This is my contribution to The Criterion Blues Blogathon. Enjoy!
When Henri-Georges Clouzot once asked Jean-Luc Godard whether every film should have a beginning, middle and end, Godard famously replied, “Yes, but not necessarily in that order.” Godard aside, most movies today do have a beginning, middle and end in that order. It’s a method of storytelling, to be sure, that’s produced some of the greatest films ever made. But there’s nothing wrong with filmmakers trying to break up that method of storytelling, so that things aren’t in order. One of the few directors who challenged this way of storytelling on film was Nicolas Roeg. Roeg was known for his fragmented narrative, of having flashbacks and flash-forwards (terms he’s claimed he’s never really understood), and challenging viewers in more ways than just in the narrative. When Roeg was still making films (his last theatrically released film, Puffball (2007), only had a limited released in the U.S.), his style received a mixed reception from critics and audiences, but nowadays, Roeg has been receiving plaudits from filmmakers (Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh both praise him on a recent DVD), and from Criterion, which has released five of his films on DVD. It’s those five films that I’d like to focus on.
Roeg, of course, started out his career working in the camera department, first as an assistant cameraman in 1951 (for the film Calling Bulldog Drummond), then moving up to camera operator (on such films as The Man Inside and The Sundowners), and eventually cinematographer on such films as Lawrence of Arabia (for which he shot the second-unit cinematography), Masque of the Red Death, Fahrenheit 451, the 1967 adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd, and Petulia. In 1970 came his first film as director, Performance, where he shared a directing credit with Donald Cammell. Though this tale of a gangster (James Fox) on the lam who hides out with a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) features Roeg on cinematography, and also has a fractured narrative (not to mention casting a musician in one of the lead roles, which he would do twice more in the next decade), it’s considered as much a film by Cammell as it is by Roeg. Walkabout (1971), released a year later), would be Roeg’s solo directorial debut.
I’ve always put Roeg in the category of filmmakers who are interesting even though they’ve never quite been able to get the film that’s in their heads onto the screen, which is ironic since Roeg has insisted he never plans anything out in advance when it comes to shooting. Walkabout, for me, is the film that’s Roeg’s most successful attempt at putting it all together. Based on a children’s novel called The Children by Donald G. Payne (writing under the name James Vance Marshall), it tells the story of two children, a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Roeg’s son Luc, billed here as Lucien John), who are stranded in the outback area of Australia, and the help they receive from an aborigine boy (David Gulpilil) who’s about the same age as the girl (as the opening credits explain, when an aborigine boy reaches the age of 16, he goes out into the wild to live off of the land, which is called going on a “walkabout”). The aborigine helps the two children find water (which is their major need in the desert) and food, but while the boy develops an instant liking to the aborigine (the feeling is mutual), things are more complicated with his sister.
Roeg and playwright Edward Bond (best known at the time for the play Saved), who wrote the screenplay, made some crucial changes to the novel. First, while in the novel, the boy and girl’s parents died in a plane crash that stranded the children, here, the boy and girl get taken to the outback by the father, who tries to shoot them before killing himself (the boy doesn’t know what’s going on, but the girl does, and manages to flee with her brother before their father commits suicide). Also, the way the aborigine meets his eventual fate in the movie is different than in the novel. Finally, they play up the girl’s budding sexuality (including a scene where the girl swims nude in a lake, though it should be said it’s done without any voyeurism), which also contributes to the aborigine’s fate. But mostly, Roeg and Bond are faithful to the essential story, and the author’s way of capturing the landscape. Obviously, a lot of that can be done through the photography, and Roeg, who also served as the film’s cinematographer (the last time he’d do so on a feature film), brings out the beautiful parts of the landscape while also making clear how it can seem forbidding and dangerous, and all of this without turning the film into a travelogue. Roeg also follows another Godard dictum here in showing the interior lives of his characters by staying outside, and using the landscape to do so. That becomes especially apparent near the end, when the aborigine does a dance for the girl that he clearly means one way and the girl takes another way.
While Agutter had been making movies for nearly a decade before this film, Walkabout was Luc Roeg’s first (and, as it turns out, only) film as an actor, and the same with Gulpilil, but Roeg gets natural performances out of all three of them. Luc Roeg comes off as a natural child, being able to relate to some things immediately without truly understanding everything that’s going on. Gulpilil, one of the few well known aborigine actors in Australia (he has also appeared in such films as Mad Dog Morgan, Crocodile Dundee, and Rabbit Proof Fence, is primarily a dancer (a documentary on the Criterion DVD about his life and career shows him how to teach people aborigine dance), and his fluidity of movement certainly suggests that. And he and Roeg work hard to try and avoid the “noble savage” cliche (not entirely successfully, it should be said; it’s the one failure of the film) and make him into a distinctive character. Finally, while Agutter is the one experienced actor among the three, she works well with the others, become like a mother figure to Roeg’s character while still being enough of a teenage girl to be convincingly freaked out by what she’s going through. In Australia, the novel has long been considered a children’s classic, and Roeg’s film remains a classic in its own right.
As I mentioned before, Roeg started out as a cameraman, and has therefore always considered movies visual stories, and screenplays, and the written word in general, to be blueprints and not movies. What makes that ironic is Roeg has not only worked with playwrights (who hold the written word paramount), bus has often adapted the written word of novels, plays, and short stories to the screen. Such was also the case with Roeg’s next film, Don’t Look Now (1973), which was adapted from the short story by Daphne du Maurier.
As with the story, the movie follows John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), an art restorer, and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) during their time in Venice. Part of the trip is for business – John is restoring a church – but they’re also there because John hopes it will help them both, especially Laura, get over the death of their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams). Early in their trip, at a restaurant, they see two old women who are sisters – Wendy (Clelia Matania) and Heather (Hilary Mason) – who seem a bit bizarre but harmless, and who are staring at them. Wendy gets something caught in her eye, and since Heather is blind, Laura volunteers to help her in the ladies’ room. Heather also claims to be psychic, and in the bathroom, she claims she has a message from Christine, telling Laura and John not to worry, which causes Laura to faint later, but also makes her the happiest she’s been since Christine died. John doesn’t believe this, and doesn’t want to believe, but it turns out John may be psychic as well in his own way, which leads to danger for him.
Again, Roeg, along with writers Chris Bryant and Allan Scott (the latter of whom went on to write or co-write four feature films and one made-for-TV film for Roeg), changes du Maurier’s story while still keeping the essence of it. In the story, for example, Christine died of meningitis, while in the movie, she drowns in a pond outside their home, and while wearing a red mac (the color red appears as a motif throughout the entire film, an invention of Roeg’s), and is tied in to show John’s premonition (he runs outside without hearing a scream, though he’s too late). Also, the movie adds the famous sex scene between John and Laura, which is intercut between the two of them getting ready (in interviews, Roeg said he wanted to show one moment of intimacy as a contrast to the many disagreements they have throughout the film, but it’s also implied they’re trying to have another baby to try and replace Christine). Still, Roeg keeps the essence of the story all the way until the end, when John makes two tragic mistakes.
Roeg, cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (who went on to shoot two more features and two made-for-TV movies for Roeg), and editor Graeme Clifford (who went on to become a director in the 80’s) try to avoid using the obvious locations in Venice, using the walkways, the age of the buildings, and the bleached out colors to help create menace. And while there are flashbacks (often to the time of Christine’s death), they aren’t used in a flashy way, and John’s other “premonitions” aren’t juiced up, so Roeg can’t be accused of hyping the material. Yet, even given how the tale winds up, and the inclusion of a subplot involving a serial killer, I must admit I find myself sympathizing with Pauline Kael, who felt Roeg’s technique was so cold it never allowed us to feel anything for the characters, and that it was dressing up Gothic material that didn’t need dressing up. Despite the efforts of Sutherland and Christie, who are both very good, the film always keeps us at a distance from the characters, especially the supporting ones (Roeg’s attempts to show ambiguity regarding the sisters – as to whether they’re frauds or not – also comes as cheap). Of all the films of Roeg’s that have been released on Criterion, Don’t Look Now is my least favorite, even with all that’s good in it.
One of the more important aspects of Roeg’s career that needs to be examined is the way he uses music, particularly recorded music, to underscore the action. The radio the young boy carries around in Walkabout (playing Rod Stewart’s “Gasoline Alley” and Warren Marley’s “Los Angeles”, among other songs), Mick Jagger’s electrifying performance of “Memo From Turner” in the hallucinatory sequence in Performance, and his staging of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” in Aria being among the highlights. Along with that goes his willingness to use musicians in leading roles in films. Probably no better example of that tendency came in Roeg’s following film, The Man who Fell to Earth, with David Bowie in the title role.
Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, a man who comes to New Mexico and starts a technology company thanks to Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), a patent lawyer who helps patent his inventions, and Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a cynical, womanizing chemistry professor whom Newton hires as his science consultant. Newton also finds himself falling in love with Mary Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel maid who later helps him in his business. Gradually, we find out what that business is really for; Newton is actually an alien from another planet who’s trying to raise enough money so he can build a spaceship, go back, and rescue the survivors, including his wife and children, who are suffering because the planet has run out of water. However, the U.S. government, in the form of Peters (Bernie Casey), has other ideas.
I’ve never read the Walter Tevis novel the movie is based on (adapted by Paul Mayersberg, a former film critic who also went on to write Croupier over two decades later), so I don’t know how Roeg handled the transition from novel to screen. I know Roeg’s use of flashbacks to Newton’s planet, where he and his wife (also played by Clark) and children are struggling to survive, give us the emotional connection that I was missing in Roeg’s previous film. And Roeg doesn’t try to accentuate Bowie’s already alien persona any more than necessary (we don’t see him in his alien guise while on Earth except for two scenes, and only for a short time in both of them). He grounds how alienated Newton is from everyone else in the normal, everyday circumstances of Newton being addicted to watching television, and later, drinking alcohol (an unintended resonance to the addiction storyline is Bowie himself was going through a drug addiction at the time). as well as seeing how everyone one else eventually ages while Newton, essentially stays the same, at least until maybe the end. And once again, Roeg, working here again with Richmond and Clifford, uses the landscape to play against Newton without going overboard with it.
The American release was cut by 20 minutes, and some scenes were rearranged differently. The Criterion version restores Roeg’s original intent, and makes things clearer (along with, as is Roeg’s method, being more sexually explicit). It’s still somewhat confusing at times – it’s never really made clear to us why Bryce ends up selling Newton out – but it’s always dazzling to look at, thanks to the flashbacks (also shot in New Mexico), and its portrayal of an alien not as a menace, nor as a “pure” being, but someone subject to the same desires as all of us. Bowie has been a man of many personas over the course of his career, and this is one he wears rather well, while Henry is perfect as the ultimate corporate drone, and Torn does well in playing against type as someone more intellectual than emotional. Clark can strain at times, but she has good chemistry with Bowie, and brings off a tough scene when she finds out who Newton really is. Bowie was originally supposed to write the music for the movie as well, but for whatever reason, that didn’t work out; still, the music for the film is well used, as well as the collage of images from the televisions Newton is glued to. The Man who Fell to Earth is the type of film I was thinking of when I originally claimed Roeg could never quite get the movie in his head onto the screen, but it’s definitely an engaging and interesting movie all the same.
Much has been made of the relationship between directors and actors who have served as their on-screen muse. John Ford and John Wayne, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro; these are all familiar pairings to us. But there are also the intertwined careers of directors and actresses, such as Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Ingmar Bergman and his many leading women (particularly, of course, Liv Ullmann), and Woody Allen with Diane Keaton and then Mia Farrow (more recently, Nicole Holofcener and Catherine Keener as well). Then there’s Roeg and Theresa Russell, an actress who, at the time they got together, was known only for playing a small part in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of The Last Tycoon, and as Dustin Hoffman’s girlfriend in Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time. While the seven films the two of them made together (six features and one short that was part of the anthology film Aria) aren’t as well known as his 70’s films (and Cold Heaven, adapted from the novel by Brian Moore, is definitely a misfire, albeit a daring one), two of them are among Roeg’s very best. The first one they did together was Roeg’s most controversial, Bad Timing (1980), released in the U.S. with the subtitle A Sensual Obsession.
Roeg’s previous films, even though they had a non-linear narrative, did have a relative order that viewers could follow, but Bad Timing (which Roeg made after an attempt to make a Flash Gordon movie fell through) contains Roeg’s most fractured narrative yet (written by Yale Udoff). Nominally, it’s about two American expatriates in Vienna – Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), a psychiatrist and professor, and Milena Flaherty (Russell), a recent divorcee, who get involved in a passionate affair, and about how Netusil (Harvey Keitel), a police inspector, investigates what was apparently a suicide attempt by Milena. But the film is told in flashback after the opening credits scene of Alex and Milena in an art gallery (scored to Tom Waits’ “An Invitation to the Blues”), flashing back and forth between Milena in the hospital – as well as Netusil questioning Alex as to how she got there – and Alex and Milena’s relationship. This adds up to Roeg’s most fragmented narrative yet.
In an interview on the Criterion DVD, Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas talk about how the film is essentially a memory piece, and how the editing style (the film was edited by Tony Lawson, who went on to edit eight more films of Roeg’s) helps bring that out. A lot of that is through the juxtaposition of images, in which we can go, for example, from Alex and Milena having passionate sex to Milena on the operating table, and from Netusil entering Alex’s room in the present to a flashback of Alex and Milena in that room. It also involves cutting from the physical objects in the room. Roeg may only really handle one or two (at most three) people in a room, or an area, at a time, but he’s alive to the culture people engage in (when he glances at a collection of Harold Pinter plays that Milena is reading, Alex can guess she’s having an affair with an actor), and the way a person’s belongings can help define them (Milena’s room, which is full of belongings and clutter, seems alive in a way Alex’s more orderly room doesn’t, which helps reflect their personalities). The film is also a study of two people seeking control. Alex is trying to control and define Milena, who doesn’t want either (which is both the cause of the excitement and tension in their relationship), while Netusil is trying to impose control over Alex by getting him to admit to what he believes really happened to Milena that night.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding the movie when it came out, in reference to the explicitness of the sex scenes and other imagery, to what really happened to Milena (which caused a member of the British film company the Rank Organization to call it “a sick film for sick people”), and even surrounding the casting of Garfunkel and Keitel. But as disturbing as what happens to Milena is, it does speak to Alex’s need for control (in a sick, perverted way, of course), and Roeg and Richmond (Tony Lawson, who had edited Barry Lyndon for Stanley Kubrick, was the editor here; he went on to edit eight more films for Roeg) are careful not to be exploitative in rendering the scene. As for Garfunkel and Keitel, I feel they actually work for the movie. There’s always been something closed off about Garfunkel, and that works here for his character, but Roeg also gets him to be angrier than he’s ever been on screen, while Keitel, his faltering with the Viennese accent aside, is surprisingly restrained as the methodical (if not quite as intellectual as he thinks) inspector. Rounding out the male roles is Denholm Elliot as Milena’s ex, and the one man who never sought to control her, and Elliot brings a welcome melancholy to the role, as well as pent-up anger. The film, however, belongs to Russell. This is definitely a playing-to-the-seats performance, but it works for the character, as Milena is always struggling against Alex’s conception of her, and is forever reacting to that. And she remains one of the sexiest presences I’ve ever seen on screen (it’s no accident Pete Townshend originally wrote the Who song “Athena” as an ode to Russell, called “Theresa”). Bad Timing continues to provoke to this day, but I think it stands as one of Roeg’s best.
Bad Timing wasn’t well received by critics or the box office, and Roeg’s follow-up film, Eureka, starring Gene Hackman as a prospector, ended up being barely released, to critical and public indifference. However, Roeg managed to recover to adapt, of all things, a play, when he took on a film version of Terry Johnson’s play Insignificance, and delivered yet another one of his best films.
As with the play, the film takes off from the famous image of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress blowing up while she’s standing over the subway grate in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. Taking place over the course of one night, it imagines that Monroe (Russell), known only here as The Actress, goes to a Manhattan hotel where, as it happens, Albert Einstein (Michael Emil, brother of filmmaker Henry Jaglom), known here only as The Scientist, is staying. Einstein is in town to speak at a peace conference, though Joe McCarthy (Tony Curtis), known here only as The Senator, has other ideas; he wants Einstein to testify in front of HUAC and denounce communism. Meanwhile, Monroe’s ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), known here only as The Ballplayer, just wants Monroe to come back to him, but acts crazy jealous around anyone who shows interest in her (we first see him watching and seething during the recreation of that famous shot from Wilder’s film). Monroe, on the other hand, just wants to discuss with Einstein the theory of relativity, the creation and meaning of the universe, and other matters of, well, insignificance.
The main subject of Johnson’s story seems to be celebrity, in particular how a public persona can often hide what’s really underneath. Roeg’s contribution to this was, as usual, to show people’s pasts through flashbacks, from Monroe in auditions being ogled by talent agents to Einstein in war-torn Europe, to DiMaggio as a young player and McCarthy as an altar boy. And what the characters talk about, particularly when Monroe is demonstrating the theory of relativity to Einstein, is the clearest way of illustrating the huge gap between what we think we know and what we actually know, whether about the theory of relativity (Monroe admits while she can explain it, she doesn’t really understand it) or about a person in general (McCarthy thinks he can get Einstein to testify simply by either appealing to his intellect or by bullying him, while DiMaggio thinks if he cajoles Monroe enough, he’ll get her to come back to him. Both of them are wrong). And despite the fact most of this (except for the scene recreation and the flashbacks) is set in the hotel room and hallways, Roeg, Lawson, and cinematographer Peter Hannan (who shot, among other films, Monty Python’s Meaning of Life and Withnail & I) never make it seem stagy.
Because the characters are not really DiMaggio, Einstein, McCarthy and Monroe, the actors are a little more free to play around with the material. Busey, for example, may seem at first to be too energetic and mercurial to play the notoriously aloof DiMaggio, but he carries himself like an ex-athlete, and makes that manic nature work for him as someone who doesn’t like the fact the world no longer acts the way it should now he’s retired. I’m not familiar with Emil’s other work as an actor (I’m not a fan of Jaglom’s films, in which Emil was a regular), but he captures both Einstein’s intellect and his sadness that the world was becoming something more horrible than he imagined. Curtis gives one of his best performances as McCarthy, re-imagining him as if Sidney Falco hadn’t been killed, but had gone on to outdo J.J. Hunsecker in fake charm, intimidation and manipulation, though showing the sweat much more. Finally, while Russell may be nobody’s idea of Monroe, and comes off as a little too affected at first, gradually I warmed up to that once I realized her conception of Monroe was of someone aware of the affectation but resigned to it nonetheless even as she struggled to break free of it. For the movie, Roeg and Johnson added an elevator operator played by Will Sampson who claims Einstein is part Cherokee – meaning he has a deeper understanding of the world than anyone else – and that comes off as borderline patronizing (though Sampson at least plays the part well). And some of the scenes drag at times. Still, overall, Insignificance serves as an entertaining meditation on our knowledge of the world, or lack thereof.
After that film, Roeg’s one major film was his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The Witches, with the help of producer Jim Henson’s creature effects and Anjelica Huston’s terrifying performance as the villain of the film. After that, however, his career dried up; aside from an ambitious but flawed “straight” made-for-TV version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz, Roeg was reduced to directing episodes of TV and soft-core cable porn such as Full Body Massage. In the past decade, Roeg’s career has been rightly re-evaluated, and he’s considered one of the best filmmakers to come out of Britain in the 70’s, and Criterion showcasing these five films of his stands as fitting tribute.
This is my entry in the Swashathon, hosted by Fritzi Kramer (Movies Silently). Enjoy!
In The Rocketeer, Timothy Dalton plays Neville Sinclair, a 1940’s action/adventure movie star modeled on Errol Flynn (though it takes as gospel the false accusation Flynn was a Nazi spy, but that’s another story). When we first meet him, he’s playing a character in a period adventure movie, engaging in a sword duel with the villain of the story. He swings over to a table after unmasking himself, and as he’s about to drink from a goblet of wine that’s there, the leading lady character of the movie gushes, “O, my sweet prince, that I might drink from your lips as deeply!” (the first take we see her doing, she gives a wooden line reading; the second is better) Sinclair’s character, smiling, finishes his drink, inclines his head towards her, and then goes back to fighting. This scene captures, in a nutshell, what’s so appealing to those of us who are fans of swashbuckling films; not just the action scenes (which can be exhilarating when done right), but also the sense of joy that they’re done with, and the humor that they’re done with. And few films have done this as well as the 1952 film The Crimson Pirate, directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Burt Lancaster.
Lancaster plays the title character, also known as Captain Vallo, a pirate who, along with the rest of his crew, is merely out to get whatever they can in terms of money and adventure. At the beginning, he and his men capture a British ship headed to the Caribbean by pretending to be a ship that’s been laid waste to by scurvy. When Vallo finds out one of the passengers is Baron Jose Gruda (Leslie Bradley),a British official sent to stop a rebellion being led in the Caribbean, led by an unknown figure nicknamed “El Libre”, he decides to forego the usual pirate method of looting and pillaging. Instead, he’ll steal the arms the ship has, sell them to El Libre, and then sell El Libre out for double the money back to Gruda. However, things don’t quite work out the way Vallo planned; he ends up falling in love with Consuelo (Eva Bartok), the daughter of El Libre, getting double-crossed by his own crew (who are not happy that he seems to have turned idealistic), and then having to rescue them when they in turn are double-crossed by Gruda, as well as rescue Consuelo.
This was the third and final time Lancaster and Siodmak teamed up. Their previous films, The Killers (1946), based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, and Criss Cross (1949), from a novel by Don Tracy, were both film noirs. However, this was less of a stretch for them than you might think. Lancaster, of course, was originally an acrobat, and had already done films showing off his athletic skills, such as Rope and Sand (1949), Vengeance Valley, Jim Thorpe: All American (both 1951), and The Flame and the Arrow (1950), the film Pirate most resembled. And while Siodmak had mostly done thriller/noir films in American – aside from the two films with Lancaster, he also did three films with Ella Raines (Phantom Lady, The Suspect (both 1944), and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)*), and the HItchcockian The Spiral Staircase (1946) – but he had also done films like Son of Dracula (1943) and the campy Cobra Woman (1944), which were considerably lighter in tone. Also, while original writer Waldo Salt had written a more serious screenplay about tyranny before being blacklisted, Siodmak and new writer Roland Kibbee (who had written Ten Tall Men, starring Lancaster, and who would go on to write three other films starring Lancaster – including The Midnight Man (1974), which he and Lancaster co-directed) changed it into a comedy, though there are traces of political commentary (when Consuelo at one point pleads for Vallo to fight with them because it’s “decent”, Vallo replies, “All my life I’ve watched injustice and dishonesty fly the flag of decency. I don’t trust it”). Certainly, getting there was no picnic; Lancaster and Siodmak had a falling out during the making of the film (which went way over budget), and Siodmak would complain later about how much of a bully Lancaster was during the production (whether it was because of this or other reasons, Siodmak never worked in Hollywood again)~. Yet none of that tension showed up on screen, and like all of the best entertainments, it works because it appears effortless.
A great deal of credit for why The Crimson Pirate works so well goes to the technicians working with Siodmak. Cinematographer Otto Heller was well into his third decade of a long, if not particularly distinguished, career up till then (his most well-known credit up to that point was the British crime drama They Made Me a Fugitive; later, he went on to shoot such great films as The Ladykillers, Peeping Tom, and The Ipcress File), and he gives the film a vibrant and colorful look. The fight scenes are also staged well, and he and editor Jack Harris (who worked as an editor for David Lean on Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist, and also edited The Ladykillers) keep the action coherent, even when such anachronistic weapons as nitroglycerin are used (courtesy of Professor Prudence (James Hayter), who ends up helping Vallo). Also, there’s the boisterous score by William Alwyn (who worked with Carol Reed on Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, and went on to do the score for A Night to Remember and Shake Hands with the Devil), which manages to go for grandeur yet stay light at the same time. Finally, Kibbee deserves credit as well for helping keep a light touch as well, and delivering a knowing wink at the genre conventions – when Humble Bellows (Torin Thatcher), one of the pirates, leads a mutiny against Vallo, he explains it’s practically a pirate’s duty to double-cross anyone.
Still, the lion’s share of the credit should go to Lancaster, who also co-produced with his partner Harold Hecht (though Hecht had produced three previous films of Lancaster’s, this was the first time Lancaster officially served as producer; they went on to produce 15 more films together through their production company). Lancaster has had the reputation of being one of the few actors who did his own stunts (he started out as a circus performer), and while this has been disputed (on The Flame and the Arrow, Don Turner, one of the stuntman, pointed out he had doubled for Lancaster in the fight scenes), there’s no doubt Lancaster brings immense physicality to the role. Whether swinging from one end of his ship to another, eluding a squadron of soldiers that are chasing him and his first mate Ojo (Nick Cravat – more on him in a moment), or fighting them on board his ship, Lancaster is entirely convincing in the role, even if he looks too clean-cut to be a pirate (one of my former co-workers groused about his impeccably white teeth – which he shows off at various times – but to me, it’s all part of the film). And Lancaster’s magnetism and sheer joy in performing never curdle into smugness. He also is able to handle Vallo’s change of heart as well, without it making it seem like it comes out of left field (he also pulls off a scene in drag – when he, Ojo and the professor disguise themselves as flower girls to rescue Consuelo – despite how big he is).
Cravat, Lancaster’s former circus partner who had become Lancaster’s trainer in real life, is also a hoot. As in The Flame and the Arrow, the first time Cravat and Lancaster had appeared together, Cravat plays a mute character, the better to hide his thick Brooklyn accent. In this movie, Cravat is almost as good as Harpo Marx at playing a comic mute (which is saying something) – especially when he demonstrates “paying through the nose” to a group of amused ladies of the court – and is equally adept as Lancaster at the action scenes. The rest of the cast, while not memorable, is serviceable, with Bradley, Hayter, and Thatcher being the standouts (this film also provides early roles for Christopher Lee, as a British military attache, and Dana Wynter, as a woman Gruda is with when Vallo first takes over his ship), and at the very least, they all seem in on the fun as well. There are also some sigh gags thrown in, as when Valley, Ojo, and the professor carry a boat from the water onto ground, and we can only see their feet as they try to get away (the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie pays homage to this scene), and it’s an example of the type of gag that makes this movie seem effortless and come off as actually entertaining, making it one of the reasons why The Crimson Pirate stands as a superior example of a swashbuckler movie.
*-Raines also appeared in Siodmak’s Time Out of Mind (1947), but this was not a thriller/noir.
~-According to Lancaster biographer Kate Buford, Lancaster was going through marriage troubles at the time, and was also under investigation by the HUAC for his liberal political views, though whether this had to do with his on-set behavior remains unclear.
From July 17 to August 27, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) spotlighted indie films of the 80’s. Leaving aside the question of what an indie film really is, when it comes to movies, the 80’s are generally thought of as the decade when blockbusters took over, “high concept” became the order of the day, movies became more conservative both politically and financially, and, in general, movies became more homogenized. Also, the thinking goes, indie films weren’t a thing until either 1989 (when sex, lies & videotape won the Palme D’Or at Cannes) or 1992 (when Reservoir Dogs exploded at Sundance). Like many media-written histories when it comes to movies, this is an oversimplification of the times. It is true the 80’s were top-heavy with blockbusters, but it’s also true the 80’s saw the rise, or introduction, of many indie directors who would soon become a force. The series at BAM pays attention to the obvious names, like Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and David Lynch, but it’s nice to see they were also spotlighting the names that tend to get forgotten when it comes to movies in general and indie movies in particular, like Victor Nunez (whose A Flash of Green was shown in the series), John Sayles (represented by Matewan) and especially Alan Rudolph.
To be sure, there are probably good reasons why Rudolph isn’t a name brought up too often when discussing directors in general and indie directors in particular. For one thing, Rudolph hasn’t had a movie released since 2006’s Intimate Affairs (aka Investigating Sex), which was actually filmed in 2001 (the last movie he made was 2002’s The Secret Lives of Dentists). For another, Rudolph has never had a big following among audiences; none of his movies have really been hits. There’s also the fact his films all together have garnered two Oscar nominations (Best Original Score for 1984’s Songwriter, and Best Actress for Julie Christie in 1997’s Afterglow). And while his movies have played at various film festivals, and he’s had his fair share of fans among critics (Roger Ebert put Choose Me and Trouble in Mind on his ten-best lists in 1984 and 1986, respectively), many critics have been baffled by, or even hostile to, his films (Peter Rainer once said Rudolph had a “prodigious pretentiousness” when it came to ideas). And all of that has to do with the kind of films Rudolph makes.
When a filmmaker works outside the mainstream and doesn’t get mainstream acceptance, the common line you’ll hear from critics, or fans of the filmmaker, is they don’t fit inside the cookie-cutter, blockbuster-driven standard of most studio films. However, Rudolph is an outsider even along those lines. You may watch a David Cronenberg or David Lynch movie and find them strange or weird, but they’re strange in a way that’s identifiable, whereas that’s not always the case with Rudolph’s films. A former writer for a fanzine I once contributed to called Rudolph’s movies what would happen if Humphrey Bogart took a wrong turn somewhere and wound up in a Fred Astaire movie, but even that sounds inadequate. Rudolph’s most important association during his career, arguably, was Robert Altman – Rudolph served as assistant director on The Long Goodbye and Nashville and co-wrote the screenplay for Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, while Altman produced five of Rudolph’s films (Welcome to L.A., Remember by Name, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Afterglow, and Trixie) – and that gets a little closer to what Rudolph is about. They both share a love for a moving camera, ensemble casts, improvisation*, jazz music, and deconstructing whatever genre they were working in. Yet even that comparison is imperfect, for while Altman’s movies have a more realistic (some have said cynical) tone, in most of his movies, Rudolph goes for something more romantic (both happy and sad romantic)**. I would argue the closest filmmaker to Rudolph’s sensibility and view of the world is Wong Kar-Wei. Both of them are more interested in the emotion and the character than in the story, and both of them are making fantasies that are set in the “real” world, which is a dissonance that doesn’t seem to be embraced by either audiences or studio executives (as well as some critics), but when it works can be entertaining and moving. It also comes across as a series of “movie moments”; as James Harvey has described them in books like Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges and Movie Love in the ’50’s, that could only happen in movies and yet are incredibly true to life. Though Rudolph has never cited them specifically as far as I know, I would also argue Howard Hawks and Max Ophuls are major influences on him; the latter for his roving camera and his searching for emotional truth, while the former for overlapping dialogue (also an influence on Altman) and for preferring, as he famously once said to Robert Mitchum when pitching him El Dorado, character over story because “stories bore people”. Both of them are also fond of those “movie moments” Harvey has spoken of.
Rudolph is perhaps fond of “movie moments” because he grew up in the movie business. His father, Oscar Rudolph, started out as an actor before moving onto directing, mostly for television (he worked on Batman and The Donna Reed Show, among other shows), and Rudolph even appeared, at age 6, in a film his father directed that featured Lenny Bruce. You can see how that would lead him to want to twist genres around, like Altman did, and not take them seriously. Yet, at the same time, it also led him to fully invest in the idea that movies are like dreams and fantasy (in a profile American Film did on him in their March 1986 issue, Rudolph dismissed the idea that movies could ever be “realistic”). As a matter of fact, Rudolph’s first projects dealt with dreams – or, rather, nightmares.
Rudolph tends to think of Welcome to L.A. as his first film as director, but it was actually Premonition (aka Head or The Impure), which came out in 1972. It also showed his interest in music right away, as the main characters were wannabe musicians. However, it’s in the horror genre, though unlike other directors of the time who cut their teeth on low-budget, exploitation horror films, Rudolph doesn’t show much facility or interest in the genre. The story he came up with could have conceivably worked. Neil (Carl Crow), a guitarist/harmonica player in his mid-20’s, strolls around what looks like a ghost town, and tells the tale of how he was in Mexico with a professor (Victor Izay) one night when they came across a skeleton, and Neil, who had been smoking pot at the time, was freaked out by visions he had with some kind of boogeyman, which causes him and the professor to crash their truck. Neil never spoke of what happened, but he quit smoking pot and quit playing the guitar, concentrating on the harmonica instead. And several months later, he’s formed a trio with Andy (Tim Ray) and Baker (Winfry Hester Hill), two guitar players. They go out to an old house to rehearse for a possible gig, but the same red flowers that Neil saw in Mexico that night are at the house, and Neil, along with Andy, starts to have the same nightmares.
If you approach Premonition as a curio, there is certainly value to be had. Alex Del Zoppo, from the band Sweetwater, co-wrote the music for the movie (along with Ray and Tom Akers). This was the first feature that John Bailey served on as cinematographer (he went on to do such movies as Ordinary People, Mishima, Groundhog Day and the upcoming A Walk in the Woods). Carol Littleton, who worked on the sound effects, went onto be an editor for Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist) and Jonathan Demme (Swimming to Cambodia, the remake of The Manchurian Candidate). Jan Kiesser, who would serve as Rudolph’s cinematographer on five subsequent films (beginning with Rudolph’s documentary Return Engagement), was in charge of special effects. And the effects Rudolph and his crew bring off involving the dreams Neil and Andy have are quite striking considering the budget and the time period; they’re both haunted by a strange wood-like creature, and thanks to the way the film is shot, and the electronic score, the creature does come off as creepy. Yet, for someone who would go on to write memorable characters, and for someone who always claimed the actors and characters were his primary concerns, Rudolph seems strangely uninterested in either. Admittedly, no one was a big name before or after (Crow ended up drowning seven years later), but everyone seems awkward except for Hill, who might have a great range, but at least shows a warm presence. And while the score is fine, the music Crow and the others play isn’t very interesting. Finally, while story has always been the least of Rudolph’s concerns, it really doesn’t add up to much at the end.
For all of its flaws, Premonition is at least worth watching, which is more than can be said for Rudolph’s follow-up as a director, Nightmare Circus (aka Terror Circus and Barn of the Naked Dead). Throughout his career, Rudolph did take on a few for-hire gigs where he didn’t write the script (it’s credited to Roman Valenti, based on a story by co-producer Gerald Cormier; for each of them, this is their only writing credit), and this is not only the first example of this, but also the worst movie Rudolph ever made. It’s about three showgirls – Sheri (Sherry Alberoni, best known as the voice of the scheming Alexandra on the Josie & the Pussycats animated series), Corrine (Gyl Roland, daughter of famed actors Gilbert Roland and Constance Bennett), and Simone (Manuela Thiess) – who are on their way to Las Vegas when their car breaks down, and end up getting kidnapped by Andre (Andrew Prine, known for his work in westerns – Chisum – and exploitation films such as The Centerfold Girls), a psycho who chains women in his barn and plans to use them as a circus act. And there’s an even bigger monster being locked away in a tool shed just at the edge of the barn grounds. To his credit, Rudolph doesn’t seem interested in sleazing up the film; except for one shot of the women bathing themselves, they stay mostly in regular clothes, and he also cuts away from the violent acts instead of exploiting them as well. But Rudolph, Cormier and Valenti also don’t seem very interested in the women as characters, the villains aren’t well-defined either (there’s a halfhearted attempt on the one hand for giving a reason for Andre’s craziness, but it’s done in an unoriginal and ham-handed way, and the same goes in providing context for the other bad guy in the film), and it’s still a sleazy story. About the only thing worth of interest in the film is the song “Evil Eyes”, sung by Pamela Miller over the opening credits.
By this time, Rudolph had already met and began the first of his most important creative partnerships (the other two will be discussed in a future post), and that was working with Altman. While Rudolph had also served in a capacity of assistant director on several episodes of The Brady Bunch, as well as such films as Riot (the prison movie starring Jim Brown and Gene Hackman) and the first version of Elmore Leonard’s novel The Big Bounce (with Ryan O’Neal), nothing he had done to that point was up to the quality of what he did with Altman, being the second assistant director on The Long Goodbye and California Split, and first assistant director on Altman’s crowning achievement, Nashville. Rudolph then moved up to co-writing (with Altman) Altman’s follow-up to Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. Today, the film is best remembered as the film that cost Altman the chance to adapt E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a novel many fans thought was tailor-made for him, because the financial failure of the film caused producer Dino de Laurentis to look elsewhere. But at the time, Altman intended the film (loosely adapted from Arthur Kopit’s play Indians) to be a commentary on American iconography in general (though he would always deny it was a specific commentary on the American bicentennial, which happened the year the film came out).
While the play centers on the relationship between Buffalo Bill (Paul Newman in the movie) and Wild Bill Hickcok as much as the relationship between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), the movie drops Wild Bill completely, instead playing up Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster), the man who helped make the legend of Buffalo Bill. It also plays up Buffalo Bill more as a fraud, not so much in what he promised Sitting Bull in reference to helping him and his tribe (Rudolph and Altman drop the device of the Senate hearing from the play), as in the general idea Buffalo Bill was merely a braggart when it came to his acts of heroism. The problem with the movie, at least from the point of view of the writing, is Rudolph and Altman never make Sitting Bull anything more than a symbol (it doesn’t help he remains mute throughout the entire film, speaking only through a translator played by Will Sampson). Thanks to this, and Newman’s strangely uncomfortable performance as Buffalo Bill (he did much better in another film deconstructing a Western legend, John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean), the movie is a disappointing entry in Altman’s catalog, albeit a fascinating one. As I’ll show in my next post, Rudolph, on the other hand, was able to move on from this to doing what he called his first real film, even if both the story and the personnel he used borrowed heavily from his mentor.
*- Lili Taylor, one of a handful of actors who worked with both Altman and Rudolph, confessed in an interview with the Toronto Star – when Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle played the Toronto Film Festival – that she felt overwhelmed by the constant improvisation in Rudolph’s film (she played Edna Ferber). However, Jennifer Beals, who also had appeared in the film (as Robert Benchley’s wife Gertrude), and who had been cut out of Altman’s Short Cuts, called it a great experience, and praised in particular the spontaneity of the filming (she also said Taylor was the one who told her not to worry about anything).
**-In the oral autobiography of Altman, Rudolph talked about the scene in Short Cuts when Chris Penn’s character kills the young woman, and about how while he admired the scene, he had a more romantic view of life than Altman and would never be able to film something like that.
The history of movies has been filled with great movies (and not-so-great ones, to put it mildly), but also of projects that never got off the ground, missed opportunities, and casting decisions that made or broke careers. There are all kinds of tantalizing questions in this regard, like what if Orson Welles had been able to release The Magnificent Ambersons in the form he intended, or what if Stanley Kubrick had been able to make his Napoleon biopic, or what if George Raft hadn’t turned down High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. And most germane to the topic at hand is this; what if Tuesday Weld had said yes to Bonnie & Clyde? Weld was one of the leading candidates to play Bonnie Parker in the film (along with Jane Fonda and Natalie Wood), but she turned down the role, partly because she had just given birth to a daughter, but also partly because, as she put it, she knew the movie was going to be a big success. Perhaps, having already been through enough hoopla when she appeared on the show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (which also featured Bonnie & Clyde star Warren Beatty), Weld didn’t want to have to go through it again. Whether not that was true, the fact remained while Faye Dunaway became a star after stepping into the role of Bonnie Parker, Weld never got that breakout role; not only did she turn down other movies that became big hits (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the original version of True Grit), the movies she did choose to do (I Walk the Line, A Safe Place, Play it As it Lays) didn’t have much impact with critics or audiences. For Weld fans, the closest we’ll ever come to seeing what she could have done with the role of Bonnie Parker is her performance in the 1968 movie Pretty Poison. Fortunately, despite the fact this was yet another Weld movie that never found its audience, it’s a very good movie, as well as a very good vehicle for Weld’s talents.
Weld isn’t the main focus of the movie, at least not at first. Instead, the movie – directed by Noel Black and adapted by Lorenzo Semple Jr. from the novel She Let Him Continue by Stephen Geller – centers on Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), a mentally disturbed young man. As the movie opens, Dennis is being released from a psychiatric ward, which he was sentenced to after he burned a house down while his aunt was still inside (he claimed he didn’t know she was there). Upon his release, Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), his case worker, has arranged for Dennis to get a job at a lumber yard (and when Dennis mentions he’d rather work in interplanetary navigation, Morton, unamused, tells him the real world has no place for fantasies). However, a year later, Dennis is working at a chemical plant instead of the lumber yard, and his boss, Bud Munsch (Dick O’Neill), doesn’t think much of him (especially since Dennis shows up late to work and causes an accident by being distracted). Then, one day, when Sue Ann Stepanek (Weld) comes over to the hot dog stand Dennis usually goes to for lunch (she asks for change of a quarter), he follows her over to the pay phone she goes to, tells her not to look at him as he’s being watched (there is a man across the street staring at him, though we don’t know why), hands her a small bottle (which he later claims contains a chemical from where he works), and tells her to meet him at the movie theater later.
It turns out Dennis psychosis is living in a fantasy world. In the first scene, he tells Morton he feels that signing up for interplanetary travel is more commensurate with his talents than working in a lumber yard, until Morton angrily tells him there’s no place for fantasies in the real world. Dennis tries to assure Morton he was kidding, but around Sue Ann, he claims to be a CIA agent working undercover at the chemical plant. He takes her to the make-out point of the town to try and “recruit” her, when it’s clear he’s doing this as much because he lusts after her (the first time he sees her is as a majorette in the high school marching band – which is why he’s able to trip her up when she pretends she’s in college – and thinking back on that day is why he became distracted at work and the accident happened) as to live out his fantasy life of really being in the CIA. Things get complicated by a couple of factors, however. One is Morton is able to track Dennis down at the plant, and is not happy about the fact Dennis has been out of contact with him for a year; Dennis, in turn, is upset by the fact Morton tells his boss about his past and gets him fired. Not only that, but it turns out Sue Ann is even more psychotic than he is. First, when Dennis goes to Sue Ann’s house to meet her mother (Beverly Garland), and her mother, upset that Sue Ann lied to her about Dennis, grounds her, they end up fighting, after which her mother slaps her, and Sue Ann slaps her mother back. Then, when Dennis and Sue Ann go to the plant to commit an act of sabotage (screwing with the pipe that dumps waste into the river), the night guard catches Dennis and is about to put him under arrest when Sue Ann hits him over the head, killing him. Finally, when the police find Dennis and Sue Ann later (not for what happened at the plant, but because he was an older man with a minor) and take them back to Sue Ann’s place, her mother orders Dennis to stay away from Sue Ann (the only reason why she didn’t turn Dennis over to the police was because of the attention it would bring on Sue Ann); that, along with the fact her mother discovers a bit of subterfuge Dennis and Sue Ann have done to get Morton off of his back (pretending he’s got another job prospect), Sue Ann tells Dennis the only logical thing left for them to do is to kill her mother.
If you think this is sounding like the plot to a film noir, you wouldn’t be far off. Dennis is, after all, just like the sad sack of those noir movies who ends up way over their heads, Sue Ann is the perfect example of a femme fatale, and there’s an inevitability to the conclusion here. But Black and Semple put some twists on the noir story. For starters, as with the novel, it takes place in a suburb/small town, not a city (the movie was shot in Great Barrington and North Adams in Massachusetts). Also, while there are nighttime scenes (as when Dennis and Sue Ann have sex for the first time in her car, or when they sneak into the plant at night), Black and cinematographer David L. Quaid (whose most notable other work was another suburban tale, Frank Perry’s film version of the John Cheever story The Swimmer) film much of the movie in the daytime, and with the sun out. They don’t make the colors overly garish, but they do capture the banality of the town that makes understandable what both Dennis and Sue Ann are trying to escape from (if not what methods they use to do so). In addition, while noir often (though not always) used first-person narration (and Geller’s novel is even narrated by Dennis in the first-person, so it would have been easy for Semple to do the same in his screenplay), the movie eschews that, even though it’s so obviously told from Dennis’ point of view (he’s in almost every scene, except for the final scene). Finally, and most importantly, while keeping a doomed tone (and a main character who knows he’s doomed, as Dennis does when he finds out Sue Ann killed the night guard, or when she begs him to kill her mother), Black and Semple make the tone darkly comic. Semple, at the time, was best known for being the creator of the live-action Batman TV series that had started up a couple of years earlier (he was also a writer on two of the best paranoid thrillers of the 70’s, The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor), so the tone may not be surprising from him, but it is rather bracing. The novel apparently was sold as a tale of alienated youth, but Black and Semple avoid all that, especially in their portrayal of Sue Ann.
As I mentioned before, we first see Sue Ann in the marching band, and she’s presented to us, and Dennis, as the symbol of the classic blonde archetype (as if to reinforce the point, the band is playing John Philip Sousa). It’s easy to see why Dennis is attracted to her, and at first, we think Sue Ann is merely attracted to Dennis because he’s breaking up the boredom of her everyday life. But Dennis, of course, isn’t completely convincing in his act as a CIA agent (especially at how thrown he is when Sue Ann tells him she can’t meet up with him the night he originally plans to sabotage the plant, because she’s been grounded), and though Sue Ann can see through his act right away, we can see she’s amused by it, turned by it, and willing to use it to her own ends. We also see as much as Dennis may be the one who claims to plan things out, it’s Weld who’s pulling the strings. This is especially clear after the murder of the night guard; while Dennis panics, it’s Sue Ann who comes up with the idea of moving the guard to where the pipe is, so people will assume the plant “accident” is what killed him. It may not be well thought out – certainly, Dennis’ boss isn’t fooled – but it’s more than Dennis can muster up. And when Sue Ann tells Dennis he has to kill her mother, it becomes clear who’s in charge, as well as the dangerous charge lurking under Sue Ann’s facade.
Curiously enough, Weld was never a fan of this movie, or her performance. In an interview she did with Rex Reed a few years later, she called it the worst experience she had from a creative standpoint, and she quarreled with Black throughout. But you’d never know it from her performance here. Even though, at 25, she was too old for the role (though, of course, that was standard practice, and continues today), she brings a girlishness that makes her seem right as a teenager, and of course a sense of playfulness, sexuality, and danger that would have made her a perfect Bonnie Parker. And at no time does she “indicate”, even when she’s pretending to be a victim near the end, or when you see her at the end putting the moves on another guy. It’s an entirely natural and unaffected performance. Perkins, at this point in his career, was being typecast in variations on Norman Bates, and this certainly falls into that category. Even though, he finds nuance here, especially when Dennis realizes he’s over his head. And in any other actor’s hand, the scene where he tries to allude to how dangerous Sue Ann is without explaining it outright to Morton (and says the title) might have come off as clunky exposition, but Perkins pulls it off. Randolph is also very good as the stern but compassionate Morton. The film had the bad timing of coming out after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, so the studio, 20th Century Fox, didn’t promote is as much as they could have (according to Black), but while the New York Times panned it (killing its chances in New York), other critics praised it – Pauline Kael called it “modulated and fine-drawn”, and one that didn’t talk down to its audience, while Gene Siskel put it on his 10-best list when it opened in Chicago a year later – and it eventually became a cult movie. Unfortunately, it didn’t do much to boost anyone’s career; Perkins did manage to get more roles in other high-profile films (and reunited with Weld three years later in Play it as it Lays, another flop), but Black was mostly confined to television for the rest of his career, and as I mentioned above, Weld’s career never took off like it should have. Still, Pretty Poison provides a fascinating glimpse at the career that could have been.
This is my long-overdue post for the second annual “British Invaders” blogathon, hosted by Terrence (A Shroud of Thoughts). Enjoy!
Before his death in 2014, Bob Hoskins had appeared in five feature films (as well as one made-for-TV film) with Michael Caine. Along with that, another thing they had in common was they appeared in three of the best gangster films to come out of Britain – Get Carter (which starred Caine), The Long Good Friday (which starred Hoskins), and Mona Lisa (which both of them were in, though Hoskins had the bigger role). In fact, Caine once told Hoskins those were the only three great gangster films to come out of Britain. I’m not completely familiar with British gangster films, but I would say there have been others that are just as good, including The Hit, which came out not long before Mona Lisa. What all four of them have in common is they’re all more than gangster films; Get Carter is a classic revenge tale, The Long Good Friday uses the gangster-as-businessman model that’s served, among others, the first two Godfather films (as well as doubling as a political thriller), The Hit is an existential road movie, and Mona Lisa grafts the gangster genre onto a classic fairy tale.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for all four movies.
When the gangster film became one of the more popular genres in Hollywood in the pre-Code 1930’s, a few of the most memorable ones were inspired by real-life gangsters. In particular, both Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932) were thinly-disguised films about Al Capone (though, of course, in real life, Capone didn’t meet his end like Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni’s characters did in their respective films). In Britain, meanwhile, the Krays – twin brothers Reginald and Ronnie – and Charlie Richardson became notorious in the 50’s and 60’s, but for the most part, gangster films made in Britain still used the characters of gangsters in a comic fashion.* But Caine wanted to play a gangster that was more in line with the real toughs he had known (as opposed to the ones he had played in the original versions of The Italian Job and Gambit), and when Michael Klinger, a producer he had decided to partner up with, brought him a novel called Jack’s Return Home, by Ted Lewis, he knew he had found the vehicle to do so. Furthermore, both Caine and Klinger happened at the same night to watch a made-for-TV movie (for Playhouse) called “Rumour” – about a journalist out to expose prostitution – and realized Mike Hodges, the man who wrote and directed the feature, would be ideal to adapt Lewis’ novel, despite the fact Hodges had to this point never made a feature film before. Out of that came Get Carter, which seems to be generally regarded not only as the best British gangster movie ever made, but one of the best British movies ever made, period.
The novel and movie essentially follow the same story. Jack Carter (Caine) goes to his hometown, against the advice and wishes of his bosses Gerald (Terrence Rigby, who played Roy Bland in the miniseries version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Sid Fletcher (John Bindon, who also appeared in Performance the previous year), to find out why his estranged brother Frank (played in a cameo by Reg Niven, Klinger’s chauffeur) died of what seemed to be a drunk driving accident. Carter goes around asking, among others, his niece Doreen (Petra Markham) – who, though the novel makes this clearer, may also have been Carter’s biological daughter – Doreen’s mother Margaret (Dorothy White), Eric Paice (Ian Hendry, who was in The Avengers back when the John Steed character was the sidekick and not the star), whom Carter knew from the old days, Eric’s boss Cyril Kinnear (playwright John Osborne), Keith (Alun Armstrong), a friend of Frank’s, and Cliff (Bryan Mosely), a developer. While many of the people he asks insist Frank really did drink too much, Carter knows his brother wasn’t much of a drinker, and eventually finds out Frank’s death had to do with a porn film Doreen had appeared in.
On a blurb appearing on a re-issued version of the novel, British crime novelist Derek Raymond praises Lewis for following the dictum of Raymond Chandler – “The crime story tips violence out of its vase on the shelf and pours it back into the street where it belongs” – in writing the novel. Hodges seems similarly inspired to do so with the movie. The novel doesn’t specify what city Carter came from (except a steel town in middle England), but Hodges, having done time making documentaries for the BBC, and, as he put it, disillusioned by the failed promise of the 60’s to shatter the barriers of British society, decided to set the movie in northern England, specifically the town of Newcastle, a town he knew well, to show what had happened to that area of England. He and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky (who had started out photographing documentary shorts) also filmed on location, so you can see the grime Carter had to wipe off himself to escape the town, and cast locals from the town whenever he could (as in the memorable scene when a woman (Denea Wilde) sings the classic standard “How About You” and gets into a fight with another woman). Also, except for Caine, and to a lesser extent Hendry and Britt Ekland (who plays Carter’s mistress in London), most of the actors in it were either unknowns (this was Armstrong’s first film) or locals, to make it seem more authentic.
In keeping with the documentary-style filmmaking Hodges brought to Lewis’ material was the depiction of violence. Instead of being the comic violence of, say, the Bond films, the bloodless violence of Production Code-era films, or the stylized violence of someone like Sam Peckinpah, Hodges films it cleanly, such as when Carter prevents a hood from getting out of the car by slamming the door into him. Per Caine’s dictum about wanting to show the physical toll violence took, we also see the after-effects, as when Carter visits Keith after he’s been beaten up by several of Kinnear’s men, and Keith is so bruised and battered he can’t even get out of bed. That also comes to play in the final scene of the film, when Carter gets shot and killed by J (Karl Howard), an assassin hired by Kinnear (and who, as it happens, was on the train ride Carter was on in the beginning of the film); Hodges and Suschitzky shoot it simply, without tricks, making it all the more shocking.** And the hardness Caine brings to the role is in tune with the documentary-like tone Hodges brings as well. Caine can be likable and charming on screen, but he foregoes all of that with his performance here. Other than anger, the only emotions he brings out in any significant way are disgust, both towards others and himself (as when he sees a family with children on a ferry and realizes how far he’s slipped), and sadness (when he sees Doreen in the porn film, tears fall from his eyes, though his face doesn’t change expression). Hendry apparently was originally promised the role of Carter, and never forgave Caine for getting it, so the tension between Carter and Eric on screen came from a real place (for his part, Caine claimed on the DVD commentary that Hendry was the type of heavy drinker Caine tried to stay away from). And Osborne is very good in the slimy role of Kinnear. The film became enough of a hit that it was remade twice, once in 1972 as Hit Man, a blaxploitation version with Bernie Casey in the Carter role (called Tyrone here), and once in 2000 with Sylvester Stallone in the title role (with Caine playing Cliff). What both of those remakes illustrate – aside from their pointlessness – is there’s a difference between *being* tough and *playing* tough. The remakes play at being tough, while the original is tough.
*-The Krays even inspired one of the classic Monty Python sketches, “The Piranha Brothers”, a mock news report about Dinsdale (who was a cruel man, but fair, even when he was nailing your wife’s head to the table) and Doug Piranha (grown men would tear their own heads off rather than face him, because of the way he used…sarcasm).
**-This was another change from the novel; Carter does die at the end, but it’s at the hands of Eric as Carter is killing him. The other major change is both Cliff and Glenda (Geraldine Moffat), Kinnear’s mistress, survive in the novel – they go to the police – but in the movie, Carter kills Cliff by throwing him off of a building, while Glenda dies because she’s in the trunk of a car (put there by Carter) that gets pushed into the river.
One of the best scenes in The Godfather is when Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) goes to a meeting with the heads of the other Five Families (as well as mobsters from other parts of the country), and they, led by Don Barzini (Richard Conte), try to convince him to take the deal he had rejected earlier; that is, go into the drug trade, which they would control, and Don Corleone would allow the others access to the politicians he’s been paying off. At the end of his pitch, Barzini acknowledges Don Corleone could, by rights, bill the other families for his services here; “After all, we are not Communists.” This line is meant to get a laugh, but it’s also a way of illustrating one of the themes of the film, on how gangsters had become like businessmen (what few could see, of course, is how many businessmen, inspired by the film, would go on to act like gangsters) and embraced the virtues of a capitalist system they nevertheless operated entirely outside of. The Long Good Friday, therefore, wasn’t breaking new ground in depicting the gangster as businessman (for that matter, neither was The Godfather), but it pushed the parallel even further by linking its gangster character to the pro-business philosophy of Margaret Thatcher (who had recently been elected Prime Minister of Britain), and contemplating what happened when it went up against a fanatical group, in this case the IRA.
Ironically, when writer Barrie Keeffe and producer Barry Hanson got together one night in the late 1977, they were merely looking to make a good gangster story (originally for TV), as Keefe had been fascinated by gangsters since encountering Ronnie Kray in a bathroom when Keefe was a teenager. But when Keeffe became disgusted with how his old neighborhood had been gentrified, and some time later, had found himself inside a pro-IRA bar in North London, he decided to combine those two strands into the gangster script he would write. Called The Paddy Factor (after the term Scotland Yard used for unsolved crimes that assumed the IRA were the culprit), the script eventually made its way to John Mackenzie, then known mostly for his work on television (though, ironically enough, he had just made his own gangster film, A Sense of Freedom, a biopic of Scottish gangster Jimmy Boyle). Mackenzie loved the main character of Harold Shand (played in the movie by Bob Hoskins, then best known as the sheet-music salesman in the BBC version of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven), but felt the script was florid in many places and needed work. Out of that work came The Long Good Friday (a temporary title – used by Mackenzie because he felt the original title gave the movie’s plot twists away – that became the real title).
As the movie opens, Harold is sitting on top of the world; there’s been peace in the gangster world for the past 10 years, he’s made an awful lot of money, and he and his associates are about to make more, thanks to an upcoming deal he has with Charlie (Eddie Constantine), an American gangster who’s in town. Soon, however, Harold’s world starts to fall apart; Colin (Paul Freeman, soon to be best known as Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark), one of his best friends and closest associates, is knifed in a bathhouse (in his first film role, Pierce Brosnan plays the killer), a bomb goes off in the car taking Harold’s mother to church, killing the driver, and a bomb is found in a pub Harold owns. Not only that, but when Harold and Victoria (Helen Mirren), his mistress, take Charlie and his lawyer to another restaurant Harold owns for dinner, a bomb explodes inside right as they’re pulling up, injuring all of the staff and customers. While Victoria tries to placate Charlie and his lawyer Tony (Stephen Davies), Harold tries to get to the bottom of what’s going on, even pulling in some of the other gang bosses to interrogate them (in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Harold has them hung by hooks in a meatpacking plant). Eventually, Harold discovers it’s the IRA who’s involved – Jeff (Derek Thompson), another one of his closest associates, was paying the IRA to avoid troubles with them, but Colin robbed them, and when the IRA learned Colin was associated with Harold, they targeted Harold. Everyone tries to warn Harold not to mess with the IRA, including Jeff, Charlie, and Parky (Dave King), the police detective on Harold’s payroll, but Harold thinks they’re no more dangerous than the usual thugs he’s dealt with. Of course, Harold is proven wrong.
While Mackenzie insisted on beefing up the IRA angle, as he wanted not only to contrast the fanaticism of the IRA with the “it’s just business” attitude of Harold and the other gangsters, but also to contrast it with the Thatcher-like values Harold was espousing, it did prove for some rocky times when it came to getting the film released. The original company that was set to release it wanted to cut the film because of the IRA theme, and also dub over Hoskins’ voice. Hoskins eventually took them to court to get that stopped, and the producer bought the film back from the distributor, but it wasn’t until Eric Idle saw the film at a screening (at the behest of Hoskins or Mirren) and recommended it to Handmade Films (who had distributed Monty Python’s Life of Brian) that they picked up the film. And the IRA does add all of those elements to the film, making it more than just a gangster film. Of course, it’s also a character study, and Mackenzie and Keeffe bring that out as well. Early on in the film, George takes Charlie and other friends and associates (including Parky) on his boat, and announces the prospective partnership while they go under a bridge. Mackenzie and cinematographer Phil Meheux (who went on to shoot four more films for Mackenzie, including The Fourth Protocol, with Brosnan in a starring role this time) frame Harold in the center, making him a larger-than-life figure, which is of course setting him up for a fall. Harold at first seems to be, despite his working-class upbringing, a charming, if over-enthusiastic (Charlie has to warn Harold not to rush him), boss, and yet at the same time has to show the danger and anger lurking underneath, while also showing some vulnerability as well, and Mackenzie and Keeffe are able to bring all of that out.
A lot of that is due to Hoskins, of course, He makes Harold into a dynamo despite his stature (watch the way he walks through the airport in his first scene), yet also someone who’s smart and capable of grief despite his toughness (as when he hears of Colin’s death, and after he kills Jeff in a blind rage after discovering Jeff’s betrayal). The most memorable demonstration of Hoskins’ ability (and the best, in my opinion) comes at the end of the film. After Harold finds out Charlie is pulling out of his deal because of all of the bombings and because of the IRA’s involvement, he chews Charlie out for being scared (“The mafia – I’ve shit ’em!”), and resolves to go into business with the Germans. He leaves the hotel where Charlie is at, and signals for a car, only to find out too late it has Brosnan and another IRA member inside (Victoria is trapped inside another car). Hoskins is able to go from disbelief to anger to acceptance, all without saying a word, and it’s a masterful example of good acting. Mirren is also terrific in making the role of Victoria more than just a gangster’s moll. She brings class to Harold, but she also brings intelligence (she’s able to guess Jeff is more involved with the story than he admits), and yet also toughness (she stands up to Harold when he berates her for spilling the beans to Charlie about the bombs) mixed with vulnerability (in that same scene, she also cries in fear, which was Mirren’s suggestion). Constantine, who replaced Anthony Franciosa as shooting started (Franciosa claimed he didn’t like the fact the script had changed so much before the film started shooting), was best known for playing the detective Lemmy Caution in a series of French films, may have been a bit flat in delivering his dialogue, but he has the right face for Charlie, and brings a nice presence as well. While Hoskins, Mirren, and of course Brosnan all went on to bigger things, Mackenzie and Keeffe never topped The Long Good Friday, but it’s a tough act to follow.
In 1974, Derek Creighton “Bertie” Smalls, an armed robber in Britain who had been caught by the police earlier, gave testimony in court where he informed on 32 of his associates in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Though British police, as with police throughout the world, relied on informers (in Britain, known as “grasses”), Smalls was the most notorious one, and became known as a “supergrass”. Before he was caught, Smalls hid out in Torremolinos in Spain; after an extradition treaty between Spain and the United Kingdom expired in 1978, so many British criminals fled to the Costa del Sol countryside that it was nicknamed Costa del Crime. Those two facts became an inspiration for The Hit, but writer Peter Prince and director Stephen Frears (who had worked together four times before on British TV) used the occasion to make not just a gangster film, but a fish-out-of-water film and an existential road film.
The Smalls character here is Willie Parker (Terrence Stamp), a driver in a series of robberies who, early in the film informs on the others, among them Corrigan (Lennie Peters, the blind singer who was part of the pop group Peters & Lee). While Willie is unnerved when the other robbers start singing Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” after his testimony (which happened in real life to Smalls), he is able to go to Spain safely, and nothing happens to him, at least until 10 years later. Now living comfortably in Spain, he comes from from a shopping trip only to find four men waiting for him, and while he puts up a fight (and his bodyguard is run over), eventually, he sees the futility of fighting and gives himself up. The four men take him to Braddock (John Hurt) and his partner Myron (Tim Roth), who, once they verify who he is (and after they’ve killed the four by putting a bomb in a suitcase that they thought contained their payoff for the job), set out to take Willie to Paris, where Corrigan and the others are presumably waiting for him. However, things don’t quite go as planned. For starters, instead of being anxious and trying to escape, Willie seems cheerfully resigned to his fate, and even tries to draw the others out by talking to them. For another, there’s a detective (Fernando Rey, known for The French Connection and his films with Luis Bunuel) hot on their trail. Finally, when the three of them go to an apartment in Madrid that’s both a way station and a place to get a new car, they find Harry (Bill Hunter, the late Australian character actor) living there, along with Maggie (Laura del Sol, who had played the title role in Carlos Saura’s version of Carmen a couple of years earlier; Paco del Lucia, the flamenco guitarist who composed and played most of the music for the film, also wrote the score for Saura’s film), his ex-prostitute girlfriend, and Braddock takes Maggie hostage, which makes the situation even more unstable.
The opening credits actually shows Braddock in a scene from later in the film, as Frears wanted to emphasize the movie is as much Braddock’s story as Willie’s. For while Willie can see his fate coming and seems resigned to it, Braddock, who knows he’s on his way down, doesn’t like it at all. He wears sunglasses as a way of blocking off the world, but also to keep anyone from prying inside his skull and finding out how frightened he really is. Where Willie is cheerful and talkative, Braddock only talks when necessary, and is reluctant to give out any information about himself (when Myron reveals his name, Braddock glares at him). Also, while Willie has become well-read during his time in Spain (he talks about history and philosophy during the drive), Braddock’s worldview seems limited to what he has to do. It turns out Willie and Harry each know Braddock by a different name, and when the detective finally catches up to Braddock at the end after the police have mortally wounded him by shooting him, he asks Braddock who he really is, but Braddock dies instead of answering. Underneath his toughness, Braddock also shows vulnerability, as when he’s unable to bring himself to kill Maggie even though he knows it’s necessary.
Along with bringing out the parallel story between Braddock and Willie, Frears and Prince also show Braddock and Myron are out of place in Spain. Frears and cinematographer Mike Molloy (best known for shooting Shock Treatment, the sequel to the cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show) constantly emphasize the landscape of Spain, whether the towns or the countryside, to show how small Braddock and Myron are compared to where they are. It also comes up in the attitudes the two of them have, where they both seem to be dismissive of what’s around them (especially when Myron goes into a bar to order beers for the others, and ends up getting into a fight with a group who’s drinking there). Only Willie is able to fit in, even though he’s still an outsider; he’s also the only one who can understand Maggie in her native language (though it turns out she knows more English than she lets on). Finally, there’s also the contrast between the businesslike manner the detective and the rest of the police conduct their investigation and the unhinged Myron and the tense Braddock conduct their business.
All the actors are good as well. This was one of Roth’s first films (Joe Strummer, of the Clash, was the original choice, but he turned it down and suggested Roth based on his work in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, made for TV), but you wouldn’t know it from how good he is. He plays Myron as an obvious psychopath who shoots first and asks questions later, yet there’s also an odd innocence to him, with the way he looks up to Braddock, and the way he ends up trying to protect Maggie, even though he knows it’s the wrong thing to do. Rey doesn’t have any dialogue till the end, but he effectively conveys authority and professionalism. Likewise, del Sol doesn’t have much dialogue, but is able to show Maggie is tougher than she looks, despite how frightened she is. And in his two scenes, Hunter is good at both the brave front tries to put up as well as the sadness when he’s resigned to his fate. But the film belongs to Stamp and Hurt. Stamp had been an iconic actor in the 60’s, thanks to his work in such films as Billy Budd, The Collector, and Modesty Blaise, but had walked away from that for the most part in the 70’s and 80’s, except for his well-known portrayal of General Zod in the first two Superman movies. Frears doesn’t trade in on Stamp’s past the way Steven Soderbergh would 15 years later in The Limey (which used footage of Stamp from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow), but there is a lot of Stamp’s earlier impishness combined with the maturity he had developed, which proves a perfect fit for Willie. And while Hurt’s role depends on him, at least outwardly, not revealing much to the other characters, he reveals all of his toughness and vulnerability to the audience, which makes us willing to follow him. And more people should follow The Hit as well; it may not be as well known as other British gangster films, but it’s among the best.
Neil Jordan has made a number of different kinds of films, from biopic (Michael Collins) to literary adaptation (the remake of The End of the Affair) to comedy (the remake of We’re No Angels) to revenge film (Angel – aka Danny Boy, his first film, and The Brave One). However, there have been two consistent strands in his career. One is how he’s tried to give many of the movies he’s made a fairy-tale like atmosphere. The other stand is of a man who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be something different than the man thought she was. Mona Lisa was the first example of the latter type of story, and while it’s not my favorite example – The Crying Game remains my favorite – it’s a terrific film nonetheless.
Playing someone far removed from Harold Shand – except for his working-class roots and his explosive temper – Hoskins is George, a man just out of prison for an unspecified crime. He’s estranged from his ex-wife (Pauline Melville) and his daughter Jeannie (Zoe Nathenson), though he eventually makes up with the latter, and he goes to get a job from Mortwell (Caine), a vicious gangster whom he did time for. George eventually gets a job driving a car, but to his initial disgust, he’s meant to drive around Simone (Cathy Tyson), a call girl. It doesn’t help Simone is black (George is prejudiced), and that she looks down on him, considering him ill-mannered and lower-class (Simone’s clients tend to be upper-class). After some initial tension, however, they soon develop a wary rapport, and she tells him she’s looking for another young prostitute, named Cathy, because she wants to protect her from a pimp named Anderson (Clarke Peters, best known today from TV’s The Wire). George agrees to help find her, and as he does, he starts to fall in love with Simone.
As I mentioned at the top, this is partially a fairy tale, as Jordan wanted to bring the simplicity and romanticism of fairy tales to the movies, as well as the danger and darkness of them. Along with the real-life inspirations (a news item about a man who was arrested for assault and who claimed he was trying to protect prostitutes from their pimps, and a TV documentary about a wealthy Soho sex entrepreneur who resembled a middle-class businessman more than anything else), Jordan’s main influence here was the tale of the Frog Prince (George even tries to tell Simone the tale early on). There are fairy tale motifs throughout the movie – George brings a white rabbit when he tries to see Mortwell for the first time, George’s friend Thomas (Robbie Coltrane, Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies, and also TV’s Cracker) has sculptures that could come out of a fairy tale – and also story motifs in general (George and Thomas talk about mystery novels Thomas always lends George to read, and George tells Simone’s tale as if it’s a story). Jordan also brings together both the romantic elements – George is constantly listening to the Nat King Cole version of the title song, especially when he starts falling in love with Simone – as well as the darker elements (when George is driving down the street looking for Cathy, or going around various adult clubs, Jordan and cinematographer Roger Pratt (best known for his work with Terry Gilliam, though he also shot Jordan’s remake of The End of the Affair) make it look like George is entering something out of Dante’s Inferno). Of course, Jordan ends up subverting the Frog Prince tale in that Simone does not fall in love with George, even though she does grow to like him; it turns out Cathy (Kate Hardie), whom George does eventually find, is Simone’s lover.
Hoskins was apparently not Jordan’s first choice for the role – Jordan wrote the part for Sean Connery, who wanted to work with Jordan but wasn’t fond of the part – but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it. George has to be rough yet naive and ultimately romantic, and Hoskins pulls all of that off brilliantly. Take the scene when he finds a scene of an old porn movie Simone appeared in (he got it when he delivered a package to an adult video store). He tries showing it to Simone, who, naturally, is pissed, and starts slapping him. George gets angry and hits her as well, but immediately apologizes, and they hug each other while crying. Hoskins goes through a lot of emotions through the course of that scene, and yet makes them all work. Tyson has the tougher role, as we have to see what draws George to her, yet she also has to remain someone mysterious and opaque, and considering this was her first film role*, she pulls it off beautifully. Coltrane brings warmth, likability, and intelligence to Thomas. Finally, while Caine is only in a few scenes, he perfectly captures someone who maintains a veneer of respectability but who is slimy through and through. Obviously, I don’t agree with Caine’s assertion that Mona Lisa is one of only three great British gangster films, but it’s definitely one of the great ones.
*-Denis O’Brien, who helped provide the money for the film through his company Handmade Films (which he co-owned with George Harrison), objected to the casting of an unknown like Tyson, preferring Grace Jones for the role, as she was just off the Bond film A View to a Kill. Jordan and producer Stephen Woolley both successfully fought O’Brien on that issue, as well as the ending of the film – O’Brien wanted to end it on the violent shootout, when Simone shoots and kills Anderson and Mortwell, and almost shoots George, while Jordan and Woolley were eventually able to get the ending they wanted, with George reminiscing with Thomas, and finally reunited with Jeannie – though O’Brien did win one battle. During the scene where George visits various strip clubs to find Cathy, we hear Genesis’ “In Too Deep”, which Jordan objected to because he wanted something more like what would have played in those clubs, but O’Brien insisted on because of how popular lead singer Phil Collins was. It does play a little too on-the-nose (“All that time I was searching, nowhere to run to”), and Jordan’s objections make sense, but I do think the song works overall.
Claus Von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) and Sunny (Glenn Close) in happier times.
In the book of Reversal of Fortune, a prosecutor describes the Von Bulow case as “”where the little man has a chance to to glimpse inside and see how the rich live (emphasis his)”. He also describes the case as having “everything”, as it has “money, sex, and drugs.” One would think that a tabloid-heavy case like this (described in some quarters as “the case of the decade”, according to Dershowitz’s book) would inspire a tabloid-type movie, but instead, Kazan and Schroeder do something more interesting; they combine a detective story a la All the President’s Men (where the outcome is known but the mystery is never quite solved) with a comedy of manners that shows what happens when the little man sees how the rich live.
After a glimpse of Newport, Rhode Island, where Claus (Jeremy Irons) and Sunny Von Bulow (Glenn Close) lived, we see Sunny in a coma in a hospital room. She narrates (a la William Holden in Sunset Boulevard) as we see a condensed version of Sunny’s first and second comas, the growing suspicions of Sunny’s maid Maria (acting teacher Uta Hagen) – as well as the suspicions of Alexander (Jad Mager) and Ala (Sarah Fearon), Sunny’s son and daughter (respectively) from her first marriage – the investigation that led to the discovery of a black bag containing insulin, and how that all led to Claus being convicted of attempting to murder Sunny by injecting her with insulin to make her go into hypoglycemic shock. Dershowitz (Ron Silver) then comes onto the case when, while at home despairing over two clients of his who are facing the death penalty even though they’re innocent, he gets a phone call from Claus asking him to help out with the appeal. Dershowitz is skeptical at first (in the book, Dershowitz says he received the call on April Fool’s Day, and thought someone from his family was playing a joke on him), but after meeting with Claus, he agrees to take the case. After he assembles some experts and former students to help him – including Sarah (Annabella Sciorra), a former student and ex-girlfriend, Jack (Tom Wright), who knows the Rhode Island political system, and Tom (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a prosecutor who opposed Dershowitz on several cases (though they agree on nothing, Dershowitz knows Tom is better than the Rhode Island D.A., so he can win if he can beat Tom’s arguments) – Dershowitz goes to work on trying to destroy the prosecution’s case in order to win.
Though Dershowitz doesn’t take the case to prove Claus’ innocence – he assumes most clients are guilty, and are lying if they say otherwise; he takes the case primarily because he’s upset about the fact Sunny’s children hired an investigator who decided what could be turned over to the prosecutor – he soon finds some irregularities. For one, through both Claus’ interviews with Dershowitz, and information gleaned from David Marriott (Fisher Stevens), a somewhat shady figure who claimed he supplied drugs to Sunny through Alex, Dershowitz learns Sunny drank a lot and used a lot of drugs, so she wouldn’t have been above injecting herself. At the same time, we learn Sunny was unhappy because Claus wanted to go to work, and because he had been seeing Alexandra Isles (Julie Hagerty, uncredited), a soap opera actress (she appeared on Dark Shadows) who wanted Claus to leave Sunny and marry her. Also, the students prove there couldn’t have been a residue of insulin on the needle, as the prosecution claimed, throwing the attempted murder into doubt. Finally, Dershowitz realizes when Maria found the bag, what she said may not have meant what the prosecution claimed it meant (she actually didn’t think the bag was Sunny’s). Dershowitz finds himself in the unusual, and unwelcome, position of having to prove Claus’ innocence; he thinks it can work in court thanks to precedent Peter (Jack Gilpin), an expert on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, finds, but he knows if it turns out Von Bulow is really guilty, it’ll make Dershowitz look like a fool.
When he first meets with all of his students and experts, Dershowitz explains the public perception is just as important, if not more so, than the actual case (as he puts it, he wants the justices to be able to go home and explain to their wives why they overturned the conviction), and Schroeder and Kazan put that right up front, even if the most we see of public perception is a few stray news reports. Minnie (Felicity Huffman), another one of Dershowitz’s former students, asks him point blank at the meeting why he’s taking the case when Claus is so obviously guilty (it’s her he tells about the reason why he took the case, convincing her it’s more complicated than her moralistic viewpoint). And as Dershowitz and the rest of his students play detective in trying to find out what really happened, Schroeder and Kazan put us in their place, as we, too, try to sort out what happened. We get scenes as told from Claus’ point of view, from Sunny’s when she narrates from the coma (cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, who shot The Passenger and Suspiria, and went on to shoot five more films for Schroeder, shot Sunny’s flashback scenes from above and with a floating camera to give them a dreamlike quality), from the testimonies of Alexandra and Maria, and from Dershowitz and his students as they try to guess what happened (for the second coma, Dershowitz and Sarah give their own versions of what they think happened). As with the book, the movie takes the position there’s enough reasonable doubt that it’s clear Claus should have been found guilty, but it suggests, at the very least, Claus was morally culpable (either he didn’t do enough to stop Sunny from killing herself, or he encouraged it or helped her along; as Dershowitz tells him later, “Legally, this was an important victory. Morally, you’re on your own”). It keeps everything ambiguous. Another part of this is Sunny narrating the story. Kazan says on the DVD commentary he wanted to find a way to present information without the film bogging down, and he thought that was the best way, though he acknowledged it wasn’t universally accepted; while critics (particularly Roger Ebert) loved the device, audiences weren’t happy with it. I must confess, the first time I saw the movie, I wasn’t happy with the narration either, though while I think some of the lines Sunny says while in a coma (“When you get where I am, you will know the rest”) are a little too self-consciously clever, I have come to see Kazan’s point, and accept it as a device.
Then, of course, there’s the comedy of manners. Schroeder and Kazan set up a distance between Claus and Dershowitz from the minute Dershowitz steps into Claus’ penthouse apartment in New York City, with Dershowitz in his rumpled suit and Claus with his impeccable style and lordly accent (Tom Carson, who loved the movie and Irons’ performance, said it “suggests Boris Karloff playing Cary Grant”). It’s also played up in my favorite scene in the film, when Claus visits Dershowitz at his home, where his students are, and they all go out to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Claus looks to get the ginger prawns, but after he gets one, the other students take the plate away and pass it around so when it comes back to him, it’s completely empty, and Claus has to get his own order. While the plate is being passed around, the students, who are slightly unnerved by Claus’ ability to make jokes about his predicament (“What do you get the wife who has everything? A shot of insulin. What do you call a fear of insulin? Claus-trophobia.” According to Dershowitz, Claus was like this in real life), start peppering him with questions, particularly about Alexandra, to the point where Claus moans, “Alan, do they all want to be prosecutors?” Also, the cold, isolated rooms of both the Von Bulow house and of Claus’ apartment get contrasted with the ramshackle but warm house Dershowitz lives in and his students stay and work in, whether they’re doing work, debating the details of the case (Minnie eventually believes Ala and Alexander framed Claus), or playing pickup basketball games (Dershowitz is introduced in the film playing basketball with himself), The camaraderie Dershowitz has with the rest of his students (which includes humor; when Sarah wonders how Claus could go out with a whore – and an apparently ugly one at that – when he had a mistress as beautiful as Alexandra, Raj (Mano Singh), one of Dershowitz’s former students, quips, “There are some things even mistresses won’t do,” and refuses to elaborate) also contrasts with the uneasy relationship between Claus and Dershowitz, from the pointed way Claus and Andrea (Christine Baranski), his new girlfriend, congratulate themselves in front of Dershowitz for being progressive enough to hire a Jewish lawyer (in real life, Claus’ father was accused of collaborating with the Nazis), to Claus’ aloof manner throughout (in the movie’s signature scene, as Claus gets in the back of his limo, Dershowitz tells him, “You’re a very strange man,” to which Claus replies, “You have *no* idea”).
Irons won the Best Actor Oscar that year for his performance as Claus, and while he wouldn’t have been my choice, he is excellent. He brings out the humor in the role, not just in the accent, but in the way he keeps himself removed from the situation he’s in, and with his tone (when Dershowitz tells him everybody hates him, Claus deadpans, “Well, that’s a start”). Silver has a tougher role, because Dershowitz is painted here as a little too good to be true; working the case of two African-American kids pro-bono (in real life, they were white), and being about the constitutional principle more than anything else (Kazan admits on the DVD commentary he gave Dershowitz a temper to make him flawed and more human; it’s likely he also plays up the relationship with Sarah for the same reason). But in addition to the intensity Silver brings to the role, he also brings an intelligence to it; he’s always reading the room whenever he visits someone, especially Claus (Kazan points this out in the commentary as well), and even brings a little humor as well (when debating whether to take the case, he tells his son Elon (Stephen Mailer) about his dream that Hitler calls him up and asks for a lawyer, and he and Elon agree he would take the case, and *then* kill Hitler). Close also has a challenging role in that she’s playing someone who’s always seen from someone else’s perception, and yet she manages to suggest an inner life nevertheless, most prominently in a flashback scene when a tiger cub crashes a party Sunny and Claus are at, and Sunny is the only one who not only remains calm, but seems glad the tiger is there. As for the rest of the cast, while Sciorra’s role isn’t always well-defined (possibly for legal reasons), she’s able to project intelligence, Stevens is appropriately smarmy as Marriott, and Hagen is also good at playing the devoted, if somewhat simple-minded, Maria.
Whereas Dershowitz’s book dealt with both the appeal and the second trial, Schroeder and Kazan deal only with the appeal, and they compress a few details as well (Truman Capote in real life was one of the first people to come forth and give a deposition that Sunny was a drug addict, but in the movie, there’s only an inference to a magazine interview he gave). Still, it turns out to be a thought-provoking legal drama that’s also entertaining and funny, and nowhere is that more true than in the final scene (which Kazan claimed was the first thing he wrote for the screenplay), where Claus goes to a drugstore to buy cigarettes, and when he notices the cashier has recognized who he is, adds, “And a shot of insulin,” before admitting he was just kidding.
About 2/3 of the way into Michael Mann’s The Insider, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a former Brown & Williamson (the tobacco company) research scientist turned whistleblower, is on the phone with Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for 60 Minutes. Wigand gave an interview to 60 Minutes where, among other things, he accused his former bosses and other Big Tobacco companies of lying when they said they didn’t know about the health effects of cigarettes, and Brown & Williamson has hit back, first by threatening CBS with a lawsuit (which makes them temporarily pull the story, which makes Bergman livid), and second by smearing Wigand with a proposed news article bringing up his past (Doug McGrath, an actor (Quiz Show) and writer/director (Infamous), plays the man hired to dig up dirt on Wigand; we see him walk past Wigand while he’s on the pay phone at the school where he currently teaches). Bergman, of course, wants to know why Wigand didn’t tell him any of what was in the article (that he claimed to be on the Olympic judo team, that he hit his first wife), while Wigand refutes many of the claims, but eventually he loses his temper and asks, “Whose life, if you look at it under a microscope, doesn’t have any flaws?” Bergman points out that’s all the more reason Wigand needs to be straight with him on his life, so Bergman can defend Wigand against the smear campaign. Wigand, in turn, insists all that matters is the fact he told the truth in the interview (as well as in testimony in a civil suit involving Brown & Williamson), and keeps doing so until Bergman, exasperated, yells, “That’s not the fucking point whether you told the truth or not!”
That scene touches on something that has become increasingly apparent in jury trials in this country, or at least the ones receiving media coverage; the fact of whether you’re telling the truth is secondary to the perception of you, whether by the public, the media, the jury, or the judge. That perception is the subject of two different legal dramas that came out in 1990; Presumed Innocent, Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of the best-selling novel by Scott Turow (which Pakula also co-wrote with Frank Pierson), and Reversal of Fortune, Barbet Schroeder’s docudrama about Claus Von Bulow’s successful appeal of his attempted murder conviction (adapted by Nicholas Kazan from the book by Alan Dershowitz, Von Bulow’s lawyer for the appeal). Warning: spoilers for Presumed Innocent below.
“I’m a prosecutor. I’m part of the business of accusing, judging, and punishing. I explore the evidence of a crime and determine who is charged, who is brought to this room to be tried before his peers. I present my evidence to the jury and they deliberate upon it. They must determine what really happened. If they cannot, we will not know whether the accused deserves to be freed or should be punished. If they cannot find the truth, what is our hope of justice?”
That’s the opening monologue of Rozat “Rusty” Sabich (Harrison Ford), the main character of Presumed Innocent, and it’s said in voiceover before the credits roll (it’s also edited down somewhat from the opening part of the novel). It’s significant that while we hear these words, we’re watching an empty courtroom and jury box, for this is the film’s way of telling us we, the audience are the jury. What’s slightly different here, however, is we ultimately find out what happened, but it’s left to us, the viewer (and, in the novel, the reader) to find out whether justice was done anyway.
As in the novel, the movie is about how Rusty gets caught up in a legal nightmare of his own. Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), another prosecutor in the Kindle County D.A.’s office, is found murdered in her apartment. Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy), Rusty’s boss, who is in the middle of a re-election campaign for D.A., assigns Rusty to the case. Rusty, however, makes some questionable decisions. He forgets to follow-up on getting fingerprints from a glass found in the apartment. Rusty also replaces Harold Greer (Tucker Smallwood), the detective in charge of the case, with his friend Dan Lipranzer (John Spencer), and tells Lipranzer not to disclose the fact he had called Carolyn several times from his place. Even though the office is admittedly short-staffed thanks to the murder and to the fact Tommy Molto (Joe Grifasi), another prosecutor, has gone missing (presumably defecting over to Nico Della Guardia (Tom Mardirosian), a former prosecutor who’s running against Raymond), Rusty still seems, according to Raymond, more interested in handling the administrative duties of the office then pressing on Carolyn’s murder. Finally, though no one knows except for Lipranzer and Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia), Rusty’s wife, Rusty in fact had an affair with Carolyn (after he helped her win a child abuse case) until she broke it off, and he’s still obsessed with her. So after Nico wins the election, all of this suspicious behavior, plus the fact Rusty’s fingerprints were on a glass in Carolyn’s apartment, carpet fibers in the apartment matched fibers from Rusty’s house, and there was a call from Rusty’s house to Carolyn the night she was killed, lead Molto and Nico to accuse Rusty of murdering Carolyn. Rusty can’t believe it, especially since the timing seems suspicious; in investigating Carolyn’s old cases (on the theory someone she helped put away might have wanted to take revenge), he discovered a “B” file, or bribery case, which was outside of her normal purview (she usually handled rape and abuse cases), and right before Rusty was accused of murder, he found out Molto had been involved in the case, and that Lipranzer had been pulled from the investigation, so he suspects a frame-up. Rusty explains this to his lawyer, Alejandro “Sandy” Stern (Raul Julia) – Rusty’s opponent in many other cases before this – who is skeptical at first, but then brings it up at trial, even though Rusty had agreed it wasn’t good strategy, and even though Judge Larren Lyttle (Paul Winfield) seemed determined not to let Stern bring it up. Is Rusty really guilty, or is something else going on here?
Like many directors who became well known in the 70’s, Pakula had fallen on hard times in the 80’s. With the exception of Sophie’s Choice, the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama starring Meryl Streep, none of the other films he had done – the corporate thriller Rollover, the psychological thriller Dream Lover, the oddball comedy/drama Orphans, and the romantic drama See You in the Morning – had made much impact on critics or audiences. So adapting a novel that was not only a best-seller but was also considered a phenomenon (this was the first novel by Turow, who had previously written a book about his law school days called One L; he has since become an established author) might have just seemed like a way to seem relevant again. But Pakula never condescends to the material, but show great care with it. For starters, working with cinematographer Gordon Willis (their fifth collaboration), Pakula avoids the slick look that characterizes many courtroom dramas, and, as per usual in a movie shot by Willis (nicknamed the “Prince of Darkness”), shoots it mostly in muted colors, to emphasize the seriousness of the story. Also, Pakula and editor Evan Lottman (another frequent Pakula collaborator; this was their fifth and final film together) keep things evenly paced, and never juice up any of the story’s twists (more on those in a moment).
Obviously in adapting a 400+ page novel to two hour and change movie for the screen, some things have to go, and Pakula and Pierson in general do a good job of paring thins down. Except for the opening and closing scenes, there’s no first-person narration. There’s no psychiatrist that Rusty confesses his affair with Carolyn to, the courtroom testimonies are shortened (especially Raymond’s) or eliminated (we don’t hear from Eugenia (Anna Maria Horsford), Rusty’s secretary, who claims she overheard Rusty and Carolyn on the phone together, but under cross-examination admits it might have had to do with the case they were working on). More important than all of that is the change in emphasis that Pakula and Pierson make, and the parts they ended up changing. For the latter, some of the changes are minor (instead of Rusty talking to Carolyn’s son from her previous marriage, Rusty instead talks to her ex-husband (Michael Tolan)), but there are two crucial changes in the story. There are two major twists involving the trial in both novel and movie; the revelation Carolyn had her tubes tied so she’d no longer be able to have a child, which implies a crucial piece of medical evidence may have been manufactured by Molto and Dr. Ted “Painless” Kumagai (Sab Shimono), the coroner*, and also the main culprit involved in the “B” file was none other than Judge Lyttle (who was also seeing Carolyn at the time), and Sandy was bringing it up to let the judge know he’d bring it up in court if certain things did not go his way. In the novel, we get the doctor’s testimony first and then Rusty and Lipranzer, when they track down Leon Wells (Leland Gantt), the name in the original complaint, find out about the judge, whereas in the movie, the order is reversed. I’m not entire sure why this is, but either way, it makes a troubling statement about the justice system that unfortunately still seems to be true today; that saying you’re innocent of the crime you’re accused of may not be enough.
Which leads to the final twist, where we find out the real murderer of Carolyn was none other than Barbara, Rusty’s wife. In the novel, Rusty manages to figure this out thanks to certain clues that pop up (the phone call to Carolyn’s apartment the night of the murder, the fact Rusty figures out the glass with his fingerprints on it was in fact from their own house), and when Barbara leaves him to take a job somewhere else (though near enough so Rusty can still see their son Nat (Jesse Bradford)), she apologizes and says she was willing to testify that she was the one who did it, while Rusty also apologizes and says no one would have believed her testimony; he also reveals the motivation for the crime, and the way it was carried out, to Lipranzer when he brings over the glass (the prosecution forgot he had it, and he never brought it up, so it was presumed missing, which also helped Rusty’s defense). Rusty reveals Barbara was the one who called Carolyn, went over to her apartment, hit her over the head with a garden tool to kill her, tied her up, opened the windows as a piece of misdirection, and injected her own spermicide from her own diaphragm (which had led Sandy to believe Dr. Kumagai was either incompetent or criminal), all to indicate to Rusty who the real killer was, while unwittingly planting clues to make him the number one suspect, which she never intended and made her feel remorseful when it happened. Pakula and Pierson make it more ambiguous by implying all the way to the end that Rusty still might be the killer; after Sandy explains to Rusty the purpose of bringing up the “B” file when the charges have been dismissed, he pointedly asks Rusty if justice has been done, and while the scene between Lipranzer and Rusty where the former gives the latter the glass, and asks him if he did kill Carolyn (“The lady was bad news”) is similar to how it plays in the novel, in the novel, it takes place in Rusty’s house and leads to Rusty revealing Barbara’s role, while in the movie, it takes place on a ferry, and ends with Rusty denying it and throwing the glass in the water. This implies Rusty’s guilt even if he wasn’t the one who ultimately killed Carolyn (this also again is keeping in line with that opening shot, making us the jury, trying to figure out what happened). And as for the former, the change in emphasis, in the novel, Turow concentrates as much on the office politics as on Rusty’s family, while in the movie, the family takes center stage, so Barbara’s confession doesn’t come out of left field. Speaking of her confession, originally, Pakula was going to cut the confession out entirely, until Bedelia got ahold of an earlier draft that had the confession, and gave such a passionate reading of it that Pakula was convinced to keep it in.
Judge Lyttle (Paul Winfield) in conference with the lawyers at the bench.
Along with the fact this was an adaptation of a best-selling, as well as critically acclaimed novel, the biggest press this received at the time was Ford’s haircut for Rusty. In Jared Brown’s biography of Pakula, Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life, Ford (who also wrote the introduction to the book) said he did so to show Rusty’s complete lack of ego (which explains why he demurs when both Carolyn and Nico – also referred to as “Delay”** – think he should have positioned himself for Raymond’s job because they think he would have been a sure thing) and as a way of illustrating the depths of his obsession with Carolyn. Pakula and Ford also show the depths of Rusty’s obsession in other ways, such as his flashbacks to looking at Carolyn just lying in bed, or the thousand-yard stare he has when he’s up at night just thinking about her, or the way he spies on her after she’s taken another lover. Also, Ford had made his mark at playing active roles, and this is a rare passive role, yet he pulls it off completely. The rest of the cast is also terrific. Had I been a member of the Academy, I would have voted for Julia as best supporting actor; though his best known performances (Gomez in the Addams Family movies, the evil General Bison in Street Fighter, political prisoner Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman) find him playing more broadly, here, he’s restrained, and shows his intelligence and cunning through subtle means, especially when he’s cross-examining Raymond (who testifies against Rusty) and Dr. Kumagai. Speaking of Raymond, because the part was cut down, we don’t see the remorse Raymond feels when he realizes Rusty was screwed over, but Dennehy does play the rest of the part well, showing the shell of the man yet making us see what was once there, and the anger and betrayal he feels when he honestly thinks Rusty did it. Lipranzer is also cut down somewhat, but Spencer also does a terrific job of playing a jaded cop who nonetheless has his own moral code, however bruised it may be.` And while Lyttle and Molto’s parts are also cut down somewhat, both Winfield and Grifasi do a good job at showing the hidden resentments inside them. The key roles, of course, are Carolyn and Barbara; Scacchi allows us to see what would make several men obsessed with her, and yet also suggests there’s more to her than that (especially in a still photograph of her in her younger days), as well as the broken bird inside, and in addition to making her confession at the end work like gangbusters, thanks to the deliberate way she delivers it, Bedelia is also excellent at showing Barbara’s anger, intelligence, and unexpected sympathy. Presumed Innocent showed how well one could make a popular story that still raises troubling questions.
*-In the novel, we find out during Sandy’s cross-examination Dr. Kumagai got his nickname of “Painless” because of an autopsy he had bungled; the prosecutor on the case claimed the only one who found it painless to work with Dr. Kumagai was the corpse, because it was dead.
**-Also in the novel, we find out Nico Della Guardia is nicknamed “Delay” for his inability to complete a brief on time; the chief deputy called him “Unavoidable Delay Guardia”.
`-Trivia note; both Spencer and Bradley Whitford (who plays Sandy’s associate Jamie Kemp) went on to appear in The West Wing together nearly a decade later, though they don’t share any scenes here.