In 1974, in an effort to provide financial incentives for filmmakers to work in Canada, the Canadian federal government created a tax shelter by increasing what was known as the Capital Cost Allowance to 100 percent (from 60 percent). This allowed film investors to write off the costs of films at 100 percent, provided the films were considered Canadian (that is, were over 75 minutes long, had at least one producer and three-quarters of the above-the-line talent from Canada, and have at least three-quarters of the production and post-production done in Canada as well. The resulting films, generally known as the “tax shelter era films”, are not known as a bright spot in Canadian film history (except for fans of exploitation films), as most of the films made under this system paid little attention to quality (more to the point, most of them were also box office failures). Still, there were a few sprigs of wheat amid the chaff when it comes to Canadian films of this area. One of those was Louis Malle’s film Atlantic City, which came out in 1981, and is, to date, still the only Canadian film ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
The film came about when Malle was approached by some Canadian producers, including Denis Heroux (who had produced one of the better tax-shelter films, The Little Girl who Lives Down the Lane, starring Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen), after Malle had recently finished the Minnesota-set documentary God’s Country. They needed to make another film before the end of the decade in order to qualify for the shelter, and they offered Malle a novel to adapt. Malle didn’t like the novel, but he was interested in making another film, and through his then-girlfriend Susan Sarandon (who had recently worked with him on Pretty Baby), Malle met with playwright John Guare (best known at the time for plays such as The House of the Blue Leaves, though he had also co-written the screenplay for Milos Forman’s English-language debut film Taking Off). At the time, gambling had recently been legalized in Atlantic City, and the city was already demonstrating a significant gap between the haves (emphasized by the glamour of the Miss America contest, set there) and the have-nots, so Guare and Malle immediately saw the dramatic possibilities of setting a story there.
The story Guare came up involved Lou (Burt Lancaster), a two-bit gangster who claims to have rubbed shoulders with big names like Nucky Thompson and Al Capone when he was younger, but who is now an errand boy for Grace (Kate Reid), an invalid whose husband Lou used to work for, and whom Lou sometimes sleeps with. One of the few joys Lou has in his life is watching Sally (Susan Sarandon), a food server who’s studying to be a croupier, soaking her naked body every night by the kitchen window (she works at an oyster bar, and the lemon juice washes away the odor from the oysters). The two of them are thrown together when Sally’s estranged husband Dave (Robert Joy) shows up, along with Sally’s new-age sister Chrissy (Hollis McClaren), who’s pregnant by Dave. Dave, unbeknownst to Sally, has taken a package of cocaine meant for someone else from a phone booth, and he’s in town to sell it. While Dave is trying unsuccessfully to sell it in a bar to Fred (John McCurry), a more powerful gangster, Lou, who’s at the bar (taking bets for Fred), sees Dave, and recognizing him from when he came into the building, reaches out to him. Dave ignores him at first, but then flatters Lou by telling him he heard all the way in Vegas how Lou was a man to get things done, and convinces Lou to let him borrow his apartment to prepare the cocaine. Dave lines up a sale with Alfie (Al Waxman), a gambler, but convinces Lou to make the sale since he’s better dressed for the part. However, while Lou is doing this, Dave gets murdered by drug dealers looking for the cocaine he stole. Lou ends up helping Sally, and she’s grateful for it (she even sleeps with him), until they get attacked by the same drug dealers, and she learns what Dave and Lou have been up to.
Malle was able to make the movie the way he wanted to make it as long as he followed the rules of Canadian tax shelter films. The main crew was made up mostly of Canadians, with the exception of Suzanne Baron, the editor, who was French and had edited several of Malle’s previous films (though she went on to edit only two more, My Dinner with Andre and Crackers), and Michel Legrand, also French, who wrote the score (though Malle ended up using almost all diagetic music and just a fraction of the score). Richard Ciupka, the cinematographer, had been born in Belgium, but had lived in and worked in Canada the previous decade (his only film of note to that point had been a made-for-TV version of A Christmas Carol, set in America – though shot in Montreal – and starring Henry Winkler). Anne Pritchard, the production designer, was born in Ontario, and had served as production designer on such films as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (from the novel by Mordecai Richler, rightly considered one of the best Canadian films ever made) and Blood Relatives (one of Claude Chabrol’s lesser-known efforts, shot in Montreal and based on an Ed McBain novel). Finally, Francoise Barbeau, the costume designer, would later receive the Order of Canada, and had worked on an adaptation of Richler’s classic children’s book Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. As far as the cast goes, except for Lancaster, Sarandon, the great French actor Michel Piccoli (who plays the man teaching Sally to be a croupier), and Wallace Shawn (who had a bit part as a waiter who serves Lancaster and Sarandon), most of the cast was Canadian as well.
Though Reid was born in London, England, her parents were Canadian, and they moved to Ontario when Reid was less than a year old. She was mostly known for her work on stage (she appeared in such plays as The Rainmaker, Three Sisters, and various Shakespeare works), though she had appeared in such films as Sydney Pollack’s This Property is Condemned (as Natalie Wood’s mother; adapted from a play by Tennessee Williams), Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (as one of the team of scientists trying to stop an alien virus; based on the novel by Michael Crichton), and Sidney Lumet’s Equus (as the wife of the psychiatrist played by Richard Burton; based on the play by Peter Shaffer). After Atlantic City (for which she won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), she went on to have a recurring role on the original incarnation of the prime time TV soap opera Dallas, and as Dustin Hoffman’s wife in a made-for-TV version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, among other roles, before finally succumbing to brain cancer in 1993, at the age of 62.
Joy, born in Montreal, was the son of a Newfoundland politician, and started out in a theater troupe there. To American audiences, he’s probably best known today as Dr. Sid Hammerback, the “quirky” medical examiner on CSI: NY. Prior to Atlantic City, he hadn’t done much, but after the movie, he enjoyed a prolific career as a character actor in both movies (in such movies as Desperately Seeking Susan, Radio Days, and Longtime Companion) and TV shows (playing a recurring role on The Equalizer).
Prior to Atlantic City, McClaren, born in Toronto, was best known for the comedy Outrageous!, where she played a pregnant woman with schizophrenia rooming with a gay hairdresser/female impersonator (Craig Russell). She and Russell appeared in the sequel 10 years later, but her career has been sporadic, most notably the drama Marion Bridge (with Molly Parker and Ellen Page), and made-for-TV movies about Martha Stewart and Elizabeth Smart.
Waxman was mostly known in Canada at the time for being the star of the sitcom King of Kensington, which was the only successful Canadian sitcom to ever air (it ran for five seasons). After Atlantic City, he got some jobs in American movies (Class of 1984, Switching Channels), but his most memorable appearance in America came on television, where he played police lieutenant Bert Samuels on Cagney & Lacey. He died in 2001.
Another actor from the movie who later showed up on Cagney & Lacey (as desk sergeant Ronald Coleman) was Harvey Atkin, who plays a bus driver. Atkin had previously appeared as the somewhat hapless camp director Morty (“Hi, Mickey!”) in Meatballs (another Canadian tax shelter production), opposite Bill Murray. Though he’s appeared in movies (two Mordecai Richler adaptations; Joshua Then and Now and Barney’s Version) and on other shows besides Cagney & Lacey (a recurring role as a judge on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), Atkin is probably best known for his voice work, particular as the voice of King Koopa on The Super Mario Brothers Super Show.
Robert Goulet made a cameo appearance as a singer, more or less based on himself, doing a dedication at a hospital wing where Sally goes to identify Dave’s body. Goulet started out on stage, as Lancelot in Camelot, opposite Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, when it was on Broadway. Though he appeared in other plays (Man of La Mancha), as well as in movies (Beetlejuice), he was mostly known for his career as a singer, and his appearances in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. He died in 2007.
Arguably, the one who became the biggest name afterwards wasn’t really much of an actor, but made his mark elsewhere in the media landscape; Moses Znaimer, who plays one of the drug dealers pursuing Sally and Lou. Znaimer started out working for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (the CBC, similar to the BBC), and produced, directing, and hosted several shows for them starting in 1965. In 1969, Znaimer quit the CBC, and three years later, founded Canada’s first UHF channel, City TV (“This is City TV, everywhere!”). When that channel became a success, and was purchased by Canadian media conglomerate CHUM in 1981, Znaimer went on to launch several other TV stations, including Much Music (the Canadian equivalent of MTV), Cable Pulse 24, Space, Book Television, and the Law and Order Channel. Though he stepped down from the executive posts he had at CHUM in 2003, he still maintains close ties with it, and has also launched his own media company with Zoomer Media.
As for the film itself, of the handful of films Malle made in America (the others were My Dinner with Andre, Crackers, Alamo Bay, Vanya on 42nd Street, and the documentaries And the Pursuit of Happiness and God’s Country), this one is my favorite, even though it may take a couple of viewings to fully sink in (as it did for me). Malle and Guare show a collision of the old and the new without getting heavy-handed about it. That dedication scene is a good example; Malle and Guare don’t skimp on the conflicted feelings Sally has, and they don’t linger too long on Goulet, making the joke (as well as the hilariously awful song he sings) all the funnier. As for the performances, Lancaster looks more relaxed here than at any other time in his career, and when he finally becomes the big shot he’d always bragged about being, he brings a palpable joy to it, yet also lets you see how unnerving it can be. Sarandon had been acting in movies for a decade prior to this movie (beginning with Joe in 1970), this was the first role she had gotten that was worthy of her talents (she was good in Pretty Baby, but it was a secondary role). There’s no playing to the audience during the scenes when she’s washing herself off, and the scene where she finally registers what she’s gotten herself into if she stays with Lou is also a great moment of quiet acting. Piccoli’s accent is a little thick at times, but he’s very good otherwise as the charming if repellent mentor. Reid is perfect as a woman who hasn’t entirely grown up. And Waxman shows some nice comic timing when he first sees Lou and makes a crack about Medicare. Malle and Guare were never to work again (they had planned on making a movie about Abscam with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, but that fell through after Belushi died), but Atlantic City stands out as a great collaboration, as well as one of the better films from the Canadian tax shelter period.
Throughout history, there have been great artists whose work has been all of a piece; each movie, novel, song, or what have you, has been essentially the same each time. There might be some slight variation in place, but you could still recognize it as distinctly theirs. Then there are the artists who change their style (for lack of a better word) every time they release a new work. In certain circles, this is seen as being a dilettante, or as someone who can’t make up their mind, but I see it as having an adventurous spirit, of not wanting to repeat themselves. Few artists epitomized this adventurous spirit more than David Bowie, who passed away on January 10 (two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album, Blackstar) after a long bout with cancer. Throughout his music career, he went through numerous personas (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke) and musical styles (glam rock, soul – or as he dubbed it, “plastic soul” – industrial music), and put his own stamp on them while remaining true to the impulse that led him to stretch himself in that direction in the first place. Others have written, and will write, in more detail about his music career, but I’d like to concentrate on his film career. Although he wasn’t exactly prolific in that department, only making 21 feature-length movies in his career, and I’ve only seen a handful of them, his choices suggest the same daring and restless spirit that characterized his music.
Though he had a small part in the 1969 war comedy The Virgin Soldiers, and had made a couple of shorts as well, Bowie’s real film break came in 1976, with Nicolas Roeg’s The Man who Fell to Earth. I’ve already written about that film, but it’s important to point out this could easily have just been a film exploiting the alien persona Bowie had cultivated to that point. After all, the plot is about an alien, going under the alias Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie), who visits Earth, starts a technology conglomerate, falls in love with a hotel maid (Candy Clark), and becomes targeted by the U.S. government. But what Roeg and writer Paul Mayersberg (adapting the novel by Walter Tevis) do with this instead is to emphasize how alienated Newton himself is from Earth, despite the ways he does seem to embrace it; his pursuit of money, his constant watching of old movies on TV, and the way he drowns his sorrows in alcohol (mirroring Bowie’s own real-life drug addiction at the time). And in the end, instead of the alien leaving a message for earth, or turning on it, Newton is betrayed by almost everyone he’s close to (even Clark’s character). So instead of exploiting his persona, Bowie turned to a filmmaker, and a story, about that persona being exploited, showing both his daring and his savvy even then. And while inexperienced as an actor, Bowie does show both the business savvy that allows him to make so much money, as well as the physical and emotional vulnerability of his character, and holds his own with actors like Clark and Rip Torn.
I’ve never seen Just a Gigolo, Bowie’s follow-up film, where he plays a WWI soldier returning to his home in Berlin (made during Bowie’s Berlin album trilogy), but while it had an interesting group of people involved (David Hemmings directed, and Bowie’s co-stars included Hemmings, Marlene Dietrich and Kim Novak), Bowie apparently didn’t think much of it; in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1987, he claimed everyone knew it was bad while they were making it, and it seems to have been largely forgotten today (it’s never been released on DVD). Although it was also a flop upon release, Bowie’s next film, The Hunger, has become a cult film, thanks to its subject matter (vampires), as well as the fact it was the first feature film directed by the late Tony Scott, who followed this up with the smash hit Top Gun. Bowie plays a lover of a vampire queen (Catherine Deneuve), and as with The Man who Fell to Earth, his character is sickly, though here, it’s because of lack of blood. Along with his bleached-out look, Bowie gives his character a hoarse voice, and it fits the character. The movie, unfortunately, is more interested in flashy surfaces than anything else, and the promising work Bowie and co-star Susan Sarandon (as a medical researcher who gets involved with Bowie and Deneuve) gets lost amidst the flash. The other major movie Bowie was involved in that year was Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and I have to admit I couldn’t warm up to this one either, although it also plays off of Bowie’s persona and showed his willingness at the same time to take chances. Here, he’s a British POW at a Japanese camp during WWII who finds himself strangely drawn to Captain Yonoi (Ryuchi Sakamoto), the commander. Bowie is convincing as a soldier, does his best not to appear “modern”, and is willing to follow Oshima’s depiction of the homoerotic overtones of the story (in real life, Bowie declared in the 70’s he was bisexual, though he sometimes tried to walk that back, at one point – in an interview with Life magazine – asserting instead he was a “trisexual – I’ll try anything once”), but Oshima’s style here, as in his controversial In the Realm of the Senses, leaves me cold.
Bowie was a friend of Eric Idle’s, which led him to make a brief cameo that same year in Yellowbeard, opposite Idle and Madeline Khan (in his novel Road to Mars, Idle models a robot character after Bowie’s persona from his Let’s Dance period, and Idle apparently wanted Bowie to play the part if it was ever filmed, but it never was). And while I have no proof of this, after watching Bowie in John Landis’ would-be comedy/thriller Into the Night, I’d swear Bowie played the role of a hitman by asking, “What if Idle’s ‘Nudge Nudge’ character was a psychotic instead of just a desperate virgin?”It’s not just the dialogue, but Bowie’s inflections when he’s saying things like “Very good” like Idle did in the Python sketch. Bowie manages to bring a jolt of energy to the proceedings, and manages to be both funny and dangerous, even in scenes like getting in a knife fight with a rival hitman (Carl Perkins, of all people).
In later years, Bowie would disparage the music he made during the 80’s after Let’s Dance, calling it his “Phil Collins” years – he disliked the fact he was trying to cash in on his success, and wasn’t taking the chances he had taken in the 70’s. I hope he didn’t include the music he made for Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth in that judgment, because the music he wrote for both movies is, I think, some of the most enjoyable music he’s ever done. I’m also a big fan of both movies, and him in them as well. In the former, based on the Colin MacInnes novel about British youth in the late 50’s, he plays Vendice, a corrupt businessman who tempts Colin (Eddie O’Connell), the photographer hero of the story, into selling out. Bowie worked at an ad agency in the 60’s, and apparently based his character on bosses who would affect an American accent, which is why he does so here at times. It can get distracting while you’re watching, but it’s mitigated by the rest of the film (which, while being the rare film that could be said to have too many ideas, is energetically made by director Julien Temple) and by Bowie’s songs. He performs the title track, a lovely and affecting jazz-tinged mid-tempo ballad, and also the song “That’s Motivation”, where he entices Colin, and also gets to dance (adequately) on a typewriter (he also croons “Volare” at one point). Because the movie was taken away from Temple in the editing room, there’s no way of telling whether Bowie had a bigger role, especially when he’s revealed as being the main person behind the part that drives the second half of the movie (driving all of the immigrants out of Notting Hill, where Colin lives), but for the time he’s on-screen, Bowie is convincingly seductive, plastic, and devilish.
Bowie gets to play evil again in the latter as Jareth, the Goblin King, who takes the baby brother of Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a fairy-tale loving teenage girl (who had wished the goblins would take her brother away), and then tries to prevent her from getting him back. The movie was the last one directed by Jim Henson, and as with other Henson projects, Bowie (as well as Connelly) interacts with Muppets, in this case the goblins and other creatures. Bowie, who took the movie based on Brian Froud’s designs of these creatures, is clearly having fun with his role, and works well with both Connelly and the other Muppets. Plus, the songs he wrote for the movie are very enjoyable, especially “Underground” (which plays over the opening and closing credits) and “Magic Dance” (the introduction pays off of an exchange in Cary Grant movie The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer), which may not be my favorite Bowie song ever, but is one I will always dance and sing along to. And while the “Bowie is a sex god!” mantra that has apparently become part of some of the fandom of this movie is overdone, there’s also no denying the seductiveness Bowie brings to Jareth, especially in the dream sequence when Sarah, having bitten a poisoned plum, imagines she’s at a ball in which Jareth pursues her and dances with her (while “As the World Falls Down”, another one of the songs Bowie wrote and performed for the movie, plays in the background). At the same time, within the limits of a kids movie (ex-Python Terry Jones, credited with the screenplay, had originally written a darker version of the film), Bowie also never lets you forget Jareth is a bad guy, especially when he’s changing the rules on Sarah.
Both Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth met with mixed to indifferent reviews and were box-office flops (don’t know what Bowie thought of Labyrinth, but according to the interview I alluded to earlier, he liked Absolute Beginners and saw it achieving cult status). Both of them have developed followings over the years (though for the latter, there’s a group that insists it’s only worth watching as a camp classic, a notion I find noxious), but they effectively killed off any chance of Bowie becoming a movie star, which, in retrospect, seemed like something he didn’t want to pursue anyway. Instead, he continued to work with interesting people and on offbeat projects. Martin Scorsese originally wanted Sting to play the role of Pontius Pilate in his controversial film version of The Last Temptation of Christ, but when that fell through, Bowie stepped into the role when Scorsese was finally able to get the film made. At first, when you’re watching, you might think Bowie’s performance is flat, especially contrasted with the energy from Willem Dafoe as Jesus. However, as a friend of mine pointed out, the conception of Pilate here is of one who is bored with yet another “rebel” being brought in front of him and doesn’t want to make a decision about it. Yet Bowie exudes authority in the scene and is convincing as a ruler. Another tab at a lead role came a few years later in Richard Shepard’s underrated, offbeat comedy The Linguini Incident, where he plays a bartender/con man who has designs on $50,000 left in the safe of the restaurant he works at, but has to compete with Rosanna Arquette (as a waitress/escape artist) and Eszter Balint (a performance artist) for the loot. Though there’s a nominal story (in addition to the plot about the money, Bowie and Arquette fall in love with each other), it’s less important than the characters and the atmosphere Shepard creates (this is the type of movie where Balint tries to hold up the restaurant, then claims it’s part of her act), and Bowie fits in very well, again by underplaying.
In addition to music and movies, Bowie was also interested in art, fashion, and technology, which led to three enjoyable cameos. In Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, his biopic about the controversial graffiti artist (played by Jeffrey Wright), Bowie turned up in a small role as Andy Warhol, who encouraged Basquiat. Bowie, of course, had known Warhol, and captures Warhol’s mannerisms and voice perfectly. He also interacts well with both Wright and Dennis Hopper (as Bruno Bischofberger, an art dealer). And Bowie also showed an ability to laugh at himself by showing up as himself in Ben Stiller’s fashion satire Zoolander, refereeing a walk-off between Stiller and his rival Owen Wilson (“If nobody has any objections, I believe I might be of service”). Finally, in one of his last film appearances, Austin Chick’s August, he plays an investor whom Josh Hartnett alternately woos and insults to try and get money for Hartnett’s dot-com company. Bowie doesn’t have much screen time, but he adds authority to the role, and to the movie. But it was an appearance in another movie about technology (among other things), playing a real-life inventor, that gave him his last great role.
I’ve already written about The Prestige, but I barely spent any time talking about Bowie’s performance as Nikolai Tesla, the famed rival to Thomas Edison in the quest to harness electrical power. At first, we just know Tesla as this reclusive figure Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), a famed magician (under the name The Great Danton) is trying to get ahold of because he knows Tesla built a machine for his bitter rival Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) for his trick The Transported Man. When Angier goes to visit Tesla at the beginning of the film, Alley (Andy Serkis), Tesla’s assistant, puts him off (though he’s polite about it once he recognizes Angier). Finally, nearly 50 minutes into the film, Tesla appears, and naturally, it’s walking through a mass of electric bolts shooting through the air. As he greets Angier, Tesla tells him how much Alley enthuses about his act, grasps one of Angier’s hands, and then asks him to hold out the other. Alley puts a giant light bulb in Angier’s hand, and immediately, the light bulb comes on. Angier, surprised, asks what’s producing the electricity, and Tesla replies, “Our bodies, Mr. Angier, quite capable of conducting and, indeed, producing energy.” As with so many of Bowie’s other performances, it’s all the better for being underplayed, whether he’s explaining what drives him (“You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie; man’s reach exceeds his nerve”) or warning Angier not to let his obsession control him. Bowie only appears in a few scenes in the movie, but somehow, the movie would feel incomplete without him.
Though Bowie may not have had the most prolific movie career, he was as much a visual artist as he was a musical one. Like many other musicians in Britain during the 60’s and 70’s, he was making music videos long before MTV, and while some of them were merely performance clips, even these were made interesting simply how Bowie was dressed for the occasion (looking very much like an alien, for example, while performing “Space Oddity”). Others conveyed the showmanship, sense of humor (“Fashion”), and even the vulnerability (“Ashes to Ashes”) contained in his songs. And when the MTV era came around, he was tuned into that as well, even able to slip messages into his videos;”Let’s Dance”, for example, the title track of his album, looks to make a comment on both consumerism and the treatment of aborigines alongside his rather buoyant tune. Not long after Michael Jackson proved long-form music videos could work with his video for thriller, Bowie and Temple took Bowie’s song “Blue Jean” (from his ill-fated album Tonight) and made a 17 minute short film called Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, where he plays both Screamin’ Lord Byron, a reclusive rock star who might have been one of Bowie’s album characters (he even dresses like one while performing “Blue Jean”), and Vic, a nerdish man who tries to impress his date (Louise Scott) by pretending he “knows” Byron. It’s no more than a trifle, but it’s an amusing one. In that Rolling Stone video, he claimed, however, he was happy to see people turning away from music videos, and seemed to be implying he was getting bored with them. By that time, however, even if Hollywood hadn’t quite embraced him as an actor, they were starting to catch up with his music.
On Bowie’s IMDb page, it lists over 450 movies, TV shows, awards shows, and so on where his music has been used, and the 80’s is when it started to pick up. Some of it may have been songs Bowie expressly wrote for movies, like the title track of Paul Schrader’s remake/re-imagining of Cat People (more on that in a moment) or the song “This is Not America”, which he did for the movie version of The Falcon and the Snowman. But a lot of it was Bowie’s older music. John Hughes’ use of Bowie’s lyrics in “Changes” to open The Breakfast Club (“And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations, they are quite aware of what they are going through”) set the note of defiance for the rest of the film. Both David Fincher and David Lynch found inspiration in Bowie’s turn towards industrial music in the 90’s for their credits sequences, Fincher with “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” in Seven (over the closing credits) and Lynch with “I’m Deranged” in Lost Highway (over both the opening and closing credits). “Under Pressure”, which Bowie co-wrote and co-recorded with Queen, may be overused nowadays, but it still feels fresh to encounter it in the memorable sequence from Grosse Pointe Blank when hitman Martin Blank (John Cusack), having reluctantly gone to his high school reunion, even more reluctantly holds a former classmate’s baby and finds himself thinking about the sanctity of life for a change. Cameron Crowe (who had interviewed Bowie in the 70’s for Playboy) uses Bowie’s version of Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man” for his semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous, in the sequence where Stillwater goes to Cleveland and lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) indulge themselves in their respective hotel rooms while magazine writer William Miller (Patrick Fugit) – based on Crowe himself – sits glumly, waiting for an interview that will never come. Quentin Tarantino appropriated Bowie’s “Cat People” for his movie Inglourious Basterds in the sequence where Shoshana (Melanie Laurent) gets herself ready to take her revenge on the Nazis for massacring her family. Tarantino would not be the last person to appropriate Bowie’s music for his own purposes; in his film Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach borrows from Leon Carax’s Mauvais Sang in his use of “Modern Love”, with his heroine (Greta Gerwig) running down the streets of Manhattan, just as Denis Lavant had run through the streets of Paris in Carax’s film (with slight differences; Carax shoots long takes in level tracking shots and in color, while Baumbach uses jump cuts and an overhead camera, and shoots in black and while. Also, Gerwig is filled with joy, while Lavant starts out in agony before turning himself over to joyful abandon). And while Joe Wright’s action fairy tale Hanna mostly uses the Chemical Brothers for the score, there’s one great sequence where the title character (Saoirse Ronan) hides out in the camper of the family who’s befriended them, and watches them as they dance around to “Kooks”, showing the camaraderie and family love she’s missed.
But if there’s one film that I would point to as the best example of using Bowie’s music, that would be Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Met with critical derision from many circles when first released – even among those who had been fans of Anderson’s earlier work – it has since rightfully been reappraised. As with other Anderson films, the song choices (as opposed to the score, written by former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh) are all tied together thematically, but here it’s dominated by Bowie. Instead of just replaying Bowie’s music however, we hear Brazilian musician Seu Jorge’s covers of such Bowie hits as “Starman”, “Five Years”,and “Rebel Rebel” (Jorge, who plays a member of Zissou’s (Bill Murray) crew, performs many of these songs on camera). You might expect this to have a distancing effect on us, especially since Jorge sings them all in Portuguese (he did all the translations himself). But it makes a perfect sense, in a way, to show how Bowie’s music has crossed over into several different cultures, and doubly appropriate in a film set on a vessel that travels all across the globe. Anderson saves the use of the real thing for two memorable sequences. The first is when Zissou meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, like Murray a member of Anderson’s repertory company; he also co-wrote Anderson’s first three films), an airline pilot, at a reception on Zissou’s boat. Plimpton introduces himself and tells Zissou he may in fact be Zissou’s son from a previous relationship, though he admits he doesn’t know for sure. Zissou is overwhelmed by the news (he’s already coming off his declaration that he intends to kill a shark that killed his best friend, played by Seymour Cassel), so he excuses himself and walks up to the ship’s stern to have a cigarette. During their conversation, the instrumental part of Bowie’s “Life on Mars” has been playing, but as Zissou walks up the ship, Bowie’s voice breaks in, underlining the emotional turmoil in Zissou’s heart. Anderson bookends this at the end (in what also serves as an homage to the end credits sequence of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) with Zissou, leaving the successful premiere of his latest film (in addition to being a ship captain, Zissou, like Jacques Cousteau, is also a documentary filmmaker), walks down the steps to Bowie’s “Queen Bitch”, and as with the film Anderson is paying homage to, Zissou then starts walking down the docks and is joined one by one by members of his crew (Jeff Goldblum, who plays the new husband of Zissou’s ex-wife (Anjelica Huston), was also in Banzai), contrasting the note of melancholy earlier with the note of triumph in this song.
During his musical career, Bowie was often regarded by the critics as being cold or inward; as Robert Draper wrote in his book Rolling Stone: The Uncensored History, the glam period Bowie participated in was met with both amusement and disdain from the magazine’s music writers. Even other musicians got into the act; in an interview with the magazine for the 20th anniversary, John Fogerty used Bowie’s music as an example of people turning away from the idealism of the 60’s (as well as the desire to make the world a better place). Of course, they were missing the boat; Bowie may have been using irony throughout his many poses (an attitude often misunderstood by American critics of music and movies), but underneath was something that was both heartfelt and, at the same time, allowed, and even invited, you to have a laugh at the absurdity of it all. That’s why so many people were drawn to his music, why his music was so often used in movies, and why, even though he didn’t make many movies, Bowie was able to leave just as indelible mark in them as he did in music.
This is my contribution to The Criterion Blues Blogathon. Enjoy!
When Henri-Georges Clouzot once asked Jean-Luc Godard whether every film should have a beginning, middle and end, Godard famously replied, “Yes, but not necessarily in that order.” Godard aside, most movies today do have a beginning, middle and end in that order. It’s a method of storytelling, to be sure, that’s produced some of the greatest films ever made. But there’s nothing wrong with filmmakers trying to break up that method of storytelling, so that things aren’t in order. One of the few directors who challenged this way of storytelling on film was Nicolas Roeg. Roeg was known for his fragmented narrative, of having flashbacks and flash-forwards (terms he’s claimed he’s never really understood), and challenging viewers in more ways than just in the narrative. When Roeg was still making films (his last theatrically released film, Puffball (2007), only had a limited released in the U.S.), his style received a mixed reception from critics and audiences, but nowadays, Roeg has been receiving plaudits from filmmakers (Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh both praise him on a recent DVD), and from Criterion, which has released five of his films on DVD. It’s those five films that I’d like to focus on.
Roeg, of course, started out his career working in the camera department, first as an assistant cameraman in 1951 (for the film Calling Bulldog Drummond), then moving up to camera operator (on such films as The Man Inside and The Sundowners), and eventually cinematographer on such films as Lawrence of Arabia (for which he shot the second-unit cinematography), Masque of the Red Death, Fahrenheit 451, the 1967 adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd, and Petulia. In 1970 came his first film as director, Performance, where he shared a directing credit with Donald Cammell. Though this tale of a gangster (James Fox) on the lam who hides out with a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) features Roeg on cinematography, and also has a fractured narrative (not to mention casting a musician in one of the lead roles, which he would do twice more in the next decade), it’s considered as much a film by Cammell as it is by Roeg. Walkabout (1971), released a year later), would be Roeg’s solo directorial debut.
I’ve always put Roeg in the category of filmmakers who are interesting even though they’ve never quite been able to get the film that’s in their heads onto the screen, which is ironic since Roeg has insisted he never plans anything out in advance when it comes to shooting. Walkabout, for me, is the film that’s Roeg’s most successful attempt at putting it all together. Based on a children’s novel called The Children by Donald G. Payne (writing under the name James Vance Marshall), it tells the story of two children, a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Roeg’s son Luc, billed here as Lucien John), who are stranded in the outback area of Australia, and the help they receive from an aborigine boy (David Gulpilil) who’s about the same age as the girl (as the opening credits explain, when an aborigine boy reaches the age of 16, he goes out into the wild to live off of the land, which is called going on a “walkabout”). The aborigine helps the two children find water (which is their major need in the desert) and food, but while the boy develops an instant liking to the aborigine (the feeling is mutual), things are more complicated with his sister.
Roeg and playwright Edward Bond (best known at the time for the play Saved), who wrote the screenplay, made some crucial changes to the novel. First, while in the novel, the boy and girl’s parents died in a plane crash that stranded the children, here, the boy and girl get taken to the outback by the father, who tries to shoot them before killing himself (the boy doesn’t know what’s going on, but the girl does, and manages to flee with her brother before their father commits suicide). Also, the way the aborigine meets his eventual fate in the movie is different than in the novel. Finally, they play up the girl’s budding sexuality (including a scene where the girl swims nude in a lake, though it should be said it’s done without any voyeurism), which also contributes to the aborigine’s fate. But mostly, Roeg and Bond are faithful to the essential story, and the author’s way of capturing the landscape. Obviously, a lot of that can be done through the photography, and Roeg, who also served as the film’s cinematographer (the last time he’d do so on a feature film), brings out the beautiful parts of the landscape while also making clear how it can seem forbidding and dangerous, and all of this without turning the film into a travelogue. Roeg also follows another Godard dictum here in showing the interior lives of his characters by staying outside, and using the landscape to do so. That becomes especially apparent near the end, when the aborigine does a dance for the girl that he clearly means one way and the girl takes another way.
While Agutter had been making movies for nearly a decade before this film, Walkabout was Luc Roeg’s first (and, as it turns out, only) film as an actor, and the same with Gulpilil, but Roeg gets natural performances out of all three of them. Luc Roeg comes off as a natural child, being able to relate to some things immediately without truly understanding everything that’s going on. Gulpilil, one of the few well known aborigine actors in Australia (he has also appeared in such films as Mad Dog Morgan, Crocodile Dundee, and Rabbit Proof Fence, is primarily a dancer (a documentary on the Criterion DVD about his life and career shows him how to teach people aborigine dance), and his fluidity of movement certainly suggests that. And he and Roeg work hard to try and avoid the “noble savage” cliche (not entirely successfully, it should be said; it’s the one failure of the film) and make him into a distinctive character. Finally, while Agutter is the one experienced actor among the three, she works well with the others, become like a mother figure to Roeg’s character while still being enough of a teenage girl to be convincingly freaked out by what she’s going through. In Australia, the novel has long been considered a children’s classic, and Roeg’s film remains a classic in its own right.
As I mentioned before, Roeg started out as a cameraman, and has therefore always considered movies visual stories, and screenplays, and the written word in general, to be blueprints and not movies. What makes that ironic is Roeg has not only worked with playwrights (who hold the written word paramount), bus has often adapted the written word of novels, plays, and short stories to the screen. Such was also the case with Roeg’s next film, Don’t Look Now (1973), which was adapted from the short story by Daphne du Maurier.
As with the story, the movie follows John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), an art restorer, and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) during their time in Venice. Part of the trip is for business – John is restoring a church – but they’re also there because John hopes it will help them both, especially Laura, get over the death of their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams). Early in their trip, at a restaurant, they see two old women who are sisters – Wendy (Clelia Matania) and Heather (Hilary Mason) – who seem a bit bizarre but harmless, and who are staring at them. Wendy gets something caught in her eye, and since Heather is blind, Laura volunteers to help her in the ladies’ room. Heather also claims to be psychic, and in the bathroom, she claims she has a message from Christine, telling Laura and John not to worry, which causes Laura to faint later, but also makes her the happiest she’s been since Christine died. John doesn’t believe this, and doesn’t want to believe, but it turns out John may be psychic as well in his own way, which leads to danger for him.
Again, Roeg, along with writers Chris Bryant and Allan Scott (the latter of whom went on to write or co-write four feature films and one made-for-TV film for Roeg), changes du Maurier’s story while still keeping the essence of it. In the story, for example, Christine died of meningitis, while in the movie, she drowns in a pond outside their home, and while wearing a red mac (the color red appears as a motif throughout the entire film, an invention of Roeg’s), and is tied in to show John’s premonition (he runs outside without hearing a scream, though he’s too late). Also, the movie adds the famous sex scene between John and Laura, which is intercut between the two of them getting ready (in interviews, Roeg said he wanted to show one moment of intimacy as a contrast to the many disagreements they have throughout the film, but it’s also implied they’re trying to have another baby to try and replace Christine). Still, Roeg keeps the essence of the story all the way until the end, when John makes two tragic mistakes.
Roeg, cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (who went on to shoot two more features and two made-for-TV movies for Roeg), and editor Graeme Clifford (who went on to become a director in the 80’s) try to avoid using the obvious locations in Venice, using the walkways, the age of the buildings, and the bleached out colors to help create menace. And while there are flashbacks (often to the time of Christine’s death), they aren’t used in a flashy way, and John’s other “premonitions” aren’t juiced up, so Roeg can’t be accused of hyping the material. Yet, even given how the tale winds up, and the inclusion of a subplot involving a serial killer, I must admit I find myself sympathizing with Pauline Kael, who felt Roeg’s technique was so cold it never allowed us to feel anything for the characters, and that it was dressing up Gothic material that didn’t need dressing up. Despite the efforts of Sutherland and Christie, who are both very good, the film always keeps us at a distance from the characters, especially the supporting ones (Roeg’s attempts to show ambiguity regarding the sisters – as to whether they’re frauds or not – also comes as cheap). Of all the films of Roeg’s that have been released on Criterion, Don’t Look Now is my least favorite, even with all that’s good in it.
One of the more important aspects of Roeg’s career that needs to be examined is the way he uses music, particularly recorded music, to underscore the action. The radio the young boy carries around in Walkabout (playing Rod Stewart’s “Gasoline Alley” and Warren Marley’s “Los Angeles”, among other songs), Mick Jagger’s electrifying performance of “Memo From Turner” in the hallucinatory sequence in Performance, and his staging of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” in Aria being among the highlights. Along with that goes his willingness to use musicians in leading roles in films. Probably no better example of that tendency came in Roeg’s following film, The Man who Fell to Earth, with David Bowie in the title role.
Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, a man who comes to New Mexico and starts a technology company thanks to Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), a patent lawyer who helps patent his inventions, and Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a cynical, womanizing chemistry professor whom Newton hires as his science consultant. Newton also finds himself falling in love with Mary Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel maid who later helps him in his business. Gradually, we find out what that business is really for; Newton is actually an alien from another planet who’s trying to raise enough money so he can build a spaceship, go back, and rescue the survivors, including his wife and children, who are suffering because the planet has run out of water. However, the U.S. government, in the form of Peters (Bernie Casey), has other ideas.
I’ve never read the Walter Tevis novel the movie is based on (adapted by Paul Mayersberg, a former film critic who also went on to write Croupier over two decades later), so I don’t know how Roeg handled the transition from novel to screen. I know Roeg’s use of flashbacks to Newton’s planet, where he and his wife (also played by Clark) and children are struggling to survive, give us the emotional connection that I was missing in Roeg’s previous film. And Roeg doesn’t try to accentuate Bowie’s already alien persona any more than necessary (we don’t see him in his alien guise while on Earth except for two scenes, and only for a short time in both of them). He grounds how alienated Newton is from everyone else in the normal, everyday circumstances of Newton being addicted to watching television, and later, drinking alcohol (an unintended resonance to the addiction storyline is Bowie himself was going through a drug addiction at the time). as well as seeing how everyone one else eventually ages while Newton, essentially stays the same, at least until maybe the end. And once again, Roeg, working here again with Richmond and Clifford, uses the landscape to play against Newton without going overboard with it.
The American release was cut by 20 minutes, and some scenes were rearranged differently. The Criterion version restores Roeg’s original intent, and makes things clearer (along with, as is Roeg’s method, being more sexually explicit). It’s still somewhat confusing at times – it’s never really made clear to us why Bryce ends up selling Newton out – but it’s always dazzling to look at, thanks to the flashbacks (also shot in New Mexico), and its portrayal of an alien not as a menace, nor as a “pure” being, but someone subject to the same desires as all of us. Bowie has been a man of many personas over the course of his career, and this is one he wears rather well, while Henry is perfect as the ultimate corporate drone, and Torn does well in playing against type as someone more intellectual than emotional. Clark can strain at times, but she has good chemistry with Bowie, and brings off a tough scene when she finds out who Newton really is. Bowie was originally supposed to write the music for the movie as well, but for whatever reason, that didn’t work out; still, the music for the film is well used, as well as the collage of images from the televisions Newton is glued to. The Man who Fell to Earth is the type of film I was thinking of when I originally claimed Roeg could never quite get the movie in his head onto the screen, but it’s definitely an engaging and interesting movie all the same.
Much has been made of the relationship between directors and actors who have served as their on-screen muse. John Ford and John Wayne, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro; these are all familiar pairings to us. But there are also the intertwined careers of directors and actresses, such as Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Ingmar Bergman and his many leading women (particularly, of course, Liv Ullmann), and Woody Allen with Diane Keaton and then Mia Farrow (more recently, Nicole Holofcener and Catherine Keener as well). Then there’s Roeg and Theresa Russell, an actress who, at the time they got together, was known only for playing a small part in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of The Last Tycoon, and as Dustin Hoffman’s girlfriend in Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time. While the seven films the two of them made together (six features and one short that was part of the anthology film Aria) aren’t as well known as his 70’s films (and Cold Heaven, adapted from the novel by Brian Moore, is definitely a misfire, albeit a daring one), two of them are among Roeg’s very best. The first one they did together was Roeg’s most controversial, Bad Timing (1980), released in the U.S. with the subtitle A Sensual Obsession.
Roeg’s previous films, even though they had a non-linear narrative, did have a relative order that viewers could follow, but Bad Timing (which Roeg made after an attempt to make a Flash Gordon movie fell through) contains Roeg’s most fractured narrative yet (written by Yale Udoff). Nominally, it’s about two American expatriates in Vienna – Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), a psychiatrist and professor, and Milena Flaherty (Russell), a recent divorcee, who get involved in a passionate affair, and about how Netusil (Harvey Keitel), a police inspector, investigates what was apparently a suicide attempt by Milena. But the film is told in flashback after the opening credits scene of Alex and Milena in an art gallery (scored to Tom Waits’ “An Invitation to the Blues”), flashing back and forth between Milena in the hospital – as well as Netusil questioning Alex as to how she got there – and Alex and Milena’s relationship. This adds up to Roeg’s most fragmented narrative yet.
In an interview on the Criterion DVD, Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas talk about how the film is essentially a memory piece, and how the editing style (the film was edited by Tony Lawson, who went on to edit eight more films of Roeg’s) helps bring that out. A lot of that is through the juxtaposition of images, in which we can go, for example, from Alex and Milena having passionate sex to Milena on the operating table, and from Netusil entering Alex’s room in the present to a flashback of Alex and Milena in that room. It also involves cutting from the physical objects in the room. Roeg may only really handle one or two (at most three) people in a room, or an area, at a time, but he’s alive to the culture people engage in (when he glances at a collection of Harold Pinter plays that Milena is reading, Alex can guess she’s having an affair with an actor), and the way a person’s belongings can help define them (Milena’s room, which is full of belongings and clutter, seems alive in a way Alex’s more orderly room doesn’t, which helps reflect their personalities). The film is also a study of two people seeking control. Alex is trying to control and define Milena, who doesn’t want either (which is both the cause of the excitement and tension in their relationship), while Netusil is trying to impose control over Alex by getting him to admit to what he believes really happened to Milena that night.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding the movie when it came out, in reference to the explicitness of the sex scenes and other imagery, to what really happened to Milena (which caused a member of the British film company the Rank Organization to call it “a sick film for sick people”), and even surrounding the casting of Garfunkel and Keitel. But as disturbing as what happens to Milena is, it does speak to Alex’s need for control (in a sick, perverted way, of course), and Roeg and Richmond (Tony Lawson, who had edited Barry Lyndon for Stanley Kubrick, was the editor here; he went on to edit eight more films for Roeg) are careful not to be exploitative in rendering the scene. As for Garfunkel and Keitel, I feel they actually work for the movie. There’s always been something closed off about Garfunkel, and that works here for his character, but Roeg also gets him to be angrier than he’s ever been on screen, while Keitel, his faltering with the Viennese accent aside, is surprisingly restrained as the methodical (if not quite as intellectual as he thinks) inspector. Rounding out the male roles is Denholm Elliot as Milena’s ex, and the one man who never sought to control her, and Elliot brings a welcome melancholy to the role, as well as pent-up anger. The film, however, belongs to Russell. This is definitely a playing-to-the-seats performance, but it works for the character, as Milena is always struggling against Alex’s conception of her, and is forever reacting to that. And she remains one of the sexiest presences I’ve ever seen on screen (it’s no accident Pete Townshend originally wrote the Who song “Athena” as an ode to Russell, called “Theresa”). Bad Timing continues to provoke to this day, but I think it stands as one of Roeg’s best.
Bad Timing wasn’t well received by critics or the box office, and Roeg’s follow-up film, Eureka, starring Gene Hackman as a prospector, ended up being barely released, to critical and public indifference. However, Roeg managed to recover to adapt, of all things, a play, when he took on a film version of Terry Johnson’s play Insignificance, and delivered yet another one of his best films.
As with the play, the film takes off from the famous image of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress blowing up while she’s standing over the subway grate in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. Taking place over the course of one night, it imagines that Monroe (Russell), known only here as The Actress, goes to a Manhattan hotel where, as it happens, Albert Einstein (Michael Emil, brother of filmmaker Henry Jaglom), known here only as The Scientist, is staying. Einstein is in town to speak at a peace conference, though Joe McCarthy (Tony Curtis), known here only as The Senator, has other ideas; he wants Einstein to testify in front of HUAC and denounce communism. Meanwhile, Monroe’s ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), known here only as The Ballplayer, just wants Monroe to come back to him, but acts crazy jealous around anyone who shows interest in her (we first see him watching and seething during the recreation of that famous shot from Wilder’s film). Monroe, on the other hand, just wants to discuss with Einstein the theory of relativity, the creation and meaning of the universe, and other matters of, well, insignificance.
The main subject of Johnson’s story seems to be celebrity, in particular how a public persona can often hide what’s really underneath. Roeg’s contribution to this was, as usual, to show people’s pasts through flashbacks, from Monroe in auditions being ogled by talent agents to Einstein in war-torn Europe, to DiMaggio as a young player and McCarthy as an altar boy. And what the characters talk about, particularly when Monroe is demonstrating the theory of relativity to Einstein, is the clearest way of illustrating the huge gap between what we think we know and what we actually know, whether about the theory of relativity (Monroe admits while she can explain it, she doesn’t really understand it) or about a person in general (McCarthy thinks he can get Einstein to testify simply by either appealing to his intellect or by bullying him, while DiMaggio thinks if he cajoles Monroe enough, he’ll get her to come back to him. Both of them are wrong). And despite the fact most of this (except for the scene recreation and the flashbacks) is set in the hotel room and hallways, Roeg, Lawson, and cinematographer Peter Hannan (who shot, among other films, Monty Python’s Meaning of Life and Withnail & I) never make it seem stagy.
Because the characters are not really DiMaggio, Einstein, McCarthy and Monroe, the actors are a little more free to play around with the material. Busey, for example, may seem at first to be too energetic and mercurial to play the notoriously aloof DiMaggio, but he carries himself like an ex-athlete, and makes that manic nature work for him as someone who doesn’t like the fact the world no longer acts the way it should now he’s retired. I’m not familiar with Emil’s other work as an actor (I’m not a fan of Jaglom’s films, in which Emil was a regular), but he captures both Einstein’s intellect and his sadness that the world was becoming something more horrible than he imagined. Curtis gives one of his best performances as McCarthy, re-imagining him as if Sidney Falco hadn’t been killed, but had gone on to outdo J.J. Hunsecker in fake charm, intimidation and manipulation, though showing the sweat much more. Finally, while Russell may be nobody’s idea of Monroe, and comes off as a little too affected at first, gradually I warmed up to that once I realized her conception of Monroe was of someone aware of the affectation but resigned to it nonetheless even as she struggled to break free of it. For the movie, Roeg and Johnson added an elevator operator played by Will Sampson who claims Einstein is part Cherokee – meaning he has a deeper understanding of the world than anyone else – and that comes off as borderline patronizing (though Sampson at least plays the part well). And some of the scenes drag at times. Still, overall, Insignificance serves as an entertaining meditation on our knowledge of the world, or lack thereof.
After that film, Roeg’s one major film was his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The Witches, with the help of producer Jim Henson’s creature effects and Anjelica Huston’s terrifying performance as the villain of the film. After that, however, his career dried up; aside from an ambitious but flawed “straight” made-for-TV version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz, Roeg was reduced to directing episodes of TV and soft-core cable porn such as Full Body Massage. In the past decade, Roeg’s career has been rightly re-evaluated, and he’s considered one of the best filmmakers to come out of Britain in the 70’s, and Criterion showcasing these five films of his stands as fitting tribute.
This is my entry in the Swashathon, hosted by Fritzi Kramer (Movies Silently). Enjoy!
In The Rocketeer, Timothy Dalton plays Neville Sinclair, a 1940’s action/adventure movie star modeled on Errol Flynn (though it takes as gospel the false accusation Flynn was a Nazi spy, but that’s another story). When we first meet him, he’s playing a character in a period adventure movie, engaging in a sword duel with the villain of the story. He swings over to a table after unmasking himself, and as he’s about to drink from a goblet of wine that’s there, the leading lady character of the movie gushes, “O, my sweet prince, that I might drink from your lips as deeply!” (the first take we see her doing, she gives a wooden line reading; the second is better) Sinclair’s character, smiling, finishes his drink, inclines his head towards her, and then goes back to fighting. This scene captures, in a nutshell, what’s so appealing to those of us who are fans of swashbuckling films; not just the action scenes (which can be exhilarating when done right), but also the sense of joy that they’re done with, and the humor that they’re done with. And few films have done this as well as the 1952 film The Crimson Pirate, directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Burt Lancaster.
Lancaster plays the title character, also known as Captain Vallo, a pirate who, along with the rest of his crew, is merely out to get whatever they can in terms of money and adventure. At the beginning, he and his men capture a British ship headed to the Caribbean by pretending to be a ship that’s been laid waste to by scurvy. When Vallo finds out one of the passengers is Baron Jose Gruda (Leslie Bradley),a British official sent to stop a rebellion being led in the Caribbean, led by an unknown figure nicknamed “El Libre”, he decides to forego the usual pirate method of looting and pillaging. Instead, he’ll steal the arms the ship has, sell them to El Libre, and then sell El Libre out for double the money back to Gruda. However, things don’t quite work out the way Vallo planned; he ends up falling in love with Consuelo (Eva Bartok), the daughter of El Libre, getting double-crossed by his own crew (who are not happy that he seems to have turned idealistic), and then having to rescue them when they in turn are double-crossed by Gruda, as well as rescue Consuelo.
This was the third and final time Lancaster and Siodmak teamed up. Their previous films, The Killers (1946), based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, and Criss Cross (1949), from a novel by Don Tracy, were both film noirs. However, this was less of a stretch for them than you might think. Lancaster, of course, was originally an acrobat, and had already done films showing off his athletic skills, such as Rope and Sand (1949), Vengeance Valley, Jim Thorpe: All American (both 1951), and The Flame and the Arrow (1950), the film Pirate most resembled. And while Siodmak had mostly done thriller/noir films in American – aside from the two films with Lancaster, he also did three films with Ella Raines (Phantom Lady, The Suspect (both 1944), and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)*), and the HItchcockian The Spiral Staircase (1946) – but he had also done films like Son of Dracula (1943) and the campy Cobra Woman (1944), which were considerably lighter in tone. Also, while original writer Waldo Salt had written a more serious screenplay about tyranny before being blacklisted, Siodmak and new writer Roland Kibbee (who had written Ten Tall Men, starring Lancaster, and who would go on to write three other films starring Lancaster – including The Midnight Man (1974), which he and Lancaster co-directed) changed it into a comedy, though there are traces of political commentary (when Consuelo at one point pleads for Vallo to fight with them because it’s “decent”, Vallo replies, “All my life I’ve watched injustice and dishonesty fly the flag of decency. I don’t trust it”). Certainly, getting there was no picnic; Lancaster and Siodmak had a falling out during the making of the film (which went way over budget), and Siodmak would complain later about how much of a bully Lancaster was during the production (whether it was because of this or other reasons, Siodmak never worked in Hollywood again)~. Yet none of that tension showed up on screen, and like all of the best entertainments, it works because it appears effortless.
A great deal of credit for why The Crimson Pirate works so well goes to the technicians working with Siodmak. Cinematographer Otto Heller was well into his third decade of a long, if not particularly distinguished, career up till then (his most well-known credit up to that point was the British crime drama They Made Me a Fugitive; later, he went on to shoot such great films as The Ladykillers, Peeping Tom, and The Ipcress File), and he gives the film a vibrant and colorful look. The fight scenes are also staged well, and he and editor Jack Harris (who worked as an editor for David Lean on Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist, and also edited The Ladykillers) keep the action coherent, even when such anachronistic weapons as nitroglycerin are used (courtesy of Professor Prudence (James Hayter), who ends up helping Vallo). Also, there’s the boisterous score by William Alwyn (who worked with Carol Reed on Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, and went on to do the score for A Night to Remember and Shake Hands with the Devil), which manages to go for grandeur yet stay light at the same time. Finally, Kibbee deserves credit as well for helping keep a light touch as well, and delivering a knowing wink at the genre conventions – when Humble Bellows (Torin Thatcher), one of the pirates, leads a mutiny against Vallo, he explains it’s practically a pirate’s duty to double-cross anyone.
Still, the lion’s share of the credit should go to Lancaster, who also co-produced with his partner Harold Hecht (though Hecht had produced three previous films of Lancaster’s, this was the first time Lancaster officially served as producer; they went on to produce 15 more films together through their production company). Lancaster has had the reputation of being one of the few actors who did his own stunts (he started out as a circus performer), and while this has been disputed (on The Flame and the Arrow, Don Turner, one of the stuntman, pointed out he had doubled for Lancaster in the fight scenes), there’s no doubt Lancaster brings immense physicality to the role. Whether swinging from one end of his ship to another, eluding a squadron of soldiers that are chasing him and his first mate Ojo (Nick Cravat – more on him in a moment), or fighting them on board his ship, Lancaster is entirely convincing in the role, even if he looks too clean-cut to be a pirate (one of my former co-workers groused about his impeccably white teeth – which he shows off at various times – but to me, it’s all part of the film). And Lancaster’s magnetism and sheer joy in performing never curdle into smugness. He also is able to handle Vallo’s change of heart as well, without it making it seem like it comes out of left field (he also pulls off a scene in drag – when he, Ojo and the professor disguise themselves as flower girls to rescue Consuelo – despite how big he is).
Cravat, Lancaster’s former circus partner who had become Lancaster’s trainer in real life, is also a hoot. As in The Flame and the Arrow, the first time Cravat and Lancaster had appeared together, Cravat plays a mute character, the better to hide his thick Brooklyn accent. In this movie, Cravat is almost as good as Harpo Marx at playing a comic mute (which is saying something) – especially when he demonstrates “paying through the nose” to a group of amused ladies of the court – and is equally adept as Lancaster at the action scenes. The rest of the cast, while not memorable, is serviceable, with Bradley, Hayter, and Thatcher being the standouts (this film also provides early roles for Christopher Lee, as a British military attache, and Dana Wynter, as a woman Gruda is with when Vallo first takes over his ship), and at the very least, they all seem in on the fun as well. There are also some sigh gags thrown in, as when Valley, Ojo, and the professor carry a boat from the water onto ground, and we can only see their feet as they try to get away (the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie pays homage to this scene), and it’s an example of the type of gag that makes this movie seem effortless and come off as actually entertaining, making it one of the reasons why The Crimson Pirate stands as a superior example of a swashbuckler movie.
*-Raines also appeared in Siodmak’s Time Out of Mind (1947), but this was not a thriller/noir.
~-According to Lancaster biographer Kate Buford, Lancaster was going through marriage troubles at the time, and was also under investigation by the HUAC for his liberal political views, though whether this had to do with his on-set behavior remains unclear.
From July 17 to August 27, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) spotlighted indie films of the 80’s. Leaving aside the question of what an indie film really is, when it comes to movies, the 80’s are generally thought of as the decade when blockbusters took over, “high concept” became the order of the day, movies became more conservative both politically and financially, and, in general, movies became more homogenized. Also, the thinking goes, indie films weren’t a thing until either 1989 (when sex, lies & videotape won the Palme D’Or at Cannes) or 1992 (when Reservoir Dogs exploded at Sundance). Like many media-written histories when it comes to movies, this is an oversimplification of the times. It is true the 80’s were top-heavy with blockbusters, but it’s also true the 80’s saw the rise, or introduction, of many indie directors who would soon become a force. The series at BAM pays attention to the obvious names, like Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and David Lynch, but it’s nice to see they were also spotlighting the names that tend to get forgotten when it comes to movies in general and indie movies in particular, like Victor Nunez (whose A Flash of Green was shown in the series), John Sayles (represented by Matewan) and especially Alan Rudolph.
To be sure, there are probably good reasons why Rudolph isn’t a name brought up too often when discussing directors in general and indie directors in particular. For one thing, Rudolph hasn’t had a movie released since 2006’s Intimate Affairs (aka Investigating Sex), which was actually filmed in 2001 (the last movie he made was 2002’s The Secret Lives of Dentists). For another, Rudolph has never had a big following among audiences; none of his movies have really been hits. There’s also the fact his films all together have garnered two Oscar nominations (Best Original Score for 1984’s Songwriter, and Best Actress for Julie Christie in 1997’s Afterglow). And while his movies have played at various film festivals, and he’s had his fair share of fans among critics (Roger Ebert put Choose Me and Trouble in Mind on his ten-best lists in 1984 and 1986, respectively), many critics have been baffled by, or even hostile to, his films (Peter Rainer once said Rudolph had a “prodigious pretentiousness” when it came to ideas). And all of that has to do with the kind of films Rudolph makes.
When a filmmaker works outside the mainstream and doesn’t get mainstream acceptance, the common line you’ll hear from critics, or fans of the filmmaker, is they don’t fit inside the cookie-cutter, blockbuster-driven standard of most studio films. However, Rudolph is an outsider even along those lines. You may watch a David Cronenberg or David Lynch movie and find them strange or weird, but they’re strange in a way that’s identifiable, whereas that’s not always the case with Rudolph’s films. A former writer for a fanzine I once contributed to called Rudolph’s movies what would happen if Humphrey Bogart took a wrong turn somewhere and wound up in a Fred Astaire movie, but even that sounds inadequate. Rudolph’s most important association during his career, arguably, was Robert Altman – Rudolph served as assistant director on The Long Goodbye and Nashville and co-wrote the screenplay for Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, while Altman produced five of Rudolph’s films (Welcome to L.A., Remember by Name, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Afterglow, and Trixie) – and that gets a little closer to what Rudolph is about. They both share a love for a moving camera, ensemble casts, improvisation*, jazz music, and deconstructing whatever genre they were working in. Yet even that comparison is imperfect, for while Altman’s movies have a more realistic (some have said cynical) tone, in most of his movies, Rudolph goes for something more romantic (both happy and sad romantic)**. I would argue the closest filmmaker to Rudolph’s sensibility and view of the world is Wong Kar-Wei. Both of them are more interested in the emotion and the character than in the story, and both of them are making fantasies that are set in the “real” world, which is a dissonance that doesn’t seem to be embraced by either audiences or studio executives (as well as some critics), but when it works can be entertaining and moving. It also comes across as a series of “movie moments”; as James Harvey has described them in books like Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges and Movie Love in the ’50’s, that could only happen in movies and yet are incredibly true to life. Though Rudolph has never cited them specifically as far as I know, I would also argue Howard Hawks and Max Ophuls are major influences on him; the latter for his roving camera and his searching for emotional truth, while the former for overlapping dialogue (also an influence on Altman) and for preferring, as he famously once said to Robert Mitchum when pitching him El Dorado, character over story because “stories bore people”. Both of them are also fond of those “movie moments” Harvey has spoken of.
Rudolph is perhaps fond of “movie moments” because he grew up in the movie business. His father, Oscar Rudolph, started out as an actor before moving onto directing, mostly for television (he worked on Batman and The Donna Reed Show, among other shows), and Rudolph even appeared, at age 6, in a film his father directed that featured Lenny Bruce. You can see how that would lead him to want to twist genres around, like Altman did, and not take them seriously. Yet, at the same time, it also led him to fully invest in the idea that movies are like dreams and fantasy (in a profile American Film did on him in their March 1986 issue, Rudolph dismissed the idea that movies could ever be “realistic”). As a matter of fact, Rudolph’s first projects dealt with dreams – or, rather, nightmares.
Rudolph tends to think of Welcome to L.A. as his first film as director, but it was actually Premonition (aka Head or The Impure), which came out in 1972. It also showed his interest in music right away, as the main characters were wannabe musicians. However, it’s in the horror genre, though unlike other directors of the time who cut their teeth on low-budget, exploitation horror films, Rudolph doesn’t show much facility or interest in the genre. The story he came up with could have conceivably worked. Neil (Carl Crow), a guitarist/harmonica player in his mid-20’s, strolls around what looks like a ghost town, and tells the tale of how he was in Mexico with a professor (Victor Izay) one night when they came across a skeleton, and Neil, who had been smoking pot at the time, was freaked out by visions he had with some kind of boogeyman, which causes him and the professor to crash their truck. Neil never spoke of what happened, but he quit smoking pot and quit playing the guitar, concentrating on the harmonica instead. And several months later, he’s formed a trio with Andy (Tim Ray) and Baker (Winfry Hester Hill), two guitar players. They go out to an old house to rehearse for a possible gig, but the same red flowers that Neil saw in Mexico that night are at the house, and Neil, along with Andy, starts to have the same nightmares.
If you approach Premonition as a curio, there is certainly value to be had. Alex Del Zoppo, from the band Sweetwater, co-wrote the music for the movie (along with Ray and Tom Akers). This was the first feature that John Bailey served on as cinematographer (he went on to do such movies as Ordinary People, Mishima, Groundhog Day and the upcoming A Walk in the Woods). Carol Littleton, who worked on the sound effects, went onto be an editor for Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist) and Jonathan Demme (Swimming to Cambodia, the remake of The Manchurian Candidate). Jan Kiesser, who would serve as Rudolph’s cinematographer on five subsequent films (beginning with Rudolph’s documentary Return Engagement), was in charge of special effects. And the effects Rudolph and his crew bring off involving the dreams Neil and Andy have are quite striking considering the budget and the time period; they’re both haunted by a strange wood-like creature, and thanks to the way the film is shot, and the electronic score, the creature does come off as creepy. Yet, for someone who would go on to write memorable characters, and for someone who always claimed the actors and characters were his primary concerns, Rudolph seems strangely uninterested in either. Admittedly, no one was a big name before or after (Crow ended up drowning seven years later), but everyone seems awkward except for Hill, who might have a great range, but at least shows a warm presence. And while the score is fine, the music Crow and the others play isn’t very interesting. Finally, while story has always been the least of Rudolph’s concerns, it really doesn’t add up to much at the end.
For all of its flaws, Premonition is at least worth watching, which is more than can be said for Rudolph’s follow-up as a director, Nightmare Circus (aka Terror Circus and Barn of the Naked Dead). Throughout his career, Rudolph did take on a few for-hire gigs where he didn’t write the script (it’s credited to Roman Valenti, based on a story by co-producer Gerald Cormier; for each of them, this is their only writing credit), and this is not only the first example of this, but also the worst movie Rudolph ever made. It’s about three showgirls – Sheri (Sherry Alberoni, best known as the voice of the scheming Alexandra on the Josie & the Pussycats animated series), Corrine (Gyl Roland, daughter of famed actors Gilbert Roland and Constance Bennett), and Simone (Manuela Thiess) – who are on their way to Las Vegas when their car breaks down, and end up getting kidnapped by Andre (Andrew Prine, known for his work in westerns – Chisum – and exploitation films such as The Centerfold Girls), a psycho who chains women in his barn and plans to use them as a circus act. And there’s an even bigger monster being locked away in a tool shed just at the edge of the barn grounds. To his credit, Rudolph doesn’t seem interested in sleazing up the film; except for one shot of the women bathing themselves, they stay mostly in regular clothes, and he also cuts away from the violent acts instead of exploiting them as well. But Rudolph, Cormier and Valenti also don’t seem very interested in the women as characters, the villains aren’t well-defined either (there’s a halfhearted attempt on the one hand for giving a reason for Andre’s craziness, but it’s done in an unoriginal and ham-handed way, and the same goes in providing context for the other bad guy in the film), and it’s still a sleazy story. About the only thing worth of interest in the film is the song “Evil Eyes”, sung by Pamela Miller over the opening credits.
By this time, Rudolph had already met and began the first of his most important creative partnerships (the other two will be discussed in a future post), and that was working with Altman. While Rudolph had also served in a capacity of assistant director on several episodes of The Brady Bunch, as well as such films as Riot (the prison movie starring Jim Brown and Gene Hackman) and the first version of Elmore Leonard’s novel The Big Bounce (with Ryan O’Neal), nothing he had done to that point was up to the quality of what he did with Altman, being the second assistant director on The Long Goodbye and California Split, and first assistant director on Altman’s crowning achievement, Nashville. Rudolph then moved up to co-writing (with Altman) Altman’s follow-up to Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. Today, the film is best remembered as the film that cost Altman the chance to adapt E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a novel many fans thought was tailor-made for him, because the financial failure of the film caused producer Dino de Laurentis to look elsewhere. But at the time, Altman intended the film (loosely adapted from Arthur Kopit’s play Indians) to be a commentary on American iconography in general (though he would always deny it was a specific commentary on the American bicentennial, which happened the year the film came out).
While the play centers on the relationship between Buffalo Bill (Paul Newman in the movie) and Wild Bill Hickcok as much as the relationship between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull (Frank Kaquitts), the movie drops Wild Bill completely, instead playing up Ned Buntline (Burt Lancaster), the man who helped make the legend of Buffalo Bill. It also plays up Buffalo Bill more as a fraud, not so much in what he promised Sitting Bull in reference to helping him and his tribe (Rudolph and Altman drop the device of the Senate hearing from the play), as in the general idea Buffalo Bill was merely a braggart when it came to his acts of heroism. The problem with the movie, at least from the point of view of the writing, is Rudolph and Altman never make Sitting Bull anything more than a symbol (it doesn’t help he remains mute throughout the entire film, speaking only through a translator played by Will Sampson). Thanks to this, and Newman’s strangely uncomfortable performance as Buffalo Bill (he did much better in another film deconstructing a Western legend, John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean), the movie is a disappointing entry in Altman’s catalog, albeit a fascinating one. As I’ll show in my next post, Rudolph, on the other hand, was able to move on from this to doing what he called his first real film, even if both the story and the personnel he used borrowed heavily from his mentor.
*- Lili Taylor, one of a handful of actors who worked with both Altman and Rudolph, confessed in an interview with the Toronto Star – when Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle played the Toronto Film Festival – that she felt overwhelmed by the constant improvisation in Rudolph’s film (she played Edna Ferber). However, Jennifer Beals, who also had appeared in the film (as Robert Benchley’s wife Gertrude), and who had been cut out of Altman’s Short Cuts, called it a great experience, and praised in particular the spontaneity of the filming (she also said Taylor was the one who told her not to worry about anything).
**-In the oral autobiography of Altman, Rudolph talked about the scene in Short Cuts when Chris Penn’s character kills the young woman, and about how while he admired the scene, he had a more romantic view of life than Altman and would never be able to film something like that.
The history of movies has been filled with great movies (and not-so-great ones, to put it mildly), but also of projects that never got off the ground, missed opportunities, and casting decisions that made or broke careers. There are all kinds of tantalizing questions in this regard, like what if Orson Welles had been able to release The Magnificent Ambersons in the form he intended, or what if Stanley Kubrick had been able to make his Napoleon biopic, or what if George Raft hadn’t turned down High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. And most germane to the topic at hand is this; what if Tuesday Weld had said yes to Bonnie & Clyde? Weld was one of the leading candidates to play Bonnie Parker in the film (along with Jane Fonda and Natalie Wood), but she turned down the role, partly because she had just given birth to a daughter, but also partly because, as she put it, she knew the movie was going to be a big success. Perhaps, having already been through enough hoopla when she appeared on the show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (which also featured Bonnie & Clyde star Warren Beatty), Weld didn’t want to have to go through it again. Whether not that was true, the fact remained while Faye Dunaway became a star after stepping into the role of Bonnie Parker, Weld never got that breakout role; not only did she turn down other movies that became big hits (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the original version of True Grit), the movies she did choose to do (I Walk the Line, A Safe Place, Play it As it Lays) didn’t have much impact with critics or audiences. For Weld fans, the closest we’ll ever come to seeing what she could have done with the role of Bonnie Parker is her performance in the 1968 movie Pretty Poison. Fortunately, despite the fact this was yet another Weld movie that never found its audience, it’s a very good movie, as well as a very good vehicle for Weld’s talents.
Weld isn’t the main focus of the movie, at least not at first. Instead, the movie – directed by Noel Black and adapted by Lorenzo Semple Jr. from the novel She Let Him Continue by Stephen Geller – centers on Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), a mentally disturbed young man. As the movie opens, Dennis is being released from a psychiatric ward, which he was sentenced to after he burned a house down while his aunt was still inside (he claimed he didn’t know she was there). Upon his release, Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), his case worker, has arranged for Dennis to get a job at a lumber yard (and when Dennis mentions he’d rather work in interplanetary navigation, Morton, unamused, tells him the real world has no place for fantasies). However, a year later, Dennis is working at a chemical plant instead of the lumber yard, and his boss, Bud Munsch (Dick O’Neill), doesn’t think much of him (especially since Dennis shows up late to work and causes an accident by being distracted). Then, one day, when Sue Ann Stepanek (Weld) comes over to the hot dog stand Dennis usually goes to for lunch (she asks for change of a quarter), he follows her over to the pay phone she goes to, tells her not to look at him as he’s being watched (there is a man across the street staring at him, though we don’t know why), hands her a small bottle (which he later claims contains a chemical from where he works), and tells her to meet him at the movie theater later.
It turns out Dennis psychosis is living in a fantasy world. In the first scene, he tells Morton he feels that signing up for interplanetary travel is more commensurate with his talents than working in a lumber yard, until Morton angrily tells him there’s no place for fantasies in the real world. Dennis tries to assure Morton he was kidding, but around Sue Ann, he claims to be a CIA agent working undercover at the chemical plant. He takes her to the make-out point of the town to try and “recruit” her, when it’s clear he’s doing this as much because he lusts after her (the first time he sees her is as a majorette in the high school marching band – which is why he’s able to trip her up when she pretends she’s in college – and thinking back on that day is why he became distracted at work and the accident happened) as to live out his fantasy life of really being in the CIA. Things get complicated by a couple of factors, however. One is Morton is able to track Dennis down at the plant, and is not happy about the fact Dennis has been out of contact with him for a year; Dennis, in turn, is upset by the fact Morton tells his boss about his past and gets him fired. Not only that, but it turns out Sue Ann is even more psychotic than he is. First, when Dennis goes to Sue Ann’s house to meet her mother (Beverly Garland), and her mother, upset that Sue Ann lied to her about Dennis, grounds her, they end up fighting, after which her mother slaps her, and Sue Ann slaps her mother back. Then, when Dennis and Sue Ann go to the plant to commit an act of sabotage (screwing with the pipe that dumps waste into the river), the night guard catches Dennis and is about to put him under arrest when Sue Ann hits him over the head, killing him. Finally, when the police find Dennis and Sue Ann later (not for what happened at the plant, but because he was an older man with a minor) and take them back to Sue Ann’s place, her mother orders Dennis to stay away from Sue Ann (the only reason why she didn’t turn Dennis over to the police was because of the attention it would bring on Sue Ann); that, along with the fact her mother discovers a bit of subterfuge Dennis and Sue Ann have done to get Morton off of his back (pretending he’s got another job prospect), Sue Ann tells Dennis the only logical thing left for them to do is to kill her mother.
If you think this is sounding like the plot to a film noir, you wouldn’t be far off. Dennis is, after all, just like the sad sack of those noir movies who ends up way over their heads, Sue Ann is the perfect example of a femme fatale, and there’s an inevitability to the conclusion here. But Black and Semple put some twists on the noir story. For starters, as with the novel, it takes place in a suburb/small town, not a city (the movie was shot in Great Barrington and North Adams in Massachusetts). Also, while there are nighttime scenes (as when Dennis and Sue Ann have sex for the first time in her car, or when they sneak into the plant at night), Black and cinematographer David L. Quaid (whose most notable other work was another suburban tale, Frank Perry’s film version of the John Cheever story The Swimmer) film much of the movie in the daytime, and with the sun out. They don’t make the colors overly garish, but they do capture the banality of the town that makes understandable what both Dennis and Sue Ann are trying to escape from (if not what methods they use to do so). In addition, while noir often (though not always) used first-person narration (and Geller’s novel is even narrated by Dennis in the first-person, so it would have been easy for Semple to do the same in his screenplay), the movie eschews that, even though it’s so obviously told from Dennis’ point of view (he’s in almost every scene, except for the final scene). Finally, and most importantly, while keeping a doomed tone (and a main character who knows he’s doomed, as Dennis does when he finds out Sue Ann killed the night guard, or when she begs him to kill her mother), Black and Semple make the tone darkly comic. Semple, at the time, was best known for being the creator of the live-action Batman TV series that had started up a couple of years earlier (he was also a writer on two of the best paranoid thrillers of the 70’s, The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor), so the tone may not be surprising from him, but it is rather bracing. The novel apparently was sold as a tale of alienated youth, but Black and Semple avoid all that, especially in their portrayal of Sue Ann.
As I mentioned before, we first see Sue Ann in the marching band, and she’s presented to us, and Dennis, as the symbol of the classic blonde archetype (as if to reinforce the point, the band is playing John Philip Sousa). It’s easy to see why Dennis is attracted to her, and at first, we think Sue Ann is merely attracted to Dennis because he’s breaking up the boredom of her everyday life. But Dennis, of course, isn’t completely convincing in his act as a CIA agent (especially at how thrown he is when Sue Ann tells him she can’t meet up with him the night he originally plans to sabotage the plant, because she’s been grounded), and though Sue Ann can see through his act right away, we can see she’s amused by it, turned by it, and willing to use it to her own ends. We also see as much as Dennis may be the one who claims to plan things out, it’s Weld who’s pulling the strings. This is especially clear after the murder of the night guard; while Dennis panics, it’s Sue Ann who comes up with the idea of moving the guard to where the pipe is, so people will assume the plant “accident” is what killed him. It may not be well thought out – certainly, Dennis’ boss isn’t fooled – but it’s more than Dennis can muster up. And when Sue Ann tells Dennis he has to kill her mother, it becomes clear who’s in charge, as well as the dangerous charge lurking under Sue Ann’s facade.
Curiously enough, Weld was never a fan of this movie, or her performance. In an interview she did with Rex Reed a few years later, she called it the worst experience she had from a creative standpoint, and she quarreled with Black throughout. But you’d never know it from her performance here. Even though, at 25, she was too old for the role (though, of course, that was standard practice, and continues today), she brings a girlishness that makes her seem right as a teenager, and of course a sense of playfulness, sexuality, and danger that would have made her a perfect Bonnie Parker. And at no time does she “indicate”, even when she’s pretending to be a victim near the end, or when you see her at the end putting the moves on another guy. It’s an entirely natural and unaffected performance. Perkins, at this point in his career, was being typecast in variations on Norman Bates, and this certainly falls into that category. Even though, he finds nuance here, especially when Dennis realizes he’s over his head. And in any other actor’s hand, the scene where he tries to allude to how dangerous Sue Ann is without explaining it outright to Morton (and says the title) might have come off as clunky exposition, but Perkins pulls it off. Randolph is also very good as the stern but compassionate Morton. The film had the bad timing of coming out after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, so the studio, 20th Century Fox, didn’t promote is as much as they could have (according to Black), but while the New York Times panned it (killing its chances in New York), other critics praised it – Pauline Kael called it “modulated and fine-drawn”, and one that didn’t talk down to its audience, while Gene Siskel put it on his 10-best list when it opened in Chicago a year later – and it eventually became a cult movie. Unfortunately, it didn’t do much to boost anyone’s career; Perkins did manage to get more roles in other high-profile films (and reunited with Weld three years later in Play it as it Lays, another flop), but Black was mostly confined to television for the rest of his career, and as I mentioned above, Weld’s career never took off like it should have. Still, Pretty Poison provides a fascinating glimpse at the career that could have been.
This is my long-overdue post for the second annual “British Invaders” blogathon, hosted by Terrence (A Shroud of Thoughts). Enjoy!
Before his death in 2014, Bob Hoskins had appeared in five feature films (as well as one made-for-TV film) with Michael Caine. Along with that, another thing they had in common was they appeared in three of the best gangster films to come out of Britain – Get Carter (which starred Caine), The Long Good Friday (which starred Hoskins), and Mona Lisa (which both of them were in, though Hoskins had the bigger role). In fact, Caine once told Hoskins those were the only three great gangster films to come out of Britain. I’m not completely familiar with British gangster films, but I would say there have been others that are just as good, including The Hit, which came out not long before Mona Lisa. What all four of them have in common is they’re all more than gangster films; Get Carter is a classic revenge tale, The Long Good Friday uses the gangster-as-businessman model that’s served, among others, the first two Godfather films (as well as doubling as a political thriller), The Hit is an existential road movie, and Mona Lisa grafts the gangster genre onto a classic fairy tale.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for all four movies.
When the gangster film became one of the more popular genres in Hollywood in the pre-Code 1930’s, a few of the most memorable ones were inspired by real-life gangsters. In particular, both Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932) were thinly-disguised films about Al Capone (though, of course, in real life, Capone didn’t meet his end like Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni’s characters did in their respective films). In Britain, meanwhile, the Krays – twin brothers Reginald and Ronnie – and Charlie Richardson became notorious in the 50’s and 60’s, but for the most part, gangster films made in Britain still used the characters of gangsters in a comic fashion.* But Caine wanted to play a gangster that was more in line with the real toughs he had known (as opposed to the ones he had played in the original versions of The Italian Job and Gambit), and when Michael Klinger, a producer he had decided to partner up with, brought him a novel called Jack’s Return Home, by Ted Lewis, he knew he had found the vehicle to do so. Furthermore, both Caine and Klinger happened at the same night to watch a made-for-TV movie (for Playhouse) called “Rumour” – about a journalist out to expose prostitution – and realized Mike Hodges, the man who wrote and directed the feature, would be ideal to adapt Lewis’ novel, despite the fact Hodges had to this point never made a feature film before. Out of that came Get Carter, which seems to be generally regarded not only as the best British gangster movie ever made, but one of the best British movies ever made, period.
The novel and movie essentially follow the same story. Jack Carter (Caine) goes to his hometown, against the advice and wishes of his bosses Gerald (Terrence Rigby, who played Roy Bland in the miniseries version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Sid Fletcher (John Bindon, who also appeared in Performance the previous year), to find out why his estranged brother Frank (played in a cameo by Reg Niven, Klinger’s chauffeur) died of what seemed to be a drunk driving accident. Carter goes around asking, among others, his niece Doreen (Petra Markham) – who, though the novel makes this clearer, may also have been Carter’s biological daughter – Doreen’s mother Margaret (Dorothy White), Eric Paice (Ian Hendry, who was in The Avengers back when the John Steed character was the sidekick and not the star), whom Carter knew from the old days, Eric’s boss Cyril Kinnear (playwright John Osborne), Keith (Alun Armstrong), a friend of Frank’s, and Cliff (Bryan Mosely), a developer. While many of the people he asks insist Frank really did drink too much, Carter knows his brother wasn’t much of a drinker, and eventually finds out Frank’s death had to do with a porn film Doreen had appeared in.
On a blurb appearing on a re-issued version of the novel, British crime novelist Derek Raymond praises Lewis for following the dictum of Raymond Chandler – “The crime story tips violence out of its vase on the shelf and pours it back into the street where it belongs” – in writing the novel. Hodges seems similarly inspired to do so with the movie. The novel doesn’t specify what city Carter came from (except a steel town in middle England), but Hodges, having done time making documentaries for the BBC, and, as he put it, disillusioned by the failed promise of the 60’s to shatter the barriers of British society, decided to set the movie in northern England, specifically the town of Newcastle, a town he knew well, to show what had happened to that area of England. He and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky (who had started out photographing documentary shorts) also filmed on location, so you can see the grime Carter had to wipe off himself to escape the town, and cast locals from the town whenever he could (as in the memorable scene when a woman (Denea Wilde) sings the classic standard “How About You” and gets into a fight with another woman). Also, except for Caine, and to a lesser extent Hendry and Britt Ekland (who plays Carter’s mistress in London), most of the actors in it were either unknowns (this was Armstrong’s first film) or locals, to make it seem more authentic.
In keeping with the documentary-style filmmaking Hodges brought to Lewis’ material was the depiction of violence. Instead of being the comic violence of, say, the Bond films, the bloodless violence of Production Code-era films, or the stylized violence of someone like Sam Peckinpah, Hodges films it cleanly, such as when Carter prevents a hood from getting out of the car by slamming the door into him. Per Caine’s dictum about wanting to show the physical toll violence took, we also see the after-effects, as when Carter visits Keith after he’s been beaten up by several of Kinnear’s men, and Keith is so bruised and battered he can’t even get out of bed. That also comes to play in the final scene of the film, when Carter gets shot and killed by J (Karl Howard), an assassin hired by Kinnear (and who, as it happens, was on the train ride Carter was on in the beginning of the film); Hodges and Suschitzky shoot it simply, without tricks, making it all the more shocking.** And the hardness Caine brings to the role is in tune with the documentary-like tone Hodges brings as well. Caine can be likable and charming on screen, but he foregoes all of that with his performance here. Other than anger, the only emotions he brings out in any significant way are disgust, both towards others and himself (as when he sees a family with children on a ferry and realizes how far he’s slipped), and sadness (when he sees Doreen in the porn film, tears fall from his eyes, though his face doesn’t change expression). Hendry apparently was originally promised the role of Carter, and never forgave Caine for getting it, so the tension between Carter and Eric on screen came from a real place (for his part, Caine claimed on the DVD commentary that Hendry was the type of heavy drinker Caine tried to stay away from). And Osborne is very good in the slimy role of Kinnear. The film became enough of a hit that it was remade twice, once in 1972 as Hit Man, a blaxploitation version with Bernie Casey in the Carter role (called Tyrone here), and once in 2000 with Sylvester Stallone in the title role (with Caine playing Cliff). What both of those remakes illustrate – aside from their pointlessness – is there’s a difference between *being* tough and *playing* tough. The remakes play at being tough, while the original is tough.
*-The Krays even inspired one of the classic Monty Python sketches, “The Piranha Brothers”, a mock news report about Dinsdale (who was a cruel man, but fair, even when he was nailing your wife’s head to the table) and Doug Piranha (grown men would tear their own heads off rather than face him, because of the way he used…sarcasm).
**-This was another change from the novel; Carter does die at the end, but it’s at the hands of Eric as Carter is killing him. The other major change is both Cliff and Glenda (Geraldine Moffat), Kinnear’s mistress, survive in the novel – they go to the police – but in the movie, Carter kills Cliff by throwing him off of a building, while Glenda dies because she’s in the trunk of a car (put there by Carter) that gets pushed into the river.
One of the best scenes in The Godfather is when Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) goes to a meeting with the heads of the other Five Families (as well as mobsters from other parts of the country), and they, led by Don Barzini (Richard Conte), try to convince him to take the deal he had rejected earlier; that is, go into the drug trade, which they would control, and Don Corleone would allow the others access to the politicians he’s been paying off. At the end of his pitch, Barzini acknowledges Don Corleone could, by rights, bill the other families for his services here; “After all, we are not Communists.” This line is meant to get a laugh, but it’s also a way of illustrating one of the themes of the film, on how gangsters had become like businessmen (what few could see, of course, is how many businessmen, inspired by the film, would go on to act like gangsters) and embraced the virtues of a capitalist system they nevertheless operated entirely outside of. The Long Good Friday, therefore, wasn’t breaking new ground in depicting the gangster as businessman (for that matter, neither was The Godfather), but it pushed the parallel even further by linking its gangster character to the pro-business philosophy of Margaret Thatcher (who had recently been elected Prime Minister of Britain), and contemplating what happened when it went up against a fanatical group, in this case the IRA.
Ironically, when writer Barrie Keeffe and producer Barry Hanson got together one night in the late 1977, they were merely looking to make a good gangster story (originally for TV), as Keefe had been fascinated by gangsters since encountering Ronnie Kray in a bathroom when Keefe was a teenager. But when Keeffe became disgusted with how his old neighborhood had been gentrified, and some time later, had found himself inside a pro-IRA bar in North London, he decided to combine those two strands into the gangster script he would write. Called The Paddy Factor (after the term Scotland Yard used for unsolved crimes that assumed the IRA were the culprit), the script eventually made its way to John Mackenzie, then known mostly for his work on television (though, ironically enough, he had just made his own gangster film, A Sense of Freedom, a biopic of Scottish gangster Jimmy Boyle). Mackenzie loved the main character of Harold Shand (played in the movie by Bob Hoskins, then best known as the sheet-music salesman in the BBC version of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven), but felt the script was florid in many places and needed work. Out of that work came The Long Good Friday (a temporary title – used by Mackenzie because he felt the original title gave the movie’s plot twists away – that became the real title).
As the movie opens, Harold is sitting on top of the world; there’s been peace in the gangster world for the past 10 years, he’s made an awful lot of money, and he and his associates are about to make more, thanks to an upcoming deal he has with Charlie (Eddie Constantine), an American gangster who’s in town. Soon, however, Harold’s world starts to fall apart; Colin (Paul Freeman, soon to be best known as Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark), one of his best friends and closest associates, is knifed in a bathhouse (in his first film role, Pierce Brosnan plays the killer), a bomb goes off in the car taking Harold’s mother to church, killing the driver, and a bomb is found in a pub Harold owns. Not only that, but when Harold and Victoria (Helen Mirren), his mistress, take Charlie and his lawyer to another restaurant Harold owns for dinner, a bomb explodes inside right as they’re pulling up, injuring all of the staff and customers. While Victoria tries to placate Charlie and his lawyer Tony (Stephen Davies), Harold tries to get to the bottom of what’s going on, even pulling in some of the other gang bosses to interrogate them (in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Harold has them hung by hooks in a meatpacking plant). Eventually, Harold discovers it’s the IRA who’s involved – Jeff (Derek Thompson), another one of his closest associates, was paying the IRA to avoid troubles with them, but Colin robbed them, and when the IRA learned Colin was associated with Harold, they targeted Harold. Everyone tries to warn Harold not to mess with the IRA, including Jeff, Charlie, and Parky (Dave King), the police detective on Harold’s payroll, but Harold thinks they’re no more dangerous than the usual thugs he’s dealt with. Of course, Harold is proven wrong.
While Mackenzie insisted on beefing up the IRA angle, as he wanted not only to contrast the fanaticism of the IRA with the “it’s just business” attitude of Harold and the other gangsters, but also to contrast it with the Thatcher-like values Harold was espousing, it did prove for some rocky times when it came to getting the film released. The original company that was set to release it wanted to cut the film because of the IRA theme, and also dub over Hoskins’ voice. Hoskins eventually took them to court to get that stopped, and the producer bought the film back from the distributor, but it wasn’t until Eric Idle saw the film at a screening (at the behest of Hoskins or Mirren) and recommended it to Handmade Films (who had distributed Monty Python’s Life of Brian) that they picked up the film. And the IRA does add all of those elements to the film, making it more than just a gangster film. Of course, it’s also a character study, and Mackenzie and Keeffe bring that out as well. Early on in the film, George takes Charlie and other friends and associates (including Parky) on his boat, and announces the prospective partnership while they go under a bridge. Mackenzie and cinematographer Phil Meheux (who went on to shoot four more films for Mackenzie, including The Fourth Protocol, with Brosnan in a starring role this time) frame Harold in the center, making him a larger-than-life figure, which is of course setting him up for a fall. Harold at first seems to be, despite his working-class upbringing, a charming, if over-enthusiastic (Charlie has to warn Harold not to rush him), boss, and yet at the same time has to show the danger and anger lurking underneath, while also showing some vulnerability as well, and Mackenzie and Keeffe are able to bring all of that out.
A lot of that is due to Hoskins, of course, He makes Harold into a dynamo despite his stature (watch the way he walks through the airport in his first scene), yet also someone who’s smart and capable of grief despite his toughness (as when he hears of Colin’s death, and after he kills Jeff in a blind rage after discovering Jeff’s betrayal). The most memorable demonstration of Hoskins’ ability (and the best, in my opinion) comes at the end of the film. After Harold finds out Charlie is pulling out of his deal because of all of the bombings and because of the IRA’s involvement, he chews Charlie out for being scared (“The mafia – I’ve shit ’em!”), and resolves to go into business with the Germans. He leaves the hotel where Charlie is at, and signals for a car, only to find out too late it has Brosnan and another IRA member inside (Victoria is trapped inside another car). Hoskins is able to go from disbelief to anger to acceptance, all without saying a word, and it’s a masterful example of good acting. Mirren is also terrific in making the role of Victoria more than just a gangster’s moll. She brings class to Harold, but she also brings intelligence (she’s able to guess Jeff is more involved with the story than he admits), and yet also toughness (she stands up to Harold when he berates her for spilling the beans to Charlie about the bombs) mixed with vulnerability (in that same scene, she also cries in fear, which was Mirren’s suggestion). Constantine, who replaced Anthony Franciosa as shooting started (Franciosa claimed he didn’t like the fact the script had changed so much before the film started shooting), was best known for playing the detective Lemmy Caution in a series of French films, may have been a bit flat in delivering his dialogue, but he has the right face for Charlie, and brings a nice presence as well. While Hoskins, Mirren, and of course Brosnan all went on to bigger things, Mackenzie and Keeffe never topped The Long Good Friday, but it’s a tough act to follow.
In 1974, Derek Creighton “Bertie” Smalls, an armed robber in Britain who had been caught by the police earlier, gave testimony in court where he informed on 32 of his associates in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Though British police, as with police throughout the world, relied on informers (in Britain, known as “grasses”), Smalls was the most notorious one, and became known as a “supergrass”. Before he was caught, Smalls hid out in Torremolinos in Spain; after an extradition treaty between Spain and the United Kingdom expired in 1978, so many British criminals fled to the Costa del Sol countryside that it was nicknamed Costa del Crime. Those two facts became an inspiration for The Hit, but writer Peter Prince and director Stephen Frears (who had worked together four times before on British TV) used the occasion to make not just a gangster film, but a fish-out-of-water film and an existential road film.
The Smalls character here is Willie Parker (Terrence Stamp), a driver in a series of robberies who, early in the film informs on the others, among them Corrigan (Lennie Peters, the blind singer who was part of the pop group Peters & Lee). While Willie is unnerved when the other robbers start singing Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” after his testimony (which happened in real life to Smalls), he is able to go to Spain safely, and nothing happens to him, at least until 10 years later. Now living comfortably in Spain, he comes from from a shopping trip only to find four men waiting for him, and while he puts up a fight (and his bodyguard is run over), eventually, he sees the futility of fighting and gives himself up. The four men take him to Braddock (John Hurt) and his partner Myron (Tim Roth), who, once they verify who he is (and after they’ve killed the four by putting a bomb in a suitcase that they thought contained their payoff for the job), set out to take Willie to Paris, where Corrigan and the others are presumably waiting for him. However, things don’t quite go as planned. For starters, instead of being anxious and trying to escape, Willie seems cheerfully resigned to his fate, and even tries to draw the others out by talking to them. For another, there’s a detective (Fernando Rey, known for The French Connection and his films with Luis Bunuel) hot on their trail. Finally, when the three of them go to an apartment in Madrid that’s both a way station and a place to get a new car, they find Harry (Bill Hunter, the late Australian character actor) living there, along with Maggie (Laura del Sol, who had played the title role in Carlos Saura’s version of Carmen a couple of years earlier; Paco del Lucia, the flamenco guitarist who composed and played most of the music for the film, also wrote the score for Saura’s film), his ex-prostitute girlfriend, and Braddock takes Maggie hostage, which makes the situation even more unstable.
The opening credits actually shows Braddock in a scene from later in the film, as Frears wanted to emphasize the movie is as much Braddock’s story as Willie’s. For while Willie can see his fate coming and seems resigned to it, Braddock, who knows he’s on his way down, doesn’t like it at all. He wears sunglasses as a way of blocking off the world, but also to keep anyone from prying inside his skull and finding out how frightened he really is. Where Willie is cheerful and talkative, Braddock only talks when necessary, and is reluctant to give out any information about himself (when Myron reveals his name, Braddock glares at him). Also, while Willie has become well-read during his time in Spain (he talks about history and philosophy during the drive), Braddock’s worldview seems limited to what he has to do. It turns out Willie and Harry each know Braddock by a different name, and when the detective finally catches up to Braddock at the end after the police have mortally wounded him by shooting him, he asks Braddock who he really is, but Braddock dies instead of answering. Underneath his toughness, Braddock also shows vulnerability, as when he’s unable to bring himself to kill Maggie even though he knows it’s necessary.
Along with bringing out the parallel story between Braddock and Willie, Frears and Prince also show Braddock and Myron are out of place in Spain. Frears and cinematographer Mike Molloy (best known for shooting Shock Treatment, the sequel to the cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show) constantly emphasize the landscape of Spain, whether the towns or the countryside, to show how small Braddock and Myron are compared to where they are. It also comes up in the attitudes the two of them have, where they both seem to be dismissive of what’s around them (especially when Myron goes into a bar to order beers for the others, and ends up getting into a fight with a group who’s drinking there). Only Willie is able to fit in, even though he’s still an outsider; he’s also the only one who can understand Maggie in her native language (though it turns out she knows more English than she lets on). Finally, there’s also the contrast between the businesslike manner the detective and the rest of the police conduct their investigation and the unhinged Myron and the tense Braddock conduct their business.
All the actors are good as well. This was one of Roth’s first films (Joe Strummer, of the Clash, was the original choice, but he turned it down and suggested Roth based on his work in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, made for TV), but you wouldn’t know it from how good he is. He plays Myron as an obvious psychopath who shoots first and asks questions later, yet there’s also an odd innocence to him, with the way he looks up to Braddock, and the way he ends up trying to protect Maggie, even though he knows it’s the wrong thing to do. Rey doesn’t have any dialogue till the end, but he effectively conveys authority and professionalism. Likewise, del Sol doesn’t have much dialogue, but is able to show Maggie is tougher than she looks, despite how frightened she is. And in his two scenes, Hunter is good at both the brave front tries to put up as well as the sadness when he’s resigned to his fate. But the film belongs to Stamp and Hurt. Stamp had been an iconic actor in the 60’s, thanks to his work in such films as Billy Budd, The Collector, and Modesty Blaise, but had walked away from that for the most part in the 70’s and 80’s, except for his well-known portrayal of General Zod in the first two Superman movies. Frears doesn’t trade in on Stamp’s past the way Steven Soderbergh would 15 years later in The Limey (which used footage of Stamp from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow), but there is a lot of Stamp’s earlier impishness combined with the maturity he had developed, which proves a perfect fit for Willie. And while Hurt’s role depends on him, at least outwardly, not revealing much to the other characters, he reveals all of his toughness and vulnerability to the audience, which makes us willing to follow him. And more people should follow The Hit as well; it may not be as well known as other British gangster films, but it’s among the best.
Neil Jordan has made a number of different kinds of films, from biopic (Michael Collins) to literary adaptation (the remake of The End of the Affair) to comedy (the remake of We’re No Angels) to revenge film (Angel – aka Danny Boy, his first film, and The Brave One). However, there have been two consistent strands in his career. One is how he’s tried to give many of the movies he’s made a fairy-tale like atmosphere. The other stand is of a man who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be something different than the man thought she was. Mona Lisa was the first example of the latter type of story, and while it’s not my favorite example – The Crying Game remains my favorite – it’s a terrific film nonetheless.
Playing someone far removed from Harold Shand – except for his working-class roots and his explosive temper – Hoskins is George, a man just out of prison for an unspecified crime. He’s estranged from his ex-wife (Pauline Melville) and his daughter Jeannie (Zoe Nathenson), though he eventually makes up with the latter, and he goes to get a job from Mortwell (Caine), a vicious gangster whom he did time for. George eventually gets a job driving a car, but to his initial disgust, he’s meant to drive around Simone (Cathy Tyson), a call girl. It doesn’t help Simone is black (George is prejudiced), and that she looks down on him, considering him ill-mannered and lower-class (Simone’s clients tend to be upper-class). After some initial tension, however, they soon develop a wary rapport, and she tells him she’s looking for another young prostitute, named Cathy, because she wants to protect her from a pimp named Anderson (Clarke Peters, best known today from TV’s The Wire). George agrees to help find her, and as he does, he starts to fall in love with Simone.
As I mentioned at the top, this is partially a fairy tale, as Jordan wanted to bring the simplicity and romanticism of fairy tales to the movies, as well as the danger and darkness of them. Along with the real-life inspirations (a news item about a man who was arrested for assault and who claimed he was trying to protect prostitutes from their pimps, and a TV documentary about a wealthy Soho sex entrepreneur who resembled a middle-class businessman more than anything else), Jordan’s main influence here was the tale of the Frog Prince (George even tries to tell Simone the tale early on). There are fairy tale motifs throughout the movie – George brings a white rabbit when he tries to see Mortwell for the first time, George’s friend Thomas (Robbie Coltrane, Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies, and also TV’s Cracker) has sculptures that could come out of a fairy tale – and also story motifs in general (George and Thomas talk about mystery novels Thomas always lends George to read, and George tells Simone’s tale as if it’s a story). Jordan also brings together both the romantic elements – George is constantly listening to the Nat King Cole version of the title song, especially when he starts falling in love with Simone – as well as the darker elements (when George is driving down the street looking for Cathy, or going around various adult clubs, Jordan and cinematographer Roger Pratt (best known for his work with Terry Gilliam, though he also shot Jordan’s remake of The End of the Affair) make it look like George is entering something out of Dante’s Inferno). Of course, Jordan ends up subverting the Frog Prince tale in that Simone does not fall in love with George, even though she does grow to like him; it turns out Cathy (Kate Hardie), whom George does eventually find, is Simone’s lover.
Hoskins was apparently not Jordan’s first choice for the role – Jordan wrote the part for Sean Connery, who wanted to work with Jordan but wasn’t fond of the part – but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it. George has to be rough yet naive and ultimately romantic, and Hoskins pulls all of that off brilliantly. Take the scene when he finds a scene of an old porn movie Simone appeared in (he got it when he delivered a package to an adult video store). He tries showing it to Simone, who, naturally, is pissed, and starts slapping him. George gets angry and hits her as well, but immediately apologizes, and they hug each other while crying. Hoskins goes through a lot of emotions through the course of that scene, and yet makes them all work. Tyson has the tougher role, as we have to see what draws George to her, yet she also has to remain someone mysterious and opaque, and considering this was her first film role*, she pulls it off beautifully. Coltrane brings warmth, likability, and intelligence to Thomas. Finally, while Caine is only in a few scenes, he perfectly captures someone who maintains a veneer of respectability but who is slimy through and through. Obviously, I don’t agree with Caine’s assertion that Mona Lisa is one of only three great British gangster films, but it’s definitely one of the great ones.
*-Denis O’Brien, who helped provide the money for the film through his company Handmade Films (which he co-owned with George Harrison), objected to the casting of an unknown like Tyson, preferring Grace Jones for the role, as she was just off the Bond film A View to a Kill. Jordan and producer Stephen Woolley both successfully fought O’Brien on that issue, as well as the ending of the film – O’Brien wanted to end it on the violent shootout, when Simone shoots and kills Anderson and Mortwell, and almost shoots George, while Jordan and Woolley were eventually able to get the ending they wanted, with George reminiscing with Thomas, and finally reunited with Jeannie – though O’Brien did win one battle. During the scene where George visits various strip clubs to find Cathy, we hear Genesis’ “In Too Deep”, which Jordan objected to because he wanted something more like what would have played in those clubs, but O’Brien insisted on because of how popular lead singer Phil Collins was. It does play a little too on-the-nose (“All that time I was searching, nowhere to run to”), and Jordan’s objections make sense, but I do think the song works overall.