally concludes the same thing you'd be able to tell from the film being shown on your television at home: that Hitchcock used the technology carefully and judiciously, aiming mostly at creating subtle depth on the primary set of the Wendice house. Many objects (such as lamps and furniture) are placed in front of the camera and supposedly "pop." The one grand exception is during the attempted murder scene, where Margot struggles against Lesgate and suddenly reaches her hand out (and directly toward the camera) for something to fend him off, translating into the effect of her "reaching out into the audience." Even on a two-dimensional space, though, the violent jerk of her arm and hand is rather startling.
Although not as beloved as some of Hitchcock's other masterful films, I have a theory that Dial M for Murder is necessary viewing for anyone seeking to prove why the director is cited as among the best. There's a moment of luminousness where the pacing, the camera, the script, and the editing all merge together and form a cohesive and brilliant scene. It occurs in the moment of the attempted murder, and it's a tour de force sequence; although it appears so simple and elegant in execution, in terms of suspense and skill it matches the sophistication and complexity of any scene from Hitchcock's acclaimed masterpieces. The success of the moment alone makes me wonder why Hitchcock would prove so discursive on the subject of the film later in his life.
But first, to appreciate the sequence in all its cinematic glory, it's necessary to note here that Dial M for Murder was re-adapted in the late 1990s as A Perfect Murder, with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Milland and Kelly roles. The murder scene in that below-par film hinges on the shock of a masked man jumping out from off-screen and the ensuing violence as Paltrow fights him off – bogeyman stuff basically, the kind of stuff you might well expect in a thriller film. Yet consider what Hitchcock does with the same scene. There is a splendid trail of guilt dripping across the characters and into the audience that exists only under the watchful eye of Hitchcock. For all intents and purposes, Tony is the bad guy: he has planned his wife's murder (although she's not exactly an angel, either). But beginning with the sequence of the murder, Hitchcock slyly begins to toy with our allegiances. We can't help but root for Margot not only to live and be proven redeemed, but we also find ourselves rooting for Tony, as well, to have his plan be performed successfully, or at least get away with what he has done.
The attempted murder, which occurs roughly forty minutes into the film, has been plotted and spelled out for the audience in an earlier conversation between Tony and Lesgate. Tony is going to be out of the house and is supposed to call Margot at a specific time, and Lesgate will be waiting behind the curtain with a cloth to strangle her when she answers the phone. The scene begins with an anxious Tony, who is keeping a close eye on the time and realizes when his watch stops and he is late to call that he must have inadvertently overwound it. Lesgate, thinking the plan has been postponed, gets ready to leave. Tony gets up to go to the pay-phone to call Margot, and there's a steady shot of him walking through the lobby of the restaurant. He pulls the change out of his pocket and as he makes a slight left turn toward the pay-phone, the camera pans right to reveal someone else in the booth already. Dimitri Tiomkin's somewhat generic but highly effective tick-tock thriller score circles in the background, and Tony paces outside the booth, as frustrated now as we are. Once he gets into the booth, he slides in the coins and as the score booms thunderously, we are given an extreme close-up of the rotary phone, Milland's fingertip sliding into the number 6 spot (the "M"). Cut then to a seemingly unrelated shot of the mechanics inside the phone chirping and ticking away as the call is connected, but in the history of Hitchcock's films, we are given numerous shots of "behind-the-scenes" functionality (The Lodger, for example, includes a montage of how the newspaper is printed).
Back in the apartment, the phone rings. Lesgate, halfway out the door, turns around at its sound. The light snaps on in Margot's bedroom, visible between the door and the floor. She answers the phone in a three-quarter shot and slowly the camera begins to curl around her (she until eventually it staring at the back of her head, just as the Lesgate's cloth, pulled tight between his hands, comes into view. Smash-cut back to the front of her, Lesgate now positioned over her shoulder. The score has drowned out nearly all sounds but Margot repeating "Hello?" into the telephone and pressing the switchhook over and over. The orchestra crescendos as Lesgate finally attacks, with Margot panting and screaming and fighting; he pushes her onto the desk, a lamp breaking in the background – and this is where it gets really tricky – Milland now closes his eyes in what I suppose can only be called mournful (he has planned this, after all, so there's your Hitchcockian complexity). Kelly famously reaches back toward the camera, and grabs a pair of scissors left on the desk. Naturally, they are held stiff in the "X" position with the blades spread apart, and as the light gleams across the silvery metal, she stabs Lesgate in the back, a perfect moment of resistance and self-defense. Lesgate falls onto the floor, the scissors pressing deeply into him and killing him. Tony is stricken but unaware as he listens to the commotion on the telephone, then his eyes grow when Margot picks it up, sobbing and asking for the police.
"What's the matter?" he asks. She says she can't explain now and wants him to come quickly. But he prods her to reveal, unbeknownst to herself, the state of the plan: "Darling, pull yourself together. What is it?" And after she explains the attack, and he knows everything has gone wrong, the fear fills his face like water in a sponge. Although the words are by Knott, the response – utterly callous to Margot's well-being, but leading and hopeful the plan hasn't completely collapsed – is purely Hitchcockian in its dark humor, its duplicity, and its eagerness: "Did he get away?" She says the man is dead, and he tells her not to touch anything and he'll be home quickly.
Dial M for Murder is a 1954 American thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and Robert Cummings. The movie was adapted from a successful stage play by Frederick Knott, and was released by the Warner Bros. studio.
The screenplay and the stage play on which it was based were both written by English playwright Frederick Knott, whose work often focused on women who innocently become the potential victims of sinister plots. The play premiered in 1952 on BBC television, before being performed on the stage in the same year in London's West End in June, and then New York's Broadway in October.
The single setting in the stage play is the living-room of the Wendices' flat in London (61A Charrington Gardens, Maida Vale). Hitchcock's film adds a second setting in a gentleman's club, the well of a staircase, a few views of the street outside, and a stylized courtroom montage. Having seen the play on Broadway, Cary Grant was keen to play the role of Tony Wendice, but studio chiefs did not feel the public would accept him as a man who arranges to have his wife murdered.
In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten Top Ten" list—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genre—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Dial M for Murder was ranked the ninth best film in the mystery genre.
The 1954 film was shot with M.L. Gunzberg's Natural Vision 3-D camera rig. This rig was notable for being the same rig that started the 3-D craze of 1953 with Bwana Devil and House of Wax. Intended originally to be shown in dual strip polarized 3-D, the film played in most theaters in normal 2-D due to the loss of interest in the 3-D process by the time of its release.
The film earned an estimated $2.7 million in rentals at the North American box office in 1954.
In February 1980, the dual-strip system was used for the revival of the film in 3-D at the York Theater in San Francisco. This revival did so well that Warner Bros. re-released the film using Chris Condon's single-strip StereoVision 3-D system in February 1982.
12 ANGRY MEN (February, 2019)
In form, "12 Angry Men" is a courtroom drama. In purpose, it's a crash course in those passages of the Constitution that promise defendants a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It has a kind of stark simplicity: Apart from a brief setup and a briefer epilogue, the entire film takes place within a small New York City jury room, on "the hottest day of the year," as 12 men debate the fate of a young defendant charged with murdering his father.
The film shows us nothing of the trial itself except for the judge's perfunctory, almost bored, charge to the jury. His tone of voice indicates the verdict is a foregone conclusion. We hear neither prosecutor nor defense attorney, and learn of the evidence only second-hand, as the jurors debate it. Most courtroom movies feel it necessary to end with a clear-cut verdict. But "12 Angry Men" never states whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. It is about whether the jury has a reasonable doubt about his guilt.
The principle of reasonable doubt, the belief that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, is one of the most enlightened elements of our Constitution, although many Americans have had difficulty in accepting it. "It's an open and shut case," snaps Juror No. 3 (Lee J. Cobb) as the jury first gathers in their claustrophobic little room. When the first ballot is taken, 10 of his fellow jurors agree, and there is only one holdout--Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda).
This is a film where tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue and body language, not action; where the defendant has been glimpsed only in a single brief shot; where logic, emotion and prejudice struggle to control the field. It is a masterpiece of stylized realism--the style coming in the way the photography and editing comment on the bare bones of the content. Released in 1957, when Technicolor and lush production values were common, "12 Angry Men" was lean and mean. It got ecstatic reviews and a spread in Life magazine, but was a disappointment at the box office. Over the years it has found a constituency, however, and in a 2002 Internet Movie Database poll it was listed 23rd among the best films of all time.
The story is based on a television play by Reginald Rose, later made into a movie by Sidney Lumet, with Rose and Henry Fonda acting as co-producers and putting up their own money to finance it. It was Lumet's first feature, although he was much experienced in TV drama, and the cinematography was by the veteran Boris Kaufman, whose credits ("On the Waterfront," "Long Day's Journey into Night") show a skill for tightening the tension in dialogue exchanges.
The cast included only one bankable star, Fonda, but the other 11 actors were among the best then working in New York, including Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley and Robert Webber. They smoke, they sweat, they swear, they sprawl, they stalk, they get angry.
In a length of only 95 minutes (it sometimes feels as if the movie is shot in real time), the jurors are all defined in terms of their personalities, backgrounds, occupations, prejudices and emotional tilts. Evidence is debated so completely that we feel we know as much as the jury does, especially about the old man who says he heard the murder and saw the defendant fleeing, and the lady across the street who says she saw it happen through the windows of a moving L train.
We see the murder weapon, a switch-blade knife, and hear the jurors debate the angle of the knife wound. We watch as Fonda imitates the shuffling step of the old man, a stroke victim, to see if he could have gotten to the door in time to see the murderer fleeing. In its ingenuity, in the way it balances one piece of evidence against another that seems contradictory, "12 Angry Men" is as meticulous as the summation of an Agatha Christie thriller.
But it is not about solving the crime. It is about sending a young man to die. The movie is timely in view of recent revelations that many Death Row convictions are based on contaminated evidence. "We're talking about somebody's life here," the Fonda character says. "We can't decide in five minutes. Supposing we're wrong?"
The defendant, when we glimpse him, looks "ethnic" but of no specific group. He could be Italian, Turkish, Indian, Jewish, Arabic, Mexican. His eyes are ringed with dark circles, and he looks exhausted and frightened. In the jury room, some jurors make veiled references to "these people." Finally Juror No. 10 (Ed Begley) begins a racist rant ("You know how these people lie. It's born in them. They don't know what the truth is. And let me tell you, they don't need any real big reason to kill someone, either...") As he continues, one juror after another stands up from the jury table and walks away, turning his back. Even those who think the defendant is guilty can't sit and listen to Begley's prejudice. The scene is one of the most powerful in the movie.
The vote, which begins as 11-to-1, shifts gradually. Although the movie is clearly in favor of the Fonda position, not all of those voting "guilty" are portrayed negatively. One of the key characters is Juror No. 4 (E. G. Marshall), a stockbroker wearing rimless glasses, who depends on pure logic and tries to avoid emotion altogether. Another Juror No. 7 (Jack Warden), who has tickets to a baseball game, grows impatient and changes his vote just to hurry things along. Juror No. 11 (George Voskovec), an immigrant who speaks with an accent, criticizes him: "Who tells you that you have the right to play like this with a man's life?" Earlier, No. 11 was attacked as a foreigner: "They come over and in no time at all they're telling us how to run the show."
The visual strategy of the movie is discussed by Lumet in Making Movies, one of the most intelligent and informative books ever written about the cinema. In planning the movie, he says, a "lens plot" occurred to him: To make the room seem smaller as the story continued, he gradually changed to lenses of longer focal lengths, so that the backgrounds seemed to close in on the characters.
"In addition," he writes, "I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie." In the film's last shot, he observes, he used a wide-angle lens "to let us finally breathe."
The movie plays like a textbook for directors interested in how lens choices affect mood. By gradually lowering his camera, Lumet illustrates another principle of composition: A higher camera tends to dominate, a lower camera tends to be dominated. As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion. Lumet uses closeups rarely, but effectively: One man in particular--Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney, the oldest man on the jury)--is often seen in full-frame, because he has a way of cutting to the crucial point and stating the obvious after it has eluded the others.
For Sidney Lumet, born in 1924, "12 Angry Men" was the beginning of a film career that has often sought controversial issues. Consider these titles from among his 43 films: "The Pawnbroker" (the Holocaust), "Fail-Safe" (accidental nuclear war), "Serpico" (police corruption), "Dog Day Afternoon" (homosexuality), "Network" (the decay of TV news), "The Verdict" (alcoholism and malpractice), "Daniel" (a son punished for the sins of his parents), "Running on Empty" (radical fugitives), and "Critical Care" (health care). There are also comedies and a musical ("The Wiz"). If Lumet is not among the most famous of American directors, that is only because he ranges so widely he cannot be categorized. Few filmmakers have been so consistently respectful of the audience's intelligence.
THE BICYCLE THIEVES (January, 2019)
Neorealism never got more real than in Vittorio de Sica's 1948 classic Ladri di Biciclette, or Bicycle Thieves - occasionally mistranslated as "The Bicycle Thief", though the plural is surely crucial. It turns out that there are two thieves: one at the movie's beginning, another at its end. This study of poverty in postwar Rome is now revived in cinemas as a somewhat astringent Yuletide treat. For me, it is as unbearable as any horror film.
Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is a poor man who is thrilled when he is at last offered a job: delivering and putting up movie posters. But he needs a bicycle, and must supply his own, so his wife Maria (Lianella Carelli) pawns the family's entire stock of bed linen to redeem the bicycle he had already hocked. On his first day at work, the unlocked machine is stolen and Antonio drops everything to go on a desperate odyssey through the streets of Rome with his little boy Bruno (Enzo Staiola) to get his bike back, pleading and accusing and uncovering scenes of poverty similar to theirs wherever they go. They create uproar in classic crowd moments: in the streets, in a market, in a church mass. Faces always gather avidly around the pair, all commenting, complaining and generally magnifying the father and son's distress and mortification.
This is a story that magnificently withholds the comic or dramatic palliatives another sort of film might have introduced. Antonio and Bruno are a world away from Chaplin and his Kid. The son is the intimate witness of the father's humiliation, his inadequacy as a provider. The scenes at the beginning of the film, when Antonio casually leaves his bicycle unlocked but it remains for the moment miraculously unstolen, have to be watched through your fingers.
Antonio seems unable or unwilling to embrace the obvious redemptive moral - that his son is the important possession, not the wretched bicycle - and De Sica is unwilling to embrace it either, perhaps precisely because it is too obvious, or because this moral is a luxury that only well-off people can afford. The father is obsessed with finding a stolen needle in the urban haystack, obsessed with getting his job back. Again and again, he ignores his little boy while scanning the horizon for his bicycle. At one stage, he hears an uproar from the riverbank about a "drowned boy". With a guilty start, he looks around. Do they mean Bruno? No: there he is, safe and sound.
But the lesson is not learned. He doesn't even hold Bruno's hand! And, in a later scene, we see the poor boy almost run over by a car because his father isn't looking out for him. Bruno's simple physical survival is the movie's secret miracle, and he is finally to be his father's saviour, but in such a way as to render Antonio's humiliation complete. This is poverty's authentic sting: banal and horrible loss of dignity. Bicycle Thieves is a brilliant, tactlessly real work of art.
The Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette) is an Italian Neorealist film directed by Vittorio De Sica, with the screen play by Cesare Zavattini and shot in 1948. Neorealism, as a term, means many things, but it often refers to films of working class life, set in the culture of poverty, and with the implicit message that in a better society wealth would be more evenly distributed. Set in poverty stricken post-war Rome, the stories of the poor were close to De Sicca’s heart, he himself was born into poverty and only managed to escape through a career as a theatre and then film actor. De Sica’s first films as a director were light comedies like the ones he often worked in. However, maybe due to the harsh realities of World War II, his 1942 film "The Children are Watching," had mush more depth and sensitivity than his earlier work.
When De Sica was looking for a producer to finance his film, he finally found one, but on condition that the workman was played by Cary Grant. The mere statement of the problem in these terms shows the absurdity of it. Actually, Cary Grant could play that kind of part extremely well, but it is obvious that the question here is not one of playing of a part but of getting away from the very notion of doing any such thing, The worker had to be at once as perfect and as anonymous and as objective as his bicycle.
Creation from limitation
De Sica famously used non-actors, in location. Not one scene shot in a studio. Everything was filmed in the streets. As for the actors, none had the slightest experience in theater or film. The workman came from the Breda factory, the child was found hanging around in the street, the wife was a journalist.
In his journals, Cesare Zavattini writes about how he and De Sica visited a brothel to do research for the film, and later the rooms of the Wise Woman, a psychic, who inspires one of the film's characters. De Sica hunted for his cast for a long time and selected them for specific characteristics. Natural nobility, that purity of countenance and bearing that the common people have… He hesitated for months between this person and that, took a hundred tests only to decide finally, in a flash and by intuition on the basis of a silhouette suddenly come upon at the bend of a road.
With the disappearance of the concept of the actor into a transparency seemingly as natural as life itself, comes the disappearance of the set. Now De Sica's film took a long time to prepare, and everything was as minutely planned as for a studio superproduction, which, as a matter of fact, allows for last minute improvisations. Nevertheless, the numbering and titling of shots do not noticeable distinguish Ladri di Biciclette from any ordinary film. But their selection has been made with a view to raising the lucidity of the event to a maximum, while keeping the index of refraction from the style to a minimum.
The long, drawn-out takes add to the feeling of desperation and fear that Antonio faces in his pursuit of finding his bike. Bicycle Thieves can feel like a documentary in it’s subject matter, and though the cinematography is unpretentious it is incredibly beautiful. Bazin (who is regarded as one of the most important or influential writer on cinema and was a co-founder of the French film review "Cahiers du cinéma") stated that the film was "pure cinema"; that it tells a simple story composed of "real" events involving "real" people in "real" places. The truth of its extraordinary emotional impact is another element of the story's purity.
"The Bicycle Thief" had such an impact on its first release that when the British film magazine Sight & Sound held its first international poll of filmmakers and critics in 1952, it was voted the greatest film of all time.