This post is part of the Mary Astor Blogathon, running from May 3-10, co-hosted by Ruth Kerr (Silver Screenings) and my friend Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci (Tales of the Easily Distracted). I’d like to thank them for giving me the opportunity to participate, even though I don’t blog as much as I should.
In his qualified rave of Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek for Time, James Agee said the film, and Sturges, deserved credit for giving “the slick, growing genteelism of U.S. cinema the roughest and healthiest shaking up it has had since the disease became serious” (his initial review for The Nation, while likewise filled with reservations, also praises the film for this, and deplores “that terrible softening, solemnity, and idealization which, increasing over several years, has all but put and end to the output and intake of good moving pictures in this country”). In my post on Four Daughters, I mentioned how James Harvey, in his book Movie Love in the ’50′s, deplored this trend as well (I didn’t mention it, but he also discussed this in his previous book, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood; From Lubitsch to Sturges). It’s not that there weren’t movies, and actors, of this nature in the 30′s – like the Andy Hardy films or the follow-ups to Four Daughters - but they were balanced by the more anarchic, and fun, tendencies of the screwball comedy, the comedies of people like the Marx Brothers (until they came to MGM) and W.C. Fields, and the best gangster and horror films (westerns didn’t start coming into their own until Destry Rides Again and Stagecoach at the end of the decade). Agee was certainly protesting too much when he deplored the state of Hollywood in the early-to-mid 40′s – after all, that decade brought us such classics as The Shop Around the Corner, Casablanca, and Now Voyager, directors such as John Huston, Elia Kazan, Sturges, Orson Welles and Billy Wilder made their start (while old pros such as Ford, Hawks and Wyler were still going pretty strong), and film noir and documentary-like crime dramas came into their own. But Agee was certainly on the mark when he deplored the genteelism of the decade. Part of this, of course, was due to the war that broke out, and what may have seemed funny or at least harmless in the previous decade might have been considered dangerous in the 40′s (in that light, it’s still amazing, years later, both The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Sturges’ later satire Hail the Conquering Hero were even made, much less released). And part of it, as always, was the enforcement of the Production Code in regards to content (not that there weren’t films in the 40′s that tried to sidestep it; anyone who’s seen The Big Sleep, for example, can attest to that). But it also seemed as if the studios, or production heads, or theater owners, simply didn’t trust movies that had been making fun of American society anymore, and wanted everything to be more “nice”.
What’s more, as Harvey points out in his books, actresses who had come out of screwball comedies or tough-talking dramas seemed to suffer most from this genteelism. After all, actresses such as Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy and Ginger Rogers had been playing characters in the 30′s whose intelligence, sophistication and wit were allowed to flourish, and were even a given, both in of themselves and also in regards to their leading men. What’s more, the characters these actresses played, whether rich or poor, were allowed to be both romantic and tough-minded, and those attributes were seen as complementing each other, rather than competing with each other. Yet in the 40′s, it seemed as if these actresses were no longer allowed to have these attributes (except for people like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck, who weren’t so easily contained), and were often asked to play either “nicer” roles, or were playing an idealized version of traditional roles that didn’t allow much room for intelligence or personality.
Which leads me to Mary Astor. Astor, who made her film debut in 1921 at the age of 14, wasn’t as big a star in the 30′s as others were, but she had an interesting and varied career, playing everything from the niece of a murdered man in The Kennel Murder Case, to the unworldly but refined woman Clark Gable becomes attracted to in Red Dust, to the ultimately shallow other sister in the original sound version of Holiday, to the sympathetic “other” woman in Dodsworth, and the jealous wife of a playboy in Midnight, among other roles. 1941 was arguably her greatest success professionally; not only did she appear in the seminal detective film/film noir The Maltese Falcon, but she also won her only Oscar (for Best Supporting Actress) as a concert pianist competing with Bette Davis for George Brent in The Great Lie (ironically, Astor and Davis were very good friends in real life). However, her career declined in the 40′s. To be fair, Astor’s offscreen troubles may not have helped; she was an alcoholic until finally kicking the habit in 1949, both of her parents died in the 40′s, and like many other actors in Hollywood then (and now), she had a somewhat turbulent personal life (though her main “scandal” – an affair with playwright George S. Kaufman while she was still married – happened in the 30′s). Also, according to her book A Life in Film, she never chased stardom the way other actors of her time did (and sardonically noted an actor’s life in Hollywood with what she called the five stages of their career: “Who’s Mary Astor, get me Mary Astor, get me a Mary Astor type, get me a young Mary Astor, and who’s Mary Astor?”). Still, when she signed a seven-year contract with MGM in 1942 (not long after reuniting with her Maltese Falcon director – John Huston – and co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet for the WWII thriller Across the Pacific), she was mostly cast as MGM’s idea of mothers, roles which were usually written as one-dimensional (with the exception of Meet Me in St. Louis, where her character is as interesting and distinctive as everyone else), which caused her to leave the studio after her contract ran out in 1949. Still, Astor managed to find some interesting roles in that time, and the two that were most memorable for me (along with The Maltese Falcon and Meet Me in St. Louis) were her supporting roles in Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942) and Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948).
If the term “meta” had been around in the 1940′s, The Palm Beach Story would have been considered a meta screwball comedy. Sturges doesn’t spoof the genre’s conventions (as, say, Hope/Crosby films spoofed adventure films), but rather, stretches them out and turns them on their head. This is the type of film where Gerry (Claudette Colbert), the heroine, asks a cab driver (Frank Faylen) to take her to Penn Station even though she doesn’t have any money for the fare, and he says, “Sure, hop in”. Gerry is married to Tom (Joel McCrea), an inventor who’s having a tough time getting funding for his latest idea (an airport that stretches over the city). Gerry loves Tom (and is also turned on by him), but she doesn’t feel she’s good for him. She can’t do anything a “traditional” wife can do (sew, clean, cook), and any time she tries to charm a man into helping Jerry (as she tells Jerry, “You have no idea what a long-legged woman can do without doing anything”), he gets jealous and wants to punch the guy in the nose. So, the morning the Wienie King (Robert Dudley) gives her enough money to pay the bills – he came by to rent the apartment, but ended up wanting to help Gerry instead – Gerry flees, and decides to go down to Palm Beach to get a divorce. She gets on a train thanks to the Ale and Quail Club (featuring several of Sturges’ favorite character actors, including Jimmy Conlin, William Demarest and Robert Greig), which graciously pays her way, but when their idea of fun proves to be shooting up the train, she runs away to the next car, and encounters John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), a millionaire tycoon who accompanies her to Florida (he lives there). Tom, of course, isn’t willing to give up that easily, and flies down to meet her.
That’s where Astor comes in. She plays Maude, aka Princess Centamillia, Hackensacker’s sister. Maude is man-crazy (she’s been married and divorced several times – “I’ll marry anybody!”), and is currently being followed by a man of unknown origin named Toto (Sig Arno), a foreign refugee (“from his creditors, I think,” Maude guesses) who is somewhat reminiscent of the Mischa Auer character in My Man Godfrey, though in this case, Maude is completely indifferent to him (the only English words he seems to know are “Greetings”, “Yitz” and “Nitz”). When Gerry sees Tom and tries to pass him off as her brother (with the unfortunate name of “Captain McGloo”), Maude immediately sets her sights, and charms, on him. She’s puzzled he doesn’t respond at first (naturally, since he still wants Gerry back), but undaunted (she tells Tom, “I grow on people. Like moss”). Even when she finds out Tom is really married to Gerry, she takes it in stride (“I thought I was losing my grip!”), especially when she hears about the alternative (which I won’t spoil).
Sturges had a knack, and fondness, for combining high and low comedy, and along with Vallee, Astor’s character represents the high part of the equation. She almost sounds like someone out of an Oscar Wilde play (when Hackensacker says she shouldn’t marry someone she just met, she replies, “But that’s the only way, dear. If you get to know too much about them you’d never marry them”), and that does nothing to distract from her sexiness. In fact, for her, like Gerry, sexiness – or rather, sex – is entirely the point; when Tom asks her at one point, “Don’t you ever talk about anything but Topic A?”, she replies, “Is there anything else?” At the same time, she’s teasing and affectionate to her brother (and vice versa), and genuinely happy for him when he becomes smitten with Gerry (and she’s welcoming of Gerry as well). You could argue, of course, Maude is nothing more than a one-joke character, but what a funny (and sexy) joke she turns out to be. Besides, just as Sturges’ film in general is, as I said earlier, a twisting around of the romantic screwball comedy, Maude is a neat twist on the heiress characters that populate those type of films; she may have gone through a lot of men in her life, but she doesn’t worry about it at all. And while Astor doesn’t get a chance to show much variety in the performance, she shows crack comic timing, and is also able to keep up with the breathlessness of Sturges’ dialogue. Astor, of course, is far from the only reason The Palm Beach Story works so well (Sturges’ writing, some spectacular set pieces – including the Ale and Quail Club shooting up the train – and the performances of Colbert, McCrea and Vallee), and she doesn’t even enter the film until about 2/3 of the way in, but she makes all of her time count.
Within a certain segment of critics, both at the time and today, Fred Zinnemann is considered little more than a director of what Manny Farber once derisively called “elephant art”, or what today would be called “Oscar bait”. And given the fact he’s not only directed two Best Picture winners (From Here to Eternity in 1953 and A Man for All Seasons in 1966), but won Best Director for both of them (and also won for directing Benjy, a documentary short, in 1950), and has directed other Best Picture nominees (High Noon, The Nun’s Story, The Sundowners, and Julia), the “Oscar bait” part would especially seem to be true today. Also, along with “elephant art”, anyone who is known for directing “humanist” pictures also comes under suspicion in certain critical quarters, then and now. It’s true Zinnemann hasn’t always escaped being heavy-handed (I’m not the biggest fan of A Man for All Seasons or Julia), but I do think part of the knock against him, aside from the “humanist” label, is the fact he tries to serve the script first, which again is a no-no in certain critical quarters. Certainly, Zinnemann has a strong visual sense, as such movies as High Noon, From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma! and The Day of the Jackal demonstrate. And one of his earliest features, Act of Violence, also shows off this visual sense, while being consistent with his concerns with the human condition.
At heart, Act of Violence is a revenge story, but as Zinnemann explained in an interview he did with the American Film Institute in 1984:
“I feel that the fact that somebody shoots a gun is of no interest. What I want to know is why he shoots it and what the consequences are – which means that external action is less important than the inner motive through which you get to know what the person’s about.”
In this case, the man holding the gun is Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan). Parkson is a WWII vet who’s traveled from New York to Los Angeles for one reason and one reason only; to kill Frank Enley (Van Heflin). Enley was Parkson’s commanding officer in the army, and they flew on several missions together until they and several others were shot down, and they ended up in a Nazi prison camp. What happened in that camp so enraged Parkson that he’s become bitter and single-minded; not even his girlfriend Ann (Phyllis Thaxter) following him to Los Angeles can talk him out of going after Enley. Meanwhile, Enley has been living out the postwar dream; he’s in business for himself as a land developer (business was good after the war), he’s happily married to Edith (Janet Leigh), they have a two year old son, and as the film opens, he’s going on a fishing trip he’s been looking forward to. But at the lake, when Enley first hears about Parkson coming after him, he cuts the fishing trip short, runs back home, and hides. Later, when the police chase Parkson away, Enley finally confesses to his wife the truth – when Parkson and several of his fellow POWs decided to escape, not only did Enley refuse to join them (the last men who tried to do so were shot and killed by the Nazis), he also told the Nazis about the escape plan in a misguided attempt to save them, and while the others, naturally, were all killed, Parkson survived (though he walks with a limp). Enley then goes to a trader’s convention, but Parkson follows him there; Enley manages to punch Parkson out and flees, wandering the lonely city streets at night.
It’s in a dead end bar (that’s about to close) on one of those lonely streets that Enley meets Pat (Mary Astor), a “prostitute” (naturally, under the Production Code, they weren’t allowed to call her that) who sees he’s in distress and offers to buy him a drink (the bartender says no, as he’s about to close, but she’s a good enough customer she prevails upon him). Enley turns down the drink and ends up fleeing the bar, but Pat catches up to him and takes him back to her place. When Enley unburdens himself and tells Pat his story, she takes him to an even shadier, all-night bar, to meet Gavery (Taylor Holmes), a fixer she knows. Gavery is perfectly willing to help – especially when he learns from Pat that Enley has a business worth $20,000 – and calls on Johnny (Berry Kroeger), a hired thug, to “talk” to Parkson. However, even though Enley is drunk and feeling overwhelmed, he’s not sure he wants to go that far.
When Pat tries to get Enley to talk, she assumes his troubles have to do with either love or money, troubles that would feel right at home in a film noir; indeed Zinnemann and cinematographer Robert Surtees (who went on to shoot Oklahoma! for Zinnemann, as well as such films as Ben-Hur, The Graduate and The Last Picture Show) use several of the visual hallmarks of a noir, including low-key lighting and location shooting (though not too many low or wide-angle shots, if memory serves). However, instead of what became known as the classic noir story, Zinnemann and writer Robert L. Richards (adapting a story by Collier Young) inject a tale of a man trying to escape his guilty past (as well as dealing with the effects of WWII, a theme Zinnemann had dealt with before - The Search - and would again - The Men) into what, again, seems like a simple revenge tale. There’s no women leading the men astray here – of the three women characters, Ann and Edith are complete innocents, and while Pat isn’t, she tries to talk Enley out of going along with Johnny’s plan. And even the ending (which I won’t reveal) goes counter to what you’d expect in a noir type of film.
As with The Palm Beach Story, Astor doesn’t show up until about 2/3 of the way through the film (other than that, the only other thing both films have in common is neither of them run more than 90 minutes), but she makes the most of her time. Unlike Maude (and unlike most of Astor’s roles, from what I’ve seen), her hair is kept down and long, but while Maud’s life is an open book, Pat’s is pretty closed. We know she’s not a person of means, but she’s also wise to the world (even beyond the fact she knows people like Gavery and Johnny). And while she ultimately wants nothing to do with anything Johnny is planning, she’s far from being the typical “hooker with the heart of gold” stereotype; she expects Enley to leave her apartment after he’s been there only a day, and she also wants him to pay for his stay. Also, unlike Maude’s witticisms, Pat speaks clearly and plainly. Without ever condescending to her, Astor manages to play Pat just as clearly and plainly as her character talks, and she lends both authenticity to the film and a counterpoint to the innocence of Ann and Edith (Thaxter and Leigh, admittedly, don’t have as much to work with). Zinnemann and Richards make the mistake of being too on-the-nose at times, but otherwise, this is a terrific drama.
After two more films for MGM, Any Number Can Play and the 1949 version of Little Women (which reunited her with Leigh; also, for Astor, playing Marmee, yet another one-dimensional caricature of a mother, was the last straw), Astor left MGM. Like many actors of her time, she worked in television (as well as theater), with an occasional film job (A Kiss Before Dying), until her last role in Robert Aldrich’s 1964 horror film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, co-starring her friend Davis), and then retirement. In the meantime, Astor had also finally stopped drinking, and also turned to writing, penning two memoirs (one about her life in general, one about her film career) and several novels. In the meantime, the “creeping genteelism” Agee and other critics had derided continued (as well as the genres that sprung up in reaction to it, including film noir), and as Harvey and other writers have pointed out, Hollywood studios seemed to embrace more and more actresses who were more girlish and less womanly. Granted, this is a practice that had been around even during the 30′s, and has continued since. And it’s also important to remember how good some of these actresses Harvey dismisses as “starlets” – Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Leigh, Shirley MacLaine, Marilyn Monroe – were when they got their chance to show their talents. Still, it’s a shame that Hollywood, then and now, has continued, since the 30′s, with some exceptions, to find actresses like Astor less interesting, especially as they got older. At least Astor was able to make her mark late in her career with her performances in these two films.
On November 23, 1975, WTTW, a Chicago-based PBS affiliate, aired a program entitled Opening Soon at a Theater Near You. The format of the show was of two newspaper film critics who would debate recent theatrical releases and show clips of those releases. This wasn’t the first time, of course, film critics in general (and newspaper or magazine critics in particular) had appeared on television; Judith Crist, Rex Reed, and John Simon, to name but a few, had either appeared as regular critics on news magazine shows, and/or helped make their name through talk show appearances. There were two aspects, however, that distinguished this program. One was while Crist and her ilk were usually only sparring with either a talk show host or a news anchor or co-anchor whose background wasn’t in film, this was a show where two film critics, without any sort of moderator, were free to debate each other about the merits of a film (or lack thereof). As one of the critics on the show pointed out at the beginning, the goal of the show basically was of a news magazine devoted to talking about movies. The second unique aspect of the show was the fact it was set in Chicago; while Chicago in both geographic and population size is comparable to both Los Angeles and New York, it was not at the time considered anywhere near the film-centered city that Los Angeles and New York were, so this would bring a fresh new perspective to films. Of course, it’s hard to imagine anyone at the time would imagine the show, later renamed Sneak Previews, would become the highest rated weekly entertainment series in the history of public broadcasting. Nor, it’s safe to say, would anyone imagine both critics on the show would, thanks to this show and several other shows they appeared on afterwards, become household names and create a trademark reviewing style, or that the two once often bitter rivals would become close friends (though still rivals). As with James Agee, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael before them, Gene Siskel (who died in 1999 at the age of 53) and Roger Ebert, who died on Thursday at the age of 70, changed the way we looked at movies.
Though Ebert gained his public fame from television, he started out in newspapers, and it always seemed at heart he was a writer. It was a path he took up early in his childhood in Urbana, Illinois, where he was born in 1942. As a child, he mimeographed a newspaper about the neighborhood he lived in, and also published a newspaper devoted to stamp collecting while in elementary school. It was in high school that he sharpened his interest in journalism, covering high school sports for the local paper (the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette), and getting paid for it. Somehow, he also found the time to co-edit the school newspaper, as well as join the swim team, act in plays, found the Science Fiction Club, co-host the school radio program, and get elected as senior class president, all activities that would make Max Fischer green with envy (strangely enough, while Ebert liked the character of Max Fischer, he gave a mixed review to Rushmore). While in college at the University of Illinois, Ebert wrote for that school’s paper and later became an editor his senior year. He also published a weekly journal about politics starting his freshman year, and still found time to continue writing for the News Gazette, as well as freelance for the Chicago Daily News. He had hoped to get a job there to pay for his graduate education at the University of Chicago, where he’d get his doctorate in English. However, Herman Kogan, who had been his editor at the Daily News, was now at the Chicago Sun-Times, and he hired Ebert to write for them part time in 1966. Then in April of the following year, Eleanor Keane, the film critic, retired, and Bob Zonka, the features editor, asked Ebert to take her place. Ebert had been an avid film fan growing up thanks in part to reading the parodies of movies in Mad Magazine, and had written film reviews on occasion in college, including a rave review of Fellin’s La Dolce Vita. However, his original ambition was to be a columnist like Mike Royko (who was already beginning his legendary career at the Daily News), so when Kogan offered Ebert the job as film critic, Ebert might have hesitated, especially since the job at the time was little more than recounting the film’s plot. However, Ebert unhesitantly took the job, and the rest was history.
1967 was shaping up to be a watershed year in American film, thanks to movies such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, both of which Ebert championed (though for the latter, he curiously dismissed the Simon & Garfunkel songs that made up the film’s soundtrack). It was also a time when both Kael and Sarris, among others, were taking film criticism to new heights. It was Kael whom Ebert initially gravitated towards; he met her at the New York Film Festival that year, and sent her some his columns, which she liked. He also found time to edit a book about the history of the University of Illinois. Along with his film reviews, Ebert also found time to write profiles of actors such as Lee Marvin and John Wayne. Also, starting in the 1970′s, Ebert served as a guest lecturer on movies at the University of Chicago. Finally, following in the footsteps of such critics as Agee, Frank Nugent, and Robert E. Sherwood, Ebert also wrote a few screenplays for cult sexploitation director Russ Meyer, the most notorious of which was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Originally intended as a sequel to the widely panned 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, it instead, thanks partly to legal reasons, became a spoof of the film instead. Though Ebert was sometimes sheepish about the film, he ultimately was proud of the film, and being a fan of Meyer, continued an association with him that included a screenplay for a Sex Pistols film in the late 70′s. Ebert might have continued an occasional career in Hollywood had James Hoge, Ebert’s then-editor at the Sun-Times, not insisted that Ebert choose between writing about Hollywood and writing for Hollywood. Ebert, of course, chose the former.
Ebert became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975 (Stephen Hunter and Wesley Morris became the second and third film critics to do so). It was that same year the idea of pairing him and Siskel for Opening Soon at a Theater Near You came to pass. Both men initially resisted the idea, not out of any animus towards television, but because of the fierce rivalry between the two (Siskel by then had been a film critic at rival paper Chicago Tribune since 1969). Though deep down, the two might have respected each other, the fierce competitiveness between them kept them from acknowledging that in public – at least, at first. Also, it admittedly took a while for them to mesh together on the show. Part of it, of course was visual – Siskel was taller than Ebert, and Ebert, at least in his early appearances, tended to slouch both physically and personality-wise. Plus, while Siskel was too hard-edged at first, Ebert was the opposite, tempering his natural personality. And as Ebert would later write, the fact everything was so tightly scripted at first meant the two would walk over each other. It wasn’t until they were allowed to ad-lib, and were able to bring the off-screen tension between them on-screen, that the show started to take off. What started out as a bi-monthly local show became, in 1978 (when it was re-titled Sneak Previews), a nationally-seen weekly show that proved to be so popular that four years later, it went to syndicated television (initially under the ownership of Tribune Entertainment), where it would stay for the rest of its run. First, it was called At The Movies (which became the closing line of the show; “We’ll see you at the movies”), then, when they signed with Buena Vista television, Siskel & Ebert At The Movies (Bill Harris and Rex Reed took over At The Movies, which went back to public television), and finally, just plain Siskel & Ebert (when the closing line became, “Until then, the balcony is closed”). No matter what the title of the show, however, the format remained basically the same; the two critics would sit in the balcony of a movie theater (or a set made up to look like one), and debate four or five films that had just been released in theaters. There was some early weirdness (for a feature called “Dog of the Week”, there was an actual dog featured), there were occasional specials (more on those below), and as watching movies at home became more prevalent, a “Video Pick of the Week” (later DVD), but otherwise, the show never strayed too far from its basic format.
Of course, that the format itself – film critics doing reviews on television – existed at all rankled some people, mostly famously Richard Corliss (full disclosure; I knew him briefly starting in about 2004, when he was a customer at the video store I worked at, and while we weren’t really friends, we were on friendly terms). In his 1990 essay “All Thumbs: Or, Is There a Future for Film Criticism?” (his last column at Film Comment, where he had served as editor since 1970) Corliss charged that TV critics had become merely a “consumer service” without any of the film knowledge or insight of critics such as Agee, Kael or Sarris. And while Corliss reserved most of his ire for Jeffrey Lyons (who was the new co-host of Sneak Previews, along with Michael Medved), Ebert and Siskel came under fire as well, as Corliss lamented how TV critics had become “no brains and all thumbs”. While Ebert has admitted the “Thumbs Up!” “Thumbs Down!” format he and Siskel used on the show was somewhat reductive (for starters, proportionally there were more movies that were merely mediocre and didn’t deserve either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down; Ebert wondered at times if a sideways thumb was more appropriate for those movies), he didn’t take kindly to Corliss denigrating his show, and in an answer essay (“All Stars: Or, Is There a Cure for Criticism of Film Criticism?”, also published in Film Comment), while allowing Corliss’ point about TV criticism not being as in-depth as its print counterpart, that he and Siskel were doing every week was much more than just a “consumer service”. On this point, I think Ebert was right on. Even looking back at that awkward first show, you can see both Ebert and Siskel taking a measured look at what became the Best Picture winner of that year, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (they both liked it but at the same time were somewhat disappointed by it), and explaining why in critical terms, not in sound bites. Just as important, even back then, they were noticing a trend that would become particularly unfortunate in the last decade of Siskel’s life; namely the fact a quality family film that didn’t bear the Disney label had no prayer at the box office (the example they used in the first show was Mr. Quilp, a musical version of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop). In what amounted to special episodes, Siskel and Ebert would take on such topics as violence towards women in horror movies (spurred by Ebert’s distaste for the original version of I Spit On Your Grave), colorization of black-and-white movies (back when it looked like Ted Turner was going to make that a thing), and letterboxing films (which they were in favor of). Again, while these were topics that might have been given more depth in print, Siskel and Ebert took these topics seriously, and discussed them in serious terms, not in easily distilled sound bites.
More important than all of that, however, is unlike many of their subsequent imitators, Siskel and Ebert could never be tagged as merely cheerleaders for studio product. It is true they both praised blockbuster films (both of them put Raiders of the Lost Ark on their respective 10 best lists in 1981) and what were then studio prestige pictures (both of them chose Schindler’s List as their favorite film of 1993). But both of them were also champions of independent films (both of them championed Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre), foreign films (both of them put Ran on their respective 10 best lists in 1985), and documentaries (both of them chose Hoop Dreams as their favorite film of 1994). If Siskel and Ebert got behind a smaller film, they were often able to rescue it from obscurity, as with One False Move, a 1992 crime drama starring (and co-written by) Billy Bob Thornton that seemed destined to go straight to video until both of them championed in on one of their shows and continued to do so in TV and print interviews (Siskel would name it his favorite film of 1992, while Ebert put it second behind Spike Lee’s biopic of Malcolm X). When Hoop Dreams, another film both critics had championed throughout the year (ever since seeing it at that year’s Sundance Film Festival), was shockingly passed over by the Academy Documentary committee, both Siskel and Ebert communicated their outraged, and while they weren’t the only ones, they were among the most visible, and likely helped the eventual reforms of that committee. They also championed minority filmmakers (Ebert, as far as I know, was one of the few white critics to chide anyone who wondered why the African-American characters in Do the Right Thing weren’t using drugs) and women filmmakers (they were both early fans of Jane Campion).
Of course, it must be said while many people did tune into the show to hear about films they normally wouldn’t have heard about (as blockbusters were crowding out the smaller films, though maybe not at the rate as is done today), a number of people tuned in to see Siskel and Ebert disagree, and argue with each other. It should be pointed out, as Siskel would himself bring up in an interview, that the two of them, on balance, agreed more than they disagreed (Siskel estimated they agreed about 70% of the time). But because of their knowledge, their personalities, their competitiveness, and their fractured relationship (at first), their arguments became something to see. Even when they went the round of talk shows (Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey among them), they would spar with each other, and not just about how they looked (Siskel would often needle Ebert about his weight, while Ebert would go after Siskel for going bald). Mostly, when they disagreed, it was because Siskel didn’t like a film Ebert did, often a mainstream film Siskel felt Ebert was too easy on. However, I think their more interesting arguments came about when it was Ebert who didn’t like a film Siskel championed. Partly, it’s because it didn’t happen that often, and partly it’s because there seemed to be no set rule about when it did happen, but mostly, it’s because of the tenor of the argument. When Siskel didn’t like a film, he would often try to bait Ebert to get upset while defending it, which often diminished the experience, but Ebert seemed to put his full intellectual force behind his distaste for a film. Therefore, even though I normally agreed with Siskel in these arguments (I thought Ebert completely missed the point of Blue Velvet, I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka!, and Cobb, as well as, to a lesser extent, The Doors; however, I did agree with Ebert about Full Metal Jacket), I liked watching them more than the other way around.
Of course, part of what made those arguments so compelling to watch was not just the clash of personalities, but the experience and knowledge behind them, thanks to their work as newspaper critics. Indeed, while Siskel had a family to attend to, as well as other critics sharing duties at the Tribune, Ebert was the main critic of the Sun-Times, and he seemed indefatigable. He turned out several reviews a week, and was a constant presence at what became the main film festivals of the 90′s – Sundance and Toronto – as well as Cannes. And when Siskel passed away in February of 1999, Ebert soldiered on with the TV show, first with a series of guest hosts, and then Richard Roeper as a permanent co-host (though he and Roeper would often disagree as well, their arguments didn’t carry the same force as Siskel and Ebert, because Roeper was more like the type of TV critic Corliss went after in his essay), until Ebert’s thyroid and jaw cancer forced him to drop out of the show for good in 2006. However, even though he could no longer talk, he still could write, and in addition to writing movie reviews (as well as writing his Great Movies series, where he talked about the classics of the past and present) and putting out book collections (of his yearly reviews, his Great Movies series, and two books about his least favorite movies), Ebert wrote about a host other topics, including his personal life, politics and religion, with the same passion, knowledge, and measured arguments. In the last years of his life, he also would feature on his webpage contributions from critics from around the world, and it’s likely his exposure to this that led him to be one of the few (if not only) critics of his generation to not bemoan the state of film criticism that has become a rallying cry in certain quarters the last few years.
Unlike the critics who came before him, Ebert never claimed to be ruled by any particular critical aesthetic. He seemed to take each movie on its own terms, and while his working in Hollywood gave him inside knowledge of how films were made, he never used that as a bragging point. Like Kael, he often talked about his life when reviewing movies (though, as far as I know, he never discussed his alcoholism in his reviews, those who read his reviews on movies that dealt with alcoholism and drug addiction might have been able to read between the lines because of the detail he brought to those reviews). More than Kael, however, Ebert’s model was his favorite critic, Stanley Kauffmann (of The New Republic), who brought a calm, objective tone to each of his reviews. Unlike Kauffmann, one of the main points of contention against Ebert (aside from the whole TV thing) was he did seem to be more forgiving of blockbuster movies as long as he was entertained by them. More seriously (at least as far as I’m concerned) is how harsh he could be on movies whose reach exceeded their grasp, as if failure of ambition was more of a crime than having no ambition at all (Ebert wasn’t the only critic, for example, who panned Blindness, but that flawed, powerful film deserved more than what Ebert and others did to it). Speaking of being harsh, like most famous critics, Ebert was known as much for the films he panned as those he praised, especially if he hated the film, most memorably in the cases of North (where his phrase, “I hated, hated, hated this movie”) and his initial viewing of The Brown Bunny (at the time, he called it “the worst film in the history of Cannes”). Still, with rare exceptions, he was never overly nasty (even Rob Schneider, whose movies Ebert generally detested, still thought well enough of Ebert to send him flowers in the last days of his life, a fact Ebert showed appreciation for). And again, as with his TV show, Ebert looked for the smaller films he could champion, and talked with authority about the films in his “Great Movies” series.
During his talk show appearances in the 90′s, Ebert was often asked about how he felt when interviewing actors or directors, and he replied that while he was okay dealing with those he felt were his contemporaries, even he got tongue-tied and excited when interviewing actors who were stars when he was a kid (like John Wayne). While more than ever, critics seemed to automatically get targeted as “elitist”, Ebert somehow managed to evade that charge, being approachable, in person, in print, or online (he was a fan of Twitter late in his life). Many people over the last few days have written about their personal encounters, or associations, with Ebert, and to a person, they have always described him as warm and gracious. My one encounter with Ebert was nowhere near as memorable, or as personal, as those, but it still reveals something of him, I think. Back in the mid-90′s or a little later, when I first entertained the idea of making a living as a film critic, I wrote to Ebert, among others, asking for advice on how to pursue a career in that field. Ebert, of course, received so many letters (and later, e-mails) in that regard, so he sent back a form letter in response. Unlike any other form letter I received, it was detailed and contained somewhat of a personal touch. Whether in a film review, or in a form letter, he was someone who was intelligent enough to give discourse on most subjects, yet still one of us. After Ernst Lubitsch died, Billy Wilder and William Wyler were leaving his funeral, and Wilder mentioned how said it was there was no more Lubitsch, to which Wyler replied, “Worse; no Lubitsch pictures.” Ebert was a person who, even when disease overtook him, seemed to live life to the fullest, and it’s always said to see someone like that die, especially when it was too soon. However, it’s just as bad that we’re no longer going to be able to turn to his page on Fridays and see a new review from him. As a film lover, enthusiast, and especially as critic, he will be missed.
When I wrote my post “10 Awful Movie Versions of Good Novels“, the main point I was trying to make, of course, was how movie versions of pulp novels can be as bad as movie versions of literary novels are often claimed to be. But there was another argument underneath that. If I was a betting man, I would say most of the time when a person says they didn’t like a movie version of the novel (or play, or short story), it’s because they didn’t like how the movie changed the novel. And, to be fair, that’s often a valid criticism. But sometimes, it seems like people think fidelity to the source material is the only thing that makes a movie adaptation good, and that is simply not true. Many of the movies I wrote about in that list were faithful to the plot of the novel they were adapting, but they completely missed the tone, which is what made the novel work in the first place. Most often, of course, movies that are doggedly faithful to their source novel without being good movies aren’t the calamities I wrote about, but are merely lifeless.
One example that immediately springs to mind for me is Edmund Goulding’s version of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. It’s by no means an awful film – Anne Baxter won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, Gene Tierney was transcendent as the female lead, and while Clifton Webb had played his snobbish character before, there’s no denying he did it better than almost anyone (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Harold Russell for The Best Years of our Lives). And the movie certainly looks handsome enough. Still, there are three huge flaws in the film. One of them, admittedly, is a matter of personal taste – I know plenty of people who are fans of Tyrone Power, and I don’t mind him in adventure films such as Black Swan (not to be confused, of course, with Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psychological drama), but I do not buy him at all as a man seeking spiritual enlightenment. In addition, while the movie does, as I said, look handsome, Goulding (possibly at the urging of Daryl Zanuck, who produced the movie and did uncredited work on the script) is so careful and plodding with the tone that the movie seems constrained and self-conscious when it should be inspiring.
But the most damaging mistake Goulding, Zanuck and credited writer Lamar Trotti make is keeping the device of the novel of having Maugham serve as a character who narrates the movie and is told the events of it. This adds to how puffed-up the movie feels, but more importantly, while Herbert Marshall (who plays Maugham) is a fine actor whom I’ve enjoyed in such films as Foreign Correspondent, The Good Fairy and, of course, Trouble in Paradise, and does his best here, the character itself distances us from the story on-screen, which adds to how self-conscious the movie feels. The 1984 version of The Razor’s Edge, by contrast, not only cuts the Maugham character out, but shows scenes that were either implied or described in the novel, and changes a couple of them somewhat. This version, directed by John Byrum and co-written by him and Bill Murray, who also starred in the film, received horrible reviews when it first came out, and I won’t deny it’s flawed, but I think it’s a lot closer in spirit to the novel than the 1946 version is, and I also think it’s a better film.
The central character of the novel, and both film versions, is Larry Darnell. At the beginning of the 1984 film, Larry, along with his friend Gray Maturin (James Keach), is off to be an ambulance driver in WWI (which Maugham was in real life), with a promise that when he returns, he’ll marry his sweetheart Isabel (Catherine Hicks). We also see his friendship with Sophie (Theresa Russell), who’s marrying Bob (Joris Stuyck), who’s working his way through law school (unlike the others, he’s not rich). However, WWI turns out to be a sobering experience for Larry, especially when Piedmont (Brian Doyle-Murray, Murray’s real-life brother), his obnoxious superior officer, ends up saving his life by stepping in front of a bullet meant for him. Gray is able to return home in okay shape, even willing to accept a job in his father’s office as a stockbroker, but while Larry has the same offer, he’s unwilling to do so. Instead, he wants to take time to think about things. Isabel is upset about this, but her uncle Elliot (Denholm Elliot) thinks it might be good for Larry to sow his oats for a while, especially when he hears Larry wants to go to Paris (Elliot has a house there). Of course, being the rich snob he is, what he envisions for Larry (going on a cruise ship, staying at the finest hotels, getting a good job) is very different from what Larry ends up doing (going and working on a tramp steamer, living in a low-rent hotel, working at various low-paying jobs).
Sure enough, when Isabel comes to Paris, while she’s charmed at first by some of the things Larry does (greeting her with an organ grinder, taking her to a restaurant), she’s horrified by the thought he wants only to live on what he has, and that he wants her to do it as well. Isabel won’t do it, and gives him their engagement ring back. He tells her to keep it (so that she’ll know he’ll always love her), and makes one last appeal to her by taking her back to his hotel. In the original movie, Isabel tries to seduce Larry into getting her pregnant and thereby tricking him into marriage (more on that below), but here, they do end up spending the night together voluntarily; it’s when she gets a really good look at his living conditions (a bug on her pillow, the dirty communal shower) that she flees and ends up marrying Gray; she doesn’t love him, but he loves her, and she knows he’ll make her secure. Larry ends up working in the mines, and Mackenzie (Peter Vaughan), a fellow miner, figures out Larry is searching for answers; he tells Larry to go to India. Larry does, and ends up meeting Raaz (Saeed Jaffrey), a boatman who takes him to the mountains to meet the Dalai Lama. After spending several years in India, while he doesn’t have all the answers to the questions he had, he at least feels more at peace with himself and the world than he did before, and he returns to Paris.
Meanwhile, while Isabel and Gray started out with a happy marriage that included two daughters, their financial state has been in tatters since the 1929 crash, and that, along with the death of his father, has left Gray a broken man. He suffers from serious migraines and rarely goes out. Isabel and Gray travel to Paris at Elliot’s invitation, as he still has his fortune and dotes on Isabel. Larry hears they are back in Paris, and goes to visit. Using a trick he learned in India, he cures Gray of his headaches (of course, it’s really Gray who cured himself), and Gray is happy enough that he, Isabel and Larry are able to go out on the town. That’s when Larry gets a shock; at a lower-class restaurant he takes them to, Sophie is there, working as a prostitute. Years ago, she had been devastated when a drunk driver hit the car carrying her, Bob and their baby, and while she survived with some injuries, Bob and her baby were killed. Sophie never really recovered from this, becoming an alcoholic (at the funeral for Gray’s father, we see her on her way towards this), and when her in-laws finally washed their hands of her (as did Isabel and Gray), she went to Paris. Driven as much by his past friendship with Sophie as with the need to save her, Larry gets Sophie to move into his place (a low-rent apartment) and away from her boyfriend/pimp Coco (Serge Feuillard). Sophie, with Larry’s help, eventually cleans herself up, they fall in love, and plan to be married. But Isabel, who is still in love with Larry, is aghast at the news, and makes a fateful decision.
There are a couple of things that must be acknowledged about the 1946 film version, aside from the terrific performances of Tierney, Baxter and Webb (as well as the decent one by John Payne as Gray – to be fair, there’s not much to the role – and a sharp cameo by Elsa Lanchester in a role not in the 1984 version). One is studio films at the time were still mostly shot on sets, and the very idea of shooting in France or India would have been unheard of, so naturally, the sets are at a disadvantage. This doesn’t matter so much in the Paris scenes – in both versions, most of the scenes are in Elliot’s house, hotels and apartments, restaurants, or nondescript city streets, all of which can be easily faked – but while the Indian set obviously can’t compete with the real thing, Goulding and his designers do a decent enough job. Secondly, Goulding and Zanuck were dealing with the Hays Code, which meant, for example, they could only approximate the degradation Sophie had reduced herself towards, and what they’re able to show is still suggestive enough. Nevertheless, even with those caveats, I still find the 1984 version holds up better.
For one thing, part of how the 1946 version seems constrained is how it explains everything, instead of letting you the viewer figure it out. This, again, is one of the major drawbacks of the Maugham character; maybe he’s meant to be an audience surrogate, but it comes across as someone underlining every point. The scenes in India are also problematic because of this; again, I grant no set built could compete with the natural wonders of India, and therefore you’re going to get more outright philosophical discussions, but the discussions between Larry and the holy man (Cecil Humphreys) in the original seem like Eastern philosophy for third-graders. And even granting the fact Eastern philosophy wasn’t the only philosophy/religion/science treated that way at the time (Freud came off far worse in movies at the time, for example), it doesn’t make the movie come off any better in this regard. By contrast, Byrum’s movie shows you parts of the story instead of telling them to you. One example right up front is that opening sequence, which takes place at a party, which not only sets up the Larry/Isabel relationship, but also shows how Gray feels about Isabel, and the friendship between Larry and Sophie, instead of us being told about it later. And with the India scenes, not only does Byrum let the majesty of the scenery speak for itself, but we also see Larry interact with the locals as well as the holy men in a meaningful way, so we can see the way the experience has affected him. Also, while it seems the 1946 version is merely paying lip service to Larry’s conversion, Byrum and Murray seem fully invested in it, which also makes the movie resonate more. Finally, while I’m going to talk about this more below, we get to see Larry’s romance with Sophie late in the movie play out in detail, which makes it more meaningful than when it was just talked about in the earlier version.
Of course, when the 1984 movie came out, much of the criticism focused on Murray’s performance, about how he seemed too modern for the role, and how he didn’t express himself well enough in the dramatic scenes. It also seemed odd, to say the least, that Murray of all people, whose entire comic persona seemed to be of the wise-ass deadpan snarker deflating any serious situation (or, as Anthony Lane once put it, “we stand on our dignity, and Murray ties our shoelaces together”), not only starring in but co-writing a movie about, as the tagline put it, one man’s search for himself. And while I think there’s something knee-jerk in the hatred of comic actors taking on more serious roles (the people who criticize comic actors for doing this, no matter what their intentions, often come across as “How dare these actors step outside the box I created for them and want to do something different?”), there’s no denying the fact when comic actors go towards more serious roles, they either flatten themselves so much there’s nothing on screen to enjoy, or worse, embrace a blatant sentimental streak that can come off as embarrassing.
To be sure, Murray doesn’t entirely dodge the charge of seeming too “modern”. At that opening party, when Larry takes Isabel out of the kissing booth she’s running and starts horsing around with her, it’s hard not to think of Todd DiLaMuca giving noogies to Lisa Loopner. And then there’s the scene where Larry and Sophie are at a bar, and Larry dancing with another woman while watching Sophie to make sure she doesn’t drink; the bobbing and weaving he does on the dance floor seems to come out of a 70′s or 80′s movie. Still, for the most part, I think Byrum and Murray contain Murray’s persona to make it fit the character of Larry. He certainly looks more convincingly low-rent than Power did in the original. And again, while Larry is supposed to be a simple man who can’t really express the unease he feels other than the fact he doesn’t want the life Isabel has laid out before him, Murray, to me, is more convincing expressing that than Power ever was (even though Power, in real life, apparently felt very close to Larry’s point of view, which was one of the reasons why he took the role). He certainly looks different in look and manner after his India experience, which Power doesn’t. Murray also expresses more of a range of emotions, especially anger. The scene where Larry eulogizes Piedmont was apparently inspired by Murray’s grief at the time over the death of John Belushi, and while the words he says seem to fit Belushi more than the character of Piedmont, the grief and anger are very real. Similarly, the last scene between Larry and Isabel, when he says goodbye to her for good, is much more powerful with Murray than it is with Power because Murray’s feelings come through more than Power’s did. Murray may not have been as developed a dramatic actor as he would later become in movies like Rushmore, Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers, but I think he not only comes off better than he was given credit for at the time, he’s also much more convincing than Power was.
If there’s a performer who suffers in comparison with the original, for me, it’s Hicks. Again, this may be a matter of taste, but except for Garbo Talks, I’ve never found her very appealing; she’s certainly attractive-looking, but she doesn’t have much of a range beyond earnestness. Isabel is a tricky role to play, because you have to believe she really does Larry even though she wants the life she’s been told she deserves, and that what she does to Sophie near the end of the movie is as much motivated by her feelings for Larry as it is her selfishness about not wanting anyone else to have him. Yet Tierney was able to pull it off completely, being convincing every step of the way. The scene where it seems like she’s going to seduce Larry so she can get pregnant and trick him into marrying her – because of Code restrictions, this is never said out loud, but it’s pretty well implied – is a good example, because Tierney lets us see her feelings when she realizes what she’s doing is ultimately a mistake, and yet doesn’t overdo it. And we see the dangerous calculating side of her when she makes her decision about Sophie, and yet because Tierney’s feelings about Larry seem genuine, it’s hard to make up our mind about Isabel. Hicks, on the other hand, just comes off as petulant.
In fact, what this ends up doing is tilting the balance of the movie towards Sophie, so we want Larry to successfully help her and end up with her. And credit here must also go to Russell. Sophie is someone who starts out feeling too much and then ends up deflecting those feelings by drowning her sorrows. As much as I liked Baxter in the original, there’s no denying it’s a self-conscious performance, but I do think it worked for the character. Russell goes the opposite tack, being much more naturalistic. That party scene at the beginning, when Sophie gives Larry a book of her poems and jokes that her nightmare was she’d end up with Larry, is a good example; Russell says the lines almost like she’s embarrassed by the feelings she’s expressing, and yet you can feel what she’s expressing. And when Sophie goes downhill, Russell doesn’t overdo those scenes either, even in the scene where she finds out about Bob and the baby being dead; it seems like her sorrow is being ripped out of her. Russell is also extremely attractive (I will admit to being biased in this department), and she has great chemistry with Murray. So it’s all the more tragic how Sophie ends up.
The characters that are changed somewhat in the 1984 version, as I mentioned above, are Gray and Uncle Elliot. For Gray, it’s minor; in the original, he was badmouthing Sophie to Larry as much as Isabel was after they see Sophie as a prostitute for the first time, while in the 1984 version, when Larry and Sophie announce their engagement, Gray couldn’t be happier. As for Uncle Elliot, Webb, as I’ve said before, had cornered the market on playing snobs, but he certainly does it well enough here, and brings a bitchiness to the role that is very entertaining. Denholm Elliot, who I think has more range than Webb, and is also capable of being entertainingly over-the-top, gives a more naturalistic performance by contrast, and makes Uncle Elliot a more rounded figure; in the original, when he confesses a sneaking admiration for Larry going off to Paris instead of marrying Isabel right away, it seems like only a matter of form, while in the 1984 version, it comes off as more believable. Still, I must confess I do miss the theatrical brio Webb brought to the role, so it’s a wash.
Byrum’s film version was poorly received when it first came out, and I think this is mostly because of the shock of seeing Murray attempt this type of role right away (after the film’s poor critical and box office reception, Murray went into a self-imposed exile – except for a cameo in Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, he didn’t appear in a movie again until Richard Donner’s “Christmas Carol” update, Scrooged, in 1988). And there apparently are some deleted scenes, such as Larry telling Isabel about his spiritual quest while they walk through a cathedral, that might have lent more flow to the movie. Still, I think despite its flaws, this is a much better movie than is generally given credit for, and I also think this stands above the 1946 version in many crucial ways, precisely because it’s paying more attention to the spirit of the novel than the letter of it.
The John le Carre series – of films based on his novels – at BAM ended October 3. As I said at the start of this series, I am surprised the movie version of The Russia House wasn’t part of the series – particularly since the much less deserving The Looking Glass War was – and so here is my take on it.
It’s somewhat ironic James Bond, for a long time, was considered the symbol of spies and espionage during the Cold War when Bond himself, for all intents and purposes, was never strictly a Cold War warrior. True, he dealt with the Soviets, or Soviet-type agencies, in a few novels and movies (From Russia with Love), and even teamed up with a Russian agent (in the film of The Spy who Loved Me, which has nothing to do with the Ian Fleming novel of the same name). But most often, Bond found himself battling your standard villains with delusions of grandeur, whether acting by themselves (Diamonds are Forever) or within an organization (Thunderball), and while Bond was acting for Queen and Country – and for the women he could get as a side benefit – he wasn’t explicitly acting against the Soviets. Still, it’s also kind of ironic when the Cold War began to unravel in 1989-90 (before finally coming to an end in 1991), and Russia was no longer considered the Great Enemy, the two major 1990 films that both considered the Cold War, and were therefore caught in a crossfire of their own, starred Sean Connery, who became famous thanks to playing James Bond in seven films. In the first of the two films, The Hunt for Red October – adapted from the best-selling novel by Tom Clancy – Connery played a Russian submarine commander who planned to defect to the U.S. The movie was sold as a period piece (taking place in 1984), garnered decent reviews and became a box office hit. The second of the films, The Russia House, despite also being based on a best-selling novel – by, of course, John le Carre – and having the star power of Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, received mixed reviews and was a failure at the box office. However, I think it’s one of the best of the le Carre adaptations, and time seems to have been kind to it for others as well.
Instead of the tough, sophisticated, glamorous Bond, Connery’s character here is the boozy, disheveled and poetic Bartholomew Scott Blair, nicknamed Barley, and it’s fun to imagine Connery took the role because it’s so far apart from the sensibilities of Bond. The owner and head of a small publishing house called Abercrombie & Blair, Barley loves nothing more than to talk, drink, and play his saxophone (a soprano sax). Now that it’s the age of glasnost, Barley is able to make trips to Russia, a country he loves despite its problems, and talk with like-minded people at book fairs and parties. At one particular party, he’s on a roll with his rhetoric, praising the new openness of the world in general and Russia in particular, and declares that everyone needs to betray their own country to better the world. He also adds, “You have to think like a hero merely to behave like a decent human being.” This catches the ear of a man who calls himself Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) – Goethe in the novel – who catches up with Barley outside the party at a graveyard, and makes Barley promise that if he, Dante, ever acts like a hero, then Barley will act like a decent human being. Barley promises, but then forgets all about it.
Dante, however, does not, and his reminder shows up at a book fair in Russia in the form of Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer), a protege of Dante’s. She comes looking for Barley, but finds Niki Landau (Nicholas Woodeson), who works for another publishing house, instead. She pleads with him to give Barley a package with a book from Dante (she doesn’t say it’s from him) that will advance the cause of peace. Intrigued in spite of himself, Landau takes the package. When he sees it’s actually three books and a letter (addressed to Barley), and the books contain engineering terms about missiles, rockets and the like, he turns them over to the British Embassy. Eventually, they get to British Intelligence and the Circus, specifically Ned (James Fox), Clive (Michael Kitchen) and Walter (Ken Russell), and they are all stunned, because what Dante is saying is the Soviet nuclear, missile and defense systems are all in terrible shape, and nowhere near the capacity they tell the public. Is this for real, or is this merely a ruse by the Soviets? First order of business, however, is to find Barley.
Turns out Barley’s at a house of his in Lisbon, though when an embassy official (Ian McNeice) finds him, he’s in a bar/cafe. Even he’s whisked away to meet Ned and company and they present him with the letter (which begins, “My beloved Barley” and ends, “Your loving Katya”), he has no idea what’s going on. Barley truthfully says he doesn’t know Katya (“Never screwed one, never flirted with one, never proposed to one, never even married one”), but after some prodding, he does eventually remember Dante and the conversation they had. Given that, and given both the Circus and their American Cousins – in the form of Russell (Roy Scheider), a CIA director, Quinn (J.T. Walsh), a general, and Brady (John Mahoney), a government official – want to know if Dante’s for real or not, Barley reluctantly agrees to go to Moscow to meet up with Katya and try to arrange another meeting with Dante. Once there, he starts to fall in love with Katya, which of course brings on complications.
Given the plot, even though it’s taking place during glasnost and perestroika, when things are supposedly more open (Katya tells Barley dryly that the one freedom she’s noticed is she now has the right to complain about long lines without fear of retribution), you might expect this to be as dark and unsparing as le Carre’s other work. Instead, le Carre’s novel is surprisingly lighter in tone, even humorous, though it never downplays the seriousness of its subject. And while director Fred Schepisi and writer Tom Stoppard do compress the novel somewhat – they get rid of the character of Harry Palfrey, a background character who narrates the novel and who turns up in le Carre’s later novel The Night Manager, and consolidate some events while shifting perspective to other characters – they not only remain faithful to the plot for the most part (except for having a more hopeful ending than the more ambiguous novel), they also remain faithful to that tone.
Part of that involves how they play with the narrative structure. Schepisi, of course, would play around with narrative in subsequent films such as Six Degrees of Separation, Last Orders and his made-for-HBO miniseries Empire Falls, and he does so here, though not as much. As we see Katya make her approach to Niki in the beginning, we hear Ned, Clive and Walter grilling Barley about her. Then, near the end, as Ned reads a letter, we see some of the same scenes we had been shown earlier, except this time, we learn what was really going on. The jazz-tinged score by Jerry Goldsmith, with Branford Marsalis dubbing Connery on saxophone, also lends the movie its lightness of spirit, though it also keeps a melancholy tone underneath. There’s also the fact this was only the second American-financed film to be filmed in Russia – the first was the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Red Heat, but the bulk of that film took place in the U.S. – and Schepisi and cinematographer Ian Baker (who has shot all of Schepisi’s films except for Last Orders) certainly show off quite a bit of Russia. As a matter of fact, when I first saw the film, I thought Schepisi was so besotted by the scenery and the chance to shoot so extensively in Russia that he would occasionally lapse by letting the scenery overwhelm the story. Upon subsequent viewings, however, I realized Schepisi, like le Carre, wanted to show you what looked like the true openness of the Soviet Union, and how that still was a disguise in some ways.
One of the criticisms this received, from Roger Ebert among others, is how the story of Barley and Katya was too often interrupted by men in rooms waiting for something to happen. But those scenes have more of a purpose than you might think. They emphasize the disconnect between the professionals like Russell and Ned (who asks Brady at one point, referring to Dante, “Do you remember straight?”) and Barley and Katya, who, as with many le Carre lead characters, are merely pawns in the Great Game of spying. Stoppard also includes these scenes to flesh out the American characters (who only appear in one part of the novel), so they’re not just a device for le Carre to criticize America for wanting the Soviet Union to remain a boogeyman to justify their arms race (though Stoppard doesn’t soft-pedal that view either). And the fluid camerawork by Baker and the fluid editing by Peter Honess (this was the second of four films he did for Schepisi; Beth Jochem Besterveld also did uncredited editing work) keep the scenes from bogging down the movie. More importantly, though, these scenes with men in rooms waiting bring up one of the main themes le Carre has used not only in this novel, but in past novels; spying is waiting. It isn’t filled with action and derring-do, but waiting for results to come in, or information that can later be used towards producing results.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s kind of fun to imagine Connery playing the part as a way of poking slight fun of his Bond image (when Ned and the others are showing him tradecraft, Barley says, “This is fun. Is that why you keep it secret?”), as the boozy, opinionated, somewhat disheveled Barley looks more like a professor (or a writer) than a sophisticated spy. But Connery doesn’t play the part as a parody, but keeps it real. He’s able to subtly play the decisions his character makes near the end of the film, as well as the openly emotional scenes when he declares himself to Katya. One might balk at the thought of Pfeiffer playing a Russian, but not only does she do the accent flawlessly (as well as the dialect; there’s an emphasis in the novel and movie on how Katya uses the word “convenient” in a way that actually means “proper”), she also looks as Niki describes her in the novel (“she had that rare quality…The Class That Only Nature Can Bestow”), as well as the spirit inside that Barley also falls in love with. And she and Connery have the chemistry that’s crucial to the movie working as a love story in addition to it being a spy story.
Fox, of course, has spent most of his career playing upper-crust characters of all kinds, from diplomats (The Mighty Quinn) to royalty (Patriot Games) to snooty businessmen (Absolute Beginners) and even other spies (the made-for-HBO Doomsday Gun). Ned is the type of role he could have done in his sleep, but Fox invests him with both intelligence and humanity, so we believe Ned is the only one who knows things aren’t as they seem near the end. Russell is caught between his blunt manner (after he chews out Ned in colorful terms, Ned notes dryly, “Russell’s metaphors are becoming rather scatological”) and his genuine wish for glasnost, and Scheider is able to play both sides of him convincingly. I was slightly disappointed at the time, and still am to some degree, that Mahoney didn’t have more to do; in the novel, Brady has quite the conversational duel with Barley, and all you get in the movie is him asking Barley about playing jazz, and chess, with Ray Noble. Still, Mahoney does give Brady the requisite gravitas. And Walsh and Kitchen are convincing enough in their roles, while Brandauer has the intelligence and fatalism of Dante down cold. It’s Ken Russell who’s the big surprise. Though he’d acted in small parts in his own films, this was the first time he’d acted in someone else’s film, and given the over-the-top nature of the films he’s directed (with sharply divided opinions on the quality of those films), you might think he’d try to hijack the movie. But his campy yet caustic take on Walter is perfect for the film, and he gives the film a lift of energy whenever he’s on screen. It’s to Schepisi’s credit that the movie doesn’t flag when Walter disappears from the movie.
One theme that has run through most of le Carre’s work, and which I’ve tried to call attention to in each of these reviews, is how the spy world, and the politics of the real world, are much different than the more escapist films and novels would have you believe. The fact The Russia House is able to hold onto that theme while also being lighter in tone (and more romantic at the end, unlike the more open-ended conclusion of the novel) is a credit to le Carre, as well as Schepisi, Stoppard, and the others who worked on the film. And that’s why this ranks as one of my favorite le Carre adaptations.
This is my third review of a movie based on one of John le Carre’s novels that’s being featured at BAM through this Wednesday. Unlike the first two reviews, this one is not a reprint from somewhere else, but is original.
Of all of the symbols of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall was probably the most visible. Erected in August of 1961 to separate East Berlin (the Soviet side) from West Berlin (the U.S., British and French side), it ostensibly was supposed to keep so-called “fascist” elements out of East Berlin (and, by extension, East Germany and the Soviet bloc), but in reality was built to stem the tide of those defecting to the West. Until it finally came down in 1990 when the Soviet bloc became free and East and West Germany reunited, the Berlin Wall was an area where both real and fictional spies sneaked in to either side to carry out operations, recruit potential defectors, smuggle secrets, and all sorts of other operations. So it’s appropriate the Berlin Wall is where both John le Carre’s seminal and career-making novel The Spy who Came In from the Cold, and director Martin Ritt’s terrific film adaptation of it, starts out.
Graham Greene, considered one of the finest spy novelists of the time (as well as novelist, period), had written a novel called A Burnt Out Case (ironically, not a spy novel – or as Greene called them, entertainments – but one of his literary novels), and that certainly describes le Carre’s hero, Alec Leamas (Richard Burton). When we first see him, he’s in a trenchcoat waiting inside a checkpoint station at the Wall, while a CIA agent (Tom Stern) brings him coffee. Leamas is waiting for Karl Riemeck, an agent he’s running; the last agent, in fact, that hasn’t been killed by Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter Van Eyck), the ruthless head of the East German SDS (the German KGB). Leamas wearily assures the CIA agent Riemack will come, and that the agent can go home if he wants. Leamas is pale, his eyes are hollow, and his voice is raspy. He soon has one more reason to worry; though Riemeck does show up, and seems to be free and clear at first, he’s eventually shot down by the East German guards.
Leamas, bitter and bone-weary, goes back to London to meet up with Control (Cyril Cusack), the head of British Intelligence. After perfunctorily offering Leamas a desk job (which Leamas refuses, calling himself a field man), and pretending to sympathize with Leamas losing all of his agents to Mundt while in reality being pissed about it, Control then offers Leamas another option. He’ll go back out into “the cold” one last time for an operation against Mundt. Given how much Leamas hates Mundt for who he is and what he’s done – and when Control asks Leamas what he thinks of Mundt, Leamas replies simply, “He’s a bastard” – and given it’s not a desk job, Leamas jumps at the chance. At first, Leamas seems to have been drummed out of the service. He gets a job at a library run by Miss Crail (Anne Blake), a disapproving woman who seems to spend most of the time on the phone with her mother (le Carre’s novel goes into more detail on this aspect), and soon gains the attentions of Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), a young, idealistic co-worker (she’s a member of the Communist Party) who begins an affair with him. But Leamas also goes on more drunken binges than usual, and gets arrested for trashing a grocery store when the owner won’t give him credit. After he gets out of prison, and Nan greets him there before going to work, a man named Ashe (Michael Hordern) approaches him, claiming to work for a group that helps ex-convicts. Ashe in turn introduces Leamas to a man named Carlton (Robert Hardy), who also claims to be with the group, and will offer money to Leamas if he leaves the country and tells him a story for his “newspaper”.
It turns out, of course, Ashe and Carlton are East German spies (along with Peters (Sam Wanamaker), whom Leamas meets in Holland) who are working for Fiedler (Oskar Werner), Mundt’s second-in-command. It’s all part of the plan Control and George Smiley (Rupert Davies) have to discredit Mundt. Through an operation Leamas participated in called “Operation Rolling Stone”, they hope to “prove” Mundt is really working for British intelligence. Leamas readily agrees, but asks Control to leave Nan (whom he spends the night with before going to Holland) out of everything. Soon, however, Leamas finds out things are not what they seem.
In an interview included on the Criterion edition of the film, le Carre noted while the novel and movie (adapted for the screen by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper) were praised for “realism”, he actually was writing a romantic novel, and not in the sense of the relationship between Leamas and Nan (Liz Gold in the book; whether it was changed to Nan Perry in the movie to downplay her Jewishness or because Burton in real life was involved with Elizabeth Taylor and he didn’t want a similar name to cause a distraction, is open to speculation), though there’s that too. Rather, it’s the story of Leamas falling out of love with the Service. As noted, he’s burnt out thanks to all the agents he’s lost, but while he hides his idealism as much as he can (when Nan asks if he believes in anything, Leamas replies, “I believe the 11 bus will take me to Hammersmith; I don’t believe it’s driven by Father Christmas”), it’s still there, and what keeps him going. Without giving anything away, this is what makes it all the more heartbreaking when what’s left of Leamas’ idealism runs up against the reality of the situation.
Of course, none of that discounts how much of a corrective both the book and the movie were. When le Carre’s novel was published in 1963, the James Bond novels had become a phenomenon both in England and the U.S., and the movie versions had started to gain traction; by 1965, when Ritt’s movie came out, the Bond movies had become a worldwide phenomenon, and the image of a spy being a glamorous profession was already inside people’s minds (Sidney J. Furie’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s novel The Ipcress File, which came out several months after The Spy who Came In from the Cold, was grittier than the Bond movies, though it had its own form of cheeky humor to keep it from feeling too downbeat). Le Carre’s novel, and Ritt’s movie, by contrast, show how much of a dirty game spying is, even if it is a game. As Leamas says near the end of the movie:
What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?
Le Carre’s novel, as well as Ritt’s movie, was also one of the first works to suggest both sides were playing the spy game in equally dirty ways, and that, as Leamas says earlier in the movie, no matter what side, “it’s the innocents who get slaughtered”. At the same time, the movie also suggests the kinship that can develop between spies on opposite sides of the fence; about a quarter of it is devoted to the relationship between Leamas and Fiedler, and the respect they develop for each other despite their differences, even though it’s never said out loud.
In the same interview on the Criterion disc, le Carre also mentions one of the reasons he thinks the movie was a failure at the box office – aside from the fact it was a downer, even though the novel was a best-seller – was because of Ritt’s decision to shoot the movie in black-and-white, and he thinks the movie might have played better in color. All due respect to le Carre, but I think he’s dead wrong. Perhaps in a couple of years, when cinematographers were starting to be able to get away with shooting color movies where the color was more faded and less garish, Ritt and cinematographer Oswald Morris might have made color for the film. But I don’t know if Ritt would have been able to buck the system to make it in color that way, and in any case, the black-and-white photography lends a starkness to the movie, adding weight to the somber tone of the movie.
Speaking of Ritt, at first glance, I thought he was an odd choice to direct this movie, given the fact most of the movies I knew him for when I saw this, like Sounder and Norma Rae, seemed in their humanistic tone to be a far cry from le Carre’s cynical view. But le Carre clearly cared what happened to the major characters of Leamas and Nan (Liz in the novel), even as he put them through the wringer, and Ritt obviously seized on that. Having been blacklisted for having Communist sympathies in the 50′s also meant this material struck a chord for Ritt, but he doesn’t make this a treatise on Communism, being careful to show both sides at their worst (as well as their rare best). It must also be said, of course, Ritt’s (arguably) best film, Hud, featured a cynical anti-hero at the center, so the character of Alec Leamas wasn’t that much of a stretch for Ritt.
Burton was not the first choice for the role, nor did he seem like an obvious choice. The studio, Paramount, wanted Burt Lancaster, who, while he had the gravity for the role would otherwise have been all wrong for the part, and he thankfully turned it down. Le Carre wanted Trevor Howard or someone like him. As for Burton, while he certainly would provide enough box office clout for studio purposes, the feeling was in most circles he was a great stage actor (I never saw him on stage personally, but I’ve seen bits of the Hamlet performance that was turned into a film, which was excellent; also, my father always said his performance as King Arthur in the stage production of “Camelot” was terrific) who had squandered most of his talent in movies, with a few exceptions (Look Back in Anger). Also, Burton in those days was known as much for his off-screen activities, such as his drinking and tumultuous marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, as his performances. But while Burton and Ritt apparently quarreled throughout the shoot, I don’t think you can argue with the results on-screen. Burton is able to suggest the burnt-out shell Leamas has become, the bitterness at others and the self-loathing underneath, and the shards of humanity that remain, especially when he’s with Nan. And while he was known for going over-the-top in his performances, he’s capable of subtlety; at a trial scene near the end of the movie, the look Burton has when Leamas realizes what’s really going on is chilling to watch. Along with Look Back in Anger and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this is his best performance on film.
As for the other performances, Bloom was older than her character by at least a decade, but she comes across as a grad student still maintaining her optimism, and she and Burton (who had worked together several times, which is why he suggested her for the role) have a believable chemistry together. Mundt may not have been much of a stretch for Van Eyck, but he doesn’t play the stereotypical ex-Nazi German (which is how Mundt was written); instead, he shows the cunning underneath. In most of the performances I’ve seen Werner give, from Decision Before Dawn to Jules and Jim to Fahrenheit 451, it seems like he’s sleepy-eyed; not that he’s sleepwalking through the role, but that his eyes are half-closed, giving his characters an air of mystery, and making them inscrutable. Here, his eyes are wide open, and with his beard and cap, he also looks different from most of his roles. He’s playing a man whose somewhat friendly and businesslike exterior hides a bitterness and anger of his own, and Werner perfectly captures that. George Voskovec (12 Angry Men) has a small but memorable appearance as Mundt’s lawyer. Finally, while he’s only in two scenes, one mustn’t forget Cusack as Control. Le Carre mentions in the interview how Control is more upper class than Leamas, and without ever being obvious about it, Cusack is able to suggest Control’s intellectual auteur (of someone behind a desk, not in the field) and slight contempt for Leamas.
As I mentioned before, despite the fact the novel was a best-seller, and le Carre’s breakthrough in terms of quality and acclaim, the movie did not perform well at the box office, though it was critically acclaimed and was nominated for two Oscars (Best Actor for Burton – he lost to Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou – and Best Art Direction/Set Direction, which it lost to Ship of Fools). In fairness, none of the movies based on le Carre’s novels have set the box office on fire – even the recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which did relatively well worldwide, wasn’t a bit hit. However, while The Spy who Came In from the Cold may not have been a game changer as a movie the way it was received as a novel (though, to be fair, le Carre was covering territory such writers as Greene and Eric Ambler had covered), it still holds up as one of the best, if not the best, serious movies dealing with the so-called “Great Game” of spying and how it operated during the Cold War.
As BAM continues with its showcase of movies based on John le Carre novels, here’s another old review I did of one of the movies featured in the showcase, Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of The Constant Gardener. This is another reprint of an old review; I’ll include some pictures and add some additional thoughts after the review.
When the Cold War ended, most thought spy novelists would go the way of the dodo. This seemed a strange thought, since while the Cold War may have seemed black and white, there was in fact a lot of gray area, and the best spy novelists have visited that gray area. Also, the world itself was to turn into more of a gray area, as no one knew what the new rules were, yet people in charge insisted on still following the old ones. John le Carre, who came to prominence with The Spy who Came In from the Cold in 1963, has doggedly pursued how the world has changed. Sometimes, he’s been less than successful, but his compass, both literary and moral, has mostly been straight and true. The Constant Gardener, as a book, is a good example, and now, in the hands of director Fernando Meirelles and writer Jeffrey Caine, it becomes a good example as a movie as well.
As with the novel, the movie is about Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes). Justin is a British diplomat in Kenya, and loves nothing more than to putter around in his garden. That is until he meets Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a firebrand activist who hounds him at a speech he gives in London about British policy in Iraq. Afterwards, she apologizes for being so forward, and the two become attracted to one another. Though they are an odd match – she’s the fire to his ice – they seem to work together, and when she pesters him to let her accompany him to Kenya, he can’t say no. While he serves as a bureaucrat, she is tending to the children of the country (even while pregnant herself, though she loses the baby), with the help of Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde). It is Bluhm who is found murdered with Tess early on in the movie (the relationship between Justin and Tessa is told in flashback), and the supposition is the two of them were more than just colleagues. Justin’s friend and boss Sandy (Danny Huston), who also loved Tessa even though he opposed her politically, tells him to forget about it and move on, as do all of Justin’s friends. Justin, however, can’t help but recall how Tessa in particular was railing against the Three Bees, a pharmaceutical conglomerate she suspected was up to no good in Africa. And to make up for not listening to her in life, he’s going to let her guide him as he goes about trying to find out who was really responsible for her death.
Like most (if not all) le Carre novels, this deals with betrayal; like most of his best novels (The Spy who Came In from the Cold, The Russia House, The Night Manager), the hero is trying to atone, in one way or another, for betrayals he has already committed. Justin feels he also was responsible for Tessa’s death by not listening to her tirades against the government and Three Bees. And while being a diplomat, he knows he alone can’t bring down both of them, he at least can get some justice for himself by fulfilling her mission. Of course, there’s betrayal on many levels; the betrayal by Three Bees of the West of Africa (le Carre implies in a postscript to his novel the situation is far worse than even he described), and the betrayal of Tessa by certain key people, like Sandy and Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite), a doctor who knows more than he’s telling. Of course, this is a combination of the personal and the political, and oftentimes, one side wins out over the other, with the movie suffering as a result. Here, however, Meirelles and Caine find a perfect match between the two.
I was not a big fan of Meirelles’ previous film City of God. While it was technically dazzling, I felt it lacked the heart of, say, Pixote, which also concerned itself with the less fortunate in South America. This film also wears its technique on its sleeve, but I think it fits better here. True, this is another film that shows Africans mostly as tribes-people, but Meirelles gives the continent a buoyant energy. You can easily see why Tessa is drawn here, and feels entirely at home. And if there is a heart of darkness, it’s only because the West created it. Also, the hand-held camera and over-the-top editing reflect, I think, Justin’s growing anger and shame about Tessa’s death. Meirelles and Caine also juggle the many threads of the plot (le Carre always has rather convoluted plots) brilliantly.
The performances, of course, are a big boost. Thanks to the Mummy movies, I always find myself underrating Weisz; she proved in Runaway Jury, for example, she could hold her own with Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman (and even better them). Here, she proves she can handle an almost impossible role (Anthony Lane rightly described it as “two parts Naomi Klein, three parts Sophia Loren”) with equal aplomb. Many reviewers have been critical of Huston’s performance, but I found him spot on as someone whose actions were reprehensible but whose feelings were real. And Bill Nighy (as the head of the British Foreign Service) and Gerard McSorley (as the head of Three Bees) are both terrific as the bad guys. But Fiennes is the one who holds it all together. This is not one of his stereotypical brooding roles. Justin is someone who is cowed yet charmed by the world around him, especially when it comes to Tessa, and yet he must summon reserves he never knew he had. Fiennes completely captures that, especially at the end. And without giving anything away, it’s nice to see a Hollywood movie that doesn’t compromise at the end. The Constant Gardener can stand both as a slam against misdeeds in Africa and a superior adaptation of a book by one of the best novelists working today.
When Hotel Rwanda came out in 2004, my friend Owen said he hoped this would mean the end of movies about African problems that nevertheless had a white protagonist at the center of the story because of the notion Western audiences wouldn’t watch a movie about Africa without a white protagonist at the center of the story. What seems to have happened instead is Hollywood for the most part have stopped talking about Africa. The year after The Constant Gardener came out, there were three major English-language movies dealing with Africa: The Last King of Scotland, Catch a Fire and Blood Diamond. The first two were docudramas (the former about a Scottish doctor who became part of Idi Amin’s (Forest Whitaker) inner circle, the latter about Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), an oil refinery foreman turned revolutionary in 1980′s South Africa), while the third film, while fiction, was set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sierra Leone in the late 1990′s and how “conflict diamonds” were one of the causes of said war. Only Catch a Fire had an African as its protagonist (the main character of Blood Diamond was a mercenary played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and the African fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) he befriends in the movie is third in importance in terms of the movie behind DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly’s journalist character), and by coincidence, artistically, for me, it was better than the other two (though it too was flawed by not, if you pardon the expression, catching fire dramatically).
Why does The Constant Gardener work for me while the other two don’t? Part of the reason is the white character at the center of the movie is interesting in of himself, rather than just a plot device. Admittedly, Justin Quayle is a familiar type in many ways – a person who refuses to take sides at first and then is forced to choose a side – but the way that transition is handled is logical both plot-wise and emotionally. Second of all, unlike The Last King of Scotland, the movie never lets Justin’s story overwhelm the tragedy of what’s going on in Africa. Also, unlike Blood Diamond, Meirelles’ film doesn’t try to sanitize its message in any way by either tacking on a happy ending (Three Bees does run into quite a bit of trouble, but you can tell this isn’t the end of things as far as they go). Meirelles also does a better job of delineating the other characters so they aren’t ciphers, which makes the ruthlessness of some of them all the more chilling as a result. Finally, as I said in my earlier review, while it does take a well-worn tack in showing Africa, the movie at least makes all of the people it shows seem alive rather than stereotypical. Certainly, I wish there were more movies about Africa that had Africans at its center (like Invictus or, on TV, the criminally short-lived made-for-HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), and of course it would also be nice if more movies by Africans about Africans made it to these shores (the last one that I know of was Bamako, which was interesting if problematic. Still, even given the type of movie it calls to mind, I think The Constant Gardener works on its own.
On Thursday, September 27, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) started a series of films based on the novels of John le Carre, who is one of my all-time favorite authors. The series, which runs until October 3 (next Wednesday) includes just about all of the feature film versions of his novels (except, for some reason, The Russia House). Over the next few days, I’ll be writing about my three favorite films in the series (as well as The Russia House, since I find its absence inexplicable; if nothing else, it’s better than The Looking Glass War, the worst film version of a le Carre novel), starting with the recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As with my reviews of the first two Christopher Nolan Batman movies, this is a review I wrote for CAPRA (Cinematic Amateur PRess Association). I’ve added pictures and edited it slightly for grammar, but it remains mostly unchanged.
In Three Days of the Condor, John Houseman and Cliff Robertson, two high-ranking members of the CIA, are briefly reminiscing about how they entered the intelligence field in the first place, with Houseman (who in the film is British) talking about how he started out a decade after World War I, or as he refers to it, “The Great War”. When Robertson asks if he misses the action from when he was younger, Houseman responds, “I miss that kind of clarity”. Most people tend to look back with nostalgia on the past in general, and today, when it comes to this age of uncertainty we all live under due to the War on Terror waged both here (with all of the terror threats, however real or imagined they are) and abroad, there has been a tendency to look back at what was thought of as the “clarity” of the Cold War, when at least, so the thinking goes, we knew who the enemy was. And the ever-looming threat of the Bomb, while keeping those in charge as well as the populace they governed in a state of alert, paradoxically created a sense of security in knowing as long as no one was going to press the button, things wouldn’t get too out of hand. Even forgetting, for the moment, the terror movement as we know it actually started in the 60′s and 70′s (under the flag of revolutionaries), we should remember the time of the Cold War wasn’t a time of “clarity”, but was just as murky as it is today. It was a world where you never really knew who to trust, and was a world of betrayal. Few people captured this Cold War world as well as John le Carre, particularly in his novels involving George Smiley, the antithesis of James Bond; or, as le Carre put it, one of the meek who do not inherit the earth. Wearing ill-fitting clothes, glasses that he constantly needs to polish, and moving at a slow gait due to his weight, Smiley might seem more fit to be a schoolmaster or an accountant rather than a spy (Smiley describes himself in The Secret Pilgrim – the last le Carre novel to feature Smiley – as “a fat man caught between the pudding and the port). But he actually uses this to his advantage, especially the way he’s able to question people and harp on the details most would forget. This would seem to make him an unlikely movie hero, but in this new adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, le Carre’s most celebrated Smiley novel, director Tomas Alfredson and star Gary Oldman do justice to the character and the story.
As with the 1979 miniseries (more on that below), and unlike the novel, we start with a brief prologue. Control (John Hurt), the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (referred to here, as in the novel and miniseries, as “The Circus”, as it’s headquartered at Cambridge Circus), is certain there’s a mole, or double agent, high up in British Intelligence. And he asks Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), a “scalphunter” (jargon for those who did the dirty deeds in espionage), to go to Budapest to meet with a general who can give Prideaux the name of the mole. Unfortunately, Prideaux finds out it’s a trap, and he’s shot and presumed dead. This forces Control’s ouster (he dies soon after), as well as the ouster of his deputy, Smiley (Oldman). Some time later, however, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), from the Ministry, comes to Smiley, confirming he also has heard there’s a mole inside the Circus (both this and the fact Control was investigating on his own comes as a complete surprise to Smiley), and since Smiley is out of it and therefore under the radar, he’s in a perfect position to investigate.
The title of the movie (and book) comes from the old nursery rhyme “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief”. Control assigns parts of the rhyme as code names for the people he suspects. Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), who wants Control’s job, is Tinker, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), who runs the London division, is Tailor, Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Haydon’s second-in-command, is Soldier, and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), who runs the “lamplighters” (security division), is Poor Man (Control skips over Sailor because it’s too similar to Tailor, and Rich Man for obvious reasons; Smiley is known as Beggar Man). Smiley tries to retrace Control’s steps, as well as interview Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a scalphunter who basically got the ball rolling – he had fallen in love with Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a spy posing as a businessman’s wife, and before she was captured by the KGB, she told Tarr there was a mole in the Circus; he was the one who called Lacon – and Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), the former researcher at the Circus until she was retired along with Smiley and Control. She had pointed out a Russian named Polyakov (Konstantin Khabenskiy) who might have been the mole’s handler, but no one wanted to hear it. With the help of Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), his protege, and Lacon to an extent, Smiley tries to track the mole, as well as confront two of the ghosts in his past; Ann, his unfaithful wife, and Karla, the Soviet spy whom Smiley tried (and failed) to recruit in his younger days, and whom he suspects is behind the mole.
Alfredson, Oldman, and co-writers Bridget O’Connor (who died after filming had wrapped) and Peter Straughan are confronting ghosts of their own with this movie. For one, the miniseries is not only well-acclaimed, it also took five-and-a-half hours to tell its story (the British DVD runs longer), while this movie clocks in at 127 minutes, so there’s quite a bit that had to be cut. For another, while there have been a number of actors to play the role of George Smiley – among them James Mason (though the character had a different name) in A Deadly Affair, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Call for the Dead, Denholm Elliot in the made-for-TV version of A Murder of Quality, and Rupert Davies in The Spy who Came In from the Cold – none are as memorable as Alec Guinness, who played the role in both the miniseries of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People (the novel The Honourable Schoolboy actually came out between those novels, but wasn’t filmed due to budget constraints). Still, I think everyone involved has done a good job of making the movie stand on its own. For starters, Alfredson and production designer Maria Djurkovic make the building where the Circus is located an integral part of the story, with its retro look, the dumbwaiter that passes files from floor to floor, and the rooms that look as if they’re under the magnifying glass the entire time. Also, Alfredson and the screenwriters make some smart decisions in cutting the story down; in the movie, you never see Ann Smiley or Karla except in brief glimpses, which again adds to the idea of Smiley chasing their ghosts. The film also adds a Christmas party scene not in the novel or miniseries, but conveys, in flashback scenes, the relationship between several characters (as well as some dark humor; the characters sing along to a Soviet anthem at one point), as well as hints of things to come. Alfredson and the writers also bring out the sexual undercurrents only hinted at in the novel and miniseries; making the relationship between Ricki and Irina more passionate (in the novel and miniseries, he also has a wife and daughter, but that’s dropped here), having Connie tell George she’s feeling “under-fucked” (le Carre allegedly heard W.H. Auden tell him this in real life), making Guillam’s womanizing (more spelled out in the novel than in the miniseries) a cover for something else, and, of course, the relationship between Haydon and Prideaux. All of this helps add to the layers of deception going on.
Most importantly, however, Alfredson, O’Connor and Straughan, even in having to cut things down, preserve the elliptical nature of le Carre’s storytelling, making it even more so. This has frustrated many viewers (film professor and blogger David Bordwell, in his excellent essay on the film, starts out by talking about the man behind him in the theater who didn’t “get” the movie) and even some critics. First of all, I do believe as long as you keep in mind the spine of the film – there’s a mole in the Secret Service, and Smiley is being brought out of retirement to stop him – it shouldn’t be too hard to follow. More to the point, though, this elliptical style is a perfect illustration of just how murky the Cold War was – how there were, again, layers of deception before you could finally get to the truth, how you never really knew who your friends or enemies were, and how you kept secrets even from your friends if it served your purpose (as Smiley does to Tarr in a crucial scene). All of that is what spying is about, not about big operations that conclude with gun battles, and much as I’ve enjoyed movies like the Bourne series that are about operations (though those movies are more grave and less morally certain than, say, the James Bond movies), le Carre’s novels and this movie serve as a bracing alternative to that. And while this is made more explicit in the novel (it was inspired by Kim Philby, perhaps the biggest traitor the British SIS ever had, and whom le Carre resented because they came from the same background and because le Carre was one of the people Philby betrayed), we see how spying in Britain, and even America, is often a game for the privileged class that ends up wreaking havoc for everyone else.
One disadvantage the movie has in relation to the miniseries, of course, is the miniseries allowed the actors time to develop the characters, whereas the actors in the movie have to compete with the memories of people who have read the book and/or seen the miniseries and paint the characters in quick brush strokes for those who haven’t done either. Another reason why the movie works so well is because of how well the actors are able to do this. Hurt is perfect as Control, a man being eaten away not only by the toll his job has taken on him, but also the desire to stop the forces trying to put him out to pasture. Strong, who usually plays bad guys, is excellent going against type here, and while he doesn’t have as much to work with as Ian Bannen did in his excellent performance in the miniseries, he’s able to distill both the character’s gentleness in dealing with Bill Roach (William Haddock), the outcast boy at the boarding school Prideaux ends up teaching at and with whom he bonds, and yet the steeliness that remains in him. Jones doesn’t have the same privileged nature Michael Aldridge brought to Alleline, but he goes the other way, playing someone who grabs at the inside because of how long he’s been forced to watch from the outside. Conversely, Hinds suggests more of being to the manor born than the rumpled nature Terrence Rigby brought to the working-class Roy Bland, but Hinds is able to play the character’s resentment all the same. Speaking of resentment, Dencik is less bitter and brittle than Bernard Hepton was as Esterhase, but is able to play up Esterhase’s outsider feeling, which fuels his bitterness. Hardy captures Tarr’s dangerous and romantic nature, but he’s also more mournful than Hywel Bennett was in the miniseries, which works here. Next to Oldman, whom I’ll get to in a minute, Firth has the toughest job here – next to Guinness, Ian Richardson gave the most indelible performance in the original – but if he doesn’t quite measure up, Firth does get Haydon’s cutting wit as well as his reserves of resentment and regret. And even if his character didn’t turn out to be as important here as he was in the miniseries, Cumberbatch feels just right as Guillam, someone completely professional but with his own dark currents underneath.
But it all turns on Oldman, and he delivers in spades. In the past, Oldman has been known for his over-the-top performances in films like True Romance, Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, and I’ve enjoyed many of those immensely. And even though he’s mostly tried as of late to play more characters who are essentially good if somewhat troubled, as with the Harry Potter movies and the recent Batman movies, he brings that same intensity, which also works. His Smiley is more of an active character on the face of it than Guinness’ was (we see him go swimming, for example, and taking walks), but Oldman brings the same watchfulness, patience and stillness Guinness did in his performance, and is even subtle in bringing out Smiley’s vulnerability. Much has been made of the scene where Guillam, Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack), another retired Secret Service agent who now works as a beekeeper, and Smiley are in a car and a bee starts buzzing around, and while Guillam tries to swat it and Mendel tries to catch it, Smiley simply lets it go. It’s a great scene, but even better, for me, is the scene where Smiley is telling Guillam about interrogating Karla, but for one second, you don’t know if he’s talking about Karla or Ann, two ghosts he’s forever chasing. Oldman plays that perfectly, without pathos. And he uses Smiley’s glasses (a key to the character) as a way of showing both Smiley’s gently probing nature and a shield he puts around himself (we can barely see his eyes at times). In short, even if you’re a fan of the original miniseries and novel, as I am, this movie version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy stands brilliantly on its own.