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The Spielberg Blogathon: “Munich”

This is my entry in the Spielberg blogathon, hosted by Kellee  (Outspoken & Freckled), Michael (It Rains… You Get Wet) and Aurora (Citizen Screenings), taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs. Hope you enjoy my post.

Whatever your opinion has been of Steven Spielberg over the years – I count myself as a fan of many, if not all, of the films he’s made – his fans and detractors alike can probably agree he’s a director of emotion and of viscera (where they disagree, of course, is how he applies emotion and viscera in his films). One of the knocks against Spielberg has been that he’s not a filmmaker of ideas (or a filmmaker interested in ideas), and while I like Amistad more than many people do, I have to admit it was a struggle for him (albeit an intriguing one) to make a movie like this dominated by ideas (which is why he tried to throw in stabs of emotion like the “Give us free!” scene). However, Munich, in my opinion, managed to be a film of ideas while also using viscera and emotion to effectively communicate those ideas.

Munich, of course, is where the 1972 Olympics were held, and where 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and later killed by a Palestinian terror group calling itself Black September, and the beginning of Spielberg’s film (credited to Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, adapting the book Vengeance by George Jonas) shows both the kidnapping of the athletes and the coverage the kidnapping and eventual botched rescue attempt received (most of it by ABC, through Peter Jennings – who was hidden in a room where he could see what was happening – and Wide World of Sports anchor Jim McKay). Some time later, Avner (Eric Bana), a German-born Mossad agent who knows Europe, is hand-picked by Israeli Premier Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) to lead a small group to track down and kill the members of Black September (the only conditions being they don’t go into Soviet countries for diplomatic reasons, and Arab countries for safety reasons). Except for Carl (Ciaran Hinds), a former Israeli soldier whose job is to clean up after every job, the other members of the group are diaspora Jews; Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African driver and gunman, Hans (Hanns Zischler), a Belgian forger, and Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Belgian toy-maker whose specialty is defusing bombs and who is now being asked to make bombs. With money supplied through a bank in Zurich, Avner and his team go to Europe, and through Andreas (Moritz Bleibtreu), a friend of Avner’s, and Tony (Yvan Attal), a friend of Andreas, they come in contact with Louis (Mathieu Amalric), leader of a group who sells information to anyone and any group as long as they aren’t working officially on behalf of a government, and who gives Avner and his group (who pretend to be working on behalf of “rich Americans”) information on how to find their targets.

Avner (Eric Bana) being briefed by Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush).

In basic outline, this is a thriller, and Spielberg does fulfill the requirements of the genre, and in his trademark fashion. Take the second target the group attacks, Mahmoud Hamshari (Igal Naor), a PLO member who is now living in Paris with his wife and daughter. Robert gets into Mahmoud’s apartment by pretending to be a reporter who wants to interview Mahmoud about the Arab hijacking of a Lufthansa jet to get three Black September members released (and the press conference they held afterwards), and when Robert pretends to need to phone his editor, he goes to the phone and draws an outline of its shape and its bottom. When Mahmoud and his family have exited the apartment one day, Avner and Robert pose as workers (while Carl watches over them) to sneak in, and Robert exchanges the phone in the apartment with one wired to go off when Mahmoud answers the phone. Sometime later, Carl is in a phone booth, while Steve, Hans and Robert are in a car across the street from the apartment building, and Avner is on the sidewalk near the building, waiting for Mahmoud’s wife and daughter to leave. When they do, Avner takes off his hat, Carl gets ready to call, and Robert turns on his device to activate the bomb. Except a cargo truck pulls up alongside Steve’s car, and Avner temporarily halts Carl while he checks with Robert to see if the signal still works; unbeknownst to them, the car with Mahmoud’s wife and daughter returns so the daughter can get the phone book her mother left behind; when Avner is assured there’s nothing to worry about, he signals Carl to resume, but when the daughter answers the phone, and Avner sees the car has returned to the building, he and Carl frantically rush to Robert to prevent him from activating the bomb before it’s too late. Finally, when the daughter (along with her mother and their driver) leaves, Carl makes the call and the bomb goes off, but it doesn’t kill Mahmoud, it only wounds him.

That, of course, shows Spielberg, Roth and Kushner playing with genre expectations, but they had already laid the groundwork for it earlier. Meir had been criticized for trying to negotiate with Black September to get the Israeli athletes released (she tells Avner she couldn’t go to their funeral because she had to go to a family member’s funeral, but Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), the Mossad head who becomes Avner’s handler, guesses she didn’t go to their funeral because she didn’t want to be booed), but is now authorizing the (unofficial) hunt for Black September, and muses, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values”. Ephraim, who first appears at the meeting Avner attends with Meir and other government and military figures when Avner is first assigned the job (he’s sitting at a desk behind where Avner is standing, and only speaks after everyone else leaves), gives the type of information to Avner you’d expect in this type of thriller (“We deposit money from a fund that doesn’t exist into a box we don’t know about in a bank we’ve never set foot in. We can’t help you because we never heard of you before”), but even has a little humor about it (Ephraim offers Avner baklava, and when Avner turns it down, claims it’s good Avner turned down sweets, because, now that he’s no longer officially with the Mossad, he no longer has dental insurance)*. And while Avner is willing to follow orders without question, at least at first (Ephraim praises him for not asking questions at the first meeting), he can’t help being a little cynical about the whole operation at first; when Meir says Avner was one of her favorite bodyguards, Avner can’t help asking, “You like having the son of a hero around?” (Avner’s father, a war hero, is now in prison) The rest of the group is also cynical at first, especially when they find out, except for Avner and Carl, no one is really an experienced soldier, and they’re not even sure about them (when Steve asks Avner why he was made team leader, Hans cracks, “Because he really knows how to cook a brisket”, which cracks everyone up).

Avner breaks bread with Louis (Mathieu Amalric) and Papa (Michel Lonsdale).

That early cynicism, however, turns into something more pronounced as the team continues to chase their targets. After they shoot and kill Abel Wael Zwaiter (Makram Khoury), their first target (who’s now a poet living in Rome), Avner decides they should use bombs from then on because of the statement it makes (“it terrorizes the terrorists”). However, this proves easier said than done; while Robert gets criticized for using too small a bomb against Mahmoud, he’s criticized for going too far the other way when he tries to blow up the hotel room where Hussein Al Bashir (Mostefa Djadjam) is, and the bomb not only blows up Hussien’s room, it also blows up the hotel room where Avner was (he was giving the signal from the balcony), as well as the room between them where a couple was staying (since Louis supplied the explosives, Robert blames him; naturally, Louis claims Robert messed it up). Things become even further strained between Avner and Louis when Louis gives Avner the names of three PLO members in Beirut, and Ephraim lets the team go on the condition an Israeli commando team accompany them, which angers Louis because of his rule of not working for governments. Then there’s the close call when the team happens to be in a safe house with a PLO group they eventually have to do battle with (again, the safe house was set up by Louis’ father (Michel Lonsdale), who is in charge of Louis’ group). More important than any of that, however, is while Avner is disinclined to question their orders at first (he tells Carl at one point, “Stop chasing the mice around in your head”), he and the rest of the team are soon having doubts about the mission. They don’t know for sure if the people they’re killing are really Black September or not, as the Lufthansa hijacking and other incidents make clear, the people they do kill are being replaced by people even more dangerous (and who are targeting them), and Avner (and some of the others) are having trouble sleeping at night and are being plagued by nightmares by what they’ve done.

The ideas from that last part – that violence begets violence, and the cost to your soul for using the same methods your enemies use to stop them – aren’t particularly new ones, of course, but they are as relevant now as they ever were, thanks not just to what’s going on in the Middle East right now, but given our memories of the War on Terror here. Spielberg, Roth and Kushner were slammed on both sides for this movie – some thought it was pro-Israel, others pro-PLO – but I’d argue they’re less interested in demonizing either side than in grappling with those questions. Part of that is dealt with in dialogue, of course (Robert at one point says, “We are supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. And we’re losing it”), but again, Spielberg, along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn communicate those ideas viscerally and visually as well. With the exception of the very first hit they undertake, none of the jobs they undertake go smoothly (the one person who was supposedly the mastermind behind what happened in Munich is never killed by the team), and Spielberg are able to make you feel all this without descending into what has been called “chaos cinema”. Even something as simple as taking revenge – when Avner and Steve kill Jeanette (Marie-Josee Croze), a Dutch assassin who tried to seduce Avner so she could kill him, and when he turned her down, seduced and killed Carl instead – doesn’t go away; Hans refuses to treat her as human (when Avner tries to cover up her naked body after killing her, Hans angrily tells him to stop), but then confesses he’s had nightmares about killing her. The most controversial method they use comes at the very end, when Avner is having sex with his wife Daphna (Ayelet Zurer) after he’s joined her in Brooklyn, and he’s reliving the moment when the Black September group killed the Israeli athletes. When I first saw the movie, I agreed with those who said this was, at best, misguided (particularly since it’s showing events Avner couldn’t have possibly seen). However, I now think it’s another way of showing just how haunted Avner is by what he’s done, and how it’s never going to leave him, even doing something he obviously enjoys as much as having sex with Daphna.

Ephraim with the team.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Spielberg does trade in emotion, and one emotion his detractors normally tag him with is sentimentality, which I’ll admit can be a fault of his, in films such as Hook and The Terminal, for example, which are two of my least favorites of his. Spielberg does brush against sentimentality here, but always manages to pull back in time. The scene where the team (who is pretending to be from other revolutionary/terror groups like the Red Army Faction) and the PLO team end up at the same safe house is a good example. Steve and one of the PLO members look like they’re going to get in a confrontation over which music to listen to on the radio until Steve finds Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, and they both grin at each other briefly. Spielberg, Kaminski and Kahn hold the moment just long enough to see the temporary bond, yet also show the discord, as we see Avner and the leader of the PLO group arguing over Israel. The women characters don’t get a lot to do in this movie, but Daphna avoids sentimentality as well. After she’s given birth, Avner tries to get her to move to Brooklyn because it may not be safe for her in Israel, but she doesn’t want to move because Israel is home to her; when Avner says she’s the only home he’s ever known, she laughs, calls him corny, and wonders why she married a sentimentalist (earlier, when she was pregnant, Avner asked her how long into pregnancy was she supposed to stop having sex, and Daphna cracked, “Labor”). The final shot of the movie, from a distance, is of the World Trade Center, which is less a nod to sentiment, I think, than a reminder. Finally, even though Avner does come to see Louis’ father as a father figure to him, we also see the resentment it causes Louis, and we never forget Papa, as he is called, is dangerous.

The performances are all terrific across the board as well. Bana’s had a tough time in Hollywood since coming over on the strength of his work in Chopper, and this is probably his best performance in Hollywood, as he not only carries himself like a soldier, but also shows the toll the work has taken on Avner without overdoing it. Kassovitz has talked about wanting to devote himself exclusively to directing, and I think that’s a shame, not only because I’m not a fan of his as a director, but because he’s so good as an actor, as he is here in playing Robert as someone way over his head. This isn’t the best of Craig’s pre-Bond work, but he does show a lot underneath Steve’s bluster, and Hinds and Zischler are dependable and good. Amalric is spot on as the amoral Louis while also showing the bitterness and hidden code underneath. Croze, up till this point best known for her turn as the drug addict/dealer in The Barbarian Invasions, only has a couple of scenes, but is both alluring and dangerous as the assassin. Best of all are Rush and Lonsdale, both showing the worldview of people who have seen too much (along with Rush, Lonsdale also gets food-related humor as a way of humanizing his character; Papa complains he and Avner both have hands that are too big to be effective as cooks, and calls that “tragic”). At one point in the movie, Carl tells Avner, “The only thing that really scares (guys like you) is stillness.” By not being scared of characters who have seen too much, or of ideas, yet not abandoning his prodigious gifts to communicate those ideas or show those characters, Spielberg, in Munich, has made one of his best movies.

R.I.P. Robin Williams

In the introduction to an interview he did with Pete Townshend for Musician magazine, Bill Flanagan called him “the rarest of men – he gives in to his impulses and analyzes what he’s doing the whole time”. That certainly describes Robin Williams, who died yesterday at 63. It’s part of what gave his stand-up, at its best – and at its best, Williams was one of the greats, just below Pryor and Carlin -its charge; wherever his free-association came from (his addictions, his agile mind, the madness of his life, or a combination of all of those), it was dizzying to watch, and at the same time, you wondered just how he processed all of it. In fact, he did as well; one of his great early routines was taking you inside the brain process of the typical stand-up comedian, and he did a brilliant riff about comedy on Inside the Actors’ Studio, among other places. The capacity for giving in to his impulses while analyzing why he did so is also what seemed to make him candid in interviews when he talked about battling his demons (his addictions, his failed marriages), and it managed to tie together both his cerebral (he’d often reference Einstein, Gandhi and Shakespeare, among others, and lest we forget, he attended Julliard) and scatological impulses (he also did a whole routine on Lorena Bobbitt when she was in the news) both in his act and during his interviews. Stand-up appearances, and talk shows, was where he could both give in to his impulses and analyze them, and make doing both funny. Movies are a different medium, of course, and there were certain impulses he gave into some of the movies he made that didn’t bring out his best side (I’m afraid I’ve never been a fan of Popeye or Mrs. Doubtfire, for example). But when he was at his best, he was able to show how he was more versatile than you might think. Here are my favorite Williams performances on film:

(1) The World According to Garp: John Irving is a novelist whom I’ve never quite been able to warm up to, as I’ve often found him self-consciously quirky (except for The Cider House Rules). When George Roy Hill and Steve Tesich adapted the film in 1982, however, they played it straight (just as Hill did a decade earlier with another adaptation of a strange novel thought unfilmable, Slaughterhouse Five), and it works. The movie was also the first demonstration Williams was perfectly capable of submerging himself into the part instead of tailoring it to suit his persona. Though he admitted in an interview with Rolling Stone that he might have done the role even better at the time he gave the interview (1988) because he knew more then about being a parent than he did while making the movie, he still shows someone totally devoted to his kids (the scenes where he just wants to watch them work very well). He’s also convincing as a writer and as someone who loves his activist mother (Glenn Close) even as he’s exasperated by her sometimes. Williams isn’t the only one who shines in this movie – Close, Mary Beth Hurt (as Williams’ wife), and John Lithgow (as a transsexual former football player) are all terrific as well – but he’s the one who holds it all together, and make Irving’s quirkiness endearing instead of being annoying.

(2) Moscow on the Hudson: Many directors who broke out in the late 60’s-early 70’s had trouble during the blockbuster era of the 80’s. One of the few who seemed to flourish, after a slow start, was Paul Mazursky, who made a string of comedies (even Enemies: A Love Story finds comedy in its dark subject matter) that were both funny and genuinely intelligent (Moon Over Parador was the weakest of them, but it had its moments). His streak began with Moscow on the Hudson, which saw Williams play a Russian saxophonist who, while visiting in New York City with the Moscow circus (whom he plays for) decides, on an impulse, to defect in Bloomingdale’s. The rest of the movie deals with the consequences of that decision. The central joke of Mazursky’s film is that everyone is trying to assimilate in their own way, from Fernando Rey (as the immigration lawyer who helps him, to Cleavant Derricks (as the Bloomingdale’s security guard from Alabama who takes Williams in), and to Maria Conchita Alonso (as the perfume sales clerk whom Williams falls in love with), and while Mazursky is generous with all of the characters (even the KGB agents who warn the members of the Moscow circus against defecting are overwhelmed by New York City), he never lets the film dive into sentimentality. And Williams manages to be both convincing as a Russian (he speaks the language through the first part of the film) and as a saxophone player, while also being funny and staying in character; so we get, for example, how it’s endearing when he hides under Alonso’s dress (when he first decides to defect and is trying to get away from the KGB), but when he does it later in the movie (when he’s trying to win her back after they’ve argued), it isn’t.

(3) Good Morning Vietnam: This was the first film Williams did that attempted to filter his stand-up sensibility into a film role. Barry Levinson’s movie, a fictionalized version of the experiences of real-life DJ Adrian Cronauer’s stint with the Armed Forces Radio Network in Vietnam, doesn’t wear as well as it did when I first saw it in the theater (for a movie set in Vietnam during the war, it shows only a cursory interest in the Vietnamese, and the three prominent Vietnamese characters are all stereotypes), but Williams’ on-air routines are as funny today as they were over 25 years ago (especially when he’s imitating Ethel Merman jamming Russian radar, as well as their response). And again, he also shows his capability for drama, as in the scene after he witnesses the aftermath of a bomb going off at a restaurant and is ordered by his superior officer (J.T. Walsh) not to report it; the way his voice cracks as he’s trying to be funny and failing still gets me every time. And though Williams can sometimes steamroller over other performers, he works very well with Forest Whitaker as the officer who works most closely with Cronauer (and who fights to get him back on the air after the brass, led by Walsh, suspend him following the bomb incident).

(4) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: Williams wasn’t the first choice to play the King of the Moon character encountered by Baron Munchausen (John Neville) and Sally (Sarah Polley), the little girl who escapes with him from a battle in her town. Sean Connery, who had worked with director Terry Gilliam on Time Bandits, was the first choice, but when he pulled out, Williams, who was a big fan of Monty Python, signed on. As Levinson did on Good Morning Vietnam, Gilliam gave Williams (billed as Ray D. Tutto – “but you can call me Ray”) free reign to improvise his part, and the result was a perfect showcase of the split between his cerebral and scatological impulses while also being true to the character. After all, the King is someone whose head can literally separate from his body, and while his head talks about higher things (“I think, therefore you is”) – or wanting to, anyway (“I have tides to regulate and comets to direct! I have no time for flatulence and orgasms!”) – the body simply wants pleasure of all kinds, from eating to tickling his wife’s (Valentina Cortese) feet (and no, that’s not a double entendre). While watching the King’s head go off on one of his tangents, Sally says, “He’s gone funny”, and for me, she’s right, in both senses of the word. In later years, Williams would occasionally make cameos in both films (as a mime instructor in Bobcat Goldthwait’s Shakes the Clown) and on TV (with Billy Crystal on an episode of Friends), this five-minute (or so) appearance remains, for me, his best appearance in that regard.

(5) Dead Poets Society: I am also not as big a fan of this movie as others are (I don’t think it earns its sentimentality), but I will say Williams is terrific here. While he does a few comic bits (as when he’s imitating Marlon Brando and John Wayne doing Shakespeare), he mostly stays in character in playing a teacher who inspires his poetry students at a 1950’s New England prep school. You believe Williams knows his subject, especially when he gives this speech:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering; these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance love; these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me, O life, of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless…of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer; that you are here, that life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

And again, the film shows how a strong director (Peter Weir) is able to not only rein him in (Williams gets top billing, and was nominated for Best Actor, but is arguably playing a supporting role), but also gets him to interact well with the young actors playing his students, particularly Ethan Hawke as a student trying to live up to the legacy of his older brother and Robert Sean Leonard as a student with a difficult relationship with his father. However I may object to the turns the film’s script takes, I have no quarrel with Williams’ performance here.

(6) Awakenings: The same year as this film, Williams also starred in the underrated comedy Cadillac Man, playing a car salesman who tries to calm down Tim Robbins after the latter takes the dealership Williams works at hostage. Awakenings, based on the book by Oliver Sacks, is the one that received more attention, and while director Penny Marshall doesn’t always rise above sentimentality, I do think it deserved the praise and box office it received. As Leonard, a patient who’s been catatonic for several years until a drug treatment revives him for a time, Robert De Niro received an Oscar nomination, and he’s fine until his character relapses (at which point he seems to rely on tics), but I think Williams was actually better. Malcolm Sayer (the doctor Williams played; he agreed to change the name so he’d avoid the problems that came up with the liberties taken in playing Cronauer) is a familiar type – the scientist who’s brilliant at his work but has a hard time with human interaction – but Williams makes it work. Whether trying to convince his superior (John Heard) the treatment he’s proposing works, or his awkwardness with Julie Kavner (as a nurse who has a crush on him), Williams never steps outside the character, or condescends to it. And again, he’s generous with his co-stars;  as I said, I think De Niro’s performance goes awry when the side effects of the drug take effect on Leonard, Williams stays patient, calm and sad.

(7) Dead Again: When he was on Arsenio Hall’s talk show in the early-to-mid 90’s, Williams was asked about the possibility of playing a villain in a movie (this was around the time he was bandied about as a possible candidate for the Riddler in the next Batman movie, before Jim Carrey got the role), and he replied he had already played a bad guy, in a way, with his character in Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again. I have to confess, when he told that to Hall, I was a bit surprised. But when I watched the movie again not long after that, it made sense. When you first meet his character, “Cozy” Carlisle, a disgraced former psychiatrist turned supermarket clerk, he’s definitely abrasive (when Mike Church (Branagh) comes to tell him Myron Spargo has died, Carlisle snaps, “Who the fuck is Myron Spargo?”), as well as bitter and resentful (he’s still angry about being investigated by the state because he slept with a couple of his patients). But you also see his sharp mind (he’s able to pick up right away Church is trying to quit smoking) and even compassion (he says wistfully he used to not charge half his patients because he loved being a doctor that much). So it’s believable when Church is pressed into helping Grace (Emma Thompson), a woman who’s (temporarily) lost her voice and her memory, and Church is skeptical when a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) reveals the only memories Grace has are of Roman and Margaret Strauss – a couple (also played by Branagh and Thompson, respectively) who had been married in the late 40’s until he was convicted of murdering her, and executed for the crime – that he’d go to Carlisle for a second opinion. Williams, of course, makes Carlisle’s intelligence and compassion believable (he takes Grace’s problem seriously, even as he’s dismissive of Church’s skepticism), and he gets to explain the storyline that made many uncomfortable (“There’s a lot more people on this planet who believe in past lives than don’t”). But in the last of his three scenes (all with Church), after he finds out the big secret of the film (which I won’t reveal), Carlisle turns totally chilling as he gives Church a piece of advice, and Williams makes it believable.

(8) The Fisher King: There are certain films Philip Seymour Hoffman has made that I’m not quite ready to watch again just yet, and I have a feeling The Fisher King, which reunited him with Gilliam, will be that way with me for Williams’ films. He plays Parry, a deranged homeless man who has been this way ever since his wife was killed when a deranged man shot up the restaurant they were in, and who ends up, improbably, bonding with Jack (Jeff Bridges), the former shock radio DJ who’s life has gone downhill ever since a show he did inspired that deranged man. In later years, when Williams got near this type of role, he indulged his unfortunate tendency to get mawkish, but Gilliam keeps that tendency and check, and Williams gets at the pain in Parry’s existence that’s underneath his front. Williams also has to carry the metaphor of the plot, as Parry is on an insane quest to get the Holy Grail (the title of the film alludes to the legend, as does Parry’s name), and he carries it with aplomb. He also makes believable Parry’s crush on Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a painfully shy accountant he watches every day in Grand Central. And again, it shows his generosity; the scene where Parry and Lydia go out on a double date with Jack and his long-suffering girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), and Lydia keeps making things awkward because of her table manners, the way Parry copies her actions without making fun of her is both funny and touching.

(9) Aladdin: Williams, of course, had long been a fan of animation (he presented Honorary Oscars to both Walter Lantz – the creator of Woody Woodpecker – and Chuck Jones), and he had done some voice-over work before (most memorably in FernGully: The Last Rainforest as a bat who’s escaped from an animal testing lab). But it was Aladdin, even more than Good Morning Vietnam, that allowed him to use his stand-up gifts on film.  Until the Genie character shows up, I found this Disney reworking of the Arabian Knights tales kind of bland (admittedly, I’m not the fan of Disney many of my friends are). But when Williams shows up as the Genie, the movie takes off. I can understand the criticism that the references Williams makes as the genie (he imitates, among others, Hall, William F. Buckley, Carol Channing, Jack Nicholson and Ed Sullivan) basically stop the movie and don’t make sense (whereas in FernGully, they do), but whereas that would bother me in a live-action film, it didn’t here. I think it’s because not only is Williams really funny thoughout (especially when he’s listing his “rules”), but because he does take the story seriously and remembers the character even when he’s off on one of his riffs.

(10) Insomnia: Williams’ output for the rest of the 90’s showed him indulging his worst impulses, with a few exceptions; his turn as the anarchist in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent was the best thing about that problematic film (though he was only in a couple of scenes), while I’m not a fan of The Birdcage, he played it subdued (except for his dance demonstration) and, to me, was the funniest part of the film, and while I only like, rather than love, Williams’ Oscar-winning turn as the psychiatry professor who helps troubled math prodigy Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting (he had done that type of part better in other films), he did draw on his own battles with alcoholism without getting too sentimental, and two great scenes – where he tells Damon’s character he knows nothing about life or love or pain, and when he and Damon talk about Carlton Fisk’s memorable home run in the 1975 World Series (unlike Damon, Williams in real life was not a baseball fan) – showcased his talent (his cameo in Branagh’s version of Hamlet, and his voice cameo Steven Spielberg’s A.I. were decent but undistinguished). In 2002, Williams decided to change direction in his career and play three roles that were unsympathetic and twisted. In Danny De Vito’s uneven but often hilarious Death to Smoochy, he went over-the-top but lent real anger to the role of a disgraced former children’s show host. And until Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo goes awry by trying to explain his character in a simplistic way, he’s genuinely creepy as a seemingly kind and efficient drugstore photo clerk who develops an unhealthy fixation on a family (played by Michael Vartan, Connie Nielsen and Dylan Smith). But it was his turn in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, a remake of a 1997 Swedish film, that best showcased his talent. As with Awakenings, he went toe to toe with another acting legend, this time Al Pacino. Williams is a novelist suspected of knowing something about a local teen girl, and who witnesses Pacino (as a shady cop called in to help with the investigation) accidentally kill his partner (Martin Donovan) and therefore blackmails him about it. Williams plays the character completely normal, resisting the urge to go over the top or be a “villain”, even in the scene where he confesses over the telephone to Pacino how he killed the girl; he admits the panic, and even says it feels good to confess before asking about what Pacino did. The darkness of Pacino’s character in the original film was muted somewhat in the remake, but it’s thanks to Williams the remake doesn’t cop out on how dark the story gets.

As I alluded to before with his appearance on Friends, Williams, who broke out on TV with Mork & Mindy, made appearances on TV from time to time as well, coming off best on an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street (done as a favor to Barry Levinson to help the struggling show in the ratings), playing a tourist who’s life goes downhill when his wife is murdered during a mugging gone wrong. Today, the episode stands as an example of how David Simon (who co-wrote the episode and wrote the book – “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” – the show was based on) not only gets the drudgery of police work right, but also shows compassion for all sides, but Williams also takes things down a notch playing the angry and grief-stricken husband. During the 1999 Oscar telecast, he gave an inspired performance of “Blame Canada”, the Oscar-nominated song from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. And while I’m not a fan of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, he’s memorably creepy as a man who gets people to defy authority, even if the episode ultimately becomes ridiculous (I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch the episode of Louie that he appeared in, as it’s about a funeral). I don’t pretend to know why Williams’ choices, at least for me, weren’t as good after Insomnia (except for the SUV appearance), and I certainly won’t speculate on the demons he dealt with (he fell off the wagon and suffered a heart attack in the past decade) that may have led to his death. I can only say that in the stand-up appearances and talk show appearances I saw him  do, he made me laugh an awful lot, and while his film and TV career had its ups and downs, the performances and films I mention above are enough of a legacy that I’m very sorry he’s gone.

John Ford Blogathon: “They Were Expendable”

This is my entry in the John Ford Blogathon, hosted by Anna (Bemused And Nonplussed) and Christianne (Krell Laboratories). Enjoy!

Though John Ford was one of the most, if not *the* most, highly regarded directors of the studio era of Hollywood, by critics (Andrew Sarris and others put him in their pantheon of great directors), the Academy (he won four Best Director Oscars) and other filmmakers (when making Citizen Kane, Orson Welles said he prepared by watching movies by old masters, by which he meant, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford”), Ford himself never talked about himself in much regard. During the notorious battle between Cecil B. De Mille and Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the Directors Guild in 1950, for example (when De Mille wanted every director to sign a loyalty oath), Ford prefaced his speech by introducing himself and adding, “I make Westerns.” He was notorious for not talking about his pictures or their meaning, with the actors he worked with (Henry Fonda has told of Ford ripping pages from the screenplay if an actor dared ask about them), and even with admiring critics or younger filmmakers (during much of the documentary Directed by John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich is unable to get an answer out of Ford). What Ford did like to talk about was his war service – not necessarily the combat he’d seen, but just the fact he served at all. And that war service helped inform one of his best films, the 1945 drama They Were Expendable.

Like many in Hollywood at the time who were able, Ford signed up eagerly to serve in WWII. Unlike most of his fellow directors, however, who served in Europe and Africa, Ford, who was in the Navy, was mostly involved in the War in the Pacific (though he was part of the crew filming D-Day). And so it seemed fortuitous the first film he decided to take on after he finished his service in WWII was about a naval hero. William L. White’s book (adapted for the screen by Frank “Spig” Wead – whose own story Ford would tell over a decade later in The Wings of Eagles, with Ford regulars John Wayne and Ward Bond as, respectively, Wead and Ford – with an uncredited assist by Jan Lustig; Sidney Franklin and Budd Schulberg also did uncredited work on the film) is an oral account by Lieutenants John Bulkeley and Robert Kelly, along with two other men, about their experiences fighting in the early days of the war in the Philippines on PT Boats. When the film was originally conceived, it was meant, as with the book and the other combat movies being turned out by Hollywood at the time, as a way of boosting morale at home. By the time Ford was put on inactive status in October of 1944, the war was thought to be winding down (though it wouldn’t end in Europe for another seven months, and the Pacific for three months after that), and Ford wanted a more sober and clear-minded view of the war than Hollywood was turning out (one of the reasons why he was reluctant to take on the job at first was he thought MGM would insist on more of a flag-waving movie), which, as it turned out, the public was ready for as well.

Lt. Brickley (Robert Montgomery) plots a course with Lt. Ryan (John Wayne) and others.

The film begins in December of 1941 in the Philippines, as Lt. Rusty Ryan (Wayne) informs his superior, Lt. John Brickley (Robert Montgomery), that he’s applying for a transfer to a destroyer, where the action is, as Brickley once again has been unable to convince the navy brass of the usefulness of PT Boats in warfare, and Ryan is frustrated with sitting on the sidelines. However, everything changes when Brickley, Ryan, and the other members of the crew hear the news of Pearl Harbor, and Brickley’s crews are eventually used in the war. At first, they’re just used to ferry people out of the Philippines after the Japanese invade, including General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Barrat), but after Brickley and Ryan, on separate boats, are able to sink Japanese ships with their torpedoes, the PT Boats are approved for combat. During this time, Ryan strikes up a relationship with Lt. Nancy Davyss (Donna Reed), a nurse who treats his finger (shrapnel grazes it while he’s steering the boat, and he starts to suffer from blood poisoning), though he’s not able to see much of her after he gets back into combat duty.* But while Brickley and Ryan are eventually able to prove to the brass how well the PT Boats can work in fighting conditions (at the end, both of them are called to go back to the States to help train the Navy use them), they end up losing some of the boats, and many of their men, in the effort.

Part of how the movie differs from other war films of the time is the look. Cinematographer Joseph H. August (who had shot The Whole Town’s TalkingMary of Scotland and the documentary The Battle of Midway for Ford) gives this a darker look than most movies at the time.** Obviously, in scenes such as when Ryan reluctantly goes to the hospital, the low lighting can be explained by the fact these were places under blackout conditions. But even in the scenes where the ships are in combat, such as in late in the movie when the boats go on a nighttime run, Ford and August shoot those scenes so you can barely see the faces of anybody, giving it a level of authenticity. In keeping with the seriousness of the subject matter, and the elegiac tone Ford is striving for throughout, there’s also less humor on display, and much of it is sarcastic, as when sailors who have been stuck on shore while their compatriots have either been on escort or fighting missions tell anyone who’s excited about where they’ve been about the conditions they’ve had to put up with back at the base. The humor is also used to cover up other feelings, as when Brickley and his men visit one of the sailors who’s dying, and they joke around with him to keep him from figuring that out (he sees right through it, of course). As sentimental as Ford could be, he handles this scene just right, without ever getting cloying.

Ford has been accused in recent years of racism in his films, especially in his westerns, but what’s striking about this film is how he avoids the jingoism of many, if not all, of the war films of the time. The Japanese are referred to as “Japs”, but only a few times, and in an offhand manner; also, early in the film, when a naval officer at a bar announces the attack at Pearl Harbor, Ford, August and editors Douglass Biggs and Frank E. Hull cut to a shocked Japanese woman. Also, Ford treats the Filipino characters with dignity for the most part; after the announcement of Pearl Harbor, a singer bursts into a rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (which Ford claimed actually happened) that’s mournful rather than patriotic, we later see how the destruction of the navy yard at Cavite has affected the Philippine natives as well as the U.S. navy, and when Lt. Davyss joins Ryan and the other officers at dinner, the waiter is respectful without being obsequious, and doesn’t speak in forked tongue either (only the owner of the bar Ryan crashes after saying a eulogy for his fallen crew can be seen as speaking in the broken English Asian speakers were often stereotyped with).

Ryan having dinner with Lt. Davyss (Donna Reed).

Another departure from many combat films is just how little combat there is. Except when Japanese planes attack the base (this is when Ryan hurts his finger), and two sequences where we actually see the boats fighting, most of the fighting is done off-screen. What we see instead is mostly the waiting (making everyone’s impatience, particularly Ryan’s, that much more believable), as well as the sequence near the end when Ryan has been separated from Brickley after his PT boat has been sunk by the Japanese, and he tries to find Brickley. This is both believable and accurate to White’s book, but it does have the effect of making one wonder why PT boats (which were smaller and faster than most boats, and were thought to be able to hit enemy ships, especially destroyers and supply ships, more effectively) were held back by the navy so long (Admiral Blackwell (Charles Trowbridge, a Ford regular) and Major James Morton (Leon Ames), to some extent, say the boats wouldn’t hold up to heavy fire, but we don’t get much of an argument from them or Brickley). The other debit of the film is the music by MGM house composer Herbert Stothart (forced on Ford by the studio) is undistinguished, though at least it isn’t used too often, and the best musical moment comes during the dinner Lt. Davyss has with Ryan and the others, and a group of sailors, led by “Boats” Mulcahey (Ford regular Ward Bond) serenade them. However, those are minor quibbles.

As with most, if not all, Ford pictures, he singled out one actor to display his wrath towards. On this film, it was Wayne, though in this case, the rancor was especially pointed; Ford never really forgave Wayne for not serving during the war, even if, for many filmgoers at the time, he was fighting the battle at home (the hardship deferment Wayne claimed – trying to support his family – didn’t impress Ford). By contrast, Ford treated Montgomery, who had commanded a PT Boat (as well as observe Bulkeley to prepare for the movie), kindly; according to Mark Harris’ Five Came Back, Montgomery felt uncomfortable coming back to acting, so Ford told him to go out on a boat by himself, take all the time he needed, and they would wait for him to be ready (it took three days). Montgomery even shot some scenes when Ford fractured his knee while on a sound stage, and he even made Ford apologize to Wayne for his treatment of him.

Whatever Ford did to his actors, they all responded with terrific performances. I must confess I’ve always found Montgomery flat as an actor, but he’s able do some complex work here while saying very little, whether masking his disappointment when Admiral Blackwell turns him down yet again, or the way he handles Ryan, or the kind reserve he greets Lt. Davyss with when he finally meets her. One of Ford’s most quoted remarks about Wayne was his line, “I didn’t know the son-of-a-bitch could act” after seeing him in Howard Hawks’ Red River, but by this film, Ford must have known something, because Wayne has a more complex character than he played under Ford before, and he responds in kind. Ryan is constantly warring with himself throughout between thinking of himself (which is why he wants a transfer) and of the unit and his commander, and Wayne does a good job with that conflict. He also isn’t afraid of showing Ryan’s more abrasive side either, as with the nasty way he treats Lt. Davyss when he first gets to the hospital, or when he refuses to go to a dance with her at first. Finally, while Wayne was often called upon to give gung-ho speeches, there’s very little of that here; his most memorable scene for me, in fact, comes when he’s speaking over the coffins of his shipmates who have died, he reads the only poem he knows, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem” (“Under the wide and starry sky/Dig the grave and let me lie”), and his voice cracks. Reed manages both toughness and vulnerability, as well as a certain playfulness when she flirts with Ryan. And there’s good work from Bond, Russell Simpson (as “Dad” Knowland, a shipbuilder), and Louis Jean Heydt (as a soldier at the hospital whom Ryan bonds with), among others.

Though the movie only received a couple of Oscar nominations in technical categories (Best Sound Recording and Best Special Effects), it did well at the box office and received good reviews (James Agee, a tough critic when it came to fiction war movies, wasn’t impressed with the story, but he praised Ford’s direction, the photography, and Montgomery’s performance, and Bosley Crowther praised the sober tone of the movie). Today, They Were Expendable stands as one of the best WWII movies ever made, and one of Ford’s best. Not bad for a director who only said of himself, “I make Westerns”.

*- Lt. Beulah Greenwalt Walcher (known as Peggy Smith in White’s book), the nurse Lt. Davyss was based on, sued MGM for implying she and Lt. Kelly had gotten involved romantically (to be fair to the movie, in White’s book, Kelly implies he has feelings for her, and the movie never shows anything explicit); Kelly also sued for Wayne’s portrayal of him, which Bulkeley has stated was accurate. Wayne and Reed were also named in the suits, and they and MGM eventually settled out of court with Kelly and Smith.

**-Ford originally wanted Gregg Toland, who had shot The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home for Ford, to co-direct and shoot the film, but Toland was under contract to Samuel Goldwyn at the time, and Goldwyn refused to release him.

Snoopathon; A Blogathon Of Spies: “5 Fingers”

This post is my entry in the “Snoopathon: A Blogathon Of Spies” hosted by Fritzi (Movies Silently). Enjoy!

This Friday, June 6, marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allies invaded Normandy. It’s easy to forget after all this time the Allies were desperate to conceal not only when the invasion would be taking place but where, and they tried to mislead the Nazis to that as well. Naturally, the Nazis were equally as desperate to find out this information. History, of course, has provided the outcome, but there has been a number of books and movies, both reality-based and speculative, on both the Nazis trying to find out and the Allies’ attempt to mislead them. One of the better examples of this was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film 5 Fingers, adapted by Michael Wilson from the book Operation Cicero by L.C. Moyzisch, a real-life attache to the German embassy in Turkey during WWII.

“Cicero” is the code name given to Ulysses Diello (James Mason), the valet to British ambassador Sir Frederic Taylor (Walter Hampden, who appeared briefly in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve). Early on in the film, Diello approaches Moyzisch (Oscar Karlweis) outside the German embassy, and promises to pass on film of top-secrets documents for money (£10,000 sterling for the initial roll, and £15,000 for each roll afterwards), with the condition that the Nazis never try and find out his identity (though he does admit to working at the British embassy). Naturally, of course, the Nazis, while willing to pay him as long as the information is good, do try to find out who he really is, especially since they’re afraid he might be a British plant. Complicating matters are British intelligence, in the form of Colin Travers (Michael Rennie), a counter-intelligence agent sent to Ankara to find out the source of the leak, and Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darrieux), widow to the former Polish ambassador to Britain, whom Diello had once served under, and whom Diello gets to help him (somewhat).

Diello (James Mason) visits Moyzisch (Oscar Karlweis).

This was a transitional film for Mankiewicz. It was the last film he made at 20th Century Fox, where he had been since the mid-40’s, since he and studio chief Daryl Zanuck were starting to clash with each other (as talented people with big egos are prone to do). Also, Mankiewicz, who had always been known for his dialogue than anything else (it’s no accident the film preceding this one was called People Will Talk, and Kenneth L. Geist’s biography of Mankiewicz is entitled Pictures Will Talk), was planning on writing and directing plays full-time for Broadway (though that didn’t pan out, it’s perhaps no accident Mankiewicz’s first film after leaving the studio was his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). Though according to Geist’s book, Mankiewicz had vowed only to direct movies he had written himself, when he came upon Wilson’s screenplay, Mankiewicz thought would be the perfect film to end his contract on, as he liked the story, and thought only the dialogue and a couple of story points needed polishing. Indeed, despite the fact this was a for-hire assignment, 5 Fingers ranks as one of Mankiewicz’s best films.

Mankiewicz and Wilson pay close attention to the mechanics of spying, not just in what Diello does to get the information, but in how that information is used. We see Diello taking a light bulb to use in a lamp in Sir Frederic’s study to get the best light to photograph the documents from Sir Frederic’s safe, and we see Diello cleaning up after himself to avoid suspicion. Indeed, everything is done so well the only time anything goes wrong is when he’s rushed and forced to work in haste. Having deduced the spy works in the embassy, Travers, with Sir Frederic’s permission, installs an alarm on the safe. Diello manages to get around that by disabling the circuit breaker that controls the electricity in the room. However, when he summarily dismisses the maid who’s come to clean the room, she decides to vacuum the hallway instead, and when she turns the circuit breaker back on before Diello is able to close the safe, he’s forced to flee. Diello has his own reasons for leaving the money he makes from the Germans with the Countess (a character, it should be noted, Wilson invented for the film), but this allows her to get a house, which makes an easier place to meet Col. Von Richter (Herbert Berghof), the Nazi who takes over for Moyzisch in meeting Diello, and who tells Diello about Operation Overlord (what the Allies called the D-Day invasion). The house also works as cover because, at the beginning of the film, we hear of the Countess’ money troubles (she offers her services to Count Von Papen (John Wengraf) as a German spy so she can get back the money and property the Germans took from her when they invaded France, though he rebuffs her). As far as how the intelligence is used, it’s usually a pattern in intelligence agencies when a defector or double agent with contested information comes forward, it causes an argument within the agency as to whether or not the information should be believed, and it’s no different here. Count Van Papen believes Cicero’s information to be true, and is disgusted by his superiors deliberately withholding intelligence that could have save people’s lives just to see if it’s true or not, while Von Richter and his superiors, despite the fact everything Diello has passed over turns out to be true, still believe him to be a British agent.

Diello at work.

Of course, being a Mankiewicz film, this is also a comedy of manners. Diello is of course enigmatic throughout, as befits not only a valet but a spy, and one of the ways this is accomplished is showing how witty he can be, especially when trying to put off Moyzisch and Col. Von Richter; when Von Richter wonders why Diello insists on being paid in British pounds if he’s helping the Nazis win the war, Diello counters, “By informing the man about to be hanged of the exact size, location and strength of the rope, you do not remove either the hangman or the certainty of his being hanged” (Wilson would claim later most of the dialogue, as well as the story, was his, but in Pictures Will Talk, Geist shows this to be false). The Countess also can spar with the best of them; when Count Von Papen asks her at the beginning why she’s not still in Poland, she replies, “Bombs were falling. I felt I was in the way”. Even Col. Von Richter, though more clumsy at it than the others, gets into the act; at a party given by the Countess (where he and Diello have arranged to meet), he poses as a Swiss businessman, and when the Countess (who knows exactly who he is) makes a remark about his claim to being a middle man, the Colonel replies, “We Swiss have been in the middle for hundreds of years”. And though Diello and the Countess speak more plainly to each other than they do to others, especially when Diello declares not only his attraction to her, but the fact he knows she’s attracted to him, there’s an element of wit to go along with the charged exchanges between them.

Mankiewicz was a devotee of Lubitsch (though they quarreled when Lubitsch served as executive producer of Mankiewicz’s feature directorial debut, Dragonwyck), and he also seems influenced by Oscar Wilde, though with more speeches than either of them had. Mankiewicz was often accused of overwriting (in his book Talking Pictures, Richard Corliss claims every word a character in Mankiewicz’s films says sounds as if two writers worked on it all night), but at his best, Mankiewicz makes the dialogue fit the milieu. And contrary to what you might think, the more plain-speaking characters, such as Travers, talk differently than the others. In Geist’s book, he quotes a conversation between Mankiewicz and Humphrey Bogart on the set of the film they did together, The Barefoot Contessa, where Mankiewicz argued that film dialogue should be heightened instead of “realistic” so that it sounded intelligent, but that he also knew how to distinguish between, say, Margo Channing’s long speeches in All About Eve and Birdie, her servant, making pithy remarks in the same film. Ironically enough, Mankiewicz seemed to have lost that ability by the time of The Barefoot Contessa, but he’s in fine form on this film. Of course, dialogue isn’t everything, and the story is gripping throughout; Mankiewicz and Wilson even manage to make the obligatory Code-enforced “crime never pays” ending feel true and right instead of tacked on.

Diello with the Countess Staviska (Danielle Darrieux).

Like many writers who turned director (or, in this case, writer/producers), Mankiewicz’s directing abilities were overshadowed by his scripts, and to be fair, Mankiewicz, in interviews, would complain about those who were obvious in their use of the camera, and said he tried to be simple when he used it. Yet simplicity shouldn’t be mistaken for being simple-minded. Mankiewicz, being a director-for-hire here, was not the first choice for this film. Henry Hathaway, who had become Fox’s go-to director for documentary-type thrillers that had become their specialty in the late 40’s (such films as The House on 92nd Street13 Rue Madeline and Kiss of Death), was the first choice, but for whatever reason, he was unavailable. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Norbert Brodine, in his next-to-last feature (he shot some of those Hathaway films, and had worked with Mankiewicz on Somewhere in the Night), use many of the real-life locations where the story took place, at least on the outside (the interiors were mostly sets). And while Mankiewicz claimed Zanuck butchered the climax, where Diello, after handing over the plans of Operation Overlord to Moyzisch, eludes both the British and the Germans in a chase scene, what survives is still suspenseful enough. Also, Brodine and Mankiewicz use light well; the reception scenes are all well lit, but the scenes where Diello is meeting with someone, or when he’s photographing Sir Frederic’s files, all look “realistic”, as they would have in a Hathaway film. Finally, Bernard Herrmann wrote the score, and while it might not be as recognizable, or as good, as his scores for Hitchcock or Harryhausen, it contributes to the suspense, particularly in that chase scene.

Mankiewicz also got good performances from his cast. Mason looked nothing like the real-life valet Diello was based on (Geist’s book quotes Mankiewicz as saying he looked like the personification of evil), but he carries himself both as a valet and someone who is smarter than he looks. He also handles Mankiewicz’s bantering dialogue well, especially in Diello’s scenes with Moyzisch (he chides Moyzisch for using the day Hitler took power as the combination to an embassy safe, guessing half of Germany does the same). While Darrieux is mostly (and rightly) remembered for her French films (particularly The Earrings of Madame De, which is arguably the best film she ever did), she had been acting in Hollywood since the mid-30’s, so she was used to it by then, but she proves adept to the challenge of delivering Mankiewicz’s bantering dialogue. However, she’s equally adept when she’s not talking, as with the ambiguous glance she gives after Diello embraces her at one point, which sets up an action later in the film. The other actors don’t get as much to work with (though Berghof, a real-life acting teacher along with his wife, Uta Hagen, has a couple of good moments), but they all fit their roles well. Of course, Operation Overlord went off on June 6, and the Nazis weren’t able to guess where and when it was going to take place. Of all the “what could have been” stories on that subject, 5 Fingers remains one of the better ones.

R.I.P. Gordon Willis

I don’t know if this is still true, but when I was in high school (early-to-mid 1980’s), there was one day out of every year where, for reasons that were never quite clear to me, instead of classes, everyone gathered in an assembly room of some kind and watched a movie (it lasted for two periods). My sophomore year (can’t remember if it was the fall, which would have been ’83, or the spring, which would have been ’84), the movie in question was The Paper Chase. For those of you who have never seen it, it follows a law school student (Timothy Bottoms) as he attempts to make it through his first year at Harvard, specifically his contract law class and his professor (John Houseman, in an Oscar-winning performance). Since they were showing the film during my English class (among other classes), it was that teacher who told us about the film. Given that, it would be reasonable to assume she would tell us about the themes of the film, or the characters, or any other aspect one uses to analyze a piece of literature or drama. Instead, she told us to pay attention to the cinematography. Sure enough, whatever else you think of the film – I think it’s an okay film, not great – it is worth paying attention to how the film is shot, particularly, as my teacher pointed out, the classroom scenes. After the opening credits sequence, we see a closeup of Professor Kingsfield (Houseman) as he’s lecturing the students, and when director James Bridges cuts away to the other students as they try to answer his questions, they’re all shot in medium or long shots. As the film goes on, in subsequent classroom scenes, we see Kingsfield framed in medium or long shots, and the students, particularly James Hart (Bottoms) shot in close-up. This was a way of showing how Hart came to dominate the movie while Kingsfield became more of a supporting figure, but it also showed how Hart came to think he understood Kingsfield and could stay on his wavelength (which he was wrong about). In other words, it’s about taking a complex theme (a young person’s relationship with authority figures), and doing something simple to illustrate it, without being simplistic. This was the working philosophy of the cinematographer of that movie, Gordon Willis, who died yesterday at age 82, and one of the reasons why he was probably my favorite cinematographer of all time.

Willis grew up with the movies; his father (like his mother, he started out as a dancer) was a make-up man for Warner Brothers’ New York studios (Willis was born and raised in Astoria). Willis was a gofer on the sets of many of the movies his father worked on, and entertained the idea of being an actor before becoming more interested in lighting, stage design, and of course photography. During the Korean War, he enlisted in the Air Force and joined the motion picture unit of the Photographic and Charting Service. After the war, on the advice of a friend, he joined the east coast cinematographer union, and worked as an assistant cameraman for over a decade, gradually working his way up to first cameraman. In that time, Willis shot commercials, fashion shoots, and documentaries, and gradually honed what he came to view as both his style and his working method (in various interviews, he’s called himself a minimalist). In 1969, Aram Avakian, an editor-turned-director (he had edited Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker, among other films), hired Willis as the DP of his directorial debut, End of the Road, and the rest is history. When the so-called second Golden Age of Cinema is discussed – which took place roughly between 1969 and 1975 – it’s mostly in terms of the actors and especially directors who pushed Hollywood films towards a more realistic take on the world. Cinematographers tend to get overlooked here, but they’re just as important to the equation. Not only were they, like the directors, reacting to the trends of foreign-language films of the 50’s and 60’s and reacting against the garish and overly bright lighting of the Hollywood films of that time period, but they were also coming up at a time when technological advances were allowing them to actually achieve the look of those (mostly) European films. Laszlo Kovacs, Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond are just as important figures to the history of 70’s films and beyond as Coppola, Scorsese, De Niro et al. And, of course, Willis staked out his claim as one of the greats during this period as well. Take, for example, his second film, Irvin Kershner’s Loving (1970), one of the most underrated films of the 70’s. As I mentioned in my post about it, in this tale of Brooks (George Segal), an unhappy commercial artist, Willis and director Irvin Kershner (with whom he’d reunite in the Barbara Streisand dramedy Up the Sandbox two years later) use a lot of long takes to let the emotion of each scene play out. I don’t mean, by the way, to disparage the showier editing and camerawork that many tales of the time, and today, use (it can be very effective when used right, as Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, among other films, demonstrates), merely to show how a less-is-more approach can work just as well.

After two more underseen cult films – Hal Ashby’s directorial debut The Landlord, with Beau Bridges giving one of his best performances as the title character, and Alan Arkin’s adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s play Little Murders (I’ve not seen The People Next Door, which Willis also shot during this period) – Willis began one of his two most crucial film relationships, with director Alan J. Pakula. Klute (1971), as seen today, works better as character study than as a mystery; indeed, the title is a misnomer, as the film is more about Bree (Jane Fonda), a call girl who is indirectly tied to the film’s mystery, than the title character (Donald Sutherland), the small-town detective trying to solve it. Along with Fonda’s terrific performance (she deservedly won the first of her two Oscars for it), the best part of the movie, again, is Willis’ photography. Take, for example, the sequence where Klute first goes to Bree’s apartment, and she yells at him not only about the case he’s pursuing (trying to find a missing friend) but also for spying on her and one of her clients (an elderly man for whom she does nothing more than pretend she’s just back from a glamorous vacation). As befitting Willis’ nickname “The Prince of Darkness” (more on that later), the apartment isn’t well-lit (which makes sense, as someone who is watching money wouldn’t want to be wasting electricity), but more important, again, is how Willis and Pakula use long takes to let the emotions play out. And even though this is the scene where Bree undresses to try and get a rise out of Klute, and mocks him when he doesn’t take the bait (“Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie. You could get a perfectly good dishwasher for that”), Willis resists the urge for voyeurism, instead focusing on the faces of the actors, to get their reactions. I’ve also already written about Willis’ work with Pakula on The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976), but again, it should be remembered Willis shot two of the most gripping thrillers of the 70’s without doing anything showy with the camera. A year after All the President’s Men, Willis began his other major film partnership in his career, with Woody Allen (other than Allen and Pakula, Willis’ most frequent collaborator was Bridges’, but with the exception of The Paper Chase, their work together wasn’t as distinguished). As Allen has recounted in several interviews, Willis came along for him at just the right time; not only was Allen getting more confident as a director (whereas he felt he would have been more intimidated by Willis if they had worked together from the beginning), but he was also ready to push himself to do material that wasn’t as oriented towards the gag, as his “earlier, funnier movies” such as Bananas and Sleeper were (also, fittingly, Allen hates the sunlight in both real life and on film). Annie Hall (1977) gets classified as a romantic comedy (and as one of the few comedies to ever win a Best Picture Oscar), and it certainly is one, but it’s also darker, both in its look and feel, than many of them are, and one of the reasons why it still holds up today. Visually, this is more gimmick-oriented than many films Willis shot – there’s an animated sequence where Alvy (Allen) imagines Annie (Diane Keaton) as the Wicked Witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and there’s a split-screen sequence where Alvy and Annie are each talking to their respective psychiatrists – but it fits perfectly within the stream-of-consciousness of the story. It was also where Willis introduced what would be one of his signature shots in an Allen movie, that of two characters starting in the background and then walking up to the foreground (it’s early in the movie, when Alvy is arguing with his friend Rob (Tony Roberts) over whether a remark Alvy heard was anti-Semitic or not), and Allen claimed he would often include that type of shot in subsequent films he directed as a tribute to Willis.

Whatever you think of Allen’s filmography during this period (which went from Annie Hall to The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), their eighth and final film together) – and I’m mixed on his output – there’s no denying the visual brilliance of the work. Even Stardust Memories and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, two of my least favorite of his films (I find the former whiny and the latter simply isn’t funny), are feasts to the eye; in the former, the transitions between fantasy and “reality” are seamlessly done without calling attention to themselves (credit, of course, should also go to Allen’s frequent editor Susan E. Morse), while the latter, one of Willis’ rare countryside ventures, looks good without being overly pictorial. And on better films he did with Allen, Willis’ visual sense is even more pronounced. Zelig may be a one-joke movie on paper, but Willis and Allen’s ability to re-create old footage for their mockumentary about the title character (Allen) is realistic-looking without being self-congratulatory about it. Black-and-white might seem like an odd choice for Allen’s Runyon-esque Broadway Danny Rose, where Allen plays a third-rate talent agent, but it lends the film a melancholy that feels earned. And The Purple Rose of Cairo delineates perfectly the contrast between the dreary life of its heroine, put-upon Depression-era housewife Cecilia (Mia Farrow), and the movies she goes to see. Still, it’s Manhattan (1979), their third movie together, that remains their finest achievement together. As with Stardust Memories  and Broadway Danny Rose, it’s shot in black-and-white, and the nighttime images, particularly when Isaac (Allen) and Mary (Keaton) are walking around the city after spending an evening with her friends, are absolutely stunning. Yet again, they don’t overwhelm the story, which was always Willis’ first concern. Though Pakula and Allen were the directors Willis worked with most often (in interviewers, he said it’s because they were both easy to get along with, and both of them listened to what he had to say), it’s his work with Francis Ford Coppola that remains his finest accomplishment. The first two Godfather movies are two of my favorite movies of all time (Part II is my favorite), and as much as the writing, direction, performances, and editing (particularly of the baptism sequence in the first film), it’s Willis’ work that makes them both landmark achievements. Again, it has to do with his ability to do something very simple and make it powerful. Take, for example, the opening 15 minutes or so of the first film, which not only set up plot and character, but also how the Corleones present a public face with their wedding celebration while doing shady business inside with the meetings Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) takes. It seems like the most obvious thing in the world to illustrate this would be to have the wedding scenes brightly lit, while the interior scenes would use lower levels of lighting. Yet amazingly, Willis clashed with the studio on this, not only on the inside scenes (people wanted to know why you couldn’t see Brando’s eyes; Willis retorted it wasn’t always necessary) but on the outdoor ones (he overexposed them). The result, of course, makes you aware of the two-sided nature of the Corleone family, again without calling attention to it. In the second film, the contrasts between light and dark aren’t so pronounced, because Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is as cold in his business dealings as he is with his family, and again, that seems perfectly simple yet helps give the movie its power. The contrasts, rather, come between Michael’s scenes and those of the young Vito (Robert De Niro), and Willis’ use of yellow and sepia tones in these scenes helped set a standard for period pieces that followed.

Here’s the truly staggering thing about Willis’ work; he shot three Best Picture winners in the 70’s (the first two Godfather movies and Annie Hall) and another nominee (All the President’s Men), yet his work in those films and others wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. He would only receive two nominations in his career, for Zelig and the third Godfather movie, neither of which he’d win for; only in 2009 did he finally receive an Honorary Oscar. There has been much speculation as to why he was ignored. Was it because he was defiantly an east coast photographer rather than going Hollywood? (Willis intimated this at times) Was it because he was so critical of the way many other movies were shot (he was particularly harsh on what he called “dump-truck” directing, which was taking a close-up of various angles of a scene and letting the editor sort everything out)? Or was it his reputation as the “Prince of Darkness”? As I mentioned above with the first Godfather movie, Willis clashed with those who felt, as he put it, went with the attitude of, “you’ve got to be able to see it all at the drive-in” (which were still popular at the time) and felt anything where you couldn’t see the actor’s eyes was wrong (as William Goldman recounts in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, one of the jokes about The Drowning Pool, which Willis shot, was it was the only film Paul Newman did where you couldn’t tell if his eyes were blue or not). Whatever the reason, the fact Willis’ work was so often passed over is one of the major black marks on the Academy’s record. Like just about every great artist, Willis did have his limitations. While he was a master when it came to urban and suburban settings, he seemed lost when it came to the countryside, except for the village scenes in The Godfather Part II. To be sure, Willis’ cinematography wasn’t the primary reason I wasn’t a fan of two Westerns he shot, Robert Benton’s Bad Company and Pakula’s Comes a Horseman, but the lack of visual distinction in both films didn’t help. While I consider Richard Benjamin’s The Money Pit (a loose remake of Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House) a guilty pleasure, it’s true the slapstick sequences might have played better with a cinematographer more attuned to that sensibility.* The one film he directed, the 1980 psychological thriller Windows (which I’ve never seen) was roundly panned.  And again, there are plenty of directors whom I’m a fan of whose work is antithetical to Willis’ style, such as PTA, Malick and Scorsese. Still, there’s a reason why, in their Oscar acceptance speeches, Coppola (when he won Best Director for The Godfather Part II), Goldman (Best Adapted Screenplay for All the President’s Men), and Houseman (Best Supporting Actor for The Paper Chase) all singled out Willis for praise, and why cinematographers today continue to cite him as an influence (in both movies and TV). More than anyone else in his profession, he made the simple powerful.

*-I saw a bad print of Pennies From Heaven, Herbert Ross’ movie version of Dennis Potter’s miniseries, so I’m reserving judgment on that one. As for Willis’ later work, the best showcase of this is his fifth film with Pakula, an adaptation of the Scott Turow novel Presumed Innocent, where Willis is able to avoid the slickness that hampers most legal dramas.

Romantic Comedy Blogathon: “Sabrina”

This post is my entry in The Romantic Comedy Blogathon, hosted by Lara (Backlots) and Vince (Carole & Co.). Enjoy!

Along with the many great movies he wrote and directed, Billy Wilder was known during his 40+ year career in Hollywood as one of the town’s leading cynics. This, after all, is the man who, when informed by his beloved wife Audrey that it was their anniversary, allegedly replied, “Please, not while I’m eating.” Certainly, that cynical outlook was reflected in many of his movies, particularly Double IndemnityAce in the Hole (perhaps his bleakest movie, and one of his best) and Stalag 17. But I think critics tend to overlook the fact Wilder had a romantic side as well, even a sentimental streak. This was especially apparent in the two movies he did with Audrey Hepburn, and most of all in their first collaboration, 1954’s Sabrina, one of my favorites of his.

Sabrina came out during a transitional period for Wilder. He was the rare writer/director who always collaborated with someone else on the script (he said he wanted the company, as well as someone who spoke English better than he did), and he’d recently ended a long-running partnership with Charles Brackett after more than a decade (their last film together, Sunset Boulevard, came out in 1950). With his work with I.A.L. Diamond still in the future (their first film together, Love in the Afternoon, came out in 1957), Wilder was still looking for a permanent writing partner. His co-writers here were Samuel Taylor (who wrote the play Sabrina Fair that the film was based on) and Ernest Lehman (this was his only second credited screenplay; Executive Suite, directed by Robert Wise, had come out earlier that year). This was also Wilder’s final film for Paramount, where he had been under contract for about 15 years. And for reasons I’ll get to below, this was also a troubled production, but none of that shows up on screen.

Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) watching the party from a tree.

Sabrina (Hepburn) is the title character, daughter of Thomas Fairchild (John Williams – the actor, not the composer), chauffeur to the Larrabees, a wealthy family living in Long Island. While Linus (Humphrey Bogart), the eldest son, pursues business with a zeal (in Sabrina’s opening narration, she says Linus’ classmates at Yale voted him most likely to leave the school $20 million), David (William Holden), his younger brother, is more interested in chasing women (he’s been married and divorced three times). Sabrina has had a crush on David since they were younger (he kissed her by accident when he was teaching her how to roller skate, and she’s never forgotten it), but he never noticed her. On the night before she’s supposed to leave for Paris to go to cooking school (her mother had gone there), the Larrabees are having a party (Sabrina watches from a tree in the backyard), and crushed by David ignoring her yet again (and by the fact David is more interested in another woman (Joan Vohs), whom he takes to the family’s indoor tennis court for champagne, dancing and other things), Sabrina impulsively decides to kill herself. She goes to the garage where all the cars are kept, and turns them all on while the garage door is still closed. Fortunately for her, Linus, who heard the noise, opens the door, turns the cars off, and brings Sabrina outside. While he doesn’t buy Sabrina’s explanation (she claimed a spark plug in one of the cars wasn’t working, but she didn’t know which one, and kept the doors closed so she wouldn’t disturb anyone), Linus agrees to keep the matter quiet.

Sabrina does go to Paris and cooking school, but is still glum – her instructor (Marcel Hillaire) doesn’t like her, and she’s still hung up on David (she writes the other Larrabee servants that she’s torn up David’s picture, and then asks for scotch tape so she can tape it back together). Eventually, she does learn to enjoy herself, thanks to Baron St. Fontanel (Marcel Dalio), an elderly former chef who shows her the culture of Paris (as well as getting her to cut off her ponytail, which he says makes her look like a horse). Meanwhile, David is now engaged to Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer),daughter of a sugar magnate Linus wants to merge Larrabee plastics with (when David hears about this, he sardonically asks Linus, “Did you kiss (Mr. Tyson)?”). Sabrina does return to New York, looking and feeling more sophisticated, so much so that when David drives by the Glen Cove train station (she’s waiting for her father to pick her up), he impulsively stops to give a pretty lady a ride. Naturally, Sabrina is delighted to see him; David doesn’t recognize her, of course (once Sabrina realizes this, she refuses to tell him because “I’m having much too much fun”), so he’s flabbergasted when he realizes where she lives and does recognize her (and the other servants and her apologetic father greet her).

David (Holden) driving Sabrina home despite not recognizing her.

What David does know is he’s attracted to her, and he invites Sabrina to a party his family is having that night, even though Elizabeth will be there. Sabrina is overjoyed and accepts, but her father doesn’t like it (even though, as she tells him, she’s no longer reaching for the moon, “the moon’s reaching for me”). Oliver (Walter Hampden), David and Linus’ father, especially doesn’t like it, and he has Linus pull David away (just as David was arranging to meet Sabrina at that same tennis court) so he can lecture David about his past romantic failings, and how he’s screwing up a relationship the elder Larrabee *does* approve of. Linus, as it happens, also doesn’t approve, but he comes up with a crafty solution; while pretending to be on David’s side (and telling their father, “This is the 20th century”), he notices David has a pair of champagne glasses in his back pockets, and invites David to sit down. Sure enough, when David sits down, the glasses break, and David is laid up. While he recuperates, Linus takes care of Sabrina, taking her out on dates (including meeting her at the tennis court that night) in order to distract her and ultimately get her to go back to Paris, all while continuing to act as if he wants David and Sabrina to get back together (though he doesn’t admit that to either of them at first). What no one counts on is Sabrina and Linus (who once told David he was married to the job) end up falling in love with each other.

As I mentioned above, Sabrina was not a happy shoot. Hepburn and Holden were having an affair, and since Wilder got along with both of them (he had worked with Holden before in Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, and once called him the ideal motion-picture actor), Bogart thought the three of them were excluding him. He didn’t get along with Wilder (according to Wilder, Bogart wondered if Wilder’s three-year-old had written the script; Bogart also didn’t like Wilder’s habit of retooling the script just before shooting the next day, and exploded at Lehman about that), Hepburn (whom he disparaged by calling her, “a good actress as long as you don’t mind 20 takes”), or Holden (even though they had worked together 15 years earlier on Invisible Stripes; accounts differ as to why). However, in my opinion, none of that showed up on screen.

Sabrina out on a date with Linus (Bogart).

Wilder often received more attention, good and bad, for his writing than his direction (I myself have been guilty of this), but Sabrina does show a visual flair he didn’t always get credit for. In Conversations with Wilder, a book-length interview he did with Cameron Crowe, Wilder admitted he had a bigger budget to work with on Sabrina than he normally did, and he used that to his advantage. Wilder and Charles Lang, his cinematographer (who shot three other films for him, including Ace in the Hole and Some Like it Hot), made the Larrabee estate look magical and inviting, particularly in the opening sequence Sabrina narrates, to give the movie the feel of a fairy tale (Sabrina’s first words are even, “Once upon a time…”). And while Wilder would later treat the business world more cynically in The Apartment, Linus’ workplace looks like a studio apartment or expensive hotel suite as much as an executive’s office. Unusual for a romantic comedy, the film is also often darkly lit; think of, for example, Linus driving Sabrina home in the dark after a date, or the scene in Linus’ office after Sabrina had called him from the library telling him she couldn’t see him anymore.* In contrast to many of the romantic comedies of the time (and even earlier), this helps to illustrate the turbulence of the feelings of both Linus and Sabrina, as they realize there’s something more between them than they could have guessed. The use of music here is important too; Wilder’s films almost always make interesting use of music, and here, composer Friedrich Hollaender (who adapted other songs for the score) makes great use of “Isn’t it Romantic” (the song David has the orchestra at the party play for his tryst with Gretchen; naturally, Sabrina asks for the same song when she and David arrange to meet at the same tennis court), “La Vie en Rose” (Sabrina sings it to Linus on the way home from a date, and it’s used throughout the film), and even the old novelty song “Yes, We Have No Bananas” (when Linus takes Sabrina out on a boat, it’s in a collection of 78’s Linus had from his college days; charmingly, Sabrina thinks it’s a new song she missed when she was in Paris).

Of course, Wilder the writer shouldn’t be overlooked either. As every fan of Wilder knows, he was an acolyte of the great director Ernst Lubitsch (according to Crowe, the only sign in Wilder’s office read, “How would Lubitsch do it?”), and would often cite a saying of Lubitsch’s to illustrate what made him great (or what gave a movie “the Lubitsch touch”). Instead of telling the audience, “Two and two make four,” Lubitsch would say, “Here is two and here is two”, and let the audience add it up themselves. That applies to the way some of the gags are set up (particularly the one involving the champagne glasses, and the callback to it at the end, as well as Sabrina’s instructions to Linus when she thinks he’s going to Paris), but also to the more serious parts of the story. Unusually for a romantic comedy, Sabrina and Linus never say, “I love you” to each other, and the only time they kiss each other is at the tennis court, when he gives her a kiss from David (and when she looks at him, shocked, he uses the same line he used to justify his presence and to get her to dance with him; “It’s all in the family”). Not only that, but they never admit this out loud to anyone else; even when Sabrina is telling Linus she can’t see him anymore, she never says it’s because she’s fallen in love with him (the closest she gets is with her father, when she admits she’s cured of her crush on David, but adds, “Now I just have to get over the cure”), and neither does Linus when David (who has figured out the truth) goads Linus into punching him near the end by implying to a roomful of people (including their father and Elizabeth) Sabrina is a cheap gold-digger (David is the one who declares, “You *are* in love with her!”). And Wilder modulates the romanticism of the film with his cynical dialogue, particularly from Oliver (misunderstanding Linus when he pretends to side with David, Oliver throws Linus’ line about “this is the 20th century” back at him and declares, “I could pick a century out of a hat, blindfolded, and get a better one!”). Crucially, that balance was missing from Sydney Pollack’s 1995 remake, and while that wasn’t the only problem with the film – Pollack also removed serious elements like Sabrina’s suicide attempt and made the Paris segment too long; in addition, Julia Ormond (who’s gone on to be a fine actress) was asked to be Hepburn, which was patently unfair to her, and Harrison Ford was surprisingly colorless as Linus – it fatally damaged it.

Sabrina outside the Larrabee building, debating whether to go in.

Finally, there are the performances. Of course, Wilder wanted Cary Grant for the role of Linus, a role he would have been great for, but while Grant was friends with Wilder, he turned the role down (a recurring frustration for Wilder; Grant also turned down Love in the Afternoon, and had turned down the lead in Ninotchka, which Lubitsch directed and Wilder co-wrote), and Bogart was a last-minute replacement (which might have also contributed to Bogart’s rancor towards Wilder, though the two made up in the last days of Bogart’s life). Bogart was thought by many to be too old for the part (though, in fact, he was only five years older than Grant), but this gives him an awkwardness that makes him charming. Not only that, but he’s able to internalize his emotions well; take, for example, the scene on the boat when, after playing “Yes, We Have No Bananas”, Sabrina puts on another record and Linus asks her to take it off because it brings up painful memories. With just the look on his face, Bogart is able to sell that pain. And as much as he may have derided Wilder’s writing, Bogart delivers it well, from Linus’ business jargon to the bantering. Holden was also believed to be too old for his part, but whether it was because of his real-life feelings for Hepburn or not, he’s infectious during his scenes with Hepburn, and he slips into the role of the ladies’ man very easily (the black-and-white photography admittedly helps; part of the reason why he came across as too old in Picnic – at least for me – is the color photography didn’t protect him that way). And I know there are people who are immune to Hepburn’s charms, but I’ve never been one of them. She sells the idea of being a wallflower (or at least invisible to David), but she’s also absolutely radiant throughout, and it’s easy to see why Holden, Bogart, and the camera fall in love with her. Hepburn is also more complex than you’d think; instead of delivering the line of how she has to get over the cure with self-pity, she speaks with a wistfulness. Wilder went to that well of wistful romance combined with cynicism more than he was given credit for (very well in Love in the AfternoonThe ApartmentThe Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti, not so well in Irma La Douce), but never with the same magic as Sabrina.

*-A personal note; the Larrabee building is at 30 Broad Street in New York City, which was later the site of what was then known as the New York Futures Exchange. When my late father became president of that company, he hadn’t seen the movie yet, and though nothing of it when he was asked by those renovating the building could take out the old-style phone booths in the lobby, one of which Sabrina uses to call Linus up to claim she can’t see him anymore. My father always counted that as one of his biggest regrets in life, and claimed if he had seen the movie, he would have kept the phone booth for himself.

“The Godfather Part II” and “Chinatown”: The Great Villain Blogathon

This is my entry in the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Ruth (Silver Screenings), Karen (Shadows & Satin) and Kristina (Speakeasy). Enjoy!

Film buffs who praise the 70’s as one of the golden ages of cinema talk about, among other things, the talent that all came together at the time (both in front of the camera and behind it), the willingness to explore darker and more adult themes, and the way the characters were drawn in three-dimensional terms, with no simplistic “heroes” or “villains” of the type you find in many of the mainstream films today. This is not to say, of course, there were no villainous characters in these movies (obviously, in the more mainstream films of the 70’s, there were). In fact, my two favorite films of 1974, The Godfather Part II and Chinatown, offer the most vivid portraits of villainy (and evil) I’ve ever seen in movies.

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) giving his answer.

Of course, what makes The Godfather Part II (directed and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, adapted from The Godfather novel by Mario Puzo, who co-wrote the screenplay as well) a tragedy as well as a portrait of evil is the fact Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) didn’t start out as a villain. As we saw in the first movie, Michael was going to be the one in the family to go legit, as per two memorable lines in the film; after telling an unsavory anecdote about his family’s “business”, he tries to assure his then-girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton), “That’s my family, Kay; that’s not me,” and late in the movie, when his father Vito (Marlon Brando) tells Michael, “I never wanted this for you.” As all fans of the first movie know, Michael got sucked into the family business when Vito was shot, Michael shot and killed two of the men responsible, was forced to flee to Italy, and got married, only for his wife to be killed by a car bomb meant for him. When he came back to New York, Michael was a changed man; cold, ruthless, and even more calculating than he had been before. He said the right things to get Kay back (“In five years, the Corleone family will be completely legitimate”), but on the day his sister Connie (Talia Shire) had her baby son baptized (Michael served as godfather to the baby), Michael had the heads of all five families killed, including the ones responsible for ordering the (unsuccessful) hit on his father and the (successful) hit on his older brother Sonny (James Caan). Michael also had killed the traitors with and in his family, including Tessio (Abe Vigoda), one of Vito’s (formerly) most trusted lieutenants, and Carol (Gianni Russo), Connie’s husband. Naturally, when Connie confronted him about this, Michael denied to her and then Kay (now his wife) that he had anything to do with Carlo’s death, but the movie ended with Michael being treated like the don he now was, and with the door to his study (formerly Vito’s) being shut in Kay’s face.

Except for flashbacks showing the younger Vito (Robert De Niro) as he made his way from Italy to New York City in the early 1900’s and worked his way up to being a feared and respected gangster, Part II concerns itself mainly with Michael’s continued descent. Michael, Kay, and the rest of his family are now in Nevada. Michael is running the casinos in Las Vegas and still running the other family business. In one of many ways were Coppola echoes the first movie, Anthony’s first communion reception is presented in sharp contrast to Connie’s wedding reception, which opened Part I. Whereas the wedding reception had the feel of a family gathering, even in the favors Vito was granting to others, the communion reception is a considerably more impersonal affair (best summed up when Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) – one of Michael’s lieutenants and an old friend of Vito’s – tries to get the band to play a tarantella, but the band segues into “Pop Goes the Weasel” instead). Senator Geary (G.D. Spradlin) of Nevada comes to the reception to accept a check from Michael (an endowment for the university), but as he says in a private meeting with Michael later, his real purpose in coming is to overcharge Michael for a gaming license he needs (to buy another hotel), because he intends to squeeze Michael out, as he despises Michael and his family. Michael’s reply is instructive and chilling; “Senator, we’re both part of the same hypocrisy. But never think it applies to my family.” So it’s no surprise when, sometime later, Senator Geary is found in bed with a dead prostitute, and Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Michael’s half-brother and consigliere, is offering to “help” Geary. It’s readily apparent Michael’s promise to Kay about the Corleone family becoming completely legitimate in five years hasn’t quite happened yet (Kay points out it’s been seven years). Meanwhile, Michael is entering a business agreement with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg, Pacino’s real-life acting mentor), a gangster who worked with Vito in the past (according to Frankie, “Your father did business with Hyman Roth, your father respected Hyman Roth, but your father never trusted Hyman Roth!”). Michael, in turn, has to deal with an attempt on his life that leads both to Roth and Fredo, who turned out to be betraying him. Then there’s the Senate hearings on organized crime that are targeting him and his family. Finally, Kay, who’s increasingly disgusted by what Michael has become, tries to leave him.

Michael reacts after Kay (Diane Keaton) tells him her news.

The success of the first movie – it broke existing box-office records, received critical acclaim, and won three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Brando – allowed Coppola cache in the film industry after nearly a decade of flops. However, Coppola was  disturbed by what he saw as the public romanticizing the Corleones, and since he was promised carte blanche in making Part II (aside from not being allowed to use Brando for a flashback sequence at the end because Brando and the studio were angry at each other), he decided to rectify that. As Pauline Kael wrote in her rave review of Part II, while Vito in the first film might have recoiled from the drug business, Michael recoils from nothing here. Again at that first communion reception, the visual contrasts between the outside ceremony and the “business” Michael conducts in his study aren’t as pronounced as they were at the wedding reception in the first film (in that film, cinematographer Gordon Willis famously over-exposed the outdoor scenes while using low-level lighting for the scenes in Vito’s study). Michael is as cold to Senator Geary’s threats as he is to Connie when she shows up with Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue), whom she intends to marry against Michael’s wishes (the most Michael does is say how disappointed he’ll be if she marries Merle).* His coldness and calculating nature do serve him well in one respect – the agreement with Roth partly concerns Cuba, and as the film takes place during Castro’s revolution, Michael is the only one who sees that coming – but for the most part, it serves to cut him off from just about everyone, especially Fredo and Kay (he even threatens to fire Tom near the end of the film). Only with his mother (Morganna King) does he show a glimpse of humanity (he asks her if by being strong for his family, he would lose it).

One of the most unusual things about the movie, apart from its structure (going between Michael and Vito’s story and back without any particular rhyme or reason) is how there’s no real arc to Michael’s character. He merely continues, bit by bit, the descent he sunk into starting in the last 1/3 of the first movie. It’s tough on a film to hang a lead character like that onto its story, and it’s also tough on an actor to play that. Yet miraculously, Coppola and Pacino pull it off. As with the last part of the first film, Michael wears slick suites (unlike the warmer, muted color suits he wore earlier in that film) with his hair slicked back. Despite his shortness of stature, Michael always acts as if he’s looking down on whoever he talks to (to convey his superiority over them), and he stands (or sits) almost completely still. And he rarely raises his voice, even when he finds out Fredo betrayed him (in the famous scene in Cuba when he kisses Fredo and tells him, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart”, his anger comes across, but he still keeps control of his voice), or when he and Tom butt heads (and delivers the chilling line, “I don’t feel I have to wipe everyone out, Tom. Just my enemies”). Only Kay, his family, and what happens to them seem to push his buttons. After the attack on his home, Michael yells at Rocco (Tom Rosqui), one of his bodyguards, when the gunmen responsible are killed (Michael wanted them alive). He blows up at Frankie about the attack as well (“In my HOME!”), and gets angry at Tom when he hears Kay had a miscarriage (Michael wanted to know if it was a boy or not). But Michael really becomes unglued when Kay tells him she’s leaving him and taking the kids, and adding it wasn’t a miscarriage, it was an abortion (“because this must all end!”); he responds by slapping her and yelling at her.

Michael alone at the end.

Those who think of Pacino only as a “Hoo-ah!” ham should watch this, if for no other reason than to see how subtle he is, and how he’s able to suggest the inner rot inside Michael simply from his voice and eyes (especially when Michael signals Al Neri (Richard Bright), his closest adviser aside from Tom, through just his facial expression it’s time to kill Fredo). Even in crowded scenes, Coppola and Willis often frame Michael by himself, to emphasize how cut off he is from everyone, and in the last part of the film, we often see Michael alone. Pacino is also able to suggest Michael’s loneliness simply through the way he conducts himself, even when other people try to get through to him (as when Connie attempts to reconcile with him near the end of the movie; he just stares straight ahead). Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Pacino’s work is, despite the monster Michael has become, we still feel for him. The Academy may have overlooked the performance at Oscar time (De Niro won Best Supporting Actor, but Pacino lost to Art Carney (Harry & Tonto) for Best Actor), but today, Pacino’s work is rightly considered classic (it remains my single favorite performance by an actor in film). Part II wasn’t as financially successful as Part I (though it still did good business), and while Part II won more Oscars than Part I, the reviews were more mixed (Kael and Richard Schickel praised it, Roger Ebert liked it with reservations, and Vincent Canby panned it); still many critics today consider it better than the first (It remains my favorite movie of all time). Coppola may not have been able to destroy the mystique of the Corleones as he wished; the first two films not only inspired gangsters of the time, but also businessmen who use it as a template (in You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks’ character calls the movie the “I Ching” of business), not to mention its impact on popular culture. Still, Coppola, along with Pacino, managed to create a landmark film, with an equally landmark portrait of villainy.

*-In a deleted scene, included in The Godfather: A Novel for Television (the first two films re-edited and shown chronologically from young Vito in the early 20th century to Michael at the end of the 50’s), we see Michael give his blessing to Francesca (Jeanne Savarino Pesch), Sonny’s daughter, when she asks if she can get married, but even though he makes a show of being the paterfamilias as Vito was, you can still see his cold and calculating side.


Noah Cross (John Huston) and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) have lunch.

Few directors had as colorful a resume, before they came to Hollywood or during, as John Huston. Though a sickly child, he recovered enough to be, among other things, an amateur boxer, a stage actor, a cavalry officer, a painter, a newspaper reporter, and a short-story writer and playwright, among other things. Though he was far from the only director to enlist in the war effort during WWII – and like many directors at the time, was forced to recreate battle footage (The Battle of San Pietro, one of his documentaries, was subject to this) – he also strove to show the horrors of war, especially with Let There Be Light, his documentary about returning vets suffering what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (then known as “battle fatigue”). Unlike most directors, Huston was never tied to one particular studio, but bounced around, taking whatever job suited him (or, on a rare occasion, when he needed money or a hit). Huston’s off-screen life was just as colorful, with several marriages and affairs, brushes with the law (a hit-and-run accident, a barfight or two), and even holding up a movie shoot so he could hunt elephant (as alleged in Peter Viertel’s White Hunter, Black Heart, about the making of The African Queen). In other words, this all made him an excellent choice to play Noah Cross, the villain in Chinatown.

Before Chinatown came out, Robert Towne was best known as a script doctor (as well as adapting Daryl Ponicsan’s novel The Last Detail for director Hal Ashby). He did uncredited work on Bonnie and ClydeDrive, He Said and Cisco Pike, and wrote a famous scene in the first Godfather movie (the scene where Vito tells Michael, “I never wanted this for you”). Towne had planned an ambitious trilogy about how Los Angeles had changed from the 1930’s to the 50’s in regards to water, gas and highways, all through the eyes of a private eye named Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson).** As conceived by Towne, Gittes had a shady past while in law enforcement (when asked what he did working for the DA in Chinatown, he joked, “As little as possible”), spent his time and career now dealing with cheating wives and husbands, and thought he knew everything. That was until a case he took up involving a woman who claimed her husband was cheating on her ended up with the woman being a fraud, the husband being murdered, and the trail leading to Cross, a wealthy landowner who was diverting water to his land, was willing to hurt or have killed anyone who stood in his way, and for good measure, raped his daughter Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). And Cross is now after the child that came from that rape.

Jack will soon find out Cross really is capable of anything.

Near the end of the film, Cross says, “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of *anything*.” Huston certainly makes you believe he’s capable of anything. Though he only actually appears in a couple of scenes, Huston makes his presence felt. Despite his 6’2″ height, Huston wasn’t as physically imposing at the time he made the film as he was when he was younger (he’s a little more hunched over), but he still cut a commanding figure (and you believe, for example, how nervous Evelyn gets whenever he’s mentioned around her). He does it by the fact he believes he’s capable of anything, and also by instinctively knowing which buttons to push. At a lunch he and Gittes have together, Cross has fish served to Jake with the eyes still inside (“I hope you don’t mind; I believe they should be served with the head”), and asks Gittes the rather pointed question, “Are you sleeping with (my daughter)?” (made even more pointed by the fact Nicholson, at the time, had recently started a relationship with Huston’s real-life daughter Anjelica). At their second and final meeting, Gittes asks Cross how much he’s worth (he has no idea, but laughs approvingly at Gittes’ suggestion of $10 million), and wonders what Cross can buy with all his money, to which Cross replies, “The future.” What makes him even more depraved, of course, is how he acts as if he’s in the right, telling Gittes, “Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.” Like Pacino as Michael, Huston rarely yells (though he talks louder than Pacino does), and except for his face, he stands pretty still. Yet through that, and thanks to his somewhat ravaged look, Huston is able to make you believe Cross is capable of anything.

As fans of the movie know, Towne originally meant for Evelyn to shoot her father and get arrested for her crime, but director Roman Polanski fought for the darker ending, with Evelyn being shot by the police, and Cross, though wounded, triumphant as he takes the child away. While Towne was unhappy with that ending, years later, he acknowledged Polanski had made the right decision, and it was; if nothing else, Cross would never have resonated the same way if he wasn’t able to get away with it. As the film came out the same year as Godfather Part II, it’s no surprise Polanski and Towne’s film was overshadowed at the Oscars (only Towne won for Best Original Screenplay), though the fact Huston wasn’t even nominated seems a grievous oversight (three actors from Part II were nominated, which is understandable, but getting passed over for Fred Astaire (The Towering Inferno) Jeff Bridges (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), who each gave so-so performances, seems especially egregious). Still, the film lives on as one of the best detective stories of the last 40 years or so, as well as one of the best neo-noirs, and while everyone involved deserves credit, Huston deserves special mention; despite how little he appears on-screen, you really feel just how depraved, and villainous, he is.

**- The gas storyline came up in The Two Jakes, which came out, after an acrimonious development period, 16 years later, while the highway storyline was appropriated for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.


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