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Hitchcock Blogathon Runner-Up #2 & #3: Ronin and Duplicity

July 17, 2012

Again, here are the other two films I considered seriously for “The Best Hitchcock Movies Hitchcock Never Made” Blogathon, run by my friend Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci and her friend Becky Barnes. Officially, the blogathon ended this past Friday, but unofficially, it’s still running, as some people needed more time. And if you haven’t check out the other posts, please do!

One of the aspects of Hitchcock’s career that’s easy to overlook today is how many films of his were devoted to spies and espionage. Whether this was merely because Hitchcock found “The Great Game” – as the Cold War was sometimes termed – interesting as a setting for suspense, or whether that was all a mask for deeply felt (if obliquely expressed) political feelings, is open to debate, and indeed has been. Regardless, some of Hitchcock’s most memorable films – such as The 39 StepsSabotageNotorious and North by Northwest – as well as less memorable films like Torn Curtain and Topaz, fit snugly into the “spy film” genre. When the Cold War finally ended in 1989, it was thought espionage fiction, both in novels and film, was basically a dead genre (in fact, an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October became a hit, so the story goes, only because it was advertised as a period piece). So what would happen to spies once that war ended? Two films that tried to address that question, and two films I think would be right up Hitchcock’s alley, were John Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998) and Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity (2009). Frankenheimer’s film is mostly serious-minded (though not without humor), while Gilroy’s is lighter in tone, but both qualify as Hitchcockian for me.

Spence (Sean Bean), Larry (Skipp Sudduth), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), Vincent (Jean Reno) and Sam (Robert De Niro) await instructions.

The title, of course, is the Japanese term for a samurai without a master, and what better equivalent in the post-Cold War era than spies? Five of these ex-spies gather in Paris one night after being contacted, through a never-seen “man in the wheelchair”, by Deirdre (Natascha McElhone). The ex-spies in question are Sam (Robert De Niro), an ex-CIA agent, Vincent (Jean Reno), formerly of GDSE (known before as SDECE), France’s intelligence service, Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), ex-KGB, Spence (Sean Bean), who claims to be a former SAS soldier, and Larry (Skipp Sudduth), who’s also ex-CIA. They’ve all been hired to steal a MacGuffin, which in this instance is a suitcase (in praising the movie, Anthony Lane noted that given how inflated movies were at the time in talking about the device that could destroy the world, it was a relief to come across a movie that was only about recovering lost luggage; that rings even more true today). Only Deirdre knows what’s in it, and she isn’t telling (no matter how many times Sam asks her), but the team does set out to plan how to retrieve the suitcase from people who are hell-bent on not giving it up. This includes buying weapons – after this “purchase” turns into a shoot-out, even though they get the weapons, Sam figures out Spence has inflated his past, and so Spence is sent packing – getting equipment (through Vincent), and taking a reconnaissance visit to the hotel where the people holding the case are staying. Finally, though it takes a car chase (more on that later) and a few shoot-outs to do so, the team recovers the suitcase, but it’s here Gregor pulls a double-cross, and the others must regroup and try and figure out what happened. Also, it turns out Gregor isn’t the only one who has a hidden agenda.

Though many of Hitchcock’s films obviously included police and sometimes government types – after all, he mostly told stories involving murder of some kind, which necessitates the police – those characters were almost always supporting characters or maybe second leads. Hitchcock preferred the story of  ordinary people who get caught up in extraordinary circumstances. And yet, films like Secret AgentTorn Curtain, and Topaz do have professionals placed front and center (though, admittedly, the last two are among his weakest films for me), so he wasn’t averse to the idea. And Frankenheimer is able to juggle all of these characters who are professionals successfully. They may each have one distinctive trait – Sam is forever testing the people around him of their abilities, past, and so on, while Gregor has a particularly ruthless and logical streak, and Vincent is steadfastly loyal – but they remain compelling and interesting instead of one-dimensional. Even the supporting characters, from Seamus (Jonathan Pryce), who turns out to be working with Deirdre and may be the most ruthless of all, to Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale), a colleague of Vincent’s who ends up helping Sam, and who explains the title, are interesting to watch.

Though Hitchcock was known as a suspense director, he didn’t have a lot of action scenes in the way we would think of them today. But he did have a couple of memorable car chase scenes, such as when Cary Grant and Grace Kelly try to shake the police on their tale in To Catch a Thief. That sequence took place over the Alpes-Maritimes in Nice, and one of the two major car chase sequences in Ronin takes place there was well, when the team first tries to take on those who have the case. Obviously, it’s much different in tone than Hitchcock’s chase scene was – that one was more playful – but it’s also exciting to watch, and like Hitchcock, Frankenheimer knows how to use his locations. And it’s not the only famous location he uses for a chase scene – a later chase between Sam and Deirdre goes through the tunnel in Paris where Princess Diana met her end, and is one long white-knuckle sequence. Unlike most action directors at the time – hell, today – Frankenheimer doesn’t use cheap effects to jazz things up, preferring his action lean and mean. One would guess Hitchcock would approve of that.

One marked difference in approach between Frankenheimer and Hitchcock, though, is the dialogue, though not as different as you’d think. Hitchcock’s films, even the spy ones, tend to be relatively straightforward in the dialogue, as he didn’t want to distract you from what was going on. Frankenheimer, on the other hand, employed David Mamet to re-write the script by J.D. Zeik (Mamet was eventually credited as Richard Weisz), and Mamet is known for dialogue that’s not only hard-boiled – especially in genre films like this – but also elliptical, and there are plenty examples of that here. Most of that comes through in Sam’s character, with three quick examples: (1) when Spence asks Sam if he’s ever killed anybody, Sam replies, “I hurt somebody’s feelings once.”, (2) when Vincent offers Sam a cigarette early on, Sam asks, “Are you labor or management?” (Vincent’s response; “If I was management, I would not have offered you a cigarette”, which Sam good-naturedly accepts), and (3) when Sam finds a man to give him a crucial piece of information, and Vincent wants to know how they know each other, Sam responds, “We went to high school together.” Obviously, some might see this as overly mannered, but in this world of ex-spies, one would assume they’re not going to talk plainly, so this makes sense. And Mamet writes this so well, Frankenheimer stages the dialogue scenes so well, and most importantly, everyone delivers the lines so well. It’s one of the many ironies you’ll find in Hollywood that while Mamet has gone on record many times about how much he detests Method acting, some of the best actors at delivering his dialogue have been those identified as Method, and one of them is De Niro. He’s been in three films Mamet wrote or co-wrote (The Untouchables and Wag the Dog being the other two), and captures the cadence and the feeling effortlessly. And he and Reno have a nice chemistry together, making their working relationship believable. Skarsgard has played villains before and since, but rarely with this much ruthlessness and hardness to them, and he does it well. Pryce also makes a 180 degree turn from his campy performance as a Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies to be truly scary here. And while McElhone gets somewhat short shrift at the end, she also is believably tough. Ronin may be more hard-boiled than the average Hitchcock film, but it’s a terrific entertainment all the same.

Ray (Clive Owen) and Claire (Julia Roberts)

After being best known for being the main (credited) writer of the first three Bourne movies, Tony Gilroy (son of playwright Frank Gilroy) moved into the director’s chair with Michael Clayton, a terrific thriller set in the business world that felt grown-up. Duplicity, also set in the business world, is much lighter in tone – in comparison with Hitchcock, it’s very similar to To Catch a Thief, which I’ll expand on below – but it’s also very entertaining. And although it has spies front and center, the movie deals with corporate espionage.

The spies in question here are Ray (Clive Owen), who’s ex-MI6, and Claire (Julia Roberts), who’s ex-CIA. At the beginning of the movie, they meet at a party in Dubai, and Ray is instantly smitten with Claire; her response, of course, is to drug him and then, when he’s asleep, steal documents from him. Five years later, Ray is now in New York City, working for Equikrom, a cosmetics conglomerate run by Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti), and is in the field when he spots Claire walking. He eventually confronts her (in a Lord & Taylor store), incredulous she can’t remember their meeting, but all of that is put aside when it turns out she’s his contact. She’s working for Burkett Randle, another cosmetics conglomerate run by Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), Garsik’s hated rival (the opening credits scene shows Garsik and Tully wrestling each other in the rain, in front of their respective corporate jets and staffers), but is secretly feeding Equikrom intelligence about a MacGuffin Burkett Randle apparently has – in this case, a formula for a hair product that could cure male pattern baldness.  Ray and his team, including Duke (Dennis O’Hare), Pam (Kathleen Chalfant), and Boris (Oleg Stefan), work with Claire to authenticate Tully in fact is developing this formula, and then to steal the equation necessary to create one of their own.

Except it turns out Ray and Claire have a different agenda. Three years after Dubai, they actually met again in Rome, and had a similar conversation as in the beginning of the movie. The difference is, Claire did eventually recognize him, and although Ray was still hurt and she was a little embarrassed, they reconciled and became lovers (they basically stay in their hotel room for three days, and are sardonically referred to by the manager as “John and Yoko”). Except it turns out they still can’t quite trust each other – Ray had cancelled a wake-up call for her – but they also realize they could work together to hatch a big payday for themselves. They could, for example, get a job at rival companies where one of them was hatching a major new product, steal the idea, and sell it to the highest bidder. After months of planning, and debating, Ray and Claire are finally set to go forward on their plan. The question is, can they trust each other enough, work wise and romantically, to pull it off?

I mentioned To Catch a Thief at the beginning of this review, and as I said, I think Gilroy’s film does resemble that Hitchcock film in a few ways. One of them, obviously, is the exotic locales (in addition to the ones I listed, there’s also the Bahamas and Switzerland, among others), and Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit make them look as photogenic as they really are (except for one scene of handheld camerawork); a far cry from what they did with Michael Clayton. Another resemblance is the idea of one character falling for another not in spite of their shady nature, but because of it; the twist here being both characters have this shady nature to them. But, for me, the biggest resemblance Gilroy’s film has to Hitchcock’s film is how effortlessly light and yet entertaining it is. I know some critics had problems with the plot of the film (which I will not spoil), but I thought Gilroy was as adept here as he was with Michael Clayton in making a complicated plot work and not feel it was merely a connect-the-dots by-the-number thriller. Contrary to what you might think, it really is a tough job to make a film that’s light on its feet and still entertaining (contrast Gilroy’s film with, say, The Tourist, which aimed to do something similar and fell short), and Gilroy manages it. That also goes for his dialogue, which is charming in its bantering (particularly when Claire grills Ray about a thong she found in his apartment), and again, the flip side of the harder and edgier dialogue in Michael Clayton.

One other way this reminded me of Hitchcock was its use of its stars. Hitchcock has said something to the effect of how casting a star in a role saves you 10-15 pages of exposition in the screenplay (which he loathed), which was why he so often pursued stars for his films (though he didn’t always get the ones he wanted). Of course, he often twisted the images of his stars around in his films (Vertigo being a prime example), but he also allowed them to play straight as well. Like Gilroy, Owen and Roberts had already worked together in a darker and edgier film, Closer – though while Gilroy’s movie was the darker side of corporations, their movie was the darker side of relationships – and they also seem to welcome the freedom of loosening up and being charming. Roberts had come off flat in her previous film, Charlie Wilson’s War – except her scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman – but she delivers the goods here. Owen, who had appeared in a darker film about corporations that year (the somewhat underrated The International), and who isn’t known for lighter roles, also manages to stay light and funny, particularly in a scene where he fakes a Southern accent to seduce Carrie Preston (as a staffer at Burkett Randle). Of course, Gilroy has his own twist on their images in mind, but again, I won’t spoil it. And they’re backed by a terrific supporting cast, especially Giamatti, Wilkinson, O’Hare (who was also in Michael Clayton) and Thomas McCarthy as a co-worker of Claire’s. Like RoninDuplicity was a disappointment at the box office, but for an entirely different mood, it’s worth checking out, and again, Hitchcock would have liked it, I think.

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