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.
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 Talking, Mary 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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 Street, 13 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.
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.
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 Indemnity, Ace 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 (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).
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.
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.
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 Afternoon, The Apartment, The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Clyde, Drive, 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.
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?.
This post is my entry in the Sleuthathon, hosted by Fritzi from Movies Silently. Enjoy!
We all know adapting novels into movies, 99 times out of 100, is an art of compression (which is one reason why many people prefer the novel over the movie); in order to turn a 400 page novel into a 2 hour movie, some parts will have to go (or, alternatively, what worked on the page doesn’t always work on screen). On the other hand, in general, adapting short stories into films is the art of expansion; expanding the plot, the characters, mood, or any number of elements. Each story presents its own challenges, however, and a good example of that is Ernest Hemingway’s classic story “The Killers”. First published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927, and featuring his recurring character Nick Adams in a minor role, the story tells the simple tale of two professional hitmen who come to a diner in a suburb of Chicago one evening to find a man, known as “The Swede”, so they can kill him. It’s both a minimalist tale (as usual, Hemingway’s writing is spare, without many adjectives or descriptions) and an existential one, as Ole Andresson, the Swede (inspired by a boxer Hemingway knew), doesn’t run away when he hears the killers are there for him, but instead accepts his fate. The mystery, of course, is why, and whatever their differences, both Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version and Don Siegel’s 1964 version attempt to answer that question.
The first 10 minutes or so of Siodmak’s movie more or less replicate Hemingway’s story (though the location is changed from just outside Chicago to Brentwood, New Jersey). Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad), the killers, come to the diner, ask the diner owner, George (Harry Hayden) when the Swede (going under the name Pete Lunn) is going to come in, and when he doesn’t show, tie up Nick Adams (Phil Brown) – who happens to be eating in the diner at the time – and Sam (Bill Walker), the cook, in the back and go to kill him. George unties Nick (who works with the Swede at the gas station), and he goes to warn the Swede, but the Swede is curiously accepting of his impending fate (when Nick asks him why they’re after him, he replies, “I did something wrong – once”). Siodmak doesn’t show the actual killing – just Ole staring in the dark in his room, the killers bursting into the room and shooting, and Ole’s hand gradually sliding down the brass bedpost.
The character who asks why, in the movie, is James Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an insurance investigator for Atlantic Casualty. Because the police chief (Howard Freeman) has determined the killers are from out of town, he feels the case is out of his hands. Reardon, who finds out two curious things about Ole – he had a green handkerchief with a golden harp at its center, and the beneficiary on his account is Mary Ellen Daugherty (Queenie Smith), who works at a hotel in Atlantic City – decides to stay on, and even convinces his boss the case is worth looking into (“This isn’t a two-for-a-nickel shooting. Two professional killers show up in a small town and put the blast on a filling station attendant. A nobody. There was no attempted robbery. They were out for only one thing. To kill him. Why?”). After finding the connection between Daugherty and Ole (he tried to kill himself after yelling, “She’s gone!”, and Daugherty stopped him), Reardon follows the trail to Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), a detective who followed Ole’s career as a boxer, fell in love with Ole’s ex-girlfriend Lily Harmon (Virginia Christine), and busted Ole when Ole took the fall for Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), a “hostess” and moll of then-imprisoned gangster Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker). At Ole’s funeral, along with Reardon, Lubinsky and Lily (now Mrs. Lubinsky), is Charleston (Vince Barnett), a small-time crook and Ole’s old cell mate, who reveals Reardon was part of a notorious “hat factory” heist. Because Atlantic Casualty insured that company, and they were out $250,000 (how much the robbers took), Reardon convinces his boss to let him keep investigating. Eventually, he gets to the bottom of not only the robbery, but why Ole allowed himself to be shot and killed.
Though Anthony Veiller is the credited writer of the film, John Huston also did much of the work on the film (since he was under contract to Warners at the time, and the film was made by Universal, he wasn’t allowed credit). According to Gene D. Phillips’ Out of the Shadows; Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir, Huston most likely modeled the character of Reardon on Sam Spade (from Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon), and you can see that in the relationship Reardon has with his secretary Stella (Ann Staunton) – which has the similar flirtatious undercurrent found in Huston’s film between Spade and his secretary – and in the dialogue, as when Reardon says he wished he could have known the “old” Kitty Collins. Reardon isn’t quite the maverick Sam Spade was – for starters, he works more closely with the police than Spade did – and his code is more conventional than Spade’s, but he knows how to handle himself. O’Brien doesn’t deliver his lines like Bogart did as Spade, but he does convince us of Reardon’s restless intelligence, which is something else he has in common with Spade.
Of course, Siodmak’s film is as much film noir as (amateur) detective story, with familiar elements such as the dark, black-and-white photography (by Elwood Bredell, who had previously worked with Siodmak on Phantom Lady and Christmas Holiday), the femme fatale (in the form of Kitty), and the unsuspecting dupe in over his head. What’s slightly unusual about this film is that character is only seen in flashback (there’s 11 of them in all, but Siodmak and editor Arthur Hilton work them in seamlessly), and the hero of the film is basically a decent sort who doesn’t give in to temptation (though he pretends to with Kitty near the end). The combination of the detective story present and the film noir flashbacks may sound strange, but Siodmak, Veiller and Huston pull it off.
This was Lancaster’s first film role, and while it doesn’t show off the joy or energy he usually brought to his performances later in his career, he does use his physicality well. This doesn’t just come off in the boxing scenes, or scenes where he confronts Colfax, but also when he’s told the two men are after him; it’s like he shuts himself off (Lancaster wasn’t an actor you usually thought of as subtle, but he is in the opening). If Gardner is a little too obvious as a femme fatale, she does come off as bewitching, and she does hide well just how evil she really is. And Levene, mostly known for his stage work (he was Nathan Detroit in the original Broadway production of Guys & Dolls) is dependable as always as Lubinsky. The Killers was also the second hit in a row for Siodmak (after The Spiral Staircase and before The Dark Mirror), who was well-respected back in the day but doesn’t seem to be remembered much today, which is a shame, as he was a terrific director, and if not quite as good as Hitchcock in his usual genre (thrillers), came pretty close. It also turned out to be Hemingway’s own personal favorite movie version of one of his works. The movie stands as both a classic film noir and an interesting twist on the detective story.
Interestingly enough, Siegel was the first choice of producer Mark Hellinger to direct the original version of The Killers, as Hellinger had been impressed by his debut as director, the B-movie Star in the Night, but when Warner Brothers (where Siegel was contracted at the time) refused to lend him out without cost, Hellinger turned to Siodmak. Siegel’s film version came out nearly 20 years later (Gene L. Coon, who became best known as a writer/producer on the original Star Trek, was credited for the script, based on a script Siegel himself wrote), and while it was originally meant for TV, it was considered too violent for TV (this being not long after John F. Kennedy was assassinated) and released theatrically instead. It is more violent (though tame by today’s standards) and blunt than Siodmak’s version, and also more obviously existential.
The “detective” in this case is one of the killers himself, Charlie (Lee Marvin). Along with his partner Lee (Clu Gulager), Charlie goes to a school for the blind to find Johnny North (John Cassavetes), who currently teaches there (Christine, the only actor to appear in both American film versions of the story, plays the school’s principal). Though the setting and dialogue are completely different (complete with what became Charlie’s classic response to most situations; “Lady, I haven’t got the time”), the results are the same; when Johnny is warned what’s going to happen, he accepts his fate rather than run away, and after he drives his pupils out, he’s shot and killed. While Lee considers it just another job, Charlie is puzzled at why Johnny didn’t run away, and decides to figure out why, especially when he remembers Johnny was connected to a mail truck robbery of $1 million (Lee agrees to help when he hears about this). This leads them to Earl (Claude Akins), Johnny’s former mechanic (he was a race car driver until an accident killed his career), who tells them about Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson), the woman who captured Johnny’s eye (and, in Earl’s opinion, killed his career) and Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan), the mob boss who was Sheila’s boyfriend.
Siegel uses fewer and longer flashbacks in his version; the only ones come with Earl, Mickey (Norman Fell), one of Browning’s crew, and Sheila when Charlie and Lee finally catch up to her. Also, as befitting the blunter tone and characters of the film, the look (from cinematographer Richard L. Rawlings and editor Richard Belding, both of whom worked almost exclusively in TV) is more bleached out than most color films of the period; even Sheila, who is always made to look more glamorous to contrast her with the other characters, is less exotic here than Kitty was in the original. It’s easy to dismiss the look as cheap (especially compared to today’s films), yet it helps set the harsher tone Siegel seems to be going for, and gets.
It also suits his star. Though Siegel reportedly had a tough time with Marvin on the set, due to Marvin’s drinking, the reward was one of his best performances. Marvin was still at the point of his career when he was being both underestimated and typecast as a thug. But he had given memorable performances playing bad guys in film as disparate as Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock and John Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. Unlike many of his earlier films, Marvin doesn’t raise his voice much here, but conveys complete menace just the same, especially when he’s being charming. He also convinces us of the curiosity that leads him to wonder why Johnny doesn’t run, as well as the instincts that let him eventually figure out why. This isn’t my favorite Marvin performance (I’m more partial to the ones he gave for John Boorman in Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific, and for Sam Fuller in The Big Red One), but it’s one of his best. Gulager, known mostly for his TV appearances (this was his feature debut), is cocky and sure of himself as Lee, and makes a nice contrast to Marvin in that regard. Cassavetes, of course, mostly acted in other people’s films so he could raise the money to make his own (he went on to co-star with Marvin in The Dirty Dozen), but he gave his all to his performance here, and plays Johnny’s romanticism, his sense of betrayal, and toughness well (he also looks the part of the race car driver). And while Sheila is, in the end, just as much a sociopath as Kitty was, Dickinson is less obvious about it than Gardner was; you actually believe early on Sheila is falling for Johnny, instead of just using him.
Along with Marvin’s performance, Siegel’s version of the film is probably best remembered today for featuring the then-unknown John Williams as composer (he was known as Johnny Williams then), and for being the last theatrical film of future governor and President Ronald Reagan. It was the only time in Reagan’s career that he ever played a bad guy on screen, and he reportedly hated the experience and the film, but he actually works better here than he normally did in other films. His voice had developed a rasp at this stage in his life, and he uses it effectively to convey power and toughness. The easygoing image he tried to project on screen also works better here as a contrast to his bad guy character. If I had to choose between the two, I’d say Siodmak’s film works better than Siegel’s, but both of them are terrific, and both offer a nice spin on the role of the amateur detective.
Warning; there are some spoilers here for the show Veronica Mars (though not the movie).
I have long been of the opinion it’s unfair to blame a movie (TV show, novel, album/group/singer) for the rip-offs that come in its wake. What William Goldman wrote about Hollywood over 30 years ago – “Nobody knows anything” applies equally well to the TV business and music business (as well as, to a somewhat lesser extent, the publishing business). The Powers That Be only know what has worked (or is currently working), and they naturally jump on trends in the hopes it can work for themselves, without realizing it was the alchemy of talent and material that made the originals so well in the first place (The Powers are generally, of course, business people and not creative people). But while, for example, Psycho helped usher in both the slasher genre and was arguably the first “B” movie made with “A”-list talent (long before Jaws and Star Wars got blamed for that), those aspects don’t change the fact it’s still a terrific film. Similarly, while Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have inspired shows (and books) such as Vampire Diaries and movie (and book) franchises such as the Twilight series that are (in my opinion, anyway) markedly inferior), that doesn’t change the fact it was, at its best, a terrific show (I hope to explore both the highs and lows of the show at a later date). Also, just as some of the works inspired by Psycho have been good (the original Halloween), there was one (unfortunately) short-lived show partly inspired by Buffy (though radically different in many ways) that turned out to be good. That show was Veronica Mars.
As show creator Rob Thomas (not to be confused with the Matchbox 20 singer) would say in interviews, Veronica’s “superpower”, as it were, was unlike just about every other teenager in the world, she didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about her, and that was remarkably freeing. Of course, when you had a backstory like hers, it was easy to understand why. Once upon a time, Veronica had what was a pretty good life. Her family wasn’t the richest in town – which mattered in a town like Neptune, California, where the rich kids (known as the “09ers”, having to do with their zip code) ruled the school (Neptune High) like their parents ruled the town – but it wasn’t bad. Her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) was the sheriff, which gave her a certain cachet, and it also helped her boyfriend Duncan (Teddy Dunn) and her best friend Lily (Amanda Seyfried) were the children of Jake Kane (Kyle Secor), head of Kane Software and the richest man in town. Then, during Veronica’s sophomore year, it all fell apart. Lily was murdered, her father assumed Jake did it, for which Jake had him kicked out of office, her mom Lianne (Corrine Bohrer) started drinking more and then left, Duncan broke up with her (it happened before Lily’s murder), her friends abandoned her when she chose to stand by Keith, and when she went to an 09er party and took a sip from the wrong drink, she woke up the next morning to discover she had been raped (as she said in the pilot, “You want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I”). Veronica had always been intelligent, but she went from being open and somewhat naive to closed off (except for Keith, their dog Back-up, and her rare friends, like Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino)), bitter, and sarcastic.
Fortunately, she found an outlet for her bitterness outside of school. Keith had become a private investigator, and though Veronica may have started out just answering phones and doing paperwork for her father, she soon became a private eye of her own. During the first season of the show, she solved all sorts of minor cases – finding a boy’s long-lost father (“Meet John Smith”, Episode 3), trying to find out who framed her for dealing in fake ID’s (“Clash of the Tritons”, Episode 12), and helping a classmate find her missing dog (“Hot Dogs”, Episode 19) – but Lily’s murder was foremost on her mind (with finding her mother and finding out who raped her close behind). This became especially true when she found out the man in jail for the crime – Abel Koontz (Christian Clemonsen), a disgruntled former employee at Kane Software – was in fact innocent, and had been paid off by Jake to confess. While the sheriff, Don Lamb (Michael Muhney) was indifferent to the case (as well as her rape), and Keith had seemingly given up (though that turned out to not be the case), Veronica pressed on, and eventually found the real killer; Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin), a movie star, and father of Logan (Jason Dohring), Lily’s on-again, off-again boyfriend. It turned out Aaron had been sleeping with Lily, but panicked when he found out Lily had (a) discovered a hidden camera in his bedroom, and (b) had taken tapes of the two of them having sex, and accidentally killed her while trying to get them back (Duncan had discovered Lily’s body, and because he had a history of epileptic fits, Jake assumed Duncan had accidentally killed Lily during a fit, and therefore covered up the crime).
Veronica was less successful in her other quests. In “A Trip to the Dentist”, the penultimate episode of the season (and, in my opinion, the best), she discovered she had basically been raped by the 09er culture in general; she’d been given a drink with GHB in it, was passed around and fed shots, taken to a bedroom, and then had sex with Duncan (there happened to be more to the story, which I’ll get to in a bit), which freaked him out because he thought, since Jake and Leanne had been cheating with each other and were an item in high school, that he and Veronica were brother and sister (that turned out to not be the case), which is why he had broken up with her in the first place. And while Veronica checked Lianne into a rehab center, and she eventually came home, it turned out Lianne hadn’t quite kicked alcohol yet, and when Veronica found out, she kicked her mother out. Still, Veronica did solve the murder, and through that case and her other cases, exposed a lot of the hypocrisy of the haves of Neptune (though that wasn’t the only place she found hypocrisy; for example, in “Hot Dogs”, she discovered two workers at an animal shelter had kidnapped 09er dogs to ransom them off). We also had the strong bond of Veronica’s relationships with Keith and Wallace, even if they were both exasperated with her at times (Mac would appear more in the subsequent seasons). For many fans of the show, there was also Veronica’s relationship with Logan; what started out as hatred (in the pilot, Veronica described her as the school’s “obligatory psychotic jackass”) changed to grudging respect and then to, of all things, love (Logan/Veronica shippers were overjoyed when they finally kissed each other in “Weapons of Class Destruction”, Episode 18). Overall, it was a terrific first season.
Season 2 was problematic for many fans, but it certainly can’t be accused of lack of ambition. The main plotline involved a school bus crash that killed several students. Logan was accused of killing a member of the PCHers, a bicycle gang, and in an unlikely yet entertaining pairing, worked together with Eli “Weevil” Navarro (Francis Capra), the head of the gang, to try and find out who was really responsible for the murder. The one student who survived the bus crash, Meg Manning (Alona Tal), one of the few 09er students who was friendly to Veronica in the first season, was pregnant with Duncan’s baby, and when Meg eventually died, and pleaded with Veronica not to let Meg’s overly strict parents gain custody, Duncan and Veronica arranged to take the baby, and Duncan fled to Mexico with it. Wallace found out his biological father was really alive. He also had an on-again, off-again relationship with Jackie (Tessa Thompson), another student who was more than she seemed. Neptune’s new mayor, Woody Goodman (Steve Gutenberg), was pushing for the town to be incorporated, which would set up a bigger wall between the haves and have nots. And oh yes, Aaron was being tried for murdering Lily, but thanks to the fact he manufactured evidence (and Logan destroyed the sex tapes so they wouldn’t end up on the Internet), and his lawyer implied (a) Duncan was the real killer and (b) it was Veronica and Keith who planted evidence, Aaron was found not guilty. And I’m not even mentioning the Fitzpatricks, the Irish gang in the center of things. When all the dust settled, it turned out Cassidy “Beaver” Casablancas (Kyle Gallner), son of crooked businessman Richard Casablancas (who fled the country when his real estate scam was exposed), was responsible for the bus crash; he blew up the bus so the fact Woody had molested him and other kids on the bus when he was their Little League coach would never come out (on top of all that, it turned out he had actually raped Veronica in “A Trip to the Dentist”). He also appeared to have killed Keith (though that turned out to not be the case), and ended up killing himself when he was exposed (he was about to kill Veronica when Logan rescued her). And if that wasn’t enough, Aaron ended up getting killed by Jake’s security head Clarence Wiedman (Christopher B. Duncan), in a hit ordered by Duncan.
That’s a lot of plot for one season, and it felt unwieldy at times, with a lot of what seemed like retconning going on. Not only that, but despite the fact Veronica originally thought she was the one targeted by the bus crash (a man who had been at a vigil for the victims, and turned up dead later with her name written on his hand, turned out to be Aaron’s stuntman double), it seemed like there was a lack of urgency on her part to solve it (her investigation into Lily’s murder also didn’t really kick into high gear until a few episodes in, but that could be explained by the way she was stonewalled at almost every turn). And while I admittedly didn’t feel that way at the time, giving us a whole different take on Veronica’s rape seemed wrongheaded. Still, a lot of it did feel satisfying, and if anything, the show’s take on the divide between the haves and have-nots of Neptune became even darker than before.
Despite getting critical raves and a loyal and rabid fan base, the show had always struggled in ratings, and seemed on the brink of cancellation. UPN, the network that broadcast the show for the first two seasons, merged with the WB and formed the CW, which ended up broadcasting the show’s third and final season. It’s another season I liked overall despite its flaws, but there were more of those. For starters, most (if not all) high school set shows stumble when the characters go off to college, and this show was no exception, though for a different reason; part of Veronica’s appeal was that she was an outcast who nevertheless triumphed, and something seemed off when she no longer wasn’t (some fans complained her brusque nature, perfectly understandable in high school, became less so in this context). What’s worse, the CW marketed it as a relationship show (to cross-promote it with Gilmore Girls, which Veronica Mars served as a lead-in for in both shows’ final seasons), and interfered with the show to live up to its marketing, which seemed to go against the idea of the show in the first place. Also, instead of a season-long arc, the season was divided into a couple of mini-arcs. Finally, while regulars such as Wallace and Mac seemed to get short shrift at times, characters such as Dick (Ryan Hansen), Cassidy’s loutish older brother, seemed to dominate for no good reason (and in a startling twist, Lamb was killed off for reasons that were never clear).
Still, there were satisfying elements; the first mystery arc, where Veronica tried to find out who had been raping women on campus, was especially compelling. And the open-ended finale – where Veronica had been humiliated thanks to a tape of her and her then-boyfriend Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), discovered a secret college society similar to Skull & Bones had been responsible, and exposed them, which unfortunately inadvertently wrecked Keith’s chances at becoming sheriff again (he had been temporarily appointed when Lamb was murdered) – while leaving a number of loose ends, got the show back to its noir roots. I wasn’t as sad as I would have been if the show had been cancelled after season 1 or 2, but it was still a shame to see a (mostly) smart and funny show fall by the wayside.
While Thomas and Bell both moved on to other high profile projects (Thomas created Party Down and attempted to revive Cupid, a show he did before Veronica Mars, but neither project lasted that long, while Bell rotated between TV (Gossip Girl, House of Lies) and movies (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Scream 4, Frozen)), both of them apparently thought there was more to Veronica’s story that could be told, and fans had been calling for something more as well. Finally, in 2013, Thomas convinced Warner Brothers (the studio that produced the show) to distribute a film if enough fan interest on Kickstarter was shown, and as we all know, Thomas’ fundraising goal was met and exceeded (the goal was $2 million, and fan backers raised nearly three times that). I have no idea how it will play for non-fans; as for whether or not it’ll satisfy the hardcore base, I’d say that depends on what kind of fan you are.
The movie picks up nine years after the series left off. Veronica, who transferred to Stanford after her freshman year, went on to Columbia Law School and is now interviewing at law firms (Jamie Lee Curtis, who co-starred with Bell in You Again, plays a partner at one such firm). She’s also gotten back together with Piz, who works for Ira Glass (who cameos as himself). But all of that changes when Logan calls and asks for help (even though she gave up being a private eye). Currently flying planes for the Navy, Logan had recently been going out with Carrie Bishop (Andrea Estella, of the band Twin Sister, replacing Leighton Meester, who had played the character on “Mars vs. Mars” and “A Trip to the Dentist”), now a pop star under the name Bonnie DeVille. When Carrie is found dead in her bathroom, and Logan is found out passed out there, Sheriff Dan Lamb (Jerry O’Connell), Don’s brother, arrests Logan for murder. Veronica ostensibly goes back just to help Logan find a good lawyer (Eddie Jemison plays one of the lawyers they interview), but she gets dragged back both into the case (once she finds out there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye) and into Logan’s orbit, despite her better instincts on both.
Along with the noir setting, and the mysteries (both season-long arcs and episode-long ones), one of the strengths of the show was the large group of characters Veronica interacted with, and for the most part, Thomas and Diane Ruggiero (who was a staff writer on the show, and co-wrote the movie with Thomas) handle that part well. Arguably, the most important relationship on the show was between Veronica and Keith – who’s back as a private eye – and Bell and Colantoni pick up right where they left off. Even though there’s plenty she doesn’t tell him (both in the past and in this movie), and even though he’s disappointed she seems to be giving up her potential life in New York City to, as he puts it, “get dragged in the muck of Neptune”, they remain as much best friends as father and daughter, and convince us of that yet again. Wallace and Mac are sort of the odd characters out in the noir universe of Neptune (even if, for example, Wallace found out his biological dad was still alive (Season 2′s “Green-Eyed Monster” and “Blast From the Past”), and Mac bilked 09er kids by posting a purity test online and charging for the results (Season 1′s “Like a Virgin”)), but they both still have solid roles in the story (Wallace is a coach and teacher at Neptune High, so of course Veronica ropes him into getting a school file for her, and she also asks Mac – who now works at Kane Software because of the pay – for tech help), and Daggs and Majorino also pick up right where they left off with Bell.
Both of them end up dragging Veronica to their 10-year high school reunion, where she runs into many of the other characters, including Madison Sinclair (Amanda Noret), who remains Veronica’s bete noir, Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter), Woody’s daughter (she claims to have gotten over what happened with her father), and Weevil, who is now married, with a daughter, and owns his own shop. Dick, of course, is living with Logan and is as loutish as ever (he keeps a flask in his belt buckle), though at least he’s important to the story this time. And the non-high school characters are also handled well. When Veronica gets arrested for breaking and entering, who else would show up as her lawyer but Cliff McCormack (Daran Norris)? Leo D’Amato (Max Greenfield), a former Neptune deputy and Veronica’s ex-boyfriend (before Logan), is now a detective in San Diego, and Veronica goes to him for information about the case, which not only deals with Thomas’ proposed fourth season for the show (where Veronica would have worked for the FBI), but also has an amusing callback to his and Veronica’s first meeting. Finally, who else but Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino), sleazy private eye, would be involved in taking scandalous videos crucial to the case?
Another element of the show, consistent with its noir universe, was Veronica’s voiceover, which continues in the movie. Sometimes in the show, because of budget constraints, Thomas was forced to use it for unnecessary exposition, but for the most part, he’s able to avoid that in the movie. And while Veronica, at the beginning of the movie, claims to have grown as a person (“People say I’m a marshmallow”; a nod to both the fans, which call themselves that, and to what Wallace called her in the pilot), the other habit she falls back into (aside from solving cases and being with Logan) is her sarcastic front. She, of course, isn’t the only one who snarks – even Piz, who comes to the reunion thanks to Mac and Wallace, says of the craziness he sees, “(Neptune High) actually does sit on a Hellmouth” – but Veronica, as usual, gets the choicest quips. For me, the highlight of the trailer – both the Comic-Con one and the official one – was after the reunion was ruined, and Madison yelled at Veronica, “What are you gonna do, use your stun gun on me? Don’t you think that’s gotten a bit old”, Veronica responded by punching Madison out, and responding, “Original enough for ya?” Generally speaking, Thomas and Ruggiero do a good job with the rest of the one-liners as well.
If only Thomas had shown as much care with the direction and the story. The show was rarely talked about in visual terms, but the flashbacks used in the show were often sophisticated in how they were shot, with different color schemes and seamless transitions between past and present. The New York City scenes look relatively sophisticated (including the now standard practice of showing text messages on screen), but most of the scenes in Neptune are shot in a pedestrian way (Ben Kutchins was the cinematographer, while Daniel Gabbe, who worked on the show, was the editor). The fight scenes on the show were generally among the weakest parts of the show (except for a Season 2 battle between Logan and Weevil), and the fight scene at the reunion – when Logan, Piz, Wallace and Weevil all rise to defend Veronica’s honor – is no exception, in how it’s shot. More disappointing than that, however, is how Thomas lets the noir and mystery elements slip away. For the former, we do see once again the distance between the haves and have nots, and while Don Lamb was merely incompetent, his brother is full-on corrupt. There’s also a startling scene in this regard involving Weevil, and another one involving Keith. As for the latter, the first 2/3 of the movie does have some interesting red herrings, one involving Ruby Jetson (played with gusto by Gaby Hoffman), a loony stalker of Bonnie’s. But both the mystery and noir end up petering out (the noir) or getting an unsatisfying solution (the mystery). It doesn’t help Meester and Muhney (for obvious reasons) aren’t reprising their roles, as their presence might have lent weight to the story. Estella barely registers, and while O’Connell can play a jerk well, he doesn’t give it the dimension Muhney did, and comes off more petulant than corrupt.
I was part of the rabid fan base of the show I mentioned earlier, having watched it from the beginning, being active in the show’s forum at Television Without Pity, attending fan events (including one in January of 2006 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, where Thomas, Bell, and other cast members showed me and several hundred other fans clips of the show and the controversial season 2 episode “Donut Run” before it was scheduled to go on the air), being part of an e-mail campaign during seasons 1 and 2 to get the show renewed, and publicizing the show whenever and wherever I could. But when the Kickstarter campaign materialized, I didn’t participate, partly because I couldn’t afford it (being unemployed at the time), but also because I wondered if it was too late to try and recapture the magic of the show. And I can’t deny getting a sinking feeling when Thomas said in interviews (as I mentioned before) he meant the movie to satisfy the fans (there’s a special thank-you to the Kickstarter fans in the closing credits, along with a couple of shout-outs to them in the movie), because I took that to mean the Logan and Veronica shippers. This was further reinforced during the marketing of the movie, and the polls asking if you were “Team Logan” or “Team Piz” (at the movie’s Comic-Con presentation, Dohring wore a “Team Piz” T-shirt, while Lowell wore a “Team Logan” one). I admit I’m not above this in general – one of the reasons why I started watching The West Wing again in its last season (after abandoning it a few episodes after Aaron Sorkin left), aside from seeing how they would deal with John Spencer’s death, was to see Josh and Donna finally getting together – but when it gets in the way of the show’s purpose for me, I have to cry foul.
To me, Veronica Mars is a noir show, and yes, during the course of the movie, Veronica does get back to her roots; still, I wonder on some level if the movie was made solely to satisfy those who wanted Veronica and Logan back together again. I never objected to Veronica and Logan together as a couple when they were well-written- Bell and Dohring clearly had chemistry together (though like many fans, I hated when he turned mopey in Season 3) – but in the movie, while Veronica’s rough edges haven’t been entirely sanded off, it seemed like Logan’s have been for the most part. Keith tells Veronica at one point, “There’s a darkness to Logan,” but you barely get a hint of that. There is a bit of the old snarkiness to him (when he jokes about how he of all people was Carrie’s sponsor while she was dealing with addiction), but mostly, he’s in earnest mode, and while Dohring does his best with it, it doesn’t suit the character.
Thomas has written a novel that takes place after the events of the movie, and if both the novel and movie do well (for the latter, the box office results so far have been encouraging), he’s promised more novels (there’s also a spin-off web series, but since it apparently revolves around Dick, my least favorite character, I’m not that interested). Of course, this is also being watched to see if other movies partly (or mostly) funded by Kickstarter can be a viable option. I just hope, if there are more stories to be told about Veronica, they end up being better than this somewhat entertaining but ultimately disappointing movie. If that means I’m not a marshmallow at heart, well, I guess that’s how it goes.