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.
This is my part 3 and the final part of my entry for the Classic Movie History Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi (Movies Silently), Ruth (Silver Screenings), and Aurora (Once Upon a Screen). I’d like to thank them not only for doing a great job (as usual) of hosting, but also of putting up with my last-minute entries once again. Enjoy!
As I argued in my introduction to this series, while the prevailing view of film history is many of the feature films of the late 60’s/early 70’s that dealt with the unrest of the time did so indirectly through either genre or by using the past as a mirror to view the present, there were in fact a few films that tried to confront the chaos and issues of the time directly, with mixed results. But there’s another group of films that dealt with the turmoil and unrest directly, and as always, they tend to get overlooked. That group would be documentaries. As with the Iraq war in the 2000’s, documentary filmmakers took on the Vietnam War, for example, long before feature filmmakers did (or, to be fair, could). All in all, I saw seven documentaries – five features and two shorts – that dealt with the war in some way, and I cover them here. Also, civil rights for African-Americans were better represented through documentaries than through mainstream Hollywood, and I feature documentaries from the two leaders who were considered the yin and yang of African-American rights during the 60’s, as well as one of the leaders of the controversial Black Panthers.
“Why are we in Vietnam?”: Far From Vietnam, In the Year of the Pig, Interviews with My Lai Veterans, Winter Soldier, F.T.A., Letter to Jane, Hearts and Minds.
Still photo from “Far From Vietnam”.
As I mentioned in my post on foreign movies, French artists – as well as many others in France – were among the first to protest America’s involvement in Vietnam, in fact, one of the first (if not the first) documentaries to come out against the war came from France. Far From Vietnam (1967) combined the talents of, among others, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais, and Agnes Varda, all under the supervision of French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker. Each of them shot, or collected, footage for a short segment, all to help challenge not only U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but also the image the U.S. was presenting to the rest of the world about the war being just and necessary.
As with just about every anthology movie I’ve seen, some segments are better than others. Resnais opts to have Bernard Fresson (who appeared in several of his movies, including Resnais’ previous La Guerre est Finie; he also appeared in Costa-Gavras’ Z) as “Claude Ridder”, a French government official (or perhaps a journalist) who tries to convince a Vietnamese woman (Karen Blanguernon) of the rationale for the war, though it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as well. That’s an interesting and powerful enough premise, but while it’s possible the woman doesn’t speak because she’s bored with, or ignoring, what Ridder says, how much more interesting the segment would have been if she had been allowed to engage him by speaking back, and allowing a true dialectic to be set up. Godard, meanwhile, ponders on whether or not he’s able to even make a film about the war (especially since he’d been denied entry), even though he’s obviously against it. Godard isn’t just talking about himself, it seems, but whether anyone could make a film confronting the war, and while that approach is also not without merit – Atom Egoyan would demonstrate decade, in his highly underrated 2002 film Ararat, that it was possible to make a good film about whether or not art can confront genocide – Godard doesn’t really go anywhere with his segment. Much better are the scenes showing the history of colonial involvement in Vietnam, footage of protests taking place across the United States (as well as people shouting at, or booing, the protesters), and a puppet show depicting the American government’s view of the country. Perhaps the best segment at all deals with the widow of Norman Morrison – the man who immolated himself in front of the Pentagon on November 2, 1965 – Anne Morrison, a Quaker, and her meeting with a Vietnamese woman named Ann Uyen to explain how much she was in favor of her husband’s act. The way the film presents this story simply, without any histrionics, makes it all the more powerful. Far From Vietnam may not be a great documentary, but it’s a good one that does challenge the official story.
Iconic image from “In the Year of the Pig”.
Emile de Antonio may not be a household name as far as filmmakers go, or even documentary filmmakers, and that’s a shame. Point of Order! (1964), his first film, takes on McCarthyism by editing together footage of the Army Hearings and shows just how much of a bully McCarthy was. After collaborating with author Mark Lane on a documentary companion to Lane’s book Rush to Judgment, which challenged the Warren Report’s view of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (which de Antonio stressed, for him, had less to do with any feelings for Kennedy – he wasn’t a fan of almost any politician – than with the fact he felt the U.S. government was lying to its people), de Antonio followed with another film challenging the official narrative given by the U.S. government; In the Year of the Pig (1968), this time on the Vietnam War. Part of this, like Point of Order!, is what de Antonio called “collage cinema”; merely putting together archive footage to tell a narrative, and here, it’s the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (as well as a brief history of French involvement in Vietnam after WWII), from merely sending advisers to sending troops and then escalating the “police action”. We see government and military officials, including presidents (most prominent, of course, is LBJ), generals (Generals Clark, LeMay and Westmoreland), CIA officials (John Foster Dulles) and others justifying U.S. involvement in Vietnam every step of the way, even when things go wrong. We also see footage of wounded soldiers and Vietnamese. Finally, de Antonio has assembled interviews with people speaking out against the war, including activists such as Father Daniel Berrigan, journalists such as David Halberstam, and government officials such as Senator Thurston Morton. As angry as de Antonio is about the policy carried out here – and he’s very angry indeed – he’s careful not to demonize the ordinary, everyday soldiers stuck in the quagmire (we get an interview with a deserter). Also, as Pauline Kael pointed out in her review of the film (she liked it with some misgivings), de Antonio provides context that the news coverage of the war wasn’t doing at the time, and presenting the U.S. involvement as the Vietnamese might see it. If there’s a weakness in the film (also in Far From Vietnam), it’s de Antonio’s romanticizing of the North Vietnamese (he likens Ho Chi Minh to George Washington), given what happened Vietnam after the U.S. pulled out. Still, without going overboard on trickery, de Antonio’s film remains a stinging and powerful film, and a reminder to question the “official story”.
Scott Camil interviewed in “Winter Soldier”.
Speaking of which, one of the most notorious incidents during the war was, of course, the My Lai massacre, when on May 16, 1968, members of Company C went into a Vietnamese village, which was apparently believed to be a Vietcong stronghold, and ended up killing anywhere between 347 (the U.S. army figures) and 504 people (according to the Vietnamese government), all of them civilians, many of them women (who were also gang-raped) and children (Joseph Strick’s Interviews with My Lai Veterans, a documentary short photographed by Haskell Wexler, interviews five members of Company C about what happened, and we learn they were ordered to treat everyone as an enemy, since they had lost people to booby-trapped bombs left by the Vietcong, and were frustrated at not finding the responsible parties. Strick gets a nice balance of interviews, but the film is too short to do the atrocity justice). Eventually, Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader, was the only officer charged in a court-martial concerning the event, and both the military and the government maintained this was an isolated incident. Winter Soldier (1972), a rarely-seen documentary with no director credited (it was made by a collective of several filmmakers and technicians, among them David Grubin and Barbara Kopple), was made to counteract this narrative. It documents the “Winter Soldier Conference” (the term is taken from Thomas Paine’s first “American Crisis” paper, when he wrote of the “summer soldier and sunshine patriot” that shrink from service to their country) sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit from January 31, 1971 to February 2, 1971. Among those veterans who participated was future Secretary of State John Kerry, and he and the other veterans testified as to the atrocities they had witnessed and participated in (there were civilian witnesses as well, though the movie concentrates on the veterans). The movie shows several scenes of testimony, as well as behind the scenes footage of veterans talking to each other, and individual interviews with some of the veterans (most prominently Scott Camil – Graham Nash would later write a song about him called “Oh Camil”, and he’s featured in one of the special features on the DVD). For the most part, the testimony is given in a calm, clear-eyed manner (although one veteran is barely able to choke back tears), making it all the more horrifying and stomach-churning (do not watch it while eating). As a documentary, it’s merely competent on a technical level. Also, while the speeches some African-American veterans give about racism within the Army are probably meant to parallel how the higher-ups viewed the Vietnamese, it still feels shoehorned in. Nevertheless, Winter Soldier remains a powerful corrective to the revisionist view of the Vietnam War that came about long after the war was over, especially when Ronald Reagan became president, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies became popular, and the “Swift Boat” campaign against Kerry when he ran for president in 2004 took place.
Jane Fonda and Steve Alaimo in a sketch from “F.T.A.”.
One of the organizers of the Winter Soldier Investigation was Jane Fonda, who remains the most polarizing civilian figure involved in the Vietnam War. Fonda, who had started out as apolitical growing up, became radicalized in the late 60’s, and especially became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Along with organizing the Winter Soldier investigation, she also had making talks with veterans across the country so she could listen to their experiences, and in the early 70’s, got involved with a revue-type show – along with then-boyfriend Donald Sutherland – meant to counteract Bob Hope’s USO shows, with their rah-rah patriotism and their cheap humor, which she and many saw as being out of touch with what the veterans were really going through. Originally, the show featured Peter Boyle and Howard Hesseman (later best known as Johnny Fever in WKRP in Cincinnati and Mr. Moore in Head of the Class), but in an interview included on the DVD, Fonda said she wanted the show to be more inclusive of women and minorities (she admitted she was too strident about this), so singers Len Chandler, Rita Martinson and Holly Near, as well as comedian Paul Mooney, were among those included in a later tour. Women’s rights activist Francine Parker filmed this tour, known, as with the original tour, as F.T.A. (which stood for, depending on who you talked to, “Free The Army” or “F–k The Army”). along with interviews Fonda and the others conducted with current soldiers and veterans, and it was released in 1972, though along with Winter Soldier, public pressure from higher ups prevented it from getting a wide release. As witnessed today, the revue-type skits are not that great – the best involve the title song written for the revue and a skit Fonda did with Steve Alaimo where they played Pat and Richard Nixon, respectively, and she tells him protesters are storming the White House; when he insists he’ll call the army, she nervously replies, “But Dick, it *is* the army!” – but the songs can be quite good (especially one Martinson sings to the soldiers), and Sutherland movingly reads from Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (Sutherland appeared in the film version in 1971). Best of all, of course, are the interviews with the soldiers themselves, and contrary to the “Hanoi Jane” propaganda that has sprung up, you don’t see Fonda coercing anyone to her point of view, but really listening to what the soldiers have to say (the other actors do so as well). That, as much as anything else, makes F.T.A. worth tracking down.
The photograph that inspired “Letter to Jane”.
Plenty has been written about Fonda being attacked by the right for her stance on the Vietnam War (as well as other issues). What’s less known is that she was also attacked by the left. After she worked for Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin on Tout Va Bien, they made Letter to Jane (subtitled “An Investigation About a Still), also in 1972, in reaction to a picture of Fonda during her trip to Vietnam that appeared in the French magazine L’Express, showing her listening to someone while a Vietnamese peasant lurks in the background. With this 52-minute documentary, Godard and Gorin are out to examine the meaning behind the photo in the same way that, say, Errol Morris has examined old photos in the New York Times recently. Their goal is to attack how the Western media covered Vietnam, and, in particular, how they covered the Vietnamese people. That is certainly a laudable goal, as even when media coverage turned against the war, it was usually only talked about in terms of how American soldiers were suffering, as opposed to the Vietnamese.. Less forgivable, however, is the sense you get Godard and Gorin are blaming Fonda for all of that. The second time I watched this, I picked up on the fact Gorin, at least, admitted there was something problematic about two men ganging up on a woman like this (though he insisted that wasn’t the motivation, even though Godard and Fonda didn’t get along during the making of Tout Va Bien), but that’s not the only queasy aspect. The two of them attempt to show how Fonda’s look of sympathy in the photograph is merely a copy of other American actors’ look of sympathy (including Fonda’s father Henry in The Grapes of Wrath, which they show a still from), and is nowhere near as relevant (or as revolutionary) as the look on the peasant’s face. Again, all of that is fair enough, but again, both Godard and Gorin seem to blame that on Fonda instead of the Western media itself and the cult of celebrity in the U.S., both of which Fonda was fighting herself when trying to express her views about the war (as well as feminism and other issues). One wonders if Godard and Gorin knew of how Fonda was targeted by the Nixon administration and the FBI for her views, and whether that would have made any difference. Godard has since disowned the film, calling it terrible, but given how callous he is here (Kael called the film “offensively inhuman”, and as brilliantly made as it is, she’s not far off the mark), I somehow doubt it.
Daniel Ellsberg interviewed in “Hearts and Minds”.
The final major documentary dealing with the Vietnam War came out right before the U.S. finally pulled out of the country altogether. Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974), produced by Bert Schneider, is a panoramic view of the war, showing a collage of war clips, interviews with soldiers, officials, and Vietnamese (from peasants to military members), along with clips of films about other wars (the title, of course, comes from the assertion that in order to win the war, the U.S. would not only have to defeat the army, but also win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese). We also get interviews with people like Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the media) and other anti-war activists. Though David himself doesn’t appear on camera, you get a sense he not only learned from Emile de Antonio about ironic juxtaposition, but that filmmakers such as Michael Moore learned from him, and that gave me an uneasy feeling while watching the film. Much of it is undeniably powerful, as when we see the Vietnamese peasants weeping over their land and families being destroyed by American bombs. Yet I felt as if Davis was too obvious in trying to push the viewer’s buttons (unlike de Antonio). And while it attempts to portray the American pathology that led to the war, some of that can also come off heavy-handed. Still, like In the Year of the Pig, it presents a history of U.S. involvement (with the added perspective that six more years brings) and it has a multiple amount of perspectives to give you a rounded portrait of just how the war was wrong from the start.
From Civil Rights to Revolution: King: A Filmed Record…From Montgomery to Memphis, Malcolm X (1972), Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther.
Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the consequences of the Vietnam War at home is how President Johnson’s insistence on fighting the war led him to abandon his vision of a Great Society, to go beyond the civil rights legislation he helped push through in 1964 and 1965, as he and other Congressmen felt he couldn’t pay for both. This led to African-Americans losing a lot of what they’d gained, or thought they’d gain, and also helped cause unrest. Another factor that caused unrest, of course, was the assassination of two of the major African-American leaders of the time, Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. A documentary was produced on each of them during this era; Ely Landau’s King: A Filmed Record…From Montgomery to Memphis (1970) and Arnold Perl’s Malcolm X (1972). Both of them heavily rely on archival footage of the two leaders speaking, in private, and giving interviews at the time. Landau’s movie also features celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones and Paul Newman giving readings from texts related to the times (Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed these readings and also helped put together the film), while Perl’s movie features some (then) present-day scenes of African-life, as well as Jones’ voiceover narration of parts of Malcolm X’s autobiography (as told to Alex Haley). The testimonials in the former film were put in to help raise money for the film, so it’s understandable why they’re included, but with the exception of Belafonte and Jones’ segments, I kept wanting the movie to get back to King’s footage, not just because some of them come off as well-intentioned but patronizing, but also because King is such an electrifying figure to watch. Not only that, but the film shows King as a more complicated figure that we usually remember him as. Yes, he’s the man who preached non-violence as a form of protest, and yes, he was someone who sought, to paraphrase Gandhi, to free his fellow African-Americans from held up by guns, and to free the white policemen from holding those guns. But as we see in the documentary, which traces his career from the Montgomery bus boycott to his funeral after he was killed in Memphis, King was a consistent advocate for African-American rights in all places, was a shrewd operator, and wasn’t above giving angry talks about what was done to him and others. We see the famous speeches, including his “I have a dream” speech, but we also see, near the end, when he comes out against the Vietnam War. Likewise, if you think of Malcolm X mostly as a hate-preaching “black Muslim”, Perl’s documentary will change the way you think about him. Yes, it shows his rhetoric against white society, but it also shows how he modified his views after he was kicked out of the American Muslim church (after his infamous “chickens come home to roost” speech, and his discovery that Elijah Mohammad, the head of the American Muslim church, had fathered several children out of wedlock) and especially after he made his pilgrimage to Mecca and saw white Muslims there. While Malcolm X still preached self-defense as a viable option,he also grew to recognize how poor whites were dealing with some of the same problems African-Americans were dealing with, and that there were white who were sympathetic to his cause. Both movies, of course, end with their funerals, and reactions to them. Both of them are powerful documentaries and are well worth tracking down.
The Black Panther party sprung from disillusionment with the way civil rights for African-Americans were ignored when the Vietnam War began escalating, and while a big part of it was helping African-Americans with programs for schooling their children and helping the poor, it also was intended as a revolutionary movement. One of the prime leaders of the Black Panthers was Eldridge Cleaver, and he was the subject of William Klein’s documentary Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1969), while Cleaver was in exile in Algeria after ducking an attempted murder charge after he and other Black Panthers had ambushed police officers in Oakland (he had first fled to Cuba, but after Fidel Castro had discovered the CIA had infiltrated the Black Panthers, he decided he could no longer trust Cleaver). We see some of Cleaver living with his wife and child, but mostly, this has interviews with Cleaver talking about his revolutionary politics and his support of armed insurrection (this led to a split between himself and fellow Black Panther leader Huey Newton, who believed the Panthers’ insistence on violence as a tool hurt their standing with the black community at large). We also see him finding common ground with other revolutionaries in Africa. All of this romanticizing of the Marxist revolutionary groups Cleaver does may seem naive in spots (and also ironic, since in the 80’s and 90’s, Cleaver reversed course and became a conservative Republican, denouncing his past), but Cleaver, like Malcolm X, also grew towards more of an understanding towards white people, understanding not all whites were as repressive as he initially thought. Klein also has footage of the establishment’s reaction to the Panthers, particularly a government hearing about them. Whatever you think of Cleaver’s politics as expressed in the documentary, he remains a fascinating figure, and Klein does a good job capturing him.
As I mentioned in my introductory post, while Hollywood films, with some exceptions, dealt with the unrest of the Vietnam era mostly through the indirect means of genre and period pieces (having the past comment on the present), films from the rest of the world were often more pointed in their political content. Of course, they had their stumbling blocks as well. Whereas the primary obstacle to getting political films made in America was financial – the Production Code having been replaced by a more relaxed (if still highly flawed) system – with studios afraid of any film that wouldn’t make a lot of money, films from other parts of the world had to deal with government censors, especially if they were being ruled by a dictator. Therefore, like their American counterparts, filmmakers from Europe, the Soviet bloc, and other parts of the world also had to smuggle their political statements through disguised means, such as genre. Nevertheless, there were a few filmmakers who managed to make the statements they wanted to make clearly in their films, without that much interference. Once again, because of availability issues, I’ve only been able to watch a limited amount of films. Therefore, I’m devoting myself mostly to two of the most well-remembered political filmmakers of the time, Jean-Luc Godard and Constantin Costa-Gavras, not just because of their influence, but also because their styles are so different (though they’ve worked with the same actors and technicians) that they set up a useful dialectic to consider what a political film is and can be, and how it should be made. The Costa-Gavras part will also deal briefly with The Battle of Algiers, which, along with Costa-Gavras’ Z, is considered the father of the modern-day political thriller, while the last part will also consider a few other political films from Italy (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), Germany (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), and back to France (Mr. Freedom).
Costa-Gavras: Z, The Confession and State of Siege.
“Some people sign petitions, others go to the streets – I do something as a filmmaker.” – on why he made Z.
Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is probably considered the father of the modern political thriller, as well as the modern political docudrama. In telling the tale of the Algierian revolt against the French in the 1950’s and 60’s, Pontecorvo sets himself firmly on the side of the Algierians while still humanizing the French (even the French colonel (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast) is presented as a person instead of a monster), and creates some tense scenes (particularly when several Algierian women go to plant bombs at various public places). But what Pontecorvo started with his film, arguably Constantin Costa-Gavras went even further with Z, the other most influential political thriller of the last 40-50 years or so. Costa-Gavras, who was born in Greece, had gone to France to study (his father had been a member of the Communist Party, which got him blackballed from Greece universities), but was still wanting to do something about what had been done to the country, especially after Grigoris Lambrakis, a Greek left-wing politician, was murdered by right-wing extremists linked to the army in 1963. When Vasilis Vasilikos wrote a novel based on Lambrakis’ assassination, Costa-Gavras found his method of, as he put it, doing something as a filmmaker. Though it sticks close to the novel and the events themselves, Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Jorge Semprum change all the names (Yves Montand plays the president, Irene Papas plays his wife, Marcel Bozzufi plays one of the assassins, and Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the investigating magistrate) and set in an unnamed country (as Costa-Gavras has explained in interviews, doing so makes the audience work for the information, and also reminds them what they see could be happening anywhere).
Unlike Godard, who (as I touch on briefly below) was trying to move beyond what was considered the usual “political” movie, Costa-Gavras has admitted he was trying to reach as wide an audience as possible without talking down to them. To that end, even more so than Pontecorvo, he used suspense techniques such as quick editing, a fast-moving camera, flashbacks from several different points of view, and both villainous and heroic characters (in addition to Trintignant’s character, Jacques Perrin, who also co-produced, plays an investigative journalist). This did not endear him to the leftist critics at the time, especially at Cahiers du Cinema, who attacked Costa-Gavras for being more interested in entertainment than in being truly political.* Even Pauline Kael, a big fan of the film, while pointing out Costa-Gavras’ technique was similar to the muckraking movies produced at Warner Brothers in the 1930’s, fretted over what would happen if a less responsible filmmaker made a film the same way (in her review, she wrote, “when it’s over and you’ve caught your breath you know perfectly well that its techniques of excitation could as easily be used by a smart Fascist filmmaker, if there were one (fortunately, there isn’t), against the left or the center”). However, even though the film is certainly a suspense thriller as much as a political movie (and docudrama), Costa-Gavras doesn’t ignore politics. We see that with the black comedy of the opening, where a general gives a lecture about gardens, and it takes us a while to realize he’s speaking in metaphor in how to crush what he and the others see as the Communist threat (it’s almost like a scene from The Manchurian Candidate, though without the hypnotism, and not quite as surreal). And even though Costa-Gavras uses a lot of well-known actors (at least in Europe) for the parts, the actors disappear into the roles, so it doesn’t overwhelm the story.
Yves Montand is imprisoned in “The Confession”.
For his next film, Costa-Gavras switched gears, this time going after Communist oppression. The Confession (1970) is another docudrama, this time about Artur London (Montand), a Czech official who, without warning, was arrested with 13 other high-ranking Czech officials (like London, most of them Jewish), and interrogated for several months and put on trial on the accusation they were all secretly rebelling against the government and were in the pay of the West. Though Costa-Gavras is working with the some of the same people – in addition to Semprum writing the screenplay again (adapting the book London wrote with his wife Lise) and Montand playing a central role, Raoul Coutard returned as cinematographer – the movie doesn’t fly by as fast as Z did. For one, it’s a longer film (by over ten minutes), but more importantly, while the earlier film was trying to whip through events as they happened, The Confession aims to immerse you in what it was like to be imprisoned during Stalinist times, and while this takes place in the early 50’s (though once again, we aren’t told the exact period or location), it’s likely everyone involved was thinking about how the Soviet government crushed the Czech revolt in 1968. While we do see some scenes outside of prison, as the Lise figure (played by Montand’s real-life wife Simone Signoret) tries in vain to free her husband, and then is forced to move and work in a factory, we mostly stay inside the prison, and through the interrogations, with the officers playing both good and bad cop to Montand. Since this isn’t designed to be as fast as Z, the film does drag a bit, and I think the movie makes a mistake in the flash-forward sequences with Montand (one of only three prisoners who wasn’t executed) now living safely in exile and talking with people about the book he wants to write about the experience. Still, it excels, like Z, as a portrait of totalitarian governments (we also get a cruel irony; one of the officials who interrogates Montand is later himself arrested).
The car containing the dead Yves Montand at the beginning of “State of Siege”.
Though U.S. involvement in Vietnam was the prime area of contention between the U.S. and the rest of the world’s leftist population, they also protested U.S. involvement in other areas of the world, particularly Latin America. Costa-Gavras took on this as well in 1972 with State of Siege. Inspired by the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Mitrione (Montand again), a U.S. official, in Uruguay, the film begins with the discovery of his body, and then from his funeral we flashback to his kidnapping and the attempts by his kidnappers (once again, never named, nor is the country), who, while attempting to bargain with the government to get them to release political prisoners in exchange for the Mitrione figure and another official, also try to get Mitrione to admit he helped the government out with their oppressive techniques. Meanwhile, a journalist (O.E. Hesse) also challenges the official government position of Mitrione (though unlike in Z, he isn’t as successful). While Costa-Gavras is clearly sympathetic to the kidnappers (and there’s also the unintended irony of the fact the film was shot in Chile a year before they were taken over by a military coup), he presents both sides humanely, just as in Battle of Algiers (Franco Solinas, who wrote that film, was the screenwriter of this film). Yet at the same time, this doesn’t dampen the critique of how the U.S. props up dictatorships in other countries while pretending to be helping the country. And even though, once again, Costa-Gavras is using the techniques of the suspense thriller, the most gripping sequence is just one of the rebels taking a poll of other leaders individually while on a bus as to whether Mitrione should be killed (you get the feeling he’s hoping one of them will vote no, which makes it all the more powerful). Costa-Gavras hasn’t quite approached the level of these three films since (though Missing, his 1982 film about the disappearance and murder of an American citizen during that coup in Chile, and Capital, his most recent film (2012) about the CEO of a European bank trying to keep an American hedge fund from taking over, both come close), but these films alone show him to be a political filmmaker of the highest order.
*-Interestingly enough, according to an interview Coutard gave that’s included on the Criterion edition of Weekend, Godard was enough of a fan of Costa-Gavras that he gave Coutard some information that he thought would be useful to him for The Confession.
Jean-Luc Godard: La Chinoise, Weekend and Tout Va Bien.
“I don’t think you should *feel* about a movie. You should feel about a woman. You can’t kiss a movie.”
When talking about A Christmas Carol, arguably Charles Dickens’ most famous work, my father always used to remind me the most important line of the story was the very first line; “Marley was dead; to begin with.” This was to remind me, and anyone else who might have been talking about the story, that it was, above all, a ghost story. Similarly, the first principle in talking about Jean-Luc Godard is that he started out as a critic. As Godard himself has said, he has remained a critic his entire career, he just has used film as his medium the last 50+ years to continue his work as a critic. What few people talk about is the fact he has been a critic even when not talking about other films; Godard is a cultural and political critic as well.
Poster for Godard’s first politically-oriented movie.
As early as Le Petit Soldat (made in 1960, but not released in France until 1963 because of censorship), Godard took on the Algierian struggle for independence against France. However, while Godard includes a torture scene that might make viewers blanch even today, he also place primary emphasis on the love story between members of opposite sides (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife and muse at the time, plays a representative of one side; it was the first of seven feature films he directed her in), and takes a rather confused attitude towards the conflict (to be fair, his political views hadn’t been fully formed by then). Still, cultural and political criticism popped up in his later work; though Vivre Sa Vie (aka My Life to Live) (1962) is more a character study than a societal critique, it does show how Karina’s character becomes a prostitute to make a living (a theme Godard returned to often), Les Carabiniers (1963) deals with the madness of war from the point of view of two grunt soldiers, Alphaville (1965) is a sci-fi film about a totalitarian society, Masculin Feminin (1966) is, of course, about “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” (with scenes such as a journalist asking a pop star about politics, and a man trying to light himself on fire in protest, though he needs to borrow a match first), 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) returns Godard to the subject of prostitution, and while Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Made in USA (1966) are both deconstructions on genre films (the former a lovers-on-the-run film, the latter the film noir/private eye film) both of them had cultural and political critiques woven throughout the narrative (the latter film in particular was inspired in part by the Ben Barka affair). Nevertheless, Godard had, by 1967, become increasingly disgusted not only with American foreign policy but also America, period, and had swung radically left in his thinking, towards Maoism. This also led, not surprisingly to a new direction in his films.
Anna Wiazemsky, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto as revolutionaries in “La Chinoise”.
La Chinoise (1967) was the first film indicating this new direction. For starters, it features politics and social philosophy right up front, as during one summer in parents, while her parents are away on vacation, Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky, who by this time had become Godard’s second wife, and was a big influence on his political thinking) and her fellow students – among them Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud), her boyfriend, and Yvonne (Juliet Berto) – hole up in her parents’ apartment and study and debate Marx and Mao, and how to strike against what they see as the fascism of Western society. Also, while Godard had always played around with plot (as per his famous response to Henri-Georges Clouzot; when Clouzot had wondered whether films shouldn’t have a beginning, middle and end, Godard allowed they should, but not necessarily in that order), there was no real plot or story here until the last third or so, when Veronique goes on the train to plant a bomb and kill a liberal professor in order to radicalize the students (Chris Morris would later send this attitude up brilliantly over 40 years later in his terrorist comedy Four Lions (2010)). Finally, while Godard does have a few pop-cultural images here (most notably a rock-n-roll type song extolling the virtues of Mao), most of the references here are to political or philosophical figures such as Rosa Luxemburg and Andre Malraux (as the five would-be revolutionaries are studying Mao’s little red book, Godard and his frequent cinematographer Raoul Coutard use a lot of red, though that is a carry-over from Godard’s other color films). As militant as Godard was becoming in his thinking, however, he allows himself room for other ways of thinking. While he is wholly sympathetic to the students, and to a call to revolution (specifically through Maoism, which Godard was more sympathetic to than the Soviet version of communism), he also shows how much the dilettante all of these characters are, especially when they turn out one of the members for not being revolutionary enough. Also, during a long segment in the last third, Veronique goes on a train ride with Francois Jeanson (a real-life French revolutionary, playing himself more or less), and while she explains her thinking of why she’s planning to kill this professor, he gently but firmly takes apart her thinking by essentially asking, “After you do this, then what?” Finally, the film doesn’t end on a moment of triumph, but of hollow victory. Those who consider Godard akin to one of those dilettantes that he portrays here often seem to forget the ambiguity in which he portrays the characters here.
Mireille Darc being held at gunpoint in “Weekend”.
La Chinoise, however, was just a warm-up compared to Weekend (1967, though not released in the U.S. until 1968). This film, probably Godard’s most sustained attack on Western civilization, is generally scene as the end of Godard’s 60’s period, not just because he declares “the end of cinema” at the end of the movie, but also because for most of the decade, he worked in a more experimental and abstract kind of cinema, whereas Weekend still has a semblance of a plot. An adulterous married couple (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne) go on a road trip to murder her mother for the inheritance (after which, since they each have lovers, they each are plotting to murder each other), only to get sidetracked by society as they know it breaking down on them. They run into a huge traffic jam (portrayed in an epic tracking shot that takes up almost 10 minutes), and encounter, among other figures, a man who sings his entire dialogue (Leaud), literary figures such as Emily Bronte (Blandine Jeanson), a piano player who plays Beethoven (Wiazemsky can be glimpsed here as one of the people listening), two garbage workers (Omar Diop – who appeared in La Chinoise – and Laszlo Szabo, a frequent collaborator with Godard) who lecture the couple about western politics, particularly U.S. (in one of Godard’s usual touches, Coutard holds the camera on one of them while we hear the other speak off-screen), and a group of revolutionaries (including Berto) who take the couple hostage. This is basically Godard’s Bunuel film, a savage satire containing his vision of Western civilization destroying itself (making the final scene of the film, an act of cannibalism, very much on-the-nose – if you’ll pardon the expression – but also appropriate). It’s appropriate then that Godard uses the road movie as a way to portray that satire, as even now, the automobile functions as both a middle-class status symbol and a symbol of freedom (or at least the illusion of it), and the way cars get used, wrecked, and fought over shows the middle-class and upper-class, as seen through Godard’s eyes, in microcosm (of course, it isn’t the only material goods Godard lays waste to here; when the couple get into an accident, Darc is less worried about her possible injuries than about the fact she’s ruined a Hermes bag). It’s as if Godard is saying all of western civilization has dropped through the rabbit hole, and there’s no getting out.
Of course, Godard was wrong; western civilization has gone on, and so has cinema, and while Weekend definitely made an impact with critics, it wasn’t as well received by the public (Godard always thought if the movie had come out after the events in Paris of May 1968, it would have made more money). And as i mentioned above, Godard retreated to more explicitly and abstract films, with mixed results. Sympathy for the Devil (1968: also known as One Plus One) attempted to be a look at the revolutionaries springing up, and also shows the Rolling Stones in the studio recording “Sympathy for the Devil”, but while you’d guess Godard was trying to set up a dialectic between the two, nothing comes of it. Berto and Leaud reunited in 1969 for Le Gai Savoir (aka The Joy of Learning), playing two people discussing language and the events of the day; it’s not as successful as La Chinoise, but interesting regardless. And One P.M., a film he co-directed with D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, which features people such as Tom Hayden talking about the Chicago 8 trial, feels like a blueprint rather than a finished film. So, in 1972, after a motorcycle accident, when Godard and his new collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin were asked to get big stars for their next movie, Godard reluctantly agreed, and tried to make something that was more of a throwback to his 60’s films (in the way the story was told) and still keep his political direction. The result was Tout Va Bien (1972).
Yves Montand and Jane Fonda in “Tout Va Bien”.
Inspired by the events of May 1968, Godard and Gorin’s film is about a revolt at a meatpacking plant, as well as being about Suzanne (Jane Fonda), an American correspondent for a French radio station, and her somewhat estranged husband Jacques (Yves Montand), a former filmmaker (with the French New Wave) who now shoots commercials. They visit the plant so Suzanne can do a story, but they happen to come on the day the workers have revolted against both the plant manager (Vittorio Caprioli) and the union officials and taken over the factory. As the workers want Suzanne to go beyond the traditional story told about them, so too Godard and Gorin (as Gorin points out in an interview on the Criterion DVD edition) want the film to go beyond what they saw as the usual political film preaching to the converted, or telling them what they already knew. For starters, they make it clear from the beginning this is a film, and Fonda and Montand are actors playing roles. And even though we go through a familiar story arc – both Suzanne and Jacques are radicalized by what they hear and what they see, enough so Suzanne looks for better stories to report and Jacques goes back to making “meaningful” films – Godard and Gorin try to make sure we see it differently. For example, the factory is set up almost like a dollhouse, with the camera tracking back and forth over it (just as, in La Chinoise, we saw the would-be revolutionaries from the outside through the apartment windows), and there are scenes of Jacques and Suzanne as if they were workers at the factory. Also, Godard and Gorin show a perfect illustration of just how much the Communist Party had fallen in favor with the French left with a scene at a giant supermarket (with another long tracking shot back and forth), where a Communist Party worker is selling his book along with all the other products (and gets into a fight with those who can’t understand why he can’t explain a phrase in his book). However, while we hear about the workers plenty in the first half of the movie, we don’t hear from them again (though we can guess what happened to them), and that’s a shame.
Other Voices: Mr. Freedom, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.
John Abbey as “Mr. Freedom”.
William Klein is probably best known as a photographer, but he was also a filmmaker. Born in the U.S. but living in Paris (after falling in love with a woman, he’s stayed there ever since), he was never formally aligned with the French New Wave, but did copy many of their techniques while combining them with his own penchant for comic strip images. All of that comes firmly into play with his attempted satire on American imperialism, Mr. Freedom (1969). John Abbey plays the title character, a superhero-type soldier who’s sent by his father (Donald Pleasance) to France to help bring freedom to them, while fighting the forces of Moujik Man (Phillipe Noiret), who’s opposed to “freedom”. Other than his documentary on Eldridge Cleaver (which I discuss in the following post), I’ve never seen any other Klein films (though I’m a fan of his photos), but it looks like he’s trying to make a satire and an exploitation film. Unfortunately, the latter wins out, making the satire annoying after a while. Not only that, but by shooting in English, many of the actors (Abbey and Pleasance are the only non-French actors among the main cast) seem distinctly uncomfortable, even though they’re game for what Klein is trying (Delphine Seyrig, who plays Mr. Freedom’s close ally – or maybe not – comes off especially awkward). Finally, Abbey himself is simply flat and annoying as well, Only Pleasance comes off well, and he’s only in the film at the beginning and end. Klein shows good intentions aren’t enough for a film; if it’s satirical, it should take its target seriously even if the film itself is trying to be funny.
Gian Maria Volonte in “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion”.
Pontecorvo, of course, wasn’t the only political filmmaker in Italy during the 60’s and 70’s, as Bernardo Bertolucci, Francesco Rosi, and Lina Wertmuller also emerged during that time. Less well known, but well-regarded at the time, was Elio Petri. Influenced as much by Kafka as Communist politics, Petri, inspired by a story about the police murdering two people, got the idea to make Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). The movie tells the tale of Il Dottore (Gian Maria Volonte), who, on the eve of his promotion from head of the homicide squad to head of the political squad (cracking down on dissidents), kills his mistress Augusta (Florinda Bolkan) by cutting her throat, and then practically dares his former colleagues in homicide to implicate him in the murder. The theme here is those in power who think they’re above the law, especially among the police (and with the rise of police-related shootings, that makes this particularly relevant here), and Volonte (who played a character completely different from this in Petri’s previous film We Still Kill the Old Way) does an excellent job at playing his character’s arrogance, and yet the same time his guilt. I only wish Petri and cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller hadn’t used so many close-ups throughout the film. They make sense later in the film, as the net starts to tighten around Volonte, but used throughout the film not only makes them lose their power, it also gives you the sense Petri is trying to work us over as well. As it stands, it is a queasily effective film showing how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Angela Winkler in “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”.
When talking about the filmmakers that emerged from Germany in the 70’s, like Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders, one name that doesn’t get mentioned much anymore is Volker Schlondorff. This is too bad, as I think at its best, his filmography stands up very well, and he hasn’t been afraid to engage in the politics of the country. This especially comes out in his 1975 movie The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which he co-directed and co-wrote with his then-wife Margarethe von Trotta (adapting the novel by Heinrich Boll). Angela Winkler stars in the title role, a maid and former prostitute who becomes infatuated with Ludwig (Jurgen Prochnow), who turns out to be a member of the Baader-Meinhof group, which had been terrorizing Germany at the time. Because of this, the police ruthlessly interrogate Blum, demanding to know if she knows where Ludwig is, and not believing her when she insists she doesn’t. While the police could be seen as just doing their jobs, the media, in the form of Werner (Dieter Laser), a right-wing journalist who begins a smear campaign against Blum, are seen as monstrous. Even though this is long after the time of the Baader-Meinhof group (as well as such similar organizations as the Red Army Faction in Italy), given we live in the age of the War on Terror and of even worse tabloid journalism in the form of Fox News, this movie is especially relevant today. If there’s one quibble, the movie doesn’t really develop Ludwig, so we never know if he’s as dangerous as everyone says he is, or more importantly, we never quite see the extent of his relationship with Blum which makes her want to protect him so much. Still, the movie does work as a stinging indictment of yellow journalism and an overreaching police, and in the end, we see Blum has been turned into what everyone in the police and press thinks of her anyway.