In addition to being so ubiquitous in reruns for awhile at least a few shows made fun of this aspect (it’s not as true anymore, but still somewhat true), Law & Order (the original series) is probably remembered today mostly for the opening narration and “ca-ching” transitions, Jerry Orbach’s memorable way with a quip, Sam Waterston’s stiff-backed and moral but often sneaky prosecutor (later D.A.), and its (mostly) rigid formula of the police trying to solve the crime in the first half and the prosecutors trying to punish the criminals in the second half. But those who lived in New York City could especially appreciate two aspects of the show, even if they weren’t big fans; (1) the use of real locations that lent an authenticity to the proceedings, even with the fake addresses flashed on screen, and (2) a lot of New York stage actors either got their start on the show or were otherwise able to showcase their talents on it (creator Dick Wolf used to say if a New York City stage actor didn’t have an episode credit from the show on their resume, they were either just starting out or were never any good). An example can be found in the first season episode “The Violence of Summer”, where the prosecutors (Michael Moriarty and Richard Brooks) and police (George Dzundza and Chris Noth) investigate three young men who raped a newspaper reporter (Megan Gallagher), and possibly a fourth man as well. Samuel L. Jackson, just starting to break out, played the defense lawyer, Gil Bellows, probably best known today for his roles in Ally Macbeal and The Shawshank Redemption, played one of the defendants, and another defendant, in his very first role, was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died February 1 at the age of 46.
The first time I ever saw Hoffman (I didn’t start watching L&O until it was into reruns) was in Scent of a Woman, one of three films he had out that year (the others were the indie film My New Gun and the Steve Martin drama Leap of Faith). Though most of the movie, of course, is set in New York City, as Lt. Col Frank Slade (Al Pacino) decides to have one last fling before killing himself, it begins and ends at an exclusive prep school, mostly featuring kids who were to the manor born mixing with the occasional scholarship student. Hoffman plays George Willis Jr., one of those rich kids, and though Chris O’Donnell (who played Charlie, the main character of the film), looked more the part than Hoffman did (Charlie was actually a scholarship student), Hoffman carried himself perfectly a privileged wiseacre, as well as the scene near the end where he tries to evade a question that has the threat of expulsion behind it. The movie isn’t fondly remembered today – most seem to see it as Pacino at his hammiest, and getting an Oscar for it despite giving better, far more deserving performances earlier in his career – but even back then, every scene Hoffman is in feels authentic.
After that performance, though his stage work was becoming notable (he would later earn two Tony nominations, including one in 2000 for his work with John C. Reilly in a revival of Sam Shepard’s play True West), Hoffman bounced around in bit parts for a while. Most memorable, for me, were his performances as an uptight police officer in Nobody’s Fool, as one of a team of weather scientists in Twister, and (in a performance that’ll be especially hard to watch now) a recovering alcoholic in When a Man Loves a Woman. However, in 1996 (the same year Twister came out), he had a small role in Hard Eight (as a gambler) that also began what became his most fruitful collaboration in film, that being with writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. Hoffman went on to appear in every film Anderson made (except There Will Be Blood), and it was for Anderson that he gave the performance that first made most critics (and the public) take notice. Boogie Nights, Anderson’s valentine to the 70′s porn film industry, featured a large number of memorable performances (from, among others, star Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, and Heather Graham), but Hoffman somehow stood out as Scotty J, the boom mike operator who falls in love with porn actor Dirk Diggler (Wahlberg) the first time he sees him. The scene where Scotty tries to kiss Dirk and then apologizes when Dirk doesn’t respond well is still painful to watch, because Hoffman just presents himself so nakedly with his desire, embarrassment and shame all mixed at once.
The Big Lebowski is another ensemble film that has arguably become *the* cult film of the last 15 years or so, and features a number of memorable moments and performances (my personal favorite being Julianne Moore’s hilariously affected performance artist). Yet even here, Hoffman is able to stand out as Brandt, the unctuous assistant to the “real” Mr. Lebowski (David Huddleston). With his forced laugh, habit of repeating things twice, and attempts to be cheerful no matter what the situation as he shows the Dude (Jeff Bridges) around, Hoffman takes what could have been a nothing role and made something memorable out of it despite only being in a couple of scenes (when the cult TV show Veronica Mars paid homage to Hoffman’s first scene in the episode “Lord of the Pi’s”, the effort was sincere, but the actor playing the Brandt character wasn’t nearly as obsequious or funny). For many people, his work that same year as a man who makes obscene phone calls in Todd Solondz’s Happiness was just as memorable. I must confess I’m not a fan of Solondz in general – I think he’s exploiting his characters while pretending to expose the cruelty of the world (which I think he does in a facile, obvious way) – but I do concede Hoffman was good in the film.
Another substandard film Hoffman partly redeemed with his performance came the following year in Flawless. He plays a drag queen who gives Robert De Niro (as a bigoted ex-cop) singing lessons to help him with his speech therapy after a stroke. Joel Schumacher’s film never rises above its schematic plot or characters, but Hoffman somehow breaks past that. Much better films showing off his talents came later that year in The Talented Mr. Ripley (the first of two films he’d do with Anthony Minghella) and Magnolia (his second film with Anderson). In the former, he played Freddie Miles, the snobbish friend of Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), and the first to suspect Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), who has ostensibly come to bring Dickie back to America (they’re in Italy), isn’t entirely who he says he is. Whether teasing Ripley for how easy he has it, calling him out for peeping in on Dickie when he’s with his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), or challenging Ripley for lying about what’s happened to Dickie (when Ripley asks if Freddie has something to say, Freddie responds, “I think I’m saying it”), Hoffman again does a lot with a small role. In the latter film, he takes a 180-degree turn as Phil Parma, a selfless, devoted male nurse to Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a dying man. This could easily have been a sentimental slop of a role, but Hoffman brings humor (the shy way he orders adult magazines so he can find the number to call Frank TJ Mackey (Tom Cruise), Earl’s estranged son) and honest emotion (on the phone with one of Frank’s people, he says he realizes he sounds like the guy in movies looking for his long-lost son, but points out those scenes really do happen).
Many of the comments I’ve read about Hoffman’s death have expressed, along with shock and grief, the idea he never gave a bad performance. I would agree somewhat with that, but I do think there were times when he held something back from a role and could have gone deeper, and it’s usually with what could be called “schlub” roles. David Mamet’s State and Main, which came out the following year, is a satire on filmmaking that skewers both Hollywood and the local “yokels” where a particular film is being made, but Hoffman’s character, Joseph Turner White, the screenwriter, is sentimentalized as the hero. Hoffman does make Mamet’s highly stylized dialogue sound natural, and the scene where he comes up with how to keep Sarah Jessica Parker’s character from walking of the film is a terrific piece of acting, but he seems hampered by the narrow conception of the role. Similarly, in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, which came out two years later, he’s best in scenes like when he’s arguing with his stockbroker friend (Barry Pepper) over who’s more appealing to women, and less so when he’s crushing on student Anna Paquin (In Cold Mountain, from the following year, which re-teamed him with Anthony Minghella, he seemed more at home in playing a wayward preacher). However, in the highly underrated Owning Mahowney, from the following year, he used that narrow conception to his advantage in giving one of his best performances. Richard Kwietniowski’s film is based on the true story of a bank manager (Hoffman) who embezzled money to feed a gambling addiction, and few have done a better job than Hoffman of playing someone so monomoniacally obsessed. He’s hunched down, rarely makes eye contact, doesn’t indulge in any other vices available, and ignores anything and everything, even his girlfriend (Minnie Driver). Yet despite the fact he almost never changes expression, you can understand why he’s so enthralled. Hoffman isn’t the only reason to see the movie – John Hurt is also terrific as the casino manager who jumps through hoops to enable Hoffman’s addiction – but he’s the best.
Hoffman received his first Oscar nomination, and his only win, for playing another real-life person, this time the title role in Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005). It’s become popular in recent years to say Doug McGrath’s Infamous, which came out the following year and told essentially the same story (Truman Capote researching and writing In Cold Blood), was the better film, and I frankly don’t understand that sentiment (though I will agree Daniel Craig in Infamous does a better job as Perry Smith than Clifton Collins Jr. did in the same role here). Part of that is because Miller and writer Dan Futterman aren’t condescending to the Kansas characters like McGrath’s film is. But while Toby Jones (who played Capote in Infamous) bore a closer physical resemblance to Capote than Hoffman does (Hoffman is simply too tall), Hoffman more than makes up for it in other ways. He’s able to look odd and shrunken without calling attention to himself. He uses the famous Capote voice not only as a way to convey how much of a gadfly he was, but also to reveal the vulnerability inside, especially in his scenes with Perry. And he was able to do so much in just one scene, which comes out early in the film, and in the moment I knew I was going to love it. Capote is traveling by train to Kansas with Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, also good), and as the porter settles them into their stateroom, he goes on and on about how much he admires Capote’s work. When the porter leaves, Lee immediately accuses Capote of paying the porter to say what he did. Hoffman tries to feign outrage before giving up, simply laughing and asking, “How did you know?”, as if he was laughing at his own ridiculousness. It’s one of the best portrayals of ego I’ve ever seen.
I’m not the first person to point out it’s become somewhat of a cliche at this point for an Oscar winner or “respected” actor to almost immediately slide into the role of an action villain. And yet when Hoffman made the leap the year after his Oscar in Mission Impossible III, he avoided the traps that come with that type of role. The movie itself, for me, was like all of the Mission movies to date; some occasional good action scenes (admittedly, this film was the best in that regard for me, despite being helmed by the least talented director of the four) that ultimately couldn’t get past mediocre material. But Hoffman (who had warmed up, in way, for this role in smaller roles as the head of a phone-sex line in Punch-Drunk Love – his third film with P.T. Anderson – and as sleazy tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds in Brett Ratner’s by-the-numbers version of Red Dragon) keeps you watching whenever he’s on-screen during the dramatic scenes. He avoids camping it up, and makes the character intently focused and extremely dangerous, especially when he’s captured and yet taunting Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), “Do you have a wife? A girlfriend? Because if you do, I’m gonna find her. I’m gonna hurt her. I’m gonna make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name. And then I’m gonna find you, and kill you right in front of her.” It’s actually scary, and it’s too bad the movie lets him down with the plot twist near the end.
2005 may have been the year Hoffman gave the performance that won him an Oscar, and the Mission Impossible movie may have been his biggest hit to date, but 2007, IMHO, was Hoffman’s best year creatively, at least in film. Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead saw him playing a role that, in retrospect, it’s surprising he didn’t play more often; an ordinary, somewhat decent man who makes a bad decision that spins his life out of control (along with several other lives). In this case, it’s two brothers (Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) both in desperate straits (Hawke needs money to send his daughter to a good school, while Hoffman needs money to cover up the fact he’s embezzling money to feed his drug habit) who, at Hoffman’s insistence, decide to rob their parents’ (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) jewelry store, on the theory it’ll be simple and quick and no one will get hurt. Naturally, it all goes horribly wrong. In interviews, Lumet stressed the fact this was a melodrama, and it is, but he and writer Kelly Masterson are also able to make it tragic without making it feel weighted down. A major reason for that, as usual, is Hoffman; at first, his character seems completely together, with a loving relationship with Marisa Tomei as his wife (the movie opens with a sex scene between them) and him clearly relishing the role of cool uncle toward’s Hawke’s daughter. But then you see not only the drug addiction and embezzlement, but also the bitterness and isolation underneath his character. Probably the big showcase scene for him is the one where he lets out his bitterness towards Finney’s character, but Hoffman is equally good in the scene where Tomei (whose character has also been having an affair with Hawke’s) tells him she’s leaving him, and he literally has no response to what she needs. It’s a powerful moment.
Hoffman brought another ordinary guy, although very different and less heightened circumstances, in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages. Jenkins’ film was the second film that year to deal with dementia/Alzheimer’s in a major way – Sarah Polley’s Away From Her being the other – but whereas Polley’s movie was poetic and melancholy, Jenkins found the dark humor in her subject even though it never denied the pain. Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings who have to deal with their father’s (Philip Bosco) dementia. Both of them ultimately want to do the right thing by their father, but they’re also both needy in their own way, as well as dealing with their own issues with him. Jenkins’ film walks a continually tightrope throughout (going the wrong way could either lead to sentimental melodrama or sitcom contrivance), but she never puts a foot wrong. A lot of that is due to Hoffman and Linney. This was the first time they ever worked together, but you’d never know it from their relationship here, going from prickly (when she tries to justify a 9/11 grant she received, which he finds ridiculous) to guarded affection (when he finds out she’s swiped pain pills from another patient, and he simply asks, “Do they work?”), that’s played out not only in their dialogue but their non-speaking moments (as when she feeds him one of those pills, or when they’re caught out for eating food at a support group meeting before they’re supposed to).
As good as both of those performances were, it was Hoffman’s portrayal of real-life CIA agent Gust Avrakotos in Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War that same year that earned him his second Oscar nomination (this time as Best Supporting Actor). Admittedly, the film itself isn’t quite as good as the other two – an earlier draft by writer Aaron Sorkin (who adapted the book by George Crile) shows a more politically incendiary script before someone (the studio, Nichols, the real-life parties involved) watered it down somewhat – but Hoffman’s performance is amazing. And Sorkin and Nichols give him a great character entrance – Gust is pacing in the office of a superior (John Slattery) who condescendingly assumes Gust is there to apologize, and Gust’s response is, “Excuse me, what the fuck?” That scene, where he rips Slattery’s character a new one and breaks his window (again), is arguably the most well-known of the movie (if you go by the number of YouTube hits it’s received, anyway), but while it sums up his character in about a minute and lets Hoffman indulge in an over-the-top style he rarely got to show but excelled at, it’s another office scene that I think provides his best moment. Gust is sent over to see Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), the Texas Congressman who wants to know what the CIA is doing to help Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviet Union, because he wants to help. Along with his meeting with Gust, Charlie also has to deal with another crisis – he’s being investigated by the Justice Department – and at one point, Gust lets slip what he knows about that crisis and how. It’s an hysterically funny moment – I saw this in a theater twice, and both times, the theater exploded in laughter – and what makes it funnier is how Hoffman underplays it. And as profane and uncouth as he is (Charlie at one point says, “You’re no James Bond”), he is the only one who sees the larger picture, and Hoffman convinces you of that as well.
The following year, he got to play a theater director struggling with illness and the women in his life in Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman. The film doesn’t have the absurdist humor of Kaufman’s previous films (particularly the two films he did with Spike Jonze), but Hoffman does capture the obsession and confusion of his character. He also scored his third Oscar nomination that year for playing a priest accused of being a pedophile in Doubt, but while he gives the strongest performance of the main characters, he is hampered by the staginess of the film and the narrow conception of the part. Similarly, he’s fine as a rebellious DJ in Pirate Rock, even if the film isn’t. He made his directorial debut in 2010 with Jack Goes Boating, but while he showed care with the other actors (especially Amy Ryan as his love interest), he himself seemed again constrained by his role. Finally, while he did a decent job in supporting roles in Pirate Radio (in a deleted scene, he extols the virtues of the Beatles), Moneyball, The Ides of March and A Late Quartet. but there was nothing distinguishable about his performances in those. But in 2012, he garnered his fourth Oscar nomination in his fifth and final collaboration of P.T. Anderson, The Master. Anderson’s film was long believed to be an expose of Scientology, but it turns out to be a lot more complicated than that., and Hoffman avoids easy caricature as well in his performance. Lancaster Dodd may more than likely be a charlatan, but you get on a certain level he does believe what he’s preaching (partly because he’s trying to find order for himself as well as the world and his followers), and you also get to see he might even be the power of his house (Amy Adams, who was also nominated in the supporting category for her performance as Dodd’s wife, is also terrific. And once again, Hoffman is able to skillfully weave through the quiet scenes (as with one of his meetings with Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix)) and the more energetic ones (when he’s running through exercises with the group, known as The Cause) with equal aplomb.
Another theme I noticed with the comments about his death is how sure people were Hoffman still had great work in him. I still haven’t seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (I did see the first one and thought it was decent, not great), but from all appearances, it looks like he was up to the role of game master Plutarch Heavensbee. And aside from the final entries in that series, the film of his I was most looking forward to was A Most Wanted Man, Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John le Carre’s novel about a suspected terrorist. And as far as films he could have done in the future, I’ve always hoped he would one day (sooner rather than later) play the title role in an adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (the term used pre-20th century for those who studied mental pathology, about the character in 1890′s New York City (when Theodore Roosevelt was police commissioner) teaming up with a reporter, a police secretary, and two police detectives to find a serial killer. It’s one of my favorite novels of the last 20 years, and I’ve had no doubt Hoffman could pull off that character.
Finally, a number of tributes to Hoffman’s work on film (again, I can’t speak to his work on stage, though that had many fans as well) mentioned the difficulty in picking just one performance as his “best”. Certainly, that would be tough for me as well, as I can think of four that leap to mind immediately; his work in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Magnolia, Capote and Charlie Wilson’s War, and there are several others just below that one. But if there’s one performance I come back to time and again, it’s his performance as Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s loving tribute to early-70′s rock, Almost Famous. Based on Crowe’s early career as a reporter for Rolling Stone when he was only 15 years old, the film sets up Bangs as a cynical mentor to William Miller (Patrick Fugit), Crowe’s alter-ego. As in real life, Bangs tries to cut through what he sees as the bullshit of both rock-n-roll and rock journalism (“The day (rock-n-roll) ceases to be dumb is the day it ceases to be real!”), even as he recognizes William is too starry-eyed to notice. But we also see a softer side of him (which Crowe claims was there in real life as well), which comes out in his final scene, a late night phone conversation with William; when William says he’s glad Bangs was home when he called, Bangs replies, “I’m always home. I’m uncool!”, and adds, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” In his tribute post to Hoffman, Crowe wrote that he originally meant for the scene to be a call to arms, but Hoffman turned it into something quieter and more powerful. The genius of Hoffman’s acting is he was capable of both the call to arms and the quieter stuff, as well as the ability to play the larger-than-life character and the ordinary guy with equal aplomb.
Postscript: I hadn’t meant to talk about this, but I suppose it can’t be ignored. It goes without saying my heart goes out to his girlfriend (costume designer Mimi O’Donnell) and their three children. And I don’t pretend to know why he did what he did, but I do know addiction is a disease, and to act otherwise is not only to miss the point, but is both insulting and sad. The sooner we treat addiction as such, the easier it may be to prevent tragedies like this one occurring.
In Since You Went Away, Joseph Cotten plays Tony, a navy lieutenant on leave who decides to take Claudette Colbert (whom he has a crush on, but whose husband is overseas in the army) out to dinner. He chooses a restaurant where he can get a steak dinner. Unfortunately:
Waiter: The white fish, signor, is simply delicious. Grilled. You’ll like it.
Tony: Two steaks, thick.
Waiter: Lobster creole. Speciality of the house.
Tony: Two steaks, thick.
Waiter: I must tell the truth, Commodore. We are fresh out of steaks since last Tuesday.
Tony: This is a steak house. Look, it says right here; “thick Kansas City steak”.
Waiter: I can’t help it, signor-
Waiter, Tony (in unison): There is a war on, you know.
By 1944, when David O. Selznick’s epic homefront drama was released, Hollywood certainly knew there was a war on, devoting, if not a majority of films to the war effort, then at least a great many of them. From combat dramas (Air Force, Wake Island) to action dramas (Five Graves to Cairo), romantic dramas (Casablanca), and even comedies (Hail the Conquering Hero), the studios turned out movies dedicated not just to entertaining people, but to help fan support at home for the war in both Europe and the Pacific. Hollywood and Washington D.C. were also working together on non-features about the war, from documentaries – such as Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, William Wyler’s acclaimed film Memphis Belle (later fictionalized in a 1990 movie of the same name), and John Huston’s documentary shorts such as Report from the Aleutians and Let There Be Light – to newsreel footage that showed (a somewhat sanitized version, to be sure) the progress of the war.
Yet it wasn’t always so. For a variety of reasons, the studios in general cast a blind eye in the 1930′s to the events leading up to WWII, at least as far as what was on screen was concerned. Whatever you think of Hollywood’s dependence on foreign markets for movies today, that aspect was present in the 30′s as well, and the majority of studios (with the notable exception of Warner Brothers) didn’t want to produce anything antagonistic to the German government or to potential audiences. Then there was the fact America had become increasingly isolationist from the rest of Europe after WWI (a major factor in why Woodrow Wilson’s idea for a League of Nations met such resistance in the U.S.), and they didn’t want to get involved in what they saw as a European problem. Part of that also had to do with the anti-Semitism in the U.S.; while of course it was nowhere near as pronounced as it was in Germany under Hitler, it was present, and the studio moguls, who were mostly Jewish, didn’t want to do anything to encourage anti-Semitism in their adopted country. Finally, even if the U.S. hadn’t been isolationist, and the studios felt secure both economically and politically in speaking out against Hitler, the Production Code, led by Joseph Breen, tried to keep specifically political movies off the screen for the most part to avoid giving offense (Ben Unwand’s recent controversial book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler alleges Hollywood actively collaborated with the Nazis in this regard; I haven’t read the book, but several critics have attacked both Unwand’s research and conclusions, calling Thomas Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 a more nuanced look at the same subject). As I mentioned, Warner Brothers, with the more political-minded Harry Warner being one of the heads, was a notable exception, turning out Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, the first explicitly anti-Nazi feature film (there had been anti-Nazi documentaries).
By 1941, however, with Hitler having conquered most of Europe (except for Britain), and having invaded the Soviet Union just two years after signing a non-aggression pact with them, the tide of opinion in the U.S. had turned in favor of intervening, and Hollywood had even come around on the studio level (there was always a sizable part of the creative community that wanted the U.S. to help stop Hitler), with films such as Foreign Correspondent and The Mortal Storm coming out from studios other than Warners. 1941 wasn’t dominated by war movies – if you remember that year, it’s likely because of such movies as The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, and, of course, Citizen Kane – but it did have movies dealing with the war mood, and they tended towards two categories. One type was the film that tried to show people just how bad the Nazis were, with such films as Vincent Sherman’s All Through the Night and Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt. The other type took heroic figures from wars past, and used them as a call to arms, with such films as Alexander Korda’s That Hamilton Woman and Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York.
In The Rocketeer, Timothy Dalton plays Neville Sinclair, a 1930′s Hollywood action-adventure star (modeled on Errol Flynn) who in actuality is a Nazi spy. When Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), a gangster whom Neville hires to steal an invention, finds out, he gets angry, saying, “I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.” As far-fetched as this may sound, this actually represented the views of gangsters in the U.S. at the time. According to Little Man, Robert Lacey’s excellent biography of notorious gangster Meyer Lansky, he recounts how Lansky and other gangsters helped law enforcement in the U.S. to find Nazi saboteurs, and how they saw it as patriotism.* Hollywood, of course, could never show a movie with gangsters fighting against Nazis during this time even if this was information that the government wanted publicized in the first place, thanks to the code restrictions. The movie that went closest to this idea was All Through the Night, an enjoyable comedy with from (no surprise) Warner Brothers.
Humphrey Bogart stars as Gloves Donahue, a Broadway gambler who’s first seen interrupting other members of his “gang”, including Sunshine (William Demarest) and Starchy (Jackie Gleason), as they argue with a coffee shop waiter (Phil Silvers) on how the British can best deal with the Nazis. Even though Sunshine thinks this is serious business (telling Gloves he should get his head out of the sports section and onto the sports page), Gloves, in what would become classic Bogart fashion, dismisses it by saying, “That’s Washington’s racket; let them handle it.” Of course, Gloves gets pulled into it when Mr. Miller (Ludwig Stossel), Gloves’ favorite baker (Gloves will only eat Mr. Miller’s cheesecake, and insists every eatery he goes to carries it and no other cheesecake), is found murdered. At the bakery, where Miller’s body was found, Gloves and his mother (Jane Darwell) are approached by Leda Hamilton (Kaaren Verne), a woman who claimed to know Miller, but she disappears before they can talk anymore. On her own initiative, Gloves’ mother follows Leda, and it turns out she’s a singer at a nightclub owned by Marty Callahan (Barton MacLane), Gloves’ bitter rival, and her accompanist is Pepi (Peter Lorre), who, as it happens, murdered Miller. As Gloves gets reluctantly drawn into the whole thing (Pepi murders Callahan’s partner Joe Denning (Edward Brophy), and because one of Gloves’ gloves was found at the scene – he found Joe before he died – Gloves is the prime suspect), he discovers Pepi is part of a group of fifth columnists operating in Manhattan, and led by Ebbing (Conrad Veidt), a ruthless Nazi posing as the head of an auction house.
Of course, this is primarily a comedy, and if you like this sort of Runyon-esque humor – as I do when it’s done right – there’s plenty to savor here. There’s a running gag about Gloves’ mother always being suspicious and Gloves being at her beck and call because of that (when she says, “I’ve got a feeling”, Gloves and his gang’s weary response is, “And when you’ve got a feeling, you’ve got a feeling”). There’s also a running gag about Barney (Frank McHugh), Gloves’ driver, trying desperately to get some time with his brand-new bride Annabelle (Jean Ames), to no avail (when Spats (Wallace Ford), Gloves’ lawyer, tells Barney he should just get a divorce and the experience will be good for him, Barney complains, “But I haven’t got any experience!”). It should also be no surprise there’s plenty of banter (when Gloves compliments Sunshine for knocking out a bad guy with an ax handle, Sunshine admits, “I used to bat .320 at reform school”), as well as double-talk (as when Starchy tries to confuse Sunshine at the beginning, and when Gloves and Sunshine, posing as munitions experts, try to bluff their way through a meeting of the fifth columnists). And Sherman and writers Edwin Gilbert and Leonard Spigelgass (from a story by Spigelgass and Leo Rosten) keep the comedy going at a rapid pace, getting plenty of help from great comic actors like Demarest, Gleason and Silvers, and Bogart has fun with his gangster persona as well.
But, of course, the main purpose of the movie was to highlight the Nazi menace. Lending weight to this, of course, was the fact several of the actors in real life had fled Europe due to the Nazis (Veidt and Lorre being the most well known, but also Verne, Stossel and Irene Seidner, who played Miller’s wife), and therefore, they knew firsthand what the fight was really about. Naturally, this came about mostly in speeches, as with this exchange midway through the movie between Ebbing and Gloves:
Ebbing: It’s a great pity, Mr. Donahue, that you and I should oppose each other. We have so much in common.
Gloves: Yeah? How’s that?
Ebbing: You are a man of action. You take what you want, and so do we. You have no respect for democracy – neither do we. It’s clear we should be allies.
Gloves: It’s clear you’re screwy. I’ve been a registered Democrat ever since I could vote (Bogart was one in real life). I may not be Model Citizen Number 1, but I pay my taxes, wait for traffic lights, and buy 24 tickets to the Policeman’s Ball. Brother, don’t get me mixed up in no league that rubs out innocent bakers and…
Later in the movie, when Callahan finally corners Gloves, and Gloves finally convinces him he had nothing to do with Joe’s death, he has this to say:
Gloves: Now listen, Marty, I know you’re no mental giant, but try to juggle this…all of you. I got a firsthand report tonight on what it’s like on the other side, from that Hamilton babe. And brother, I’m telling you, we gotta watch our steps. Those babies are strictly no good from way down deep. They’re no bunch of petty racketeers trying to muscle in on some small territory – they want to move in wholesale, take over the whole country.
Callahan: So what? It don’t make no difference to me who runs the country, as long as they stay out of my way.
Gloves: That’s just it; they’re not going to stay out of your way.
Callahan: Oh, yes they will.
Gloves: Oh, now listen, big shot, they’ll tell you what time you get up in the morning and what time you go to bed at night. They’ll tell you what you eat, what kind of clothes you can wear, what you drink. They’ll even tell you the morning paper you can read.
Today, of course, that might come across as over-the-top message filmmaking, but at the time it was deeply felt (and the off-hand way Bogart delivers those speeches mitigates whatever heavy-handedness may be in the writing). And again, the fact you had actual European refugees in the cast lent the movie plenty of weight. If Veidt’s turn here isn’t as nuanced as, say, his work as Major Strasser in Casablanca, he does at least go beyond the cartoonish (there’s the idea he’s somewhat attracted to Leda even as he’s using her for his own ends), and he’s still effectively chilling. And likewise, while Lorre isn’t breaking new ground in his work here, he’s at least effective and doesn’t give the impression he’s going through the motions. Verne doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with English, but she does manage to hold her own with Bogart (even though there isn’t much chemistry between them), she sings well, and she does keep you guessing at her character’s motives. All of this helps make All Through the Night not just an enjoyable movie, but also an interesting capsule of American attitudes towards the Nazis both on and off screen.
*-Also in the book, Lacey recounts how Lansky’s friend and fellow gangster, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, claimed to have a line on how to assassinate Goebbels; in Barry Levinson’s Bugsy, about the last few years of Siegel’s life, this is changed to Mussolini for some reason.
A more serious call to arms against the Nazis that came out that year was Fritz Lang’s superb thriller Man Hunt. It also opens with a provocative image; Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), a famed big game hunter, has in his gun sights none other than Adolf Hitler. Turns out Thorndike has followed Hitler to a retreat, and while it seems at first as if he just wanted the challenge of getting Hitler in his sights, soon, he seems to change his mind, and loads a bullet into the chamber. However, a leaf falls in his sight, and when Thorndike brushes it away, a Nazi guard spots him and eventually captures him. Though he’s of course beaten by other German guards, Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), the head Nazi at the camp, offers him a way out; if Thorndike will admit he tried to kill Hitler on orders from the British government, they’ll let him live, and no more harm will come to him (Quive-Smith is a fan of Thorndike’s). Thorndike tries to protest he was merely doing a “sporting stalk” just to see if he could get close enough, but the major doesn’t believe him, and orders Thorndike killed. Thorndike, however, manages to escape, and, with the help of a young boy (Roddy McDowell) on a ship, manages to make it to England. There, however, he’s pursued by an agent of the major’s named Mr. Jones (John Carradine), and Thorndike is forced to hide out with Jerry (Joan Bennett), a prostitute (though of course Lang wasn’t allowed to call her that, so there’s a sewing machine in her apartment to make her a seamstress) who ends up falling in love with him.
If All Through the Night took on the Nazi menace through speeches, Lang’s movie (adapted by Dudley Nichols and an uncredited Lamar Trotti from the novel Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household) does it through imagery; not just the swastikas and insignia, say, that are in evidence when Thorndike is being interrogated, but the menace hanging in the air. Though shot on sets instead of on location, Lang, cinematographer Arthur C. Miller (like Nichols and Trotti, a frequent collaborator with John Ford; he shot How Green Was My Valley that year, which also starred Pidgeon), set director Thomas Little and art directors Richard Day and Wiard Ihnen make the fog of London seem forbidding and menacing, making it believable the Nazi menace would be creeping in. There are also some memorable set pieces, such as a chase scene in the London Underground. Finally, there’s the performance by Sanders (and, to a lesser extent, of Carradine). In many movies of the time (and afterwards), film portraits of Nazis (and Japanese) were often cartoonish, bordering on campy, and when Sanders seemed bored with the material, he could certainly fall into camp, but there’s none of that here. There’s honest danger in the major, especially since he tries to convince Thorndike not just by his methods, but by what he thinks is reason; the major seems honestly baffled by Thorndike’s inability to do what he should, and not just for the usual “evil can’t comprehend good” reasons seen in so many movies. When promoting Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino cited Lang’s film as a major influence, calling it a film that actually seemed to know the Nazi menace, and not just in the abstract, and Lang’s direction and Sanders’ performance are a big part of that.
I confess Pidgeon is an actor who’s never made much of an impression on me one way or the other, even though I’ve seen a few of his major films (How Green was my Valley, Forbidden Planet, Advise & Consent, Funny Girl). And he certainly wouldn’t have been my first choice for this time up role, which might seem better suited to someone like Joel McCrea (who had done his own anti-Nazi film the year before; Hitchcock’s excellent Foreign Correspondent, which, ironically, co-starred Sanders as a good guy). Yet, in a way, he’s perfect for the part, because Thorndike, for the most part, is someone who has to survive off his wits or through the kindness of strangers, not by force, and we might have been more impatient with someone like McCrea than we are with Pidgeon. And Pidgeon brings both a callousness to his scenes with Jerry (he takes her for granted, even though she clearly has a crush on him) and a touching vulnerability (when he’s on the run). As for Bennett, this was the first of her four films with Lang, and while you might not see the femme fatale in her brought out so memorably in his mid-40′s films The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, you do see why she was such a good actress. Admittedly, she does do what today is called “cry-face” a little too often, but we also see her resourcefulness, and also some impish humor, as when Thorndike goes to visit his brother to try and get help, and though Jerry feels out of place, she nevertheless is able to charm her way through. Bennett also does an entirely credible-sounding cockney accent.
Man Hunt wouldn’t be the last time Lang took on WWII, or the Nazis; Hangmen Also Die, which he made two years later, about an assassin (Brian Donlevy) on the run from the Nazis in Europe, is similarly charged. But there’s something about the vulnerability of Thorndike that draws me into this film more. Even the rousing finale, which, as the narration tells us, is about one man going to Europe to take another shot at Hitler, doesn’t distract us from the fact this is about a man who has to survive by his wits rather than necessarily brute strength, and that this could be used to combat the Nazi threat.
As I mentioned at the beginning, one other way movies tried to rouse the nation to action in WWII was to call on past glories. In Britain, Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Henry VIII) made That Hamilton Woman, ostensibly about the forbidden love affair between Emma Hart (Vivien Leigh), a courtesan married to Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), and Lord Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier). However, it also concentrated on Nelson’s exploits against the French navy; Nelson even exhorts the government not to trust Napoleon, saying, “You cannot make peace with dictators. You have to destroy them, wipe them out!” Winston Churchill, who once called this his favorite film and reportedly watched it 83 times, wrote this speech for the film to inspire the country against Hitler and the Nazis (towards the end of the war, Olivier directed – and starred in – Shakespeare’s Henry V for the same purpose). In Hollywood, Sergeant York served the same purpose. Ironically, while the film was criticized during filming as being pro-war by the isolationist forces in the U.S., when it was finally released in late September of 1941, Hitler’s activities in Europe had not only changed attitudes in the country towards the war, but the film became a huge hit (as well as getting nominated for 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor for star Gary Cooper – which he won – and Hawks’ only Best Director nomination) and reportedly helped recruit several men of age into the army.
Producer Jesse L. Lasky had long though the story of Alvin York (Cooper), the Tennessee farmer and pacifist turned soldier turned WWI hero, was made for the movies, but York had long resisted, partly because Lasky had wanted York to play himself, and because he insisted “Uncle Sam’s uniform” wasn’t for sale (even though he did need the money). York eventually relented when Lasky brought up Hitler in 1940, but only did so on three conditions; York’s share of the profits would go to a Bible school York was trying to build, no “Oomph Girl”, as York put it, would play his wife on-screen, and Cooper would play him. Cooper as first resisted – he was too old for the part – but was eventually won over by York’s personal plea, and would later see the movie as his contribution to the war effort. And several directors turned down the movie (including Michael Curtiz, Victor Fleming, Henry Hathaway and William Wyler; William Keighley was set to direct at one point, but had to bow out due to production delays) until Hawks, who had just been let go from the Howard Hughes-produced The Outlaw (opinions vary as to whether he jumped or was pushed), was available, and since Cooper wanted him as director, that sealed the deal.
At the time, it seemed like Hawks was a strange choice for such a tale. For starters, his previous war films - The Dawn Patrol, Today we Live and The Road to Glory (all of which, like Sergeant York, were set during WWI) – all emphasized the futility of war (John Huston, who along with Abern Finkel, Harry Chandlee and Howard Koch, contributed to the screenplay, was also anti-war in general). Also, while there were some memorable supporting characters in the film – including Walter Brennan as Pastor Pyle, George Tobias as “Pusher”, a soldier York serves with, and Ward Bond as Ike, one of York’s drinking buddies before he became a born-again Christian – and Hawks did place York in connection with many of them, it is of course about his solitary exports (though how solitary they were during his actions in WWI came under dispute at the time), which was atypical of Hawks’ films. Finally, while Hawks preferred to either build up his own stories or re-work them into his own (as he had the previous year with His Girl Friday, his re-working of The Front Page), this was a movie where he had to stick as closely as possible to the facts (York and the other townspeople refused to sign releases otherwise). Consequently, Hawks fans don’t generally consider it among his best films, but I do.
For starters, Hawks and the writers neither demonize nor sentimentalize York before or after he becomes a born-again Christian. As his mother (Margaret Wycherly) tells the pastor, York isn’t a bad person, and he definitely works hard when he’s on the family farm. And when he sets out to get a piece of bottom land (that will farm better, but also costs more), you can see the effort he makes for it. It’s just his idea of letting off steam is getting drunk and making a lot of ruckus around the prayer meetings the pastor tries to run Also, there’s an impishness to him that can turn sour, as when he fights off a rival suitor competing for the affections of Gracie (Joan Leslie), the girl he becomes attracted to. Similarly, when he becomes a born-again Christian, though he, like many converts, embraces what he’s converted to fanatically, Cooper never makes him off-puttingly pious. And when, against his wishes (he wanted to get out of having to serve on account of being a conscientious objector), he ended up serving in the Army, York still goes through the work without complaining, and uses the same tricks shooting army targets as he did in trying to shoot a turkey for a contest earlier in the film.
Another aspect of the film that tends to get overlooked is the relationship between York and Gracie, and the work Cooper and Leslie do together. As much as Hawks is often dubbed a director of films about the friendships between men, the romantic relationships in his films are just as important. And while sometimes the man would be the one who would (figuratively) throw the woman off balance, more often, it was the other way around, as in Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire, Rio Bravo, and here. For example, when the born-again York goes to that suitor (who, as it happens, also bought the piece of bottom land York was craving), tells him there’s no hard feelings, and even says he’ll step aside if Gracie prefers him over York, Gracie comes up to him the next day, angrily tells York she’ll be the one to decide whom she’s in love with, and then kisses York, leaving him confused. I wasn’t always a fan of Leslie – her “girlish” quality was okay when she was paired with someone like Cooper or James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy), or in the right type of role (High Sierra, The Hard Way), but could be insufferable otherwise – but Hawks uses her right here, and she even does a good Southern accent, and is able to keep Cooper off balance.
Of course, the main attraction of the film at the time was the sequence where York earned his Congressional Medal of Honor by, with only a dozen other soldiers, capturing 132 Germans and killing 25. This wasn’t the only game-changing event in York’s life shown in the film – we also see the bolt of lightning that eventually causes him to change his ways and be born again, as well as the scene where a Bible passage convinces him to fight in the war after all – but this was the big one, and again, what distinguishes Hawks’ work here is how he and cinematographer Sol Polito (who also shot Confessions of a Nazi Spy, among other films) shoot it cleanly and avoid sentimentalizing it. There’s even humor as we hear it going around the grapevine about what York did, and everyone gets it wrong (in real life, some of the soldiers griped York got too much credit at the expense of others). And again, we see York using the same techniques he did with a turkey shoot earlier in the film to shoot the Germans. It was partly due to this entire sequence many men of age enlisted in the army, but it never feels like just a recruitment film because of Hawks. However constrained he may have been or felt, Hawks (and, of course, Cooper) gives us York the man as well as the icon, and that’s what makes Sergeant York. in my book, a great film.
Over on the new Roger Ebert website, they have what they call a “Movie Love” questionnaire that they give to writers for the site. After reading one of them (thanks to my friend Ali Arkan linking it), I decided to try and do the questionnaire for myself, and I have to say, it’s a lot tougher than it may look.
1. Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
Basically, I grew up in two places; Somerset, New Jersey, where I lived from when I was five years old to when I was about 13, and Walnut Creek, California (we moved there because my father got a job in San Francisco), where I lived till I was 18, after which I went off to college in Washington state (though, of course, I did come home for vacations and summer, except for the summer after my junior year, when I stayed in Washington). Each place had its own charm – in New Jersey, we had the biggest backyard, since we lived on the corner, so we played a lot of baseball and football games there, and we got to go to New York City a lot, which I loved, while California had the nicer weather, and the high school where I went was just a couple of blocks from where I lived. That said, going to California after New Jersey was a culture shock in a lot of ways, not least of which was because I didn’t want to move at all. I had a very bad experience in 8th grade for a lot of reasons, but that was one of them. It wasn’t until my freshman year in high school, when I made a number of older friends, that I started to enjoy myself out there.
2. Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?
I say this a lot, but it’s worth repeating; my father is the reason why I became a movie fan. When I was growing up, I was more into sports. I did occasionally go to movies in New Jersey, and my parents took me to animated Disney movies, but that was it. But when we moved to California, my father bought a video disc player – the movie equivalent of a record player – and would bring home a movie almost every night. Now, my father had very particular taste – he didn’t like many movies made after 1960, with some exceptions (Woody Allen films, The In-Laws, Breaking Away), he didn’t like violence in movies, and he definitely didn’t like profanity in movies – but within those restrictions, I got exposed to a lot of great movies growing up. He introduced me to Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Frank Capra, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Fred Astaire and other musicals, romantic comedies, and more. While I have gone my own way as far as movies go – of course I watch a lot of modern movies, I no longer have much taste for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals he loved (though other musicals I still love), and I had to discover film noir, gangster films, and Westerns on my own – I still am a big fan of much of what he introduced me to, and its probably thanks to him (as well as the fact we didn’t have a color TV until we moved to California) that I willingly viewed black-and-white movies at a time when people my age, and teens in general at any time, were stereotyped as not liking black-and-white. Also, my father taught me how to look at a movie critically, and also would highlight particular scenes.
One I remember is from Twelve O’Clock High - an odd movie for him to recommend, as his dislike of movie violence usually kept him away from combat movies – specifically the scene of the morning when Gregory Peck assumes command of an army bombardier unit. Peck’s character is a general, but he starts out sitting in the front seat of the car, the driver stops the car for a little bit, the two of them get out of the car and walk a few feet, and Peck lights the cigarette of the driver and, in a friendly manner, calls the driver by his first name. But after a few moments, Peck throws away his cigarette and says, “All right, sergeant,” to which the driver says, “Yes sir,” and when they head back to the vehicle, the driver holds the back door open, and Peck gets in. It’s a subtle way of showing how someone assumes command, and my father was smart to pick up on it and point it out to us.
3. What’s the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?
I honestly am not sure. As I said before, I got taken to a lot of Disney movies when I was a kid (and am somewhat resistant to them today for that reason), so I think The Rescuers is the first one I remember seeing, when I was nine. The first movie I went to see in the theater that made an impression on me, however, was The Muppet Movie, simply because I was a fan of the TV show.
4. What’s the first movie that made you think, “Hey, some people made this. It didn’t just exist. There’s a human personality behind it.”
Probably Annie Hall, because I had practically memorized his stand-up album by that point, and I recognized some lines from his routines in the movie. Also, the way he told the movie, even though he later said more of it was exaggerated than people first believed, you could tell this was coming from somewhere deep inside him.
5. What’s the first movie you ever walked out of?
I Am Sam, which really offended me. Technically, you could say the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter, but that doesn’t really count because I snuck into that partway through.
6. What’s the funniest film you’ve ever seen?
Some Like it Hot. Still my favorite comedy of all time.
7. What’s the saddest film you’ve ever seen?
Leaving Las Vegas. That movie just took me apart when I saw it. When I heard someone in the audience trash it afterwards, it’s the first time I really wanted to inflict pain on someone just because I disagreed with them.
8. What’s the scariest film you’ve ever seen?
My standard answers to that used to be the original Night of the Living Dead (even though I’m generally not a fan of zombie movies) and Cronenberg’s version of The Fly. I would also add Audition to that list now.
9. What’s the most romantic movie you’ve ever seen?
Casablanca, the one and only.
10. What’s the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?
In general, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, simply because of how they were able to combine the silly with the sophisticated, and in a way I hadn’t seen done before. As far as U.S. television (or drama) goes, Homicide: Life on the Street, before network interference almost completely damaged it, was the first show where I could say about a particular episode (“The Night of the Dead Living”, “Three Men and Adena”), “That was as good, if not better, than most movies I’ve seen.”
11. What book do you think about or revisit the most?
For fiction, William Goldman’s Marathon Man (the first novel with references I got), C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy. For non-fiction, Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and Richard Corliss’ Talking Pictures, which looks at Hollywood screenwriters from the 30′s to the early 70′s.
12. What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?
Quadrophenia, by The Who, is not my favorite album of all time (that would be Pink Floyd’s The Wall), but it is my desert island album. It is about just about everything I’ve ever felt in my life (even though my background was completely different from the protagonist of this story), and more than any other recording artist I’ve listened to, The Who know how to capture emotions like that, which is why they mean to me more than any other group or singer.
13. Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?
Requiem for a Dream, which I think is brilliant, but which is so haunting and disturbing. And Audition, which is disturbing for a different reason.
14. What movie have you seen more times than any other?
I watch Miracle on 34th Street every Thanksgiving and It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas (the originals, natch), partly as a family tradition, partly because I love both movies, so they would probably be the answer.
15. What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?
My parents were pretty over-protective in this regard, and didn’t let me go to one until I turned 17, so I think the first R-rated movie I saw was Apocalypse Now, which we watched in English class because we were reading Heart of Darkness. I thought it was brilliant until Brando showed up, though the Redux version gives him context.
16. What’s the most visually beautiful film you’ve ever seen?
The Tree of Life; though that’s not the only reason I like it, that’s the main source of its power.
17. Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?
Past: Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly, James Stewart. Present: George Clooney, Al Pacino.
18. Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?
Past: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck. Present: Cate Blanchett, Jessica Chastain.
19. Who’s your favorite modern filmmaker?
There’s a lot of them I liked, but I’d probably have to go with Paul Thomas Anderson.
20. Who’s your least favorite modern filmmaker?
That’s easy; Michael Bay.
21. What film do you love that most people seem to hate?
This is from a while back, but the Laurence Fishburne/Ellen Barkin Bad Company (as opposed to the 70′s Western with Jeff Bridges, or the action/comedy from 2002 with Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins) got pretty tepid reviews when it came out in 1995, and I think it’s great, nasty, trashy fun.
22. What film do you hate that most people love?
I’m not really comfortable with that question, because it’s usually an invitation for people to say, “Oh, look how I’m slamming this movie everyone loves just so I can look cool!” That said, except for Amour, I’m not a fan of Michael Haneke, and I know The White Ribbon was considered especially good and thoughtful; I wish I had seen that movie.
23. Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget – not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.
I’ve had quite a few memorable moviegoing experiences – seeing Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 70 mm (in a theater in Toronto that was the equivalent of the Ziegfeld, except with better facilities), seeing midnight showings of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, and the last two Harry Potter movies, with appreciative audiences, and seeing Almost Famous for the first time, at the Toronto Film Festival after waiting nearly five hours to get a ticket – but I’m going to go with seeing the first two Godfather movies in my “Literature and Film” class the summer before my senior year in college. We got to see them projected on a big screen, and even though they weren’t as cleaned up as they have been since, this was the first time I had seen these (Part II is of course my favorite movie of all time, and the first one is my 3rd favorite movie of all time), and they just blew me away.
Of course, I’ve had other experiences that were memorable for all the wrong reasons – the projector breaking down after the frog sequence in Magnolia, so it took nearly an hour to watch the last 5-10 minutes, and the power going out briefly near the end of The 6th Day, and the people in the projection booth chatting nonchalantly, not realizing (a) we could hear them, and (b) we could hear them instead of the movie itself.
24. What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?
All of the commercials. I can put up with the trailers, but not the commercials.
25. What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?
The fact there weren’t any (or at least not that many) commercials.
26. Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?
At the first video store I worked at, there was one guy I started off liking, but we got into some pretty intense arguments about movies, and that did sort of damage things. I had my own issues at the time, though.
27. What movies have you dreamed about?
I honestly don’t remember my dreams, so I don’t know.
28. What concession stand item can you not live without?
I can live without any of them.
“I’m no stranger to conspiracy. I saw JFK.”
-”I Only Have Eyes For You”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 4/21/98
For better or worse – and there’s been plenty of arguments on both sides of that equation – the work of fiction that’s most associated in people’s minds with the conspiracy theories surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination remains Oliver Stone’s JFK, even over 20 years after its release (it’s being re-released into theaters and is just out on Blu-Ray). As I mentioned in my introductory post, if nothing else, Stone’s movie did have a legislative impact; records on Oswald and the Warren Commission that were meant to be sealed until 2039 will now be unsealed in 2017, thanks to the 1992 Assassinations Disclosure Act. Culturally, it’s been parodied or joked about (some of those works I discuss below) in ways few other movies about the assassination, if any, have been. Most importantly – at least from my point of view – it is possible, even at this late date, to argue that Stone made a good, maybe even great, movie even if you don’t believe in most of what he’s saying.
Given the fact every movie these days that purports to be a docudrama or to be “based on a true story” gets put under a microscope these days as to its veracity (Argo, Django Unchained, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, four of last year’s Best Picture nominees, are prime examples, as are Oscar contenders this year such as The Butler, Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave), it’s easy to forget none of them caused the furor Stone’s movie did upon its initial release. It wasn’t the first docudrama to be attacked like this, and from establishment sources – Costra-Gavras’ Missing (1982), which purported to tell the story of an American activist killed during the 1973 coup in Chile*, was criticized by the State Department and sued by a former ambassador to Chile for libel, and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was roundly condemned by, and protested against, by religious groups – but no film had been under so much scrutiny, and for so long. The book of the screenplay of JFK contains 300+ pages of articles and letters about the film, both criticizing and defending it, ranging from May of 1991, before the film was even released (an article by George Lardner Jr. in The Washington Post attacked the film based on a copy of the script Lardner had acquired; in a letter to the paper that was printed two weeks later, Stone responded Lardner’s article was based on a draft of the script that had been significantly changed since, and that an article criticizing a movie based on an early draft of the script was scurrilous) to May of 1992 (in a discussion in The Nation). And that’s just counting the articles and letters that were allowed into the book (the editor noted Arlen Specter, Anthony Summers and George Will, among others, did not want their work included). The furor became so overwhelming Garry Trudeau wrote an editorial cartoon/column in The New York Times (the paper, ironically enough, that probably attacked the film most often) satirizing all the ways Stone’s movie had come under fire.
Obviously, one of the reasons why Stone’s film received so much flak was his choice of Jim Garrison (played in the movie by Kevin Costner) as the hero. It’s true Garrison brought, to date, the only prosecution of someone (businessman Clay Shaw, played by Tommy Lee Jones) to conspire to kill Kennedy. It’s also true Garrison has been dismissed as a crackpot by both sides of the Kennedy assassination debate. In Oswald’s Ghost, as well as the book of the screenplay of JFK, lone-gunman advocates such as Hugh Aynesworth, Dan Rather (both in the film), and David W. Bellin (seen in archival footage in the film; his articles are included in the book), as well as conspiracy theorists such as Edward Jay Epstein, Josiah Thompson (both in the film), and Harold Weisberg (one of the leading conspiracy theorists; a couple of his letters are included in the book, and he was the one who leaked Stone’s early draft of his film to Lardner) ridicule Garrison and his prosecution. Particularly under fire were his methods; a code for figuring out a telephone number that seemed to make sense only to Garrison, the fact (according to his critics) he seemed to change his theory of the crime at will, and the fact he seemed to be targeting only homosexuals for the crime (though the documentary seems to imply he was the only prosecutor in America to do so, which is completely off base) all seemed the work of a prosecutor not entirely in his right mind.
And yet that doesn’t entirely explain the vitriol directed towards Stone and his film, nor does Stone’s combative personality, and nor, I would add, does whatever artistic license Stone did take towards the film; after all, for example, Ken Russell took frequent liberties with his biopics of famous musicians, but while film critics went after him for that, and maybe music critics, he wasn’t roundly condemned on editorial pages (with the possible exception of The Devils) and the like. As Canadian cultural critic Geoff Pevere explained in a column on 2/11/92 for The Globe And Mail:
Yet, as nutty as so much of the flap around JFK is, it was inevitable and invited. If anything, what all this sound and fury ultimately signifies is a struggle over territory far less lofty than history. This is a professional turf war.
And, let’s face it, Oliver Stone made the first incursion. In making plain–scratch that–in bellowing (emphasis Pevere’s) his intent to lay bare the historical coverup of the century, a coverup that could not have succeeded without either the systematic collusion or deception of the fourth estate, Stone was not only bulldozing his way through territory conventionally demarcated as journalistic turf, he was also plowing dirt all over the institution of journalistic integrity. If Stone is right, even remotely so, the implications for the media establishment are as clear as Kevin Costner’s complexion: the press blew it.
While that doesn’t make a silly situation any less so, it may pull a couple of matters into sharper focus. Stung by an assault on their most sensitive and vulnerable flank (the issue of non-partisan objectivity), the guardians at the gate of journalistic integrity loaded their entire arsenal with the most potent ammo at their disposal. Judging JFK on the terms Stone had unwisely invited it to be judged–as a work of journalism–it was judged a travesty.
All of which may go down as one of the sillier and sadder episodes of our recent, wacky cultural history. Obviously, judged as journalism, JFK fails. How could it not? Failing it on those grounds is like flunking a cat for not being a dog.
And that, I think, is a rational theory. In this movie, Stone is challenging the “official” history of the event, the Warren Commission report, as well as the fact the mainstream press accepted it so willingly instead of questioning it (the fact the mainstream press has since then often swallowed “official” stories that turned out not to be true – the second Iraq war being a prominent recent example – makes that a valid argument in my book). You may believe the report to be substantially accurate, but I think there are enough questions to be raised about it that any movie trying to present a “counter-myth” (as Stone called his movie) is work taking seriously if it’s done well enough. And the “counter-myth” Stone presents here (which he also presented in abbreviated form in Nixon, as a scab Nixon didn’t want to pick at too much because he was afraid of what would come out if he did) may have its own problems (some of which I mention below), but I see nothing wrong with trying to challenge the “official” story when that story also has its own problems.
So, I will acknowledge that yes, I do have problems with some of Stone’s ideas here. I’m not 100% convinced Kennedy would have tried to get the U.S. out of Vietnam, as I’ve seen enough evidence to suggest he was still more of a Cold War warrior than Stone thinks, even though it can’t be denied Kennedy was making certain public overtures of peaceful. Given the fact Johnson pushed forward stronger versions of domestic policies than Kennedy proposed (including the Civil Rights Act), I absolutely don’t believe he was part of any conspiracy. I also do think Stone discounts the probability of mob involvement a little too easily (even though I agree they weren’t the overriding force). And yes, I also acknowledge some parts of the movie do come off as clumsy. Sissy Spacek, for one, is completely wasted here as Jim Garrison’s wife Liz; Stone may claim her character was true to life, but all it proves is he has no idea how to write those scenes. Finally, while I don’t necessarily think Garrison was targeting Shaw, David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) and the like because they were gay (and again, if he was, while that’s definitely bigoted behavior, he would have been far from the only U.S. D.A. to do so), I do think Stone indulges in some pretty ripe stereotyping here, particularly the infamous orgy party scene.
Nevertheless, despite the questions I may have about Stone’s thesis, I maintain it’s still a powerful film. Unlike Executive Action, which also purported to tell the “truth” about what happened, Stone doesn’t make this pedestrian looking at all. The way he, cinematographer Robert Richardson and editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia combine old newsreel footage, black-and-white footage, color footage and so on, and yet never confuses you as a viewer is breathtaking. It helps juice up scenes that by all rights should have slowed the picture down to a crawl, as with the scene where Garrison is in Washington D.C. with a former army officer known only as X (Donald Sutherland) and he lays out Stone’s entire thesis about Kennedy wanting to pull out of Vietnam (the character is based on Fletcher Prouty, a consultant on the film). And while John Williams’ score often takes the solemn tone that is usual in the other films he’s done for Stone, he also uses music of the period and area well, and uses more disparate elements than normal, such as the heavy percussion in the last scene Ferrie has (where he quotes Churchill with, “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma!”).
Finally, while there’s a danger to using famous faces in a movie like this, where you’ll tend to think, “Hey, that’s Joe Pesci!” instead of, “Okay, that’s David Ferrie”, Stone manages to pull that off as well. Costner, of course, came to this not just with a much-criticized performance hanging over his head (the title character in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a movie that couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be), but also an irony few people at the time commented on (if memory serves, Bob Costas, back when he had a late night talk show, was one of the few); in a long speech his character made in Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham, from three years earlier, he says, “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” Costner is more that up to the challenge, even if his character is more idealized than Garrison was in real life. And except for Spacek, who’s wasted on her role, all the other actors are up to the challenge as well, particularly Jones, Pesci, and Sutherland, but also Gary Oldman as Oswald, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker and Jay O. Sanders as some of Garrison’s staffers, and John Candy playing against type as Dean Andrews, who was supposedly called upon to be Oswald’s lawyer.
Along with all of the attacks against the film, there were also the works parodying it. By far the most clever came from Seinfeld, which otherwise was a sitcom I wasn’t a fan of (even though I get its importance and popularity). In “The Boyfriend, Part 1″, Kramer (Michael Richards) and Newman (Wayne Knight) recount how, at a Mets game, Keith Hernandez spit at them, but Jerry (Seinfeld) demonstrates to them that there was a second spitter (to make the joke even better, Knight played one of Garrison’s staffers in JFK, and was used by Garrison in the movie to demonstrate the so-called “magic bullet” theory the same way Seinfeld uses Newman to demonstrate his “magic loogie” theory). Stone himself even got into the act; Ivan Reitman’s Dave is a comedy about the title character (Kevin Kline), a temp agency owner and occasional imitator of President Mitchell (Kline) who’s called on to impersonate the President for real when Mitchell suffers a stroke, and Stone plays himself, being interviewed by Larry King and insisting Mitchell literally hasn’t been the same person since the stroke and has been replaced by a look alike (of course, Stone also burnished his own legend as well; in “Everything Must Go”, an episode of the set-in-the-near-future ABC miniseries Wild Palms – which Stone co-produced – he appears as himself on a talk show, where the host congratulates him on being credit about everything he said in JFK being proved right now that all the files had been released).
After this film, Stone made one more great movie - Nixon, which I maintain is his best movie – and then went into somewhat of a creative funk. He’s made a couple of interesting, if flawed, movies (Any Given Sunday, Heaven and Earth, W.), but he also made movies that seemed tired and that the old Stone could have made provocative (Alexander, World Trade Center, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), or worse, movies where it seems like he was just going through the motions (U-Turn, Savages). It seems like JFK took a lot out of him, and whatever you think of Stone as a filmmaker (I won’t deny he can be bombastic and sentimental), we need more mainstream filmmakers challenging the so-called “official” history, and more films like JFK that do it well, and which aren’t graded on the scale of whether they’re “true” or not.
*-Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969), the film that put him on the map worldwide, was acknowledged by Stone as a major influence on his film, particularly in the way Gavras used the techniques of melodrama to tell his story, and the unashamed point of view. This may also explain why Stone cast Spacek, who appeared to great effect in Missing.
As I mentioned in my previous post, there have been plenty of movies (as well as novels and TV episodes) that have brought up the idea the assassination of John F. Kennedy was not the work of one man, but of a vast conspiracy, and my list was by no means comprehensive. But for my money, the two movies that not only dealt with the idea of a conspiracy the best, but also really made you feel the shadowy forces that would be at work to achieve it, were Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979). They each use different means to get there – Pakula’s film is a suspense thriller that uses mostly suggestion, while Richert opts for black comedy combined with suspense – but the end result is terrific in both cases.
In the book Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life, by Jared Brown, Pakula mentions how he wanted to try out different kinds of films and not be pinned down to one genre. And though he only directed 16 films (11 of which he produced; he also produced seven movies for director Robert Mulligan before deciding to direct), he did try to direct a variety of films, from romantic comedy (The Sterile Cuckoo) to Western (Comes a Horseman) to romantic drama (Starting Over) to literary adaptation/period drama (Sophie’s Choice) to legal drama/thriller (Presumed Innocent, The Pelican Brief). But if he’s remembered as a director today (tragically, his life was cut short in 1998 at age 70 through a traffic accident), it seems to be for his unofficial “paranoia” trilogy in the 70′s, consisting of Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men. While I like all three films (Klute, which is the weakest relatively speaking, has an excellent lead performance by Jane Fonda), it’s The Parallax View that holds up the best for me.
The film is based on a novel by Loren Singer, and the novel is more explicitly about the idea several people who witnessed the assassination died under mysterious circumstances (although it’s never named, the main characters in the novel are watching the Zapruder film). The movie, on the other hand, starts out with referencing Robert Kennedy’s assassination instead; Senator Charles Carroll (William Boyce), an independent party senator thinking of running for president, is hosting a luncheon on top of the Space Needle tower in Seattle when he’s suddenly assassinated. As security guards chase a waiter who has a gun, we see another waiter (Bill McKinney) putting his gun away, and it’s implied either he did it himself or was another shooter. The first waiter, named Thomas Richard Linder (Chuck Waters), ends up falling off the roof as he’s trying to escape the guards, and is killed. The film then makes its connection to JFK’s assassination explicit when we see a panel of men looking like judges, known as the Carroll Commission, giving their preliminary findings four months later; Linder acted alone, and there was no conspiracy.
Three years later, Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), a reporter and recovering alcoholic (he was at the Space Needle at the beginning, but couldn’t get into the luncheon, is getting in trouble with the police (for trying to get a story on a drug bust) and his editor Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn), who thinks Joe is creating news rather than reporting it. So he’s in no mood when Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a TV reporter and Joe’s ex-girlfriend, shows up at his apartment in a panic (she’s been calling him). Lee claims six other reporters who were at the luncheon have died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s afraid she’ll be next. Joe doesn’t want to hear it, claiming she’s just being paranoid. When Lee is found dead three days later in her apartment, however, Joe starts to believe her story, especially when Will (Kenneth Mars), an ex-FBI agent Joe knows, tells Joe how easy it is to make a person’s death look like a suicide (which is how the coroner ruled it). After Will agrees to give him a fake name and background, Joe heads to a small village in upstate Washington, where Alan Bridges, the last reporter before Lee was killed, died. L.D. Wicker (Kelly Thorsden), the sheriff, at first seems eager to help, but when he takes Joe to a river by a dam (where Bridges was killed), it turns out Sheriff Wicker really wants to kill Joe. As water escapes from the dam, Joe and the sheriff both fall in the river and get in a fight, but Joe manages to escape while the sheriff drowns. At the sheriff’s house, Joe discovers forms and tests from the Parallax corporation, and when he gets back to the newspaper (after being chased by Red (Earl Hindman), Wicker’s deputy, when Red discovers Joe at the sheriff’s house), Joe tries to convince Bill he’s on to something big. Bill doesn’t believe it, but allows Joe to continue with the story.
With help from Nelson Schwarzkopf (an uncredited Anthony Zerbe), a local psychology professor, Joe is able to fake the results of the written test from Parallax (Joe signs it with the name of Richard Parton, the ex-con alias Will had set up for him), so he can apply to it. Joe also finally manages to track down Austin Tucker (William Daniels), a former aide to Senator Carroll (he was also at the luncheon at the beginning) who has been in hiding. He tells Joe how he believes there was a conspiracy, and points to the other waiter at the luncheon (he has a photograph). The two of them, along with Tucker’s bodyguard, are on a boat, and a bomb explodes, killing Tucker and his bodyguard, but once again, Joe manages to escape. When Joe returns to the newspaper, Bill at last is convinced there’s a story (Joe was reported dead), but Joe manages to convince him that he should keep digging and pretend to be dead. Joe is soon approached by Jack Younger (Walter McGinn), who works for the Parallax corporation, and tells Joe they liked his test scores. But will Joe be able to find the truth about Parallax?
In his review of the film for Sight & Sound, critic Philip French called the movie “a paranoid film as well as a film about paranoia”. Part of that comes from the fact, except for Younger, Sheriff Wicker and the mysterious assassin from the beginning (who also pops up a few other times in the film), we never really see anyone from the Parallax corporation, yet the film gives you the feeling anyone could be involved* (the novel is a little more explicit about who works for the company, but not too much), and anyone could die at any minute. It also comes from the work of editor John W. Wheeler (who worked on Pakula’s directorial debut The Sterile Cuckoo) and especially from cinematographer Gordon Willis (this was the second of six films Willis and Pakula would work on together). As per usual in a film shot by Willis, there’s a lot of natural light and dark photography, especially in all the scenes that take place indoors, such as the hotel room Joe is in when Younger first sees him (Willis does contrast it with scenes such as the one with Professor Schwarzkopf, which is more brightly lit because that character has no hidden motives), and this helps to give the movie a sense of unease at all times. He also gives a plastic, faceless look to the places Joe visits, from the bar where Joe first meets Sheriff Wicker to that hotel room (only Bill’s newspaper office is shot in warmer colors, and feels lived in). Also contributing to that is Wheeler’s editing, which adds to the elliptical nature of the film; this especially comes out early on, where the film goes from Lee begging Joe to help her right to the morgue, where she’s lying dead on a slab, and we don’t realize until several seconds into the scene that it’s Joe the coroner is talking to.
This paranoid feeling especially comes through in what became the most famous scene in the film, when Joe is given a test by the Parallax corporation that consists nothing more than monitoring his reaction to a series of images (accompanied to music), which start out showing the usual images of the American dream but then turn into something darker (in the novel, it’s a word association test). This is meant to be a form of brainwashing, or at least a way of manipulation, but what’s unusual about the whole sequence is how it’s more seductive than assaultive (compare this, for example, to the similar sequence in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is forced to watch images to turn him from a sociopath into a “normal” member of society. True, the nature of Kubrick’s movie demanded Alec’s treatment be more assaultive, but it’s still amazing how Pakula, Willis and Wheeler are able to pull off, and show, manipulation that’s this subjective. It’s also of a piece in how Pakula is showing the dark side of Americana; not just with the training film, but also the luncheon at the beginning and a political rally rehearsal at the end (originally, it was going to be a fundraising rally until Pakula, Willis and production designer George Jenkins – who was art director on Klute and went on to be production designer on nine more films Pakula directed – saw the convention center being set up and decided a rehearsal would work even better for the film), which at first seems like your typical political event, complete with patriotic music, until the shocking turn it takes.
While it’s accurate to call The Parallax View a conspiracy thriller and a paranoid thriller – and to link it to Kennedy (even though Pakula didn’t want any explicit associations, though the Carroll Commission, which appears at the beginning and end, is a dead giveaway) as well as the unease that came from Vietnam and Watergate – Pakula (at least according to interviews Brown excerpts in his book) also saw this as a Western set in modern day and turned inside out. Although Joe is able to take care of himself physically (we see him not only fight off Sheriff Wicker in the river, but also Red in the bar, in a fight not unlike a Western bar brawl), he’s more of a smart-ass and less laconic than your typical Western hero. However, he has the unshakable confidence in himself that he alone can get to the bottom of this and he’ll be able to take care of himself, and Pakula’s film sets out to undercut him at every turn, showing just how little he knows (only once, when he’s able to get a plane to land that has a bomb on board, is Joe ahead of the game). By the climax of the film, when Joe finally figures out just how little he’s known all this time, it’s too late. This, of course, is keeping with the times of unhappy endings (as well as keeping in with the novel, which otherwise has a radically different ending), but it also keys into this idea of a Western hero made ineffectual, no matter how cocky he is.
Considering how well the film is put together, it may come as a surprise how much of it was done on the fly. Lorenzo Semple Jr. (who also was one of the writers of Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, another great 70′s conspiracy thriller) was the original writer of the film, but David Giler (the original Fun with Dick and Jane) rewrote it at Pakula’s request, Beatty, as per usual, brought in his friend Robert Towne to help out, and because of an impending writer’s strike, Pakula did a lot of re-writing on set. Originally, Joe (named Malcolm Graham in the novel) was going to be a cop, with Bill being his superior office (in the novel, Malcolm was an ex-reporter), but Pakula had it changed to a reporter and editor, and also encouraged improvisation. Apparently, despite the fact it allowed for multiple takes, which was Beatty’s preferred way of shooting, he wasn’t too happy with Pakula’s approach here (in Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman recounted how when he met Beatty, and managed to tell him Goldman would be working with Pakula on All the President’s Men, Beatty’s reply was, “Just make sure you’ve got it before you go out on the floor”). But it ends up working for the film, and even for Beatty’s performance. Like Robert Redford, another romantic leading man of the 70′s, Beatty could be frustratingly opaque, yet what made him ideal for the 70′s is unlike Redford, Beatty was willing to play with his image more, as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Shampoo and this film proved. There’s no extraneous plot thread here, like a love story (there was one in the novel, between Malcolm and the widow of a Parallax assassin Malcolm killed), just Joe trying to survive on his wits, and Beatty effectively conveys how Joe actually is intelligent, just not as much as he thinks he is. The other roles are smaller, but Prentiss (whose character was originally an older, wisecracking woman, in keeping with the novel, until Pakula met Prentiss), Cronyn (who, aside from Beatty, has the largest role and makes the most of it), Daniels, McGinn (Younger was originally supposed to be more like an FBI man until Pakula met with McGinn) and others are all terrific. In a recent article for The Guardian, Alex Cox (Repo Man) called Pakula’s film one of the high points of the golden age of 70′s film, and though the film was poorly received with critics at the time and at the box office, I’d agree, and say the film has gotten better and more relevant over time.
*-It’s probably accurate to say Jonathan Demme’s re-working of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) owes as much to Pakula’s film as it does to Condon’s original novel and Frankenheimer’s film version, especially in the sense of a shadowy corporation having its hands in everything.
Whereas Pakula’s film was serious and oblique, Richert’s film of Winter Kills is blackly comic and direct. This, of course, comes straight from the original novel by Richard Condon, and keeping in line with Condon’s other novels (The Manchurian Candidate, Prizzi’s Honor), but it’s also the approach Richert, who had started out in documentaries, wanted to take. In a documentary about the making of the film, Richert said he wanted to make it like a modern day Alice in Wonderland, which may seem like an odd approach for a conspiracy thriller, yet in its own way, the novel (and film) capture a feeling of paranoia just as much as Pakula’s film does.
The hero of this story is Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), brother of former President Tim Kegan, who was assassinated 19 years earlier. Nick is working on an oil tanker owned by his powerful and wealthy father, Pa Kegan (John Huston), when Keifitz (Richard Boone), Nick’s closest friend and co-worker, tells Nick a rig worker who had an accident and is dying is claiming to be the second gunman that killed Tim, and he wants to speak to Nick. The gunman, named Arthur Fletcher (Joe Spinell), who’s heavily bandaged and can barely talk, tells Nick his gun and ammunition are in a steam pipe in a room on the sixth floor of a building in Philadelphia. Nick, along with Miles (David Spielberg), who works for Pa Kegan but is close with Nick anyway (Nick and his father don’t get along), and Captain Heller (Brad Dexter), a Philadelphia police captain, go into the building, and they manage to find the rifle and ammunition. However, when the three of them get back into the car, Nick gets distracted by a woman (Barbara Richert, the writer/director’s real-life wife at the time) riding a bicycle, and when he turns his attention back to the car, he discovers Miles, Captain Heller and the driver have all been shot dead. Not only that, but when Nick ducks into a building and calls up Cerruti (Anthony Perkins), his father’s right-hand man, the car is driven off, with the rifle still inside.
Reluctantly, Nick tells his father what happened, and Pa Kegan confides while he went along with the report of the Pickering Commission that Willie Arnold (whom we never see) was the lone assassin, he never believed it, and he wants Nick to investigate, using only his help. Nick goes to see a number of people who might be connected, among them Z.K. Dawson (Sterling Hayden), an arms industrialist who hated Kegan but claims he didn’t kill him, Ray Doty (Michael Thoma), who tells Nick about Joe Diamond (Eli Wallach), the nightclub owner who killed Arnold, and how Diamond was forced onto the job by Gameboy Baker (Ralph Meeker), and a mobster named Irving Mentor (Irving Selbst), who tells him the mob organized his brother’s assassination through a man named Casper Jr. But as Nick goes further into his investigation, he finds himself still targeted (a maid at a hotel he usually stays at tries to kill him), and he doesn’t know who to trust, including his girlfriend Yvette Malone (Belinda Bauer), a newspaper writer whom he loves (he wants to marry her, but she keeps putting him off), but turns out to be more mysterious than he thought.
One thing Richert’s film has in common with Pakula’s is how elliptical it is, though in the case of Winter Kills, it wasn’t entirely by choice. True, the way the movie sends Nick down the rabbit hole is consistent with the novel (with the exception of a couple of changes which I’ll get to in a minute), but while Richert was able to get an impressive array of talent both in front of (in addition to the cast mentioned above, there’s also Dorothy Malone as Nick’s mother, Toshiro Mifune as Nick’s childhood butler and mentor, and Elizabeth Taylor as a gangster’s girlfriend (her then-husband John Warner appears uncredited as Tim)) and behind the camera (Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) was the cinematographer, and Robert F. Boyle (North by Northwest), who also appeared briefly as a hotel clerk, was the production designer), the film got shut down twice thanks to money troubles. Executive producers Leonard J. Goldberg and Robert Sterling were exploitation producers (they had done the Emmanuelle films) and, according to Richert, drug dealers (Goldberg ended up getting murdered, while Sterling went to jail), and the film ran out of money a couple of times. This meant there were plenty of things Richert wanted to shoot but couldn’t (according to the DVD commentary, the woman on the bicycle was supposed to be an angel, but Richert couldn’t afford to make that clear, though he said audiences seemed able to intuit there was something otherworldly about her), and it also made for some abrupt transitions (such as when Nick goes from first meeting Pa Kegan as he’s driving in from playing golf to Nick riding on a horse the next day, stopping, and yelling to the skies, “You stink, Pa!”). However, this adds to the satirical and funhouse tone of the film.
Richert may not have been the visual stylist Frankenheimer was in his adaptation of a Condon novel, but he makes some interesting choices to add to the comic tone. In the novel, Nick’s meeting with Dawson takes place in Dawson’s house, but in the movie, it’s in a field, as Dawson is with his private army doing a series of exercises with tanks (Dawson even tells Nick he’s going to shoot him if he doesn’t get off his property), making him all the loonier. Then there’s the meeting Nick has with Frank Mayo (Tomas Milian), another mobster; in the novel, it’s with Nick and Pa Kegan in a hotel room, but in the movie, it’s in a police van, as he’s supposedly just out of prison long enough to meet with Nick. Richert also goes even further in portraying how debauched Pa Kegan is; when Nick first sees him as he’s driving in on a golf cart, Kegan has two beautiful women in the cart with him, and offers Nick either one of them. Richert also ends up combining the character of Yvette with Chantal Lamers (in the novel, she’s the reporter), though that ends up working, and making a character who was completely on Nick’s side throughout turn traitor at the end, and that’s questionable but goes by so fast you don’t really have time to think about it. More damaging – and I wonder how much of this was by choice or by necessity – is the motive rant by the person ultimately behind it all (unlike Parallax View, Nick learns the true culprit, but it doesn’t make him any happier), which in the movie is given to another character (though the true villain is the same). It works well enough on screen, but I still think the movie would have been better if it had stuck closer to the novel in this respect.
Still, Richert manages to combine both the comic tone with genuine suspense (the scene in Philadelphia when Nick discovers everyone around him is dead is definitely hair-raising), as well as a tone of paranoia (Boyle does a terrific job in the computer center where Cerruti works, where it seems like all the information in the world, and the dirt on everyone, is stored). Also, while there are parallels to other historical figures besides John F. Kennedy and Joe Kennedy (Diamond is based on Jack Ruby, while Taylor is based very loosely on Judy Campbell, a woman who slept with both Kennedy and mobster Sam Giancana), Richert doesn’t push the parallels, but lets us discover them for ourselves (of course, audiences then might have been able to take it more for granted). And of the famous faces in the movie, only Mifune seems wasted on his part (in the commentary, Richert admits he shot more scenes with Mifune – who spoke in his own voice, and learned his dialogue phonetically – but was afraid the audience would laugh at him, as English was a struggle for him, so he cut his part to the bare minimum). Taylor only mouths one word of dialogue (an obscenity), but certainly conveys someone who has a shady past, Hayden is as colorful as usual, while Meeker was no longer as lean and mean as he was in movies like Kiss Me Deadly, he’s still effectively menacing, as is Perkins, and while this was Bauer’s first film, she holds her own with Bridges (she became involved with Richert during filmmaking).
But it’s Bridges and Huston who make this work especially well. As I’ve written before, I think Bridges was often underrated because he made it look easy and didn’t take roles depending on his looks. In this movie (and the novel), Nick has lived in the shadow of his brother, who was always more glamorous and obsessed with power than he was, and Bridges gets the resentment his character feels because of this down pat. At the same time, in order for all this to work, we need to be willing to follow Nick as he goes through one byzantine turn in the story after the other, and without explicitly playing for our affection, Bridges does that too. As for Huston, he reportedly took the role because he apparently had the same feelings about Joe Kennedy in real life that Condon did, and thought it was effectively conveyed in the script. But Pa Kegan is also of a piece with Noah Cross, the villain from Chinatown made memorable by Huston’s performance. Kegan of course is a more satirical figure than Cross (though just as debauched), but Huston makes you see the steeliness and venom, as well as the debauchery, of Kegan.
When Winter Kills was finally finished and released in 1979, it received rapturous reviews from the New York critics (Vincent Canby (New York Times), David Ansen (Newsweek) and Michael Sragow (Rolling Stone), among others, all praised it) and did decent business there, but after about a week or two in Los Angeles (where the reviews weren’t quite as stellar), it disappeared from theaters completely. In an article for Harper’s magazine, Condon apparently claimed Avco Embassy (which distributed the film), which did business with the Kennedy family, was pressured by the Kennedys to bury the film. Whatever the reason, the film re-emerged in 1983 with a different cut. The film is now on DVD in an out-of-print 2-disc edition from Anchor Bay (which has a making-of documentary), as well as a DVD-R version from Lionsgate. Either way, it’s worth checking out, as it’s one of the unsung films of the 70′s, and just as much as The Parallax View (in its own, twisted way), gets to the heart of the feelings of conspiracy that arose out of Kennedy’s assassination.
Kaffee: Maybe, if we work at it, we can get Dawson charged with the Kennedy assassination!
-A Few Good Men, written by Aaron Sorkin
Ever since the Warren Commission Report was released in 1964, the gulf between those who think the commission got it right and Lee Harvey Oswald was the only shooter, and those who think there was a conspiracy, has been huge, but there is probably one thing which both conspiracy theorists and all but the most die-hard defenders of the report can agree on; they didn’t have the whole story. Of course, they only had a limited time to complete their investigation, they were under pressure to get it done on time and right, and both the FBI and CIA were withholding information from them. Supporters of the Warren Commission, however, feel even with all of that, the Commission basically got it right and recent technological advances bear that out, while critics insist the errors, the information that didn’t even come up, and motives they feel were ignored are just a few of the many reasons the Warren Commission at best, at best, was misguided and mistaken, and at worst, helped cover up the real truth. Again, while the Warren Commission was accepted at first, more Americans now believe there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, and that belief has certainly been prevalent in pop culture over the past nearly 50 years. In this post, I’ll be looking at some of the movies, books and TV shows where those conspiracy theories have been demonstrated, discussed, or even mocked, as well as a couple of works that dispute the idea of conspiracy.
I. Premonitions of Conspiracy: The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days In May.
One of the most disputed aspects of Kennedy’s presidency has been over how much of a hawk, or dove, he really was. There’s no question Kennedy started out firmly as a Cold War warrior – as a Senator, he invoked the “domino” theory to defend the idea of the U.S. trying to stop the spread of communism throughout the world – but whereas some feel Kennedy changed those views while he was in office, especially after the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis (they feel Kennedy was arranging to pull troops out of Vietnam), others feel while Kennedy may have talked like a peaceful President in public, in private he still espoused Cold War rhetoric (supposedly, neither Kennedy nor his brother Robert gave up on the idea of trying to assassinate Castro). Those who adhere to this latter view of Kennedy point to his interest in spy novels, particularly of James Bond novels, which had become popular at this time. One such novel was Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, which came out a year before Kennedy was elected President. As the story goes, Frank Sinatra had a deal with United Artists to make four films, and he wanted a film version of Condon’s novel to be one of them, but United Artists president Arthur Krim was nervous about the subject matter, so Sinatra, who was friends with President Kennedy, approached him about the project, and Kennedy gave it his blessing.
The Manchurian Candidate – both book and film – is, of course, about the fever of another conspiracy that had gripped the nation in the 50′s and before; that of a Communist conspiracy within the U.S. government (in an edition of the novel I have yet to find again, Condon wrote in an introduction several years after the novel was published that he had seen an editorial claiming Joe McCarthy could not have done more damage to the country than if he was a paid Soviet agent, and Condon claimed this led him to wondering, “What if he was?”). Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who at first glance seems to be the perfect (if somewhat aloof) American hero, as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and respected journalist, is in fact a brainwashed (by the Communists) assassin, and it isn’t until Ben Marco (Sinatra), a former member of his platoon, starts having nightmares about what really happened to them when they were in combat (in Korea). The novel was a mix of satire, camp humor, and suspense thriller, and director John Frankenheimer and writer George Axelrod embrace both the satire and suspenseful aspects, sometimes all at once (as with Marco’s first nightmare sequence, where a scene of Marco, Shaw and their fellow soldiers waiting out a rainy day in the lobby of a hotel while a woman lectures about gardening becomes, in a 360 degree shot, becomes Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) showing off the soldiers to the Soviet and Chinese military officials in attendance). The McCarthy-like Senator Iselin (James Gregory) also gets satirized, with the idea, for example, the number of Communists he claims are working in the U.S. government is the same as the varieties of ketchup Heinz claimed to have.
Aside from the fact Kennedy was apparently a fan of the novel and gave the film project his blessing, another way The Manchurian Candidate has been connected with the president is the fact it was out of circulation for so many years after its initial release (in 1962) until its re-release in 1988. It was later claimed Sinatra, who owned the rights to the film for many years, withdrew the film from circulation after Kennedy was assassinated, but this has proven to not be true. In fact, the film, one of many older films to be re-released into theaters in the 80′s, was withdrawn after its theatrical run in 1963, and when Sinatra gained the rights in the 70′s, according to his lawyers, he kept it out of circulation because only United Artists would profit from a re-release or any showings on television; only in 1988, when a better deal had been negotiated, was the film re-released again.
A film that actually was delayed thanks to the Kennedy assassination, and one that fed fuel to the idea there was not a Communist by right-wing conspiracy to take over the country, was Seven Days in May, also directed by Frankenheimer. Originally set for release in December of 1963, the film was pushed back to February of 1964 at the request of star Burt Lancaster. Lancaster plays General Scott, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is planning a coup against President Lyman (Frederic March) for what he feels is the President’s dangerous policy of trying to pursue a course of disarmament with the Soviet Union. Whereas Manchurian Candidate aimed for both satire and suspense, Frankenheimer plays this one straight (as to be expected with a screenplay from Rod Serling, adapting the novel by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel), albeit with the same technical brilliance. And while President Lyman could hardly be called a Kennedy-esque figure (he was probably closer to Adlai Stevenson, without the jokes), the idea there might be a secret cabal in the military, with support from some government figures, was just one of the many ideas Kennedy conspiracy theorists would seize upon (in Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Negotiator, another right-wing cabal sets out to stop the U.S. president for the same reason, though in this case, they don’t attempt a coup, and one of them warns against assassination a la Kennedy because it would (a) martyr him and (b) his successor might push ahead his agenda).
II. The Zapruder Film: Blow-Up, The Conversation, and Blow Out.
The film dressmaker Abraham Zapruder took of the Kennedy assassination has been endlessly debated by both sides of the debate over who really killed Kennedy, particularly, of course, where the bullets were fired from and when. The fact the film was sold to Life magazine and they held onto the rights for many years (until selling it back to the Zapruder family in 1975 for $1) has also added fuel to the debate, as some conspiracy theorists thought it was being hidden from view. Photos from the film were included in both the Warren Report and in issues of Life (the issue the week after the assassination, as well as a Kennedy Memorial edition in December and an issue in 1964 when the Warren Report was released), and the photos, along with the film itself once it was made generally available, have been obsessively studied ever since.
It’s hard to say whether Michelangelo Antonioni had the Zapruder film in mind when he adapted Julio Cortazar’s short story “Las Babas Del Diablo” (loosely translated as “The Devil’s Drool”) for his film Blow-Up (1966), the first of three English-language films he was to make for producer Carlo Ponti (the others would be Zabriskie Point and The Passenger). But if he wasn’t, it was certainly an eerie coincidence this film – about fashion photographer Thomas (a character reportedly based on British fashion photographers David Bailey and Terence Donovan, and played by David Hemmings) who thinks he’s taken a picture of a murder – would come out so soon after Kennedy’s death, and as public opinion was turning against the findings of the Warren Commission. Along with the paranoia that was starting to come into vogue at the time – Thomas is convinced he’s being followed, and gets suspicious when a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) he photographed is willing to do anything to get the photo back, including seduce him – the film also shows Thomas obsessively studying the photographs he took to try and find evidence of that murder. Antonioni has always been philosophical than political – even Zabriskie Point, which starts off as his most explicitly political film, turns towards the abstract about a third of the way through – but again, intentionally or not, this does capture how the Kennedy assassination made forensic scientists out of a lot of people.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which came out eight years later, is about sound instead of image, is about what might happen rather than what did, and is more grounded in the specific than Antonioni’s film was, but it’s of a similarly philosophical bent (and Coppola acknowledged the Antonioni film as an influence). The hero of Coppola’s film, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the classic character who claims to be just about the work, and not getting personally involved in it – he’s a surveillance expert – until he does. In trying to figure out a conversation between the two people (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) he’s following, and what it means (in particular, the line, “He’d kill us if he got the chance”), Harry becomes obsessed with it to the point it interferes with everything else. Coppola’s film may have unconsciously tapped into the paranoia people were feeling at the time of Watergate, even though he claimed the timing was a coincidence, but again, it’s another case of someone poring over the minute details of a piece of evidence, just as people did with the Zapruder film.
In 1981, Brian De Palma crossed both sound and image strands together with Blow Out, and unlike Antonioni and Coppola, he made explicit (if guarded) political parallels. Jack (John Travolta), a former police technician turned movie sound effects artist, is out one night recording ambient sounds when he hears a noise and then a car goes over a bridge. Jumping in the water, Jack is unable to save the man in the car – who turns out to be a U.S. senator and presidential candidate – but he saves the woman, Sally (Nancy Allen) who’s a passenger. At the hospital, the senator’s aide (John McMartin) tells Jack to forget Sally was even in the car, and Jack reluctantly goes along with that, but he’s also told the noise he heard was the tire of the car blowing out. Jack insists the noise he heard was an explosion, as if someone shot out the tire, and he becomes even more convinced when photographs taken by Manny (Dennis Franz), who “happened” to be there, show what might be smoke from a gunshot. De Palma’s film calls up another Kennedy, Ted – specifically Chappaquiddick – but it also shows a conspiracy (we see Burke (John Lithgow), the man who did shoot out the tire against specific orders from his superiors, arranging to cover his tracks), shows conspiracy is a way of life for some people (which makes Detective Mackey (John Aquino), the detective working the case, irritable, as he thinks Jack and other like-minded conspiracy thinkers are nuts), and again, has someone obsessing over a piece of forensic evidence (once Jack, thanks to Sally, gets ahold of Manny’s original negatives, he turns them into a film to sync it with the recording he made, and we see him listening to the recording over and over) that might prove a conspiracy. One other aspect linking Blow Out with its predecessors; it ends unhappily, as to demonstrate the truth is out of reach.
III. “The Russians Did It”: Yuri Nosenko, KGB, “The Deceiver”, ”The Sisters” and Salt.
One of the biggest worries when the assassination occurred was the fact it might be part of a Communist plot, especially since Lee Harvey Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union in October of 1959, only to return to the U.S. in June of 1962. Was it simply because he was, as he put it, disillusioned with his life in the Soviet Union, or was he now working for them? And even if he wasn’t specifically working for the Soviets, were they involved anyway? One of the most fascinating figures in the Oswald story was KGB officer Yuri Nosenko, who defected to the U.S. in 1964 after contacting them in 1962. Nosenko claimed the KGB never tried to recruit Oswald (though they did place him under surveillance), nor did they consider him, or his information useful (when he worked as an electronics operator at a naval base in Japan while he was in the Marines; some conspiracy theorists speculate Oswald supplied the Soviets information that enabled them to shoot down Francis Gary Powers and the U-2 plane he was flying), because they thought he was too mentally unstable and unintelligent. Nosenko, however, got involved in a turf war among the CIA; a previous defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, also from the KGB, claimed the Soviets were responsible for any thing that had gone wrong with the world since WWII, and also claimed the KGB would send someone after him to discredit him. This pitted James Angleton, head of counter-intelligence of the CIA and Golitsyn’s champion, against other factions in the CIA who believed Nosenko (they considered Golitsyn an unreliable conspiracy theorist), which resulted in Nosenko being imprisoned and tortured and the CIA torn apart by internal war for several years (Frederick Forsyth relays this history as background for a fictional Soviet plot to destroy CIA morale from within in one of the four interlocking stories of his novel The Deceiver).
Mick Jackson’s Yuri Nosenko, KGB (1986) tells the story of Nosenko (Oleg Rudnik) from the point of view of those who were trying to decide who Nosenko really was, including Angleton (Josef Sommer) and “Steve Daley” (Tommy Lee Jones), the CIA agent who became Nosenko’s handler. It begins with the Kennedy assassination, and painstakingly recounts how Daley attempts to try and find out whether Nosenko is telling the truth or if he’s a plant, and you see him descend to the methods of torture to try and figure out the truth. The film might seem to be too dry to anyone who isn’t interested in stories about the CIA (Robert De Niro’s movie The Good Shepherd, a fictional film about the early years of Angleton (Matt Damon plays the character, named Edward Wilson here), has Golitsyn and Nosenko figures, but ends before the JFK assassination. It is less dry than Jackson’s film, though, and more compelling), but it does shed some light on a man who, as I said, is a footnote in the strange life of Oswald, and Jones is very good as the CIA officer. Also of note; Edward Jay Epstein, one of the leading critics of the Warren Report and leading proponents of the idea Oswald was involved in intelligence work, was a consultant on the film.
In contrast to the docudrama approach of Jackson’s movie, Philip Noyce’s Salt (2010) is a high-octane action film that isn’t anywhere near as smart as it thinks it is. Even though it’s come out in recent years there have been Soviet sleeper agents still living in the U.S. and other areas of Western Europe (an idea handled with far more nuance, intelligence and flair in the TV show The Americans), Noyce’s film about a CIA agent (Angelina Jolie) accused of being a Soviet sleeper agent and forced on the run sacrifices verisimilitude for thrills, which wouldn’t be so bad except those thrills are pretty generic, and it doesn’t trust the audience enough. It is relevant to this discussion, however, because a man Jolie’s character interviews claims Oswald was switched out while he was in the Soviet Union for a body double who carried out the assassination of Kennedy. This is another theory that’s been debated by conspiracy theorists, but whatever you think of that theory, this movie isn’t credible at all.
Robert Littell’s novel The Sisters doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be about Kennedy’s assassination at all. Instead, it’s about two CIA intelligence operatives, Francis and Carroll – dubbed “the sisters of death and night”, which is taken from a Walt Whitman poem – who try to put together what they feel is the perfect crime. At the same time, a Soviet sleeper agent, who has been living in the U.S., is finally called for a mission (he is known only as The Sleeper). Meanwhile, his Soviet handler (known as The Potter), who reluctantly gave The Sleeper’s name up to his superiors, follows The Sleeper along with the Sleeper’s ex-girlfriend – despite the fact it’s against his orders and his training – because he’s convinced the Sleeper is being set up. Kennedy isn’t even named here (he’s known simply as “The Prince of the Realm”), but once you get to Oswald going to Mexico (and using Hidell, one of his aliases), it becomes clear where this is going. Still, Littell, in his usual style of CIA intrigue with a layering of literary flourish (the Whitman poem is referenced throughout), keeps you gripped throughout because you may not be able to guess exactly how it all shakes out.
IV. Homegrown Threats: “American Tabloid”, “The Cold Six Thousand”, “The Day of the Jackal”, “The Third Bullet”, Annie Hall, Stakeout, An American Affair, Executive Action, and Shooter.
By far, the biggest candidates for being involved in the conspiracy to kill Kennedy have been homegrown; the mob, the CIA (or some government types) or some kind of right-wing cabal. Each of them have their adherents and their theories, and this has been true in popular culture as well. James Ellroy’s recent “Underworld U.S.A.” trilogy takes us through the underbelly of the 60′s and early 70′s, and no surprise, Kennedy’s assassination figures prominently in the first two books of this opus, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. The former, told from the point of view of Pete Bondurant (an ex-cop working for the mob), Kemper Boyd (an FBI agent sent by J. Edgar Hoover to spy on Kennedy but who ends up falling in and out of his thrall), and Ward Littell (an FBI agent who goes from trying to dig up dirt on the mob to working for it), posits the popular theory Kennedy’s assassination was blowback from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and spearheaded by a combination of the mob, anti-Castro Cubans, and disgruntled current or ex-CIA agents. The latter picks up right after the assassination, and deals at first with how Bondurant and Littell help cover it all up and pin everything on Oswald (it goes on to deal with both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations, and pins them on a mob-related conspiracy as well). Ellroy’s style has become more clipped and staccato over the years (he often has chapters that are only one page, and sentences as few as one or two words at a time), which can become wearying at times, and he does like to roll in the muck of his characters, but he also finds the battered idealism in that time even if he doesn’t quite believe in it, and he presents his theories credibly.
Those who believe the mob, as powerful as it was, could never have arranged for everything to go off like it did*, believe the CIA, or other government agencies, were the ones who had the power and influence.** Stephen Hunter’s novel The Third Bullet features Hunter’s usual hero, Bob Lee Swagger, an expert with guns, who’s hired by a woman when her husband, a thriller writer, is killed while researching the Kennedy assassination. Unusually, the people Swagger eventually tracks down who are responsible for the Kennedy assassination (without giving anything away, they had government ties) did it because they thought Kennedy was going to get even more involved in Vietnam, not because he was going to pull end U.S. involvement. As usual with Hunter’s novels though, I found more posturing than plot, and it became wearying as a result (Hunter had dealt with a conspiracy to kill a President in his novel Point of Impact, which in 2007 became the dull and perfunctory Shooter; in the film, a man played by Levon Helm tells the Swagger character (played by Mark Wahlberg) about the shooters on the grassy knoll being killed three hours after the assassination and buried in the desert, adding, “Still got the shovel”). William Olsson’s An American Affair (2009) tells the story of Adam (Cameron Bright), a lonely 13 year old boy in 1963 Washington D.C. who develops a crush on Catherine (Gretchen Mol), the beautiful 30 year old woman who lives next door. Turns out Catherine is (a) the ex-wife of a CIA agent (Mark Pellegrino) and (b) one of the girlfriends of JFK (her character is based on a real-life person). The coming-of-age story and the conspiracy theory story (the CIA is implied to be heavily involved) don’t mix, and while Mol is terrific (as is James Rebhorn as a CIA agent who keeps a watchful eye on Catherine), the film doesn’t really add up to much.
Finally, considering all the hatred Kennedy had engendered in Texas, especially Dallas, before his visit (all the “Kennedy Wanted for Treason” posters, for starters), as well as with the John Birch Society and similar groups, there are those who speculate a right-wing cabal, possibly with help from the CIA or government agencies, killed Kennedy. David Miller’s Executive Action (1973), based on a story by leading conspiracy theorist Mark Lane (Rush to Judgment), argues two oil magnates (Robert Ryan and Will Geer), along with an ex-CIA agent (Burt Lancaster), planned the assassination. To the best of my knowledge, Miller’s film is the first fictional film (though supposedly based on real sources) made explicitly about the assassination, and the first to posit conspiracy theories. If only it were a better movie. It’s unfair to fault the movie for its mixing of real footage and fictional footage, since the technology wasn’t available at the time to make it look convincing, but Miller et al are fault for making a movie that’s so rote, despite the cast (Ed Lauter also appears as a man Lancaster hires to train a team of assassins).
*-Though it doesn’t address the question of whether there was a conspiracy, in Frederick Forsyth’s classic novel The Day of the Jackal, about a professional killer hired to kill Charles de Gaulle, there’s mention of how the French version of the Secret Service (who, of course, could take pride in their work, since de Gaulle never was assassinated) inspected the U.S. Secret Service and were not impressed with their protection services, which was born out on November 22, 1963.
**-Woody Allen, who as I mentioned in my introductory post had professed his belief in a conspiracy in his stand-up act, also floated this idea in Annie Hall (1977). His character, Alvy, is about to have sex with his first wife Allison (Carol Kane) when he interrupts by going on and on about how the Warren Report makes no sense, and there must be a government conspiracy. Allison wearily asks, “Then everybody’s in on the conspiracy? The FBI and the CIA and J. Edgar Hoover and oil companies and the Pentagon and the men’s room attendant at the White House?”, to which he replies, “I would leave out the men’s room attendant.” Also played for comedy, albeit with a more neutral eye, is John Badham’s Stakeout, where two cops (Richard Dreyfus and Emilio Estevez) on a stakeout argue about, among other things, the assassination (Estevez insists there was a second gunman while Dreyfus argues Oswald acted alone, and doesn’t believe Gerald Ford and all those people lied).
V. But who was Oswald? Oswald’s Ghost and “Libra”.
What all of those movies and books that I’ve discussed above (and most that I mention in the next segment) have in common is Oswald is barely mentioned. The documentary Oswald’s Ghost (2007), directed by Robert Stone (initially released theatrically before being broadcast on the PBS series “American Experience”), is set up (at first) as a debate between those who feel Oswald acted alone (reporter Hugh Aynesworth, historian Robert Dallek, Dan Rather) and those who think there was a conspiracy (Edward Jay Epstein, Mark Lane, Josiah Thompson), but it’s also an attempt to at least understand Oswald, as what Kennedy’s death meant in terms of the unrest of the 60′s and 70′s. I’ll have more to say about how the film views Jim Garrison when I discuss Oliver Stone’s JFK, but overall, while the film is somewhat tilted towards those who believe Oswald acted alone (Norman Mailer – whose book Oswald’s Tale is the best book I read in my research – says he started out as a conspiracy theorist, and allows that there might still be, but didn’t see any evidence for it), it is a good primer on the assassination and why it still resonates so strongly for people.
One side effect of Oliver Stone’s JFK is a planned movie version of Don DeLillo’s novel Libra never came to pass (the production company trying to film the novel accused Stone of trying to prevent the movie from being made, which Stone denied). Whatever the reason (it was finally made into a stage play directed by John Malkovich and starring Laurie Metcalf), it remains one of the great missed opportunities, because I would argue it’s the best piece of fiction ever written on the subject (Ellroy has long acknowledged using it as inspiration for American Tabloid). The title comes from Oswald’s Zodiac sign, and the novel goes back and forth between Oswald’s story, the story of CIA agents and Cuban exiles planning to attempt an assassination, and a CIA agent named Nicholas Branch who, 15 years later, is trying to make sense of it all. DeLillo really does take us inside the heads of Oswald and others involved, and also captures the history of the time. This remains, for me, the most fully realized of his works, and one of the best pieces of historical fiction I’ve ever read.
VI. Odds and Sods: “11/22/63″, “A Time to Remember”, “The Bourne Identity”, “The Tears of Autumn”, Watchmen, “Question Authority”, Zoolander, Sneakers, Hot Shots, The Rock, and “The Magic Bullet”.
Along with “would you kill Hitler?”, one of the most prevalent questions in time travel stories nowadays is “would you save JFK if you could?”. I’ve not seen the episode of the 80′s version of The Twilight Zone that dealt with this scenario, but I have read two novels that deal with it; Stanley Shapiro’s A Time to Remember (filmed in 1990 for the USA network as Running Against Time - never saw it – directed by Bruce Seth Green and starring Robert Hays) and Stephen King’s recent 11/22/63. Curiously enough, both start from the premise Oswald acted alone and was the guilty party. In Shapiro’s novel, a history professor who believes Kennedy would have stopped the U.S. from getting involved in Vietnam if he had lived (it’s especially personal for him because his brother died there) comes across a colleague who’s invented a time machine, and tries to go back in time to stop Oswald. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite go the way he planned. In King’s novel, a high school English teacher is persuaded by the local diner owner – who has a time portal in the basement of his place – to go back and stop the assassination; since the teacher has his own reasons, once he gets over the shock, he agrees. King’s novel deals more with the overall consequences of trying to change the past (Shapiro’s novel is only focused on Vietnam), and also, since the main character goes back a few years before Kennedy was shot, it gives us more detail on Oswald (in an afterword, King explains why he thinks Oswald was the only shooter and the research he did). King brings richer detail to his story, but he also fills it out with too much padding and subplots, so on balance, I probably prefer Shapiro’s take, even though he doesn’t write as well as King when he’s on.
Along with the theories I outlined above, there are other, more bizarre theories about Kennedy’s assassination that have been suggested in popular culture. Some of them have been played seriously – in Robert Ludlum’s original The Bourne Identity novel, Bourne thinks Carlos, the international terrorist, committed the murder while disguised as a homeless man in Dallas, Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn, featuring his recurring character Paul Christopher, claims the South Vietnamese did it in revenge for Kennedy helping to assassinate their leader, and in the movie version of Watchmen (2009), the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is responsible (this is more ambiguous in the original graphic novel by Alan Moore). More often than not, though, these scenarios are played for laughs. In “Question Authority”, the ninth episode of the fourth season of Justice League, the Question (voiced by Jeffrey Combs), notorious for being a conspiracy theorist, is being tortured by Lex Luthor’s people to find out what he discovered when he hacked into Luthor’s files; among the answers the Question gives to “Tell me what you know” is, “There was a magic bullet. It was forged by Illuminati mystics to prevent us from learning the truth!” Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (2001), which combines a satire on the modeling industry with a Manchurian Candidate-style assassination plot, features a conspiracy theorist (David Duchovny, doing a nice job of sending up Mulder) who claims all of the assassinations of the last 200 years (including Lincoln’s) were done by male models. When a reporter (Christine Taylor) points out Oswald wasn’t a model, Duchovny retorts, “The two lookers who capped Kennedy from the grassy knoll sure as shit were!” Then there’s Phil Alden Robinson’s Sneakers (1992), where Mother (Dan Aykroyd), another conspiracy theorist, claims to Crease (Sidney Poitier), an ex-CIA agent, that the NSA tried to kill Kennedy but he’s still alive.
Unless the final reports and files on Oswald that are scheduled to be released in 2017 produce it, conspiracy theorists have and most likely will continue to look for the “smoking gun” that proves their theory correct, and culture has had fun with this idea as well. In Jim Abrahams’ Hot Shots! (1991), his spoof of Top Gun-type movies, the character Dead Meat (William O’Leary) tells his adoring wife (Heidi Swedberg) he has the final proof on who killed JFK, and it goes all the way to the top, but he’ll tell her all about it when he returns (naturally, he doesn’t). In Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), FBI Director Womack (John Spencer) wants Mason (Sean Connery), a prisoner who’s been released to help rescue hostages on Alcatraz, to be kept on a tight leash because of all the secrets he knows, including who killed Kennedy (Mason used to work for British intelligence). At the end, Agent Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) finds where Mason hid a case of microfilm (in a church in Kansas), and tells his bride (Vanessa Marcil) as he looks at the film that she won’t believe who really killed Kennedy. And sometimes, they do get an answer. In “The Magic Bullet”, the 19th episode of the fourth season of Angel, Jasmine (Gina Torres), a mysterious being who has come to L.A. to bring what she calls her message of peace and love, tells Ted (Patrick Fischler), who owns a bookstore dedicated to conspiracy theories, that Oswald acted alone (of course, Jasmine turns out to be evil, so it’s best not to take her at her word. Plus, there’s an episode in the fifth season, which I never watched, which claims Joe Kennedy made a deal with the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, and Kennedy’s death was the result of it going bad).
I was going to write about The Parallax View and Winter Kills, but I plan to discuss those at length, and since this is an already monster post, those two movies will be in part 2b.
Paula: Where were you when Kennedy got shot?
Harry: Which Kennedy?
Paula: Any Kennedy.
Harry: When the president got shot, I was on my way to San Diego. Football game. When Bobby got shot, I was sitting in a car waiting for a guy to come out of a house with his girlfriend. Working on a divorce case. One of those times I wish I was in another business. Why do you ask?
Paula: It’s one of those questions everybody knows the answer to.
-Night Moves, written by Alan Sharp.
In a recent post on Entertainment Weekly‘s web page entitled “Remembering 11/22/63…or Not; Why It’s Time for Pop Culture to Stop Killing Kennedy” (located on its “Inside TV” page), senior TV writer Jeff Jensen opens by saying while he wasn’t alive when Kennedy was assassinated, it seems like he experienced it all the same. The tone of the post, unfortunately, falls into the same self-satisfied tone that seems to pass all too often for insight these days. It’s doubly unfortunate because, in spite of tone, Jensen does raise a couple of valid points. The first is, whether intentionally or not, memorials of the assassination, in real life or in pop culture, do tend to reinforce the Baby Boomer generation’s belief they were the only one that mattered* (though Jensen undercuts that point by not acknowledging the possibility 9/11 memorials in the future might be the same way. Also, depending on who you think killed Kennedy, he seems to think Oswald did it alone and all conspiracy theorists are deluded). The second is the trap these depictions of reactions to the assassination fall into is they risk solipsism or self-indulgence instead of genuine emotion.
Take, for example, Richard Benjamin’s Mermaids, from 1990 (adapted by June Roberts from the novel by Patty Dann). The movie is set in a small town in Massachusetts in 1963, and is a coming-of-age story about Charlotte (Winona Ryder), a teenager who rebels against her unconventional mother (Cher) – she makes finger foods for meals, the family doesn’t sit at the table, and she is constantly getting involved with men and then moving Charlotte and her sister Kate (Christina Ricci) when the relationship no longer works out – by being obsessed with being a nun (“Charlotte, we’re Jewish”), even though she also becomes attracted to Joe (Michael Schoeffling), the handyman/bus driver who works at the local convent. About 40 minutes into the movie, Charlotte is in class watching a documentary when a teacher comes in crying, and telling Charlotte’s teacher the news. Immediately, the film gets turned off, a radio gets turned on, and in a tracking shot, as the first teacher pulls up the blinds, the camera tracks, showing the students’ stunned reactions until it settles on Charlotte. Right after this, we see Charlotte walking the streets of town, seeing people either walking around in stunned silence, or gathered around a store window where there’s a TV (which is where she sees the famous footage of Walter Cronkite choking up before announcing Kennedy was dead). In a voice-over (she narrates the movie), Charlotte mentions how she misses her father, and how it doesn’t feel like there are any adults in the world. All fair enough, and the scenes of people reacting feel true to life.** But then Charlotte goes over to the convent (a nun walks by crying) and the bell tower, where Joe is; he’s obviously broken up as well, and Charlotte hugs him, which eventually leads to them kissing, until Charlotte realizes where she is and freaks, running away. Now, this may have been in the novel (which I’ve not read), but the scene feels strange, especially since Benjamin overdoes the comedy of Charlotte’s naivete about sex and how drawn to yet afraid of religious symbols she is. To be sure, while there’s much to like in the movie, this isn’t the only time there are jarring shifts in tone, but it seems especially wrong here.
The Mad Men episode “The Grown-Ups” that I cited in my introductory post also makes its characters’ reactions risk being self-centered, but at least the show recognizes this, and it’s consistent with the way we’ve seen these characters portrayed already. Along with the moments of genuine grief and shock (Don (Jon Hamm) comes into the main area to find all the phones are ringing because all the secretaries are huddled around the radio, and then, all of a sudden, they stop; also, when Carla (Deborah Lacey) brings the kids home right when its announced Kennedy is dead, and all Betty (January Jones) can do is nod in confirmation that he’s dead) are Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) sobbing at the news because her wedding is ruined (although, to be sure, there were plenty of people in real life in her shoes), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) complaining he doesn’t want to go to the wedding because of how the people at the office reacted to the shooting (in the sixth season episode “The Flood”, which dealt with Martin Luther King’s assassination, we can see Pete wasn’t that far off, but we can also see this is his way of of manipulating his wife Trudy (Alison Brie) into not going), to Duck (Mark Moses) turning off the initial report of the shooting so he can have sex with Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and Jane (Peyton List) sighing she’s never going to get to vote for Kennedy. Most of all, we see Don seeming determined to demonstrate that life goes on; the best comfort he can offer the kids, for example, is they’ll be getting a new President, and everybody will be sad for a bit. Peggy sums it all up at the end of the episode (it’s the day of the funeral, and she and Don – who’s been kicked out of the house by Betty for reasons important to the story but not to this post – are the only ones at the office) when she says she had to get out of the house because her mother was “crying and praying so hard there wasn’t room for anyone else to feel anything.”
Then there are those works that use the assassination as a springboard for another story. Ronald Neame’s The Odessa File, as well as the Frederick Forsyth novel it’s based on (adapted by George Markstein and Kenneth Ross), starts out with Peter Miller (Jon Voight), a German journalist, driving to his home in Hamburg when he hears the news on his radio (in Germany, it was 8:30 when Kennedy was pronounced dead). Miller’s immediate reaction is to pull over to the side of the road, as do other cars in front of and behind him (in the novel, Forsyth writes, “as if driving and listening to the radio had suddenly become mutually exclusive, which in a way they had”). It’s because he pulls over to the side of the road and listens to the radio for half an hour (interrupted by another driver who wants to talk) before pulling away that he sees the ambulance that kicks the plot into motion, and except for the following scene, the assassination is never mentioned again (at least in the movie; in the novel, there’s one more scene where ex-Nazis – as well as one deep cover agent – toast the good news`). Jonathan Kaplan’s Love Field (written by Don Roos) at least has the assassination organic to the plot at first; the movie centers on Lurene (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Dallas housewife obsessed with Jackie Kennedy (early on in the movie, she drives out to Love Field airport in hopes of getting to talk to her), and when Kennedy is shot, she’s determined to get to the funeral at any cost, defying her husband (Brian Kerwin) to do so. But the movie soon drifts into a plot involving her and Paul (Dennis Haysbert), who’s traveling with his daughter, and throws in a whole number of plot contrivances at the expense of real feeling, even in dealing with Lurene’s grief over the assassination and the interracial romance between her and Paul. And that quote from Night Moves I posted at the top turns out to be a bit of misdirection to prevent Harry (Gene Hackman) from asking too many questions about what had happened with his character earlier.
Are depictions of that day involving the people actively involved automatically exploitative, or do they shed some light on the situation? The 1964 documentary Four Days in November, directed by Mel Stuart (mostly known for directing other documentaries, though he also did the original adaptation of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder) and produced by David L. Wolper (Roots) uses newsreel footage of the time, along with some staged re-creations (though not in the same way they’re done today; it’s mostly shooting some of the locations as they were a year later, and traveling along the routes people like Oswald and Ruby would have taken) to show the events and people’s reactions to them. The music (by Elmer Bernstein) is overdone, as is the narration by veteran actor Richard Basehart (it was written by Theodore Strauss), but it does get to you. This is more than can be said, unfortunately, for Peter Landesman’s movie Parkland, which came out this past September (and is already on DVD). You may not agree with the conclusions of the Vincent Bugliosi book this is based on (originally titled Four Days in November, and taken from his much longer book Reclaiming History), but at least his cross-section of what was going on in Dallas, Washington D.C. and elsewhere is readable and pulls you in. Landesman, a journalist (his article on sex slaves was the basis for the movie Trade, starring Kevin Kline; he later came under fire when he was accused of making part of it up), tries for a similar approach, but there’s too much banal dialogue and scenes where it’s clear he had no idea where to put the camera. There are a lot of well-known faces here (Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder, Zac Efron and Colin Hanks as doctors, Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Welling as Secret Service agents, Jacki Weaver as Oswald’s mother), but the only person who makes any sort of impression here is James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert, as Dale is the only one who bothers to internalize any of the emotion his character feels. Adam Braver’s novel November 22, 1963 starts out in a similar fashion, but mostly narrates its focus to imagining the state of mind of Jackie Kennedy. This might seem to ultimate in exploitation, but Braver actually does grant Kennedy her dignity, and it comes off as touching instead, even though the novel itself is too diffuse.
The most honestly depicted reactions to Kennedy’s death, at least that I’ve seen, are the ones that show characters reactions long after the event. One of the many subplots of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville (written by Joan Tewksbury) involves John Triplette (Michael Murphy), an aide to Replacement Party candidate Hal Walker (never seen), trying to organize a rally for Walker and trying to recruit singers such as Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) to appear at the rally. At a party at Hamilton’s house, he and his wife, Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley) politely but firmly inform Triplette that Hamilton never allows himself to endorse any politician specifically. Pearl, with a slight catch in her voice, does admit she worked for Kennedy and his brother, “but they were different”. Later in the movie, when several of the characters are at a club, Pearl is sitting with Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a BBC reporter, and Opal notices Pearl is wearing a Kennedy button, which prompts Pearl to reminisce about Kennedy’s run for President (“He took the whole South except for Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky”), the anti-Catholicism she encountered, and how scared she was for Robert Kennedy when she worked for him. What makes it all work so well is not just the fact Altman doesn’t only focus on Pearl (showing, for example, Triplette continuing to try and persuade Hamilton to appear at the rally, as well as the music), but also because while you can see how the event continues to affect Pearl, she never lets herself slip into bathos or make it all about her (Baxley helped come up with the dialogue for the scene, according to Murphy). Then there’s the end, when Altman subverts our expectations that Walker might appear and get shot; it’s a musician that gets shot and killed instead, and Hamilton, who’s wounded, urges everyone to stay calm during they melee by asserting, “This isn’t Dallas; it’s Nashville!”
Although Wolfgang Peterson’s 1993 film In The Line of Fire (written by Jeff Maguire) comes in the form of a thriller – aging Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) tries to stop ex-CIA agent Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) from assassinating the current president – it also touches on the Kennedy assassination. Horrigan is portrayed as someone who was there in the motorcade when Kennedy was shot (he was based on real-life Secret Service agent Clint Hill“), and Leary is constantly taunting him about the fact he didn’t react in time to step in front of the bullet and whether his own life was just too precious to do his job properly. Horrigan doesn’t like talking about those days, especially with Leary but with anybody (when Lily Raines (Rene Russo), another agent, asks about the time Kennedy’s girlfriend was caught in the White House and Horrigan claimed she was with him, Horrigan only says, “That was different. He was different”). Finally, near the end of the movie, when Raines has to tell Horrigan he’s off the President’s detail, Horrigan finally talks about it:
You know, for years now I’ve listened to all these idiots on barstools, with their pet theories on Dallas. How it was the Cubans, or the CIA, or the white supremacists, or the Mob. Whether there was one weapon, or whether there was five. None of that’s meant too much to me. But Leary… he questioned whether I had the guts to take that fatal bullet. God, that was a beautiful day. The sun was out, been raining all morning, the air was… First shot sounded like a firecracker. I looked over, I saw him, I could tell he was hit. I don’t know why I didn’t react. I should have reacted. I should have been running flat-out. I just couldn’t believe it. If only I’d reacted, I could have taken that shot. And that would have been alright with me.
What makes the scene all the more moving is Eastwood, who normally didn’t get too emotional as an actor except when he was showing anger, finally letting his facade break down (in an unscripted move, Russo takes his hand after this speech, causing his eyes to fill up). But again, as in Nashville, we’re given a sense of history with what happened, and not just one character (or several) feeling the need to express emotions about the event, and it’s done with dignity, not bathos. Perhaps if more works of art depicting reactions to the Kennedy assassination were done like this, even with the generational factor, it would feel as moving as intended.
*-Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (written by Nora Ephron), from 1989, drives this point home when Jess (Bruno Kirby) compliments Harry (Billy Crystal) on his younger girlfriend, and Harry replies, “Of course, when I asked her where she was when Kennedy was shot, she said, ‘Kennedy was shot?’”, and Jess winces. A different kind of misunderstanding arises in the novel version of Marathon Man; when Babe (the novel’s hero) is out walking with his dissertation professor Biesenthal (a former student of Babe’s father) when they happen by a bookstore with a picture of Kennedy in the display window (along with posters of Che Guevara and Bette Midler). Biesenthal asks Babe where he was when “he” died; Babe assumes Biesenthal meant Kennedy, and tells about a jock who told him when they were in high school, and since the joke wasn’t the smartest person in the world, Babe didn’t believe him at first. However, it turned out Biesenthal meant Babe’s father.
**-If I can be permitted my own self-indulgence for the moment; to the best of my knowledge, this was the first film I had seen depicting the reaction to Kennedy’s death, and my mother, who went to see this with me, said the reaction was pretty much true to life.
`-It’s important to remember, of course, there were those who actually either celebrated Kennedy’s death or didn’t see much to grieve about it. Among the most notorious reactions in the latter camp came from Malcolm X with his “chickens come home to roost” comment (Spike Lee’s Malcolm X recreates that moment – and uses footage from Oliver Stone’s JFK - as well as Elijah Mohammad’s (Al Freeman Jr.) subsequent suspension of Malcolm X (Denzel Washington).
“-Jim Lehrer’s recent novel Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination, is also partly inspired by Hill, with a reporter trying to help a Secret Service agent who has become desolate in the years after the assassination because he thinks it’s all his fault. It’s not a bad story, but it is told in a rather plodding, perfunctory style.