Claus Von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) and Sunny (Glenn Close) in happier times.
In the book of Reversal of Fortune, a prosecutor describes the Von Bulow case as “”where the little man has a chance to to glimpse inside and see how the rich live (emphasis his)”. He also describes the case as having “everything”, as it has “money, sex, and drugs.” One would think that a tabloid-heavy case like this (described in some quarters as “the case of the decade”, according to Dershowitz’s book) would inspire a tabloid-type movie, but instead, Kazan and Schroeder do something more interesting; they combine a detective story a la All the President’s Men (where the outcome is known but the mystery is never quite solved) with a comedy of manners that shows what happens when the little man sees how the rich live.
After a glimpse of Newport, Rhode Island, where Claus (Jeremy Irons) and Sunny Von Bulow (Glenn Close) lived, we see Sunny in a coma in a hospital room. She narrates (a la William Holden in Sunset Boulevard) as we see a condensed version of Sunny’s first and second comas, the growing suspicions of Sunny’s maid Maria (acting teacher Uta Hagen) – as well as the suspicions of Alexander (Jad Mager) and Ala (Sarah Fearon), Sunny’s son and daughter (respectively) from her first marriage – the investigation that led to the discovery of a black bag containing insulin, and how that all led to Claus being convicted of attempting to murder Sunny by injecting her with insulin to make her go into hypoglycemic shock. Dershowitz (Ron Silver) then comes onto the case when, while at home despairing over two clients of his who are facing the death penalty even though they’re innocent, he gets a phone call from Claus asking him to help out with the appeal. Dershowitz is skeptical at first (in the book, Dershowitz says he received the call on April Fool’s Day, and thought someone from his family was playing a joke on him), but after meeting with Claus, he agrees to take the case. After he assembles some experts and former students to help him – including Sarah (Annabella Sciorra), a former student and ex-girlfriend, Jack (Tom Wright), who knows the Rhode Island political system, and Tom (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a prosecutor who opposed Dershowitz on several cases (though they agree on nothing, Dershowitz knows Tom is better than the Rhode Island D.A., so he can win if he can beat Tom’s arguments) – Dershowitz goes to work on trying to destroy the prosecution’s case in order to win.
Though Dershowitz doesn’t take the case to prove Claus’ innocence – he assumes most clients are guilty, and are lying if they say otherwise; he takes the case primarily because he’s upset about the fact Sunny’s children hired an investigator who decided what could be turned over to the prosecutor – he soon finds some irregularities. For one, through both Claus’ interviews with Dershowitz, and information gleaned from David Marriott (Fisher Stevens), a somewhat shady figure who claimed he supplied drugs to Sunny through Alex, Dershowitz learns Sunny drank a lot and used a lot of drugs, so she wouldn’t have been above injecting herself. At the same time, we learn Sunny was unhappy because Claus wanted to go to work, and because he had been seeing Alexandra Isles (Julie Hagerty, uncredited), a soap opera actress (she appeared on Dark Shadows) who wanted Claus to leave Sunny and marry her. Also, the students prove there couldn’t have been a residue of insulin on the needle, as the prosecution claimed, throwing the attempted murder into doubt. Finally, Dershowitz realizes when Maria found the bag, what she said may not have meant what the prosecution claimed it meant (she actually didn’t think the bag was Sunny’s). Dershowitz finds himself in the unusual, and unwelcome, position of having to prove Claus’ innocence; he thinks it can work in court thanks to precedent Peter (Jack Gilpin), an expert on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, finds, but he knows if it turns out Von Bulow is really guilty, it’ll make Dershowitz look like a fool.
When he first meets with all of his students and experts, Dershowitz explains the public perception is just as important, if not more so, than the actual case (as he puts it, he wants the justices to be able to go home and explain to their wives why they overturned the conviction), and Schroeder and Kazan put that right up front, even if the most we see of public perception is a few stray news reports. Minnie (Felicity Huffman), another one of Dershowitz’s former students, asks him point blank at the meeting why he’s taking the case when Claus is so obviously guilty (it’s her he tells about the reason why he took the case, convincing her it’s more complicated than her moralistic viewpoint). And as Dershowitz and the rest of his students play detective in trying to find out what really happened, Schroeder and Kazan put us in their place, as we, too, try to sort out what happened. We get scenes as told from Claus’ point of view, from Sunny’s when she narrates from the coma (cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, who shot The Passenger and Suspiria, and went on to shoot five more films for Schroeder, shot Sunny’s flashback scenes from above and with a floating camera to give them a dreamlike quality), from the testimonies of Alexandra and Maria, and from Dershowitz and his students as they try to guess what happened (for the second coma, Dershowitz and Sarah give their own versions of what they think happened). As with the book, the movie takes the position there’s enough reasonable doubt that it’s clear Claus should have been found guilty, but it suggests, at the very least, Claus was morally culpable (either he didn’t do enough to stop Sunny from killing herself, or he encouraged it or helped her along; as Dershowitz tells him later, “Legally, this was an important victory. Morally, you’re on your own”). It keeps everything ambiguous. Another part of this is Sunny narrating the story. Kazan says on the DVD commentary he wanted to find a way to present information without the film bogging down, and he thought that was the best way, though he acknowledged it wasn’t universally accepted; while critics (particularly Roger Ebert) loved the device, audiences weren’t happy with it. I must confess, the first time I saw the movie, I wasn’t happy with the narration either, though while I think some of the lines Sunny says while in a coma (“When you get where I am, you will know the rest”) are a little too self-consciously clever, I have come to see Kazan’s point, and accept it as a device.
Then, of course, there’s the comedy of manners. Schroeder and Kazan set up a distance between Claus and Dershowitz from the minute Dershowitz steps into Claus’ penthouse apartment in New York City, with Dershowitz in his rumpled suit and Claus with his impeccable style and lordly accent (Tom Carson, who loved the movie and Irons’ performance, said it “suggests Boris Karloff playing Cary Grant”). It’s also played up in my favorite scene in the film, when Claus visits Dershowitz at his home, where his students are, and they all go out to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Claus looks to get the ginger prawns, but after he gets one, the other students take the plate away and pass it around so when it comes back to him, it’s completely empty, and Claus has to get his own order. While the plate is being passed around, the students, who are slightly unnerved by Claus’ ability to make jokes about his predicament (“What do you get the wife who has everything? A shot of insulin. What do you call a fear of insulin? Claus-trophobia.” According to Dershowitz, Claus was like this in real life), start peppering him with questions, particularly about Alexandra, to the point where Claus moans, “Alan, do they all want to be prosecutors?” Also, the cold, isolated rooms of both the Von Bulow house and of Claus’ apartment get contrasted with the ramshackle but warm house Dershowitz lives in and his students stay and work in, whether they’re doing work, debating the details of the case (Minnie eventually believes Ala and Alexander framed Claus), or playing pickup basketball games (Dershowitz is introduced in the film playing basketball with himself), The camaraderie Dershowitz has with the rest of his students (which includes humor; when Sarah wonders how Claus could go out with a whore – and an apparently ugly one at that – when he had a mistress as beautiful as Alexandra, Raj (Mano Singh), one of Dershowitz’s former students, quips, “There are some things even mistresses won’t do,” and refuses to elaborate) also contrasts with the uneasy relationship between Claus and Dershowitz, from the pointed way Claus and Andrea (Christine Baranski), his new girlfriend, congratulate themselves in front of Dershowitz for being progressive enough to hire a Jewish lawyer (in real life, Claus’ father was accused of collaborating with the Nazis), to Claus’ aloof manner throughout (in the movie’s signature scene, as Claus gets in the back of his limo, Dershowitz tells him, “You’re a very strange man,” to which Claus replies, “You have *no* idea”).
Irons won the Best Actor Oscar that year for his performance as Claus, and while he wouldn’t have been my choice, he is excellent. He brings out the humor in the role, not just in the accent, but in the way he keeps himself removed from the situation he’s in, and with his tone (when Dershowitz tells him everybody hates him, Claus deadpans, “Well, that’s a start”). Silver has a tougher role, because Dershowitz is painted here as a little too good to be true; working the case of two African-American kids pro-bono (in real life, they were white), and being about the constitutional principle more than anything else (Kazan admits on the DVD commentary he gave Dershowitz a temper to make him flawed and more human; it’s likely he also plays up the relationship with Sarah for the same reason). But in addition to the intensity Silver brings to the role, he also brings an intelligence to it; he’s always reading the room whenever he visits someone, especially Claus (Kazan points this out in the commentary as well), and even brings a little humor as well (when debating whether to take the case, he tells his son Elon (Stephen Mailer) about his dream that Hitler calls him up and asks for a lawyer, and he and Elon agree he would take the case, and *then* kill Hitler). Close also has a challenging role in that she’s playing someone who’s always seen from someone else’s perception, and yet she manages to suggest an inner life nevertheless, most prominently in a flashback scene when a tiger cub crashes a party Sunny and Claus are at, and Sunny is the only one who not only remains calm, but seems glad the tiger is there. As for the rest of the cast, while Sciorra’s role isn’t always well-defined (possibly for legal reasons), she’s able to project intelligence, Stevens is appropriately smarmy as Marriott, and Hagen is also good at playing the devoted, if somewhat simple-minded, Maria.
Whereas Dershowitz’s book dealt with both the appeal and the second trial, Schroeder and Kazan deal only with the appeal, and they compress a few details as well (Truman Capote in real life was one of the first people to come forth and give a deposition that Sunny was a drug addict, but in the movie, there’s only an inference to a magazine interview he gave). Still, it turns out to be a thought-provoking legal drama that’s also entertaining and funny, and nowhere is that more true than in the final scene (which Kazan claimed was the first thing he wrote for the screenplay), where Claus goes to a drugstore to buy cigarettes, and when he notices the cashier has recognized who he is, adds, “And a shot of insulin,” before admitting he was just kidding.
About 2/3 of the way into Michael Mann’s The Insider, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a former Brown & Williamson (the tobacco company) research scientist turned whistleblower, is on the phone with Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for 60 Minutes. Wigand gave an interview to 60 Minutes where, among other things, he accused his former bosses and other Big Tobacco companies of lying when they said they didn’t know about the health effects of cigarettes, and Brown & Williamson has hit back, first by threatening CBS with a lawsuit (which makes them temporarily pull the story, which makes Bergman livid), and second by smearing Wigand with a proposed news article bringing up his past (Doug McGrath, an actor (Quiz Show) and writer/director (Infamous), plays the man hired to dig up dirt on Wigand; we see him walk past Wigand while he’s on the pay phone at the school where he currently teaches). Bergman, of course, wants to know why Wigand didn’t tell him any of what was in the article (that he claimed to be on the Olympic judo team, that he hit his first wife), while Wigand refutes many of the claims, but eventually he loses his temper and asks, “Whose life, if you look at it under a microscope, doesn’t have any flaws?” Bergman points out that’s all the more reason Wigand needs to be straight with him on his life, so Bergman can defend Wigand against the smear campaign. Wigand, in turn, insists all that matters is the fact he told the truth in the interview (as well as in testimony in a civil suit involving Brown & Williamson), and keeps doing so until Bergman, exasperated, yells, “That’s not the fucking point whether you told the truth or not!”
That scene touches on something that has become increasingly apparent in jury trials in this country, or at least the ones receiving media coverage; the fact of whether you’re telling the truth is secondary to the perception of you, whether by the public, the media, the jury, or the judge. That perception is the subject of two different legal dramas that came out in 1990; Presumed Innocent, Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of the best-selling novel by Scott Turow (which Pakula also co-wrote with Frank Pierson), and Reversal of Fortune, Barbet Schroeder’s docudrama about Claus Von Bulow’s successful appeal of his attempted murder conviction (adapted by Nicholas Kazan from the book by Alan Dershowitz, Von Bulow’s lawyer for the appeal). Warning: spoilers for Presumed Innocent below.
“I’m a prosecutor. I’m part of the business of accusing, judging, and punishing. I explore the evidence of a crime and determine who is charged, who is brought to this room to be tried before his peers. I present my evidence to the jury and they deliberate upon it. They must determine what really happened. If they cannot, we will not know whether the accused deserves to be freed or should be punished. If they cannot find the truth, what is our hope of justice?”
That’s the opening monologue of Rozat “Rusty” Sabich (Harrison Ford), the main character of Presumed Innocent, and it’s said in voiceover before the credits roll (it’s also edited down somewhat from the opening part of the novel). It’s significant that while we hear these words, we’re watching an empty courtroom and jury box, for this is the film’s way of telling us we, the audience are the jury. What’s slightly different here, however, is we ultimately find out what happened, but it’s left to us, the viewer (and, in the novel, the reader) to find out whether justice was done anyway.
As in the novel, the movie is about how Rusty gets caught up in a legal nightmare of his own. Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), another prosecutor in the Kindle County D.A.’s office, is found murdered in her apartment. Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy), Rusty’s boss, who is in the middle of a re-election campaign for D.A., assigns Rusty to the case. Rusty, however, makes some questionable decisions. He forgets to follow-up on getting fingerprints from a glass found in the apartment. Rusty also replaces Harold Greer (Tucker Smallwood), the detective in charge of the case, with his friend Dan Lipranzer (John Spencer), and tells Lipranzer not to disclose the fact he had called Carolyn several times from his place. Even though the office is admittedly short-staffed thanks to the murder and to the fact Tommy Molto (Joe Grifasi), another prosecutor, has gone missing (presumably defecting over to Nico Della Guardia (Tom Mardirosian), a former prosecutor who’s running against Raymond), Rusty still seems, according to Raymond, more interested in handling the administrative duties of the office then pressing on Carolyn’s murder. Finally, though no one knows except for Lipranzer and Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia), Rusty’s wife, Rusty in fact had an affair with Carolyn (after he helped her win a child abuse case) until she broke it off, and he’s still obsessed with her. So after Nico wins the election, all of this suspicious behavior, plus the fact Rusty’s fingerprints were on a glass in Carolyn’s apartment, carpet fibers in the apartment matched fibers from Rusty’s house, and there was a call from Rusty’s house to Carolyn the night she was killed, lead Molto and Nico to accuse Rusty of murdering Carolyn. Rusty can’t believe it, especially since the timing seems suspicious; in investigating Carolyn’s old cases (on the theory someone she helped put away might have wanted to take revenge), he discovered a “B” file, or bribery case, which was outside of her normal purview (she usually handled rape and abuse cases), and right before Rusty was accused of murder, he found out Molto had been involved in the case, and that Lipranzer had been pulled from the investigation, so he suspects a frame-up. Rusty explains this to his lawyer, Alejandro “Sandy” Stern (Raul Julia) – Rusty’s opponent in many other cases before this – who is skeptical at first, but then brings it up at trial, even though Rusty had agreed it wasn’t good strategy, and even though Judge Larren Lyttle (Paul Winfield) seemed determined not to let Stern bring it up. Is Rusty really guilty, or is something else going on here?
Like many directors who became well known in the 70’s, Pakula had fallen on hard times in the 80’s. With the exception of Sophie’s Choice, the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama starring Meryl Streep, none of the other films he had done – the corporate thriller Rollover, the psychological thriller Dream Lover, the oddball comedy/drama Orphans, and the romantic drama See You in the Morning – had made much impact on critics or audiences. So adapting a novel that was not only a best-seller but was also considered a phenomenon (this was the first novel by Turow, who had previously written a book about his law school days called One L; he has since become an established author) might have just seemed like a way to seem relevant again. But Pakula never condescends to the material, but show great care with it. For starters, working with cinematographer Gordon Willis (their fifth collaboration), Pakula avoids the slick look that characterizes many courtroom dramas, and, as per usual in a movie shot by Willis (nicknamed the “Prince of Darkness”), shoots it mostly in muted colors, to emphasize the seriousness of the story. Also, Pakula and editor Evan Lottman (another frequent Pakula collaborator; this was their fifth and final film together) keep things evenly paced, and never juice up any of the story’s twists (more on those in a moment).
Obviously in adapting a 400+ page novel to two hour and change movie for the screen, some things have to go, and Pakula and Pierson in general do a good job of paring thins down. Except for the opening and closing scenes, there’s no first-person narration. There’s no psychiatrist that Rusty confesses his affair with Carolyn to, the courtroom testimonies are shortened (especially Raymond’s) or eliminated (we don’t hear from Eugenia (Anna Maria Horsford), Rusty’s secretary, who claims she overheard Rusty and Carolyn on the phone together, but under cross-examination admits it might have had to do with the case they were working on). More important than all of that is the change in emphasis that Pakula and Pierson make, and the parts they ended up changing. For the latter, some of the changes are minor (instead of Rusty talking to Carolyn’s son from her previous marriage, Rusty instead talks to her ex-husband (Michael Tolan)), but there are two crucial changes in the story. There are two major twists involving the trial in both novel and movie; the revelation Carolyn had her tubes tied so she’d no longer be able to have a child, which implies a crucial piece of medical evidence may have been manufactured by Molto and Dr. Ted “Painless” Kumagai (Sab Shimono), the coroner*, and also the main culprit involved in the “B” file was none other than Judge Lyttle (who was also seeing Carolyn at the time), and Sandy was bringing it up to let the judge know he’d bring it up in court if certain things did not go his way. In the novel, we get the doctor’s testimony first and then Rusty and Lipranzer, when they track down Leon Wells (Leland Gantt), the name in the original complaint, find out about the judge, whereas in the movie, the order is reversed. I’m not entire sure why this is, but either way, it makes a troubling statement about the justice system that unfortunately still seems to be true today; that saying you’re innocent of the crime you’re accused of may not be enough.
Which leads to the final twist, where we find out the real murderer of Carolyn was none other than Barbara, Rusty’s wife. In the novel, Rusty manages to figure this out thanks to certain clues that pop up (the phone call to Carolyn’s apartment the night of the murder, the fact Rusty figures out the glass with his fingerprints on it was in fact from their own house), and when Barbara leaves him to take a job somewhere else (though near enough so Rusty can still see their son Nat (Jesse Bradford)), she apologizes and says she was willing to testify that she was the one who did it, while Rusty also apologizes and says no one would have believed her testimony; he also reveals the motivation for the crime, and the way it was carried out, to Lipranzer when he brings over the glass (the prosecution forgot he had it, and he never brought it up, so it was presumed missing, which also helped Rusty’s defense). Rusty reveals Barbara was the one who called Carolyn, went over to her apartment, hit her over the head with a garden tool to kill her, tied her up, opened the windows as a piece of misdirection, and injected her own spermicide from her own diaphragm (which had led Sandy to believe Dr. Kumagai was either incompetent or criminal), all to indicate to Rusty who the real killer was, while unwittingly planting clues to make him the number one suspect, which she never intended and made her feel remorseful when it happened. Pakula and Pierson make it more ambiguous by implying all the way to the end that Rusty still might be the killer; after Sandy explains to Rusty the purpose of bringing up the “B” file when the charges have been dismissed, he pointedly asks Rusty if justice has been done, and while the scene between Lipranzer and Rusty where the former gives the latter the glass, and asks him if he did kill Carolyn (“The lady was bad news”) is similar to how it plays in the novel, in the novel, it takes place in Rusty’s house and leads to Rusty revealing Barbara’s role, while in the movie, it takes place on a ferry, and ends with Rusty denying it and throwing the glass in the water. This implies Rusty’s guilt even if he wasn’t the one who ultimately killed Carolyn (this also again is keeping in line with that opening shot, making us the jury, trying to figure out what happened). And as for the former, the change in emphasis, in the novel, Turow concentrates as much on the office politics as on Rusty’s family, while in the movie, the family takes center stage, so Barbara’s confession doesn’t come out of left field. Speaking of her confession, originally, Pakula was going to cut the confession out entirely, until Bedelia got ahold of an earlier draft that had the confession, and gave such a passionate reading of it that Pakula was convinced to keep it in.
Judge Lyttle (Paul Winfield) in conference with the lawyers at the bench.
Along with the fact this was an adaptation of a best-selling, as well as critically acclaimed novel, the biggest press this received at the time was Ford’s haircut for Rusty. In Jared Brown’s biography of Pakula, Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life, Ford (who also wrote the introduction to the book) said he did so to show Rusty’s complete lack of ego (which explains why he demurs when both Carolyn and Nico – also referred to as “Delay”** – think he should have positioned himself for Raymond’s job because they think he would have been a sure thing) and as a way of illustrating the depths of his obsession with Carolyn. Pakula and Ford also show the depths of Rusty’s obsession in other ways, such as his flashbacks to looking at Carolyn just lying in bed, or the thousand-yard stare he has when he’s up at night just thinking about her, or the way he spies on her after she’s taken another lover. Also, Ford had made his mark at playing active roles, and this is a rare passive role, yet he pulls it off completely. The rest of the cast is also terrific. Had I been a member of the Academy, I would have voted for Julia as best supporting actor; though his best known performances (Gomez in the Addams Family movies, the evil General Bison in Street Fighter, political prisoner Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman) find him playing more broadly, here, he’s restrained, and shows his intelligence and cunning through subtle means, especially when he’s cross-examining Raymond (who testifies against Rusty) and Dr. Kumagai. Speaking of Raymond, because the part was cut down, we don’t see the remorse Raymond feels when he realizes Rusty was screwed over, but Dennehy does play the rest of the part well, showing the shell of the man yet making us see what was once there, and the anger and betrayal he feels when he honestly thinks Rusty did it. Lipranzer is also cut down somewhat, but Spencer also does a terrific job of playing a jaded cop who nonetheless has his own moral code, however bruised it may be.` And while Lyttle and Molto’s parts are also cut down somewhat, both Winfield and Grifasi do a good job at showing the hidden resentments inside them. The key roles, of course, are Carolyn and Barbara; Scacchi allows us to see what would make several men obsessed with her, and yet also suggests there’s more to her than that (especially in a still photograph of her in her younger days), as well as the broken bird inside, and in addition to making her confession at the end work like gangbusters, thanks to the deliberate way she delivers it, Bedelia is also excellent at showing Barbara’s anger, intelligence, and unexpected sympathy. Presumed Innocent showed how well one could make a popular story that still raises troubling questions.
*-In the novel, we find out during Sandy’s cross-examination Dr. Kumagai got his nickname of “Painless” because of an autopsy he had bungled; the prosecutor on the case claimed the only one who found it painless to work with Dr. Kumagai was the corpse, because it was dead.
**-Also in the novel, we find out Nico Della Guardia is nicknamed “Delay” for his inability to complete a brief on time; the chief deputy called him “Unavoidable Delay Guardia”.
`-Trivia note; both Spencer and Bradley Whitford (who plays Sandy’s associate Jamie Kemp) went on to appear in The West Wing together nearly a decade later, though they don’t share any scenes here.
This is my part 3 and the final part of my entry for the Classic Movie History Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi (Movies Silently), Ruth (Silver Screenings), and Aurora (Once Upon a Screen). I’d like to thank them not only for doing a great job (as usual) of hosting, but also of putting up with my last-minute entries once again. Enjoy!
As I argued in my introduction to this series, while the prevailing view of film history is many of the feature films of the late 60’s/early 70’s that dealt with the unrest of the time did so indirectly through either genre or by using the past as a mirror to view the present, there were in fact a few films that tried to confront the chaos and issues of the time directly, with mixed results. But there’s another group of films that dealt with the turmoil and unrest directly, and as always, they tend to get overlooked. That group would be documentaries. As with the Iraq war in the 2000’s, documentary filmmakers took on the Vietnam War, for example, long before feature filmmakers did (or, to be fair, could). All in all, I saw seven documentaries – five features and two shorts – that dealt with the war in some way, and I cover them here. Also, civil rights for African-Americans were better represented through documentaries than through mainstream Hollywood, and I feature documentaries from the two leaders who were considered the yin and yang of African-American rights during the 60’s, as well as one of the leaders of the controversial Black Panthers.
“Why are we in Vietnam?”: Far From Vietnam, In the Year of the Pig, Interviews with My Lai Veterans, Winter Soldier, F.T.A., Letter to Jane, Hearts and Minds.
Still photo from “Far From Vietnam”.
As I mentioned in my post on foreign movies, French artists – as well as many others in France – were among the first to protest America’s involvement in Vietnam, in fact, one of the first (if not the first) documentaries to come out against the war came from France. Far From Vietnam (1967) combined the talents of, among others, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais, and Agnes Varda, all under the supervision of French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker. Each of them shot, or collected, footage for a short segment, all to help challenge not only U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but also the image the U.S. was presenting to the rest of the world about the war being just and necessary.
As with just about every anthology movie I’ve seen, some segments are better than others. Resnais opts to have Bernard Fresson (who appeared in several of his movies, including Resnais’ previous La Guerre est Finie; he also appeared in Costa-Gavras’ Z) as “Claude Ridder”, a French government official (or perhaps a journalist) who tries to convince a Vietnamese woman (Karen Blanguernon) of the rationale for the war, though it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as well. That’s an interesting and powerful enough premise, but while it’s possible the woman doesn’t speak because she’s bored with, or ignoring, what Ridder says, how much more interesting the segment would have been if she had been allowed to engage him by speaking back, and allowing a true dialectic to be set up. Godard, meanwhile, ponders on whether or not he’s able to even make a film about the war (especially since he’d been denied entry), even though he’s obviously against it. Godard isn’t just talking about himself, it seems, but whether anyone could make a film confronting the war, and while that approach is also not without merit – Atom Egoyan would demonstrate decade, in his highly underrated 2002 film Ararat, that it was possible to make a good film about whether or not art can confront genocide – Godard doesn’t really go anywhere with his segment. Much better are the scenes showing the history of colonial involvement in Vietnam, footage of protests taking place across the United States (as well as people shouting at, or booing, the protesters), and a puppet show depicting the American government’s view of the country. Perhaps the best segment at all deals with the widow of Norman Morrison – the man who immolated himself in front of the Pentagon on November 2, 1965 – Anne Morrison, a Quaker, and her meeting with a Vietnamese woman named Ann Uyen to explain how much she was in favor of her husband’s act. The way the film presents this story simply, without any histrionics, makes it all the more powerful. Far From Vietnam may not be a great documentary, but it’s a good one that does challenge the official story.
Iconic image from “In the Year of the Pig”.
Emile de Antonio may not be a household name as far as filmmakers go, or even documentary filmmakers, and that’s a shame. Point of Order! (1964), his first film, takes on McCarthyism by editing together footage of the Army Hearings and shows just how much of a bully McCarthy was. After collaborating with author Mark Lane on a documentary companion to Lane’s book Rush to Judgment, which challenged the Warren Report’s view of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (which de Antonio stressed, for him, had less to do with any feelings for Kennedy – he wasn’t a fan of almost any politician – than with the fact he felt the U.S. government was lying to its people), de Antonio followed with another film challenging the official narrative given by the U.S. government; In the Year of the Pig (1968), this time on the Vietnam War. Part of this, like Point of Order!, is what de Antonio called “collage cinema”; merely putting together archive footage to tell a narrative, and here, it’s the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam (as well as a brief history of French involvement in Vietnam after WWII), from merely sending advisers to sending troops and then escalating the “police action”. We see government and military officials, including presidents (most prominent, of course, is LBJ), generals (Generals Clark, LeMay and Westmoreland), CIA officials (John Foster Dulles) and others justifying U.S. involvement in Vietnam every step of the way, even when things go wrong. We also see footage of wounded soldiers and Vietnamese. Finally, de Antonio has assembled interviews with people speaking out against the war, including activists such as Father Daniel Berrigan, journalists such as David Halberstam, and government officials such as Senator Thurston Morton. As angry as de Antonio is about the policy carried out here – and he’s very angry indeed – he’s careful not to demonize the ordinary, everyday soldiers stuck in the quagmire (we get an interview with a deserter). Also, as Pauline Kael pointed out in her review of the film (she liked it with some misgivings), de Antonio provides context that the news coverage of the war wasn’t doing at the time, and presenting the U.S. involvement as the Vietnamese might see it. If there’s a weakness in the film (also in Far From Vietnam), it’s de Antonio’s romanticizing of the North Vietnamese (he likens Ho Chi Minh to George Washington), given what happened Vietnam after the U.S. pulled out. Still, without going overboard on trickery, de Antonio’s film remains a stinging and powerful film, and a reminder to question the “official story”.
Scott Camil interviewed in “Winter Soldier”.
Speaking of which, one of the most notorious incidents during the war was, of course, the My Lai massacre, when on May 16, 1968, members of Company C went into a Vietnamese village, which was apparently believed to be a Vietcong stronghold, and ended up killing anywhere between 347 (the U.S. army figures) and 504 people (according to the Vietnamese government), all of them civilians, many of them women (who were also gang-raped) and children (Joseph Strick’s Interviews with My Lai Veterans, a documentary short photographed by Haskell Wexler, interviews five members of Company C about what happened, and we learn they were ordered to treat everyone as an enemy, since they had lost people to booby-trapped bombs left by the Vietcong, and were frustrated at not finding the responsible parties. Strick gets a nice balance of interviews, but the film is too short to do the atrocity justice). Eventually, Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader, was the only officer charged in a court-martial concerning the event, and both the military and the government maintained this was an isolated incident. Winter Soldier (1972), a rarely-seen documentary with no director credited (it was made by a collective of several filmmakers and technicians, among them David Grubin and Barbara Kopple), was made to counteract this narrative. It documents the “Winter Soldier Conference” (the term is taken from Thomas Paine’s first “American Crisis” paper, when he wrote of the “summer soldier and sunshine patriot” that shrink from service to their country) sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit from January 31, 1971 to February 2, 1971. Among those veterans who participated was future Secretary of State John Kerry, and he and the other veterans testified as to the atrocities they had witnessed and participated in (there were civilian witnesses as well, though the movie concentrates on the veterans). The movie shows several scenes of testimony, as well as behind the scenes footage of veterans talking to each other, and individual interviews with some of the veterans (most prominently Scott Camil – Graham Nash would later write a song about him called “Oh Camil”, and he’s featured in one of the special features on the DVD). For the most part, the testimony is given in a calm, clear-eyed manner (although one veteran is barely able to choke back tears), making it all the more horrifying and stomach-churning (do not watch it while eating). As a documentary, it’s merely competent on a technical level. Also, while the speeches some African-American veterans give about racism within the Army are probably meant to parallel how the higher-ups viewed the Vietnamese, it still feels shoehorned in. Nevertheless, Winter Soldier remains a powerful corrective to the revisionist view of the Vietnam War that came about long after the war was over, especially when Ronald Reagan became president, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies became popular, and the “Swift Boat” campaign against Kerry when he ran for president in 2004 took place.
Jane Fonda and Steve Alaimo in a sketch from “F.T.A.”.
One of the organizers of the Winter Soldier Investigation was Jane Fonda, who remains the most polarizing civilian figure involved in the Vietnam War. Fonda, who had started out as apolitical growing up, became radicalized in the late 60’s, and especially became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Along with organizing the Winter Soldier investigation, she also had making talks with veterans across the country so she could listen to their experiences, and in the early 70’s, got involved with a revue-type show – along with then-boyfriend Donald Sutherland – meant to counteract Bob Hope’s USO shows, with their rah-rah patriotism and their cheap humor, which she and many saw as being out of touch with what the veterans were really going through. Originally, the show featured Peter Boyle and Howard Hesseman (later best known as Johnny Fever in WKRP in Cincinnati and Mr. Moore in Head of the Class), but in an interview included on the DVD, Fonda said she wanted the show to be more inclusive of women and minorities (she admitted she was too strident about this), so singers Len Chandler, Rita Martinson and Holly Near, as well as comedian Paul Mooney, were among those included in a later tour. Women’s rights activist Francine Parker filmed this tour, known, as with the original tour, as F.T.A. (which stood for, depending on who you talked to, “Free The Army” or “F–k The Army”). along with interviews Fonda and the others conducted with current soldiers and veterans, and it was released in 1972, though along with Winter Soldier, public pressure from higher ups prevented it from getting a wide release. As witnessed today, the revue-type skits are not that great – the best involve the title song written for the revue and a skit Fonda did with Steve Alaimo where they played Pat and Richard Nixon, respectively, and she tells him protesters are storming the White House; when he insists he’ll call the army, she nervously replies, “But Dick, it *is* the army!” – but the songs can be quite good (especially one Martinson sings to the soldiers), and Sutherland movingly reads from Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (Sutherland appeared in the film version in 1971). Best of all, of course, are the interviews with the soldiers themselves, and contrary to the “Hanoi Jane” propaganda that has sprung up, you don’t see Fonda coercing anyone to her point of view, but really listening to what the soldiers have to say (the other actors do so as well). That, as much as anything else, makes F.T.A. worth tracking down.
The photograph that inspired “Letter to Jane”.
Plenty has been written about Fonda being attacked by the right for her stance on the Vietnam War (as well as other issues). What’s less known is that she was also attacked by the left. After she worked for Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin on Tout Va Bien, they made Letter to Jane (subtitled “An Investigation About a Still), also in 1972, in reaction to a picture of Fonda during her trip to Vietnam that appeared in the French magazine L’Express, showing her listening to someone while a Vietnamese peasant lurks in the background. With this 52-minute documentary, Godard and Gorin are out to examine the meaning behind the photo in the same way that, say, Errol Morris has examined old photos in the New York Times recently. Their goal is to attack how the Western media covered Vietnam, and, in particular, how they covered the Vietnamese people. That is certainly a laudable goal, as even when media coverage turned against the war, it was usually only talked about in terms of how American soldiers were suffering, as opposed to the Vietnamese.. Less forgivable, however, is the sense you get Godard and Gorin are blaming Fonda for all of that. The second time I watched this, I picked up on the fact Gorin, at least, admitted there was something problematic about two men ganging up on a woman like this (though he insisted that wasn’t the motivation, even though Godard and Fonda didn’t get along during the making of Tout Va Bien), but that’s not the only queasy aspect. The two of them attempt to show how Fonda’s look of sympathy in the photograph is merely a copy of other American actors’ look of sympathy (including Fonda’s father Henry in The Grapes of Wrath, which they show a still from), and is nowhere near as relevant (or as revolutionary) as the look on the peasant’s face. Again, all of that is fair enough, but again, both Godard and Gorin seem to blame that on Fonda instead of the Western media itself and the cult of celebrity in the U.S., both of which Fonda was fighting herself when trying to express her views about the war (as well as feminism and other issues). One wonders if Godard and Gorin knew of how Fonda was targeted by the Nixon administration and the FBI for her views, and whether that would have made any difference. Godard has since disowned the film, calling it terrible, but given how callous he is here (Kael called the film “offensively inhuman”, and as brilliantly made as it is, she’s not far off the mark), I somehow doubt it.
Daniel Ellsberg interviewed in “Hearts and Minds”.
The final major documentary dealing with the Vietnam War came out right before the U.S. finally pulled out of the country altogether. Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974), produced by Bert Schneider, is a panoramic view of the war, showing a collage of war clips, interviews with soldiers, officials, and Vietnamese (from peasants to military members), along with clips of films about other wars (the title, of course, comes from the assertion that in order to win the war, the U.S. would not only have to defeat the army, but also win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese). We also get interviews with people like Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the media) and other anti-war activists. Though David himself doesn’t appear on camera, you get a sense he not only learned from Emile de Antonio about ironic juxtaposition, but that filmmakers such as Michael Moore learned from him, and that gave me an uneasy feeling while watching the film. Much of it is undeniably powerful, as when we see the Vietnamese peasants weeping over their land and families being destroyed by American bombs. Yet I felt as if Davis was too obvious in trying to push the viewer’s buttons (unlike de Antonio). And while it attempts to portray the American pathology that led to the war, some of that can also come off heavy-handed. Still, like In the Year of the Pig, it presents a history of U.S. involvement (with the added perspective that six more years brings) and it has a multiple amount of perspectives to give you a rounded portrait of just how the war was wrong from the start.
From Civil Rights to Revolution: King: A Filmed Record…From Montgomery to Memphis, Malcolm X (1972), Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther.
Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the consequences of the Vietnam War at home is how President Johnson’s insistence on fighting the war led him to abandon his vision of a Great Society, to go beyond the civil rights legislation he helped push through in 1964 and 1965, as he and other Congressmen felt he couldn’t pay for both. This led to African-Americans losing a lot of what they’d gained, or thought they’d gain, and also helped cause unrest. Another factor that caused unrest, of course, was the assassination of two of the major African-American leaders of the time, Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. A documentary was produced on each of them during this era; Ely Landau’s King: A Filmed Record…From Montgomery to Memphis (1970) and Arnold Perl’s Malcolm X (1972). Both of them heavily rely on archival footage of the two leaders speaking, in private, and giving interviews at the time. Landau’s movie also features celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones and Paul Newman giving readings from texts related to the times (Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed these readings and also helped put together the film), while Perl’s movie features some (then) present-day scenes of African-life, as well as Jones’ voiceover narration of parts of Malcolm X’s autobiography (as told to Alex Haley). The testimonials in the former film were put in to help raise money for the film, so it’s understandable why they’re included, but with the exception of Belafonte and Jones’ segments, I kept wanting the movie to get back to King’s footage, not just because some of them come off as well-intentioned but patronizing, but also because King is such an electrifying figure to watch. Not only that, but the film shows King as a more complicated figure that we usually remember him as. Yes, he’s the man who preached non-violence as a form of protest, and yes, he was someone who sought, to paraphrase Gandhi, to free his fellow African-Americans from held up by guns, and to free the white policemen from holding those guns. But as we see in the documentary, which traces his career from the Montgomery bus boycott to his funeral after he was killed in Memphis, King was a consistent advocate for African-American rights in all places, was a shrewd operator, and wasn’t above giving angry talks about what was done to him and others. We see the famous speeches, including his “I have a dream” speech, but we also see, near the end, when he comes out against the Vietnam War. Likewise, if you think of Malcolm X mostly as a hate-preaching “black Muslim”, Perl’s documentary will change the way you think about him. Yes, it shows his rhetoric against white society, but it also shows how he modified his views after he was kicked out of the American Muslim church (after his infamous “chickens come home to roost” speech, and his discovery that Elijah Mohammad, the head of the American Muslim church, had fathered several children out of wedlock) and especially after he made his pilgrimage to Mecca and saw white Muslims there. While Malcolm X still preached self-defense as a viable option,he also grew to recognize how poor whites were dealing with some of the same problems African-Americans were dealing with, and that there were white who were sympathetic to his cause. Both movies, of course, end with their funerals, and reactions to them. Both of them are powerful documentaries and are well worth tracking down.
The Black Panther party sprung from disillusionment with the way civil rights for African-Americans were ignored when the Vietnam War began escalating, and while a big part of it was helping African-Americans with programs for schooling their children and helping the poor, it also was intended as a revolutionary movement. One of the prime leaders of the Black Panthers was Eldridge Cleaver, and he was the subject of William Klein’s documentary Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1969), while Cleaver was in exile in Algeria after ducking an attempted murder charge after he and other Black Panthers had ambushed police officers in Oakland (he had first fled to Cuba, but after Fidel Castro had discovered the CIA had infiltrated the Black Panthers, he decided he could no longer trust Cleaver). We see some of Cleaver living with his wife and child, but mostly, this has interviews with Cleaver talking about his revolutionary politics and his support of armed insurrection (this led to a split between himself and fellow Black Panther leader Huey Newton, who believed the Panthers’ insistence on violence as a tool hurt their standing with the black community at large). We also see him finding common ground with other revolutionaries in Africa. All of this romanticizing of the Marxist revolutionary groups Cleaver does may seem naive in spots (and also ironic, since in the 80’s and 90’s, Cleaver reversed course and became a conservative Republican, denouncing his past), but Cleaver, like Malcolm X, also grew towards more of an understanding towards white people, understanding not all whites were as repressive as he initially thought. Klein also has footage of the establishment’s reaction to the Panthers, particularly a government hearing about them. Whatever you think of Cleaver’s politics as expressed in the documentary, he remains a fascinating figure, and Klein does a good job capturing him.
As I mentioned in my introductory post, while Hollywood films, with some exceptions, dealt with the unrest of the Vietnam era mostly through the indirect means of genre and period pieces (having the past comment on the present), films from the rest of the world were often more pointed in their political content. Of course, they had their stumbling blocks as well. Whereas the primary obstacle to getting political films made in America was financial – the Production Code having been replaced by a more relaxed (if still highly flawed) system – with studios afraid of any film that wouldn’t make a lot of money, films from other parts of the world had to deal with government censors, especially if they were being ruled by a dictator. Therefore, like their American counterparts, filmmakers from Europe, the Soviet bloc, and other parts of the world also had to smuggle their political statements through disguised means, such as genre. Nevertheless, there were a few filmmakers who managed to make the statements they wanted to make clearly in their films, without that much interference. Once again, because of availability issues, I’ve only been able to watch a limited amount of films. Therefore, I’m devoting myself mostly to two of the most well-remembered political filmmakers of the time, Jean-Luc Godard and Constantin Costa-Gavras, not just because of their influence, but also because their styles are so different (though they’ve worked with the same actors and technicians) that they set up a useful dialectic to consider what a political film is and can be, and how it should be made. The Costa-Gavras part will also deal briefly with The Battle of Algiers, which, along with Costa-Gavras’ Z, is considered the father of the modern-day political thriller, while the last part will also consider a few other political films from Italy (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), Germany (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), and back to France (Mr. Freedom).
Costa-Gavras: Z, The Confession and State of Siege.
“Some people sign petitions, others go to the streets – I do something as a filmmaker.” – on why he made Z.
Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is probably considered the father of the modern political thriller, as well as the modern political docudrama. In telling the tale of the Algierian revolt against the French in the 1950’s and 60’s, Pontecorvo sets himself firmly on the side of the Algierians while still humanizing the French (even the French colonel (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast) is presented as a person instead of a monster), and creates some tense scenes (particularly when several Algierian women go to plant bombs at various public places). But what Pontecorvo started with his film, arguably Constantin Costa-Gavras went even further with Z, the other most influential political thriller of the last 40-50 years or so. Costa-Gavras, who was born in Greece, had gone to France to study (his father had been a member of the Communist Party, which got him blackballed from Greece universities), but was still wanting to do something about what had been done to the country, especially after Grigoris Lambrakis, a Greek left-wing politician, was murdered by right-wing extremists linked to the army in 1963. When Vasilis Vasilikos wrote a novel based on Lambrakis’ assassination, Costa-Gavras found his method of, as he put it, doing something as a filmmaker. Though it sticks close to the novel and the events themselves, Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Jorge Semprum change all the names (Yves Montand plays the president, Irene Papas plays his wife, Marcel Bozzufi plays one of the assassins, and Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the investigating magistrate) and set in an unnamed country (as Costa-Gavras has explained in interviews, doing so makes the audience work for the information, and also reminds them what they see could be happening anywhere).
Unlike Godard, who (as I touch on briefly below) was trying to move beyond what was considered the usual “political” movie, Costa-Gavras has admitted he was trying to reach as wide an audience as possible without talking down to them. To that end, even more so than Pontecorvo, he used suspense techniques such as quick editing, a fast-moving camera, flashbacks from several different points of view, and both villainous and heroic characters (in addition to Trintignant’s character, Jacques Perrin, who also co-produced, plays an investigative journalist). This did not endear him to the leftist critics at the time, especially at Cahiers du Cinema, who attacked Costa-Gavras for being more interested in entertainment than in being truly political.* Even Pauline Kael, a big fan of the film, while pointing out Costa-Gavras’ technique was similar to the muckraking movies produced at Warner Brothers in the 1930’s, fretted over what would happen if a less responsible filmmaker made a film the same way (in her review, she wrote, “when it’s over and you’ve caught your breath you know perfectly well that its techniques of excitation could as easily be used by a smart Fascist filmmaker, if there were one (fortunately, there isn’t), against the left or the center”). However, even though the film is certainly a suspense thriller as much as a political movie (and docudrama), Costa-Gavras doesn’t ignore politics. We see that with the black comedy of the opening, where a general gives a lecture about gardens, and it takes us a while to realize he’s speaking in metaphor in how to crush what he and the others see as the Communist threat (it’s almost like a scene from The Manchurian Candidate, though without the hypnotism, and not quite as surreal). And even though Costa-Gavras uses a lot of well-known actors (at least in Europe) for the parts, the actors disappear into the roles, so it doesn’t overwhelm the story.
Yves Montand is imprisoned in “The Confession”.
For his next film, Costa-Gavras switched gears, this time going after Communist oppression. The Confession (1970) is another docudrama, this time about Artur London (Montand), a Czech official who, without warning, was arrested with 13 other high-ranking Czech officials (like London, most of them Jewish), and interrogated for several months and put on trial on the accusation they were all secretly rebelling against the government and were in the pay of the West. Though Costa-Gavras is working with the some of the same people – in addition to Semprum writing the screenplay again (adapting the book London wrote with his wife Lise) and Montand playing a central role, Raoul Coutard returned as cinematographer – the movie doesn’t fly by as fast as Z did. For one, it’s a longer film (by over ten minutes), but more importantly, while the earlier film was trying to whip through events as they happened, The Confession aims to immerse you in what it was like to be imprisoned during Stalinist times, and while this takes place in the early 50’s (though once again, we aren’t told the exact period or location), it’s likely everyone involved was thinking about how the Soviet government crushed the Czech revolt in 1968. While we do see some scenes outside of prison, as the Lise figure (played by Montand’s real-life wife Simone Signoret) tries in vain to free her husband, and then is forced to move and work in a factory, we mostly stay inside the prison, and through the interrogations, with the officers playing both good and bad cop to Montand. Since this isn’t designed to be as fast as Z, the film does drag a bit, and I think the movie makes a mistake in the flash-forward sequences with Montand (one of only three prisoners who wasn’t executed) now living safely in exile and talking with people about the book he wants to write about the experience. Still, it excels, like Z, as a portrait of totalitarian governments (we also get a cruel irony; one of the officials who interrogates Montand is later himself arrested).
The car containing the dead Yves Montand at the beginning of “State of Siege”.
Though U.S. involvement in Vietnam was the prime area of contention between the U.S. and the rest of the world’s leftist population, they also protested U.S. involvement in other areas of the world, particularly Latin America. Costa-Gavras took on this as well in 1972 with State of Siege. Inspired by the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Mitrione (Montand again), a U.S. official, in Uruguay, the film begins with the discovery of his body, and then from his funeral we flashback to his kidnapping and the attempts by his kidnappers (once again, never named, nor is the country), who, while attempting to bargain with the government to get them to release political prisoners in exchange for the Mitrione figure and another official, also try to get Mitrione to admit he helped the government out with their oppressive techniques. Meanwhile, a journalist (O.E. Hesse) also challenges the official government position of Mitrione (though unlike in Z, he isn’t as successful). While Costa-Gavras is clearly sympathetic to the kidnappers (and there’s also the unintended irony of the fact the film was shot in Chile a year before they were taken over by a military coup), he presents both sides humanely, just as in Battle of Algiers (Franco Solinas, who wrote that film, was the screenwriter of this film). Yet at the same time, this doesn’t dampen the critique of how the U.S. props up dictatorships in other countries while pretending to be helping the country. And even though, once again, Costa-Gavras is using the techniques of the suspense thriller, the most gripping sequence is just one of the rebels taking a poll of other leaders individually while on a bus as to whether Mitrione should be killed (you get the feeling he’s hoping one of them will vote no, which makes it all the more powerful). Costa-Gavras hasn’t quite approached the level of these three films since (though Missing, his 1982 film about the disappearance and murder of an American citizen during that coup in Chile, and Capital, his most recent film (2012) about the CEO of a European bank trying to keep an American hedge fund from taking over, both come close), but these films alone show him to be a political filmmaker of the highest order.
*-Interestingly enough, according to an interview Coutard gave that’s included on the Criterion edition of Weekend, Godard was enough of a fan of Costa-Gavras that he gave Coutard some information that he thought would be useful to him for The Confession.
Jean-Luc Godard: La Chinoise, Weekend and Tout Va Bien.
“I don’t think you should *feel* about a movie. You should feel about a woman. You can’t kiss a movie.”
When talking about A Christmas Carol, arguably Charles Dickens’ most famous work, my father always used to remind me the most important line of the story was the very first line; “Marley was dead; to begin with.” This was to remind me, and anyone else who might have been talking about the story, that it was, above all, a ghost story. Similarly, the first principle in talking about Jean-Luc Godard is that he started out as a critic. As Godard himself has said, he has remained a critic his entire career, he just has used film as his medium the last 50+ years to continue his work as a critic. What few people talk about is the fact he has been a critic even when not talking about other films; Godard is a cultural and political critic as well.
Poster for Godard’s first politically-oriented movie.
As early as Le Petit Soldat (made in 1960, but not released in France until 1963 because of censorship), Godard took on the Algierian struggle for independence against France. However, while Godard includes a torture scene that might make viewers blanch even today, he also place primary emphasis on the love story between members of opposite sides (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife and muse at the time, plays a representative of one side; it was the first of seven feature films he directed her in), and takes a rather confused attitude towards the conflict (to be fair, his political views hadn’t been fully formed by then). Still, cultural and political criticism popped up in his later work; though Vivre Sa Vie (aka My Life to Live) (1962) is more a character study than a societal critique, it does show how Karina’s character becomes a prostitute to make a living (a theme Godard returned to often), Les Carabiniers (1963) deals with the madness of war from the point of view of two grunt soldiers, Alphaville (1965) is a sci-fi film about a totalitarian society, Masculin Feminin (1966) is, of course, about “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” (with scenes such as a journalist asking a pop star about politics, and a man trying to light himself on fire in protest, though he needs to borrow a match first), 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) returns Godard to the subject of prostitution, and while Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Made in USA (1966) are both deconstructions on genre films (the former a lovers-on-the-run film, the latter the film noir/private eye film) both of them had cultural and political critiques woven throughout the narrative (the latter film in particular was inspired in part by the Ben Barka affair). Nevertheless, Godard had, by 1967, become increasingly disgusted not only with American foreign policy but also America, period, and had swung radically left in his thinking, towards Maoism. This also led, not surprisingly to a new direction in his films.
Anna Wiazemsky, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto as revolutionaries in “La Chinoise”.
La Chinoise (1967) was the first film indicating this new direction. For starters, it features politics and social philosophy right up front, as during one summer in parents, while her parents are away on vacation, Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky, who by this time had become Godard’s second wife, and was a big influence on his political thinking) and her fellow students – among them Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud), her boyfriend, and Yvonne (Juliet Berto) – hole up in her parents’ apartment and study and debate Marx and Mao, and how to strike against what they see as the fascism of Western society. Also, while Godard had always played around with plot (as per his famous response to Henri-Georges Clouzot; when Clouzot had wondered whether films shouldn’t have a beginning, middle and end, Godard allowed they should, but not necessarily in that order), there was no real plot or story here until the last third or so, when Veronique goes on the train to plant a bomb and kill a liberal professor in order to radicalize the students (Chris Morris would later send this attitude up brilliantly over 40 years later in his terrorist comedy Four Lions (2010)). Finally, while Godard does have a few pop-cultural images here (most notably a rock-n-roll type song extolling the virtues of Mao), most of the references here are to political or philosophical figures such as Rosa Luxemburg and Andre Malraux (as the five would-be revolutionaries are studying Mao’s little red book, Godard and his frequent cinematographer Raoul Coutard use a lot of red, though that is a carry-over from Godard’s other color films). As militant as Godard was becoming in his thinking, however, he allows himself room for other ways of thinking. While he is wholly sympathetic to the students, and to a call to revolution (specifically through Maoism, which Godard was more sympathetic to than the Soviet version of communism), he also shows how much the dilettante all of these characters are, especially when they turn out one of the members for not being revolutionary enough. Also, during a long segment in the last third, Veronique goes on a train ride with Francois Jeanson (a real-life French revolutionary, playing himself more or less), and while she explains her thinking of why she’s planning to kill this professor, he gently but firmly takes apart her thinking by essentially asking, “After you do this, then what?” Finally, the film doesn’t end on a moment of triumph, but of hollow victory. Those who consider Godard akin to one of those dilettantes that he portrays here often seem to forget the ambiguity in which he portrays the characters here.
Mireille Darc being held at gunpoint in “Weekend”.
La Chinoise, however, was just a warm-up compared to Weekend (1967, though not released in the U.S. until 1968). This film, probably Godard’s most sustained attack on Western civilization, is generally scene as the end of Godard’s 60’s period, not just because he declares “the end of cinema” at the end of the movie, but also because for most of the decade, he worked in a more experimental and abstract kind of cinema, whereas Weekend still has a semblance of a plot. An adulterous married couple (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne) go on a road trip to murder her mother for the inheritance (after which, since they each have lovers, they each are plotting to murder each other), only to get sidetracked by society as they know it breaking down on them. They run into a huge traffic jam (portrayed in an epic tracking shot that takes up almost 10 minutes), and encounter, among other figures, a man who sings his entire dialogue (Leaud), literary figures such as Emily Bronte (Blandine Jeanson), a piano player who plays Beethoven (Wiazemsky can be glimpsed here as one of the people listening), two garbage workers (Omar Diop – who appeared in La Chinoise – and Laszlo Szabo, a frequent collaborator with Godard) who lecture the couple about western politics, particularly U.S. (in one of Godard’s usual touches, Coutard holds the camera on one of them while we hear the other speak off-screen), and a group of revolutionaries (including Berto) who take the couple hostage. This is basically Godard’s Bunuel film, a savage satire containing his vision of Western civilization destroying itself (making the final scene of the film, an act of cannibalism, very much on-the-nose – if you’ll pardon the expression – but also appropriate). It’s appropriate then that Godard uses the road movie as a way to portray that satire, as even now, the automobile functions as both a middle-class status symbol and a symbol of freedom (or at least the illusion of it), and the way cars get used, wrecked, and fought over shows the middle-class and upper-class, as seen through Godard’s eyes, in microcosm (of course, it isn’t the only material goods Godard lays waste to here; when the couple get into an accident, Darc is less worried about her possible injuries than about the fact she’s ruined a Hermes bag). It’s as if Godard is saying all of western civilization has dropped through the rabbit hole, and there’s no getting out.
Of course, Godard was wrong; western civilization has gone on, and so has cinema, and while Weekend definitely made an impact with critics, it wasn’t as well received by the public (Godard always thought if the movie had come out after the events in Paris of May 1968, it would have made more money). And as i mentioned above, Godard retreated to more explicitly and abstract films, with mixed results. Sympathy for the Devil (1968: also known as One Plus One) attempted to be a look at the revolutionaries springing up, and also shows the Rolling Stones in the studio recording “Sympathy for the Devil”, but while you’d guess Godard was trying to set up a dialectic between the two, nothing comes of it. Berto and Leaud reunited in 1969 for Le Gai Savoir (aka The Joy of Learning), playing two people discussing language and the events of the day; it’s not as successful as La Chinoise, but interesting regardless. And One P.M., a film he co-directed with D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, which features people such as Tom Hayden talking about the Chicago 8 trial, feels like a blueprint rather than a finished film. So, in 1972, after a motorcycle accident, when Godard and his new collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin were asked to get big stars for their next movie, Godard reluctantly agreed, and tried to make something that was more of a throwback to his 60’s films (in the way the story was told) and still keep his political direction. The result was Tout Va Bien (1972).
Yves Montand and Jane Fonda in “Tout Va Bien”.
Inspired by the events of May 1968, Godard and Gorin’s film is about a revolt at a meatpacking plant, as well as being about Suzanne (Jane Fonda), an American correspondent for a French radio station, and her somewhat estranged husband Jacques (Yves Montand), a former filmmaker (with the French New Wave) who now shoots commercials. They visit the plant so Suzanne can do a story, but they happen to come on the day the workers have revolted against both the plant manager (Vittorio Caprioli) and the union officials and taken over the factory. As the workers want Suzanne to go beyond the traditional story told about them, so too Godard and Gorin (as Gorin points out in an interview on the Criterion DVD edition) want the film to go beyond what they saw as the usual political film preaching to the converted, or telling them what they already knew. For starters, they make it clear from the beginning this is a film, and Fonda and Montand are actors playing roles. And even though we go through a familiar story arc – both Suzanne and Jacques are radicalized by what they hear and what they see, enough so Suzanne looks for better stories to report and Jacques goes back to making “meaningful” films – Godard and Gorin try to make sure we see it differently. For example, the factory is set up almost like a dollhouse, with the camera tracking back and forth over it (just as, in La Chinoise, we saw the would-be revolutionaries from the outside through the apartment windows), and there are scenes of Jacques and Suzanne as if they were workers at the factory. Also, Godard and Gorin show a perfect illustration of just how much the Communist Party had fallen in favor with the French left with a scene at a giant supermarket (with another long tracking shot back and forth), where a Communist Party worker is selling his book along with all the other products (and gets into a fight with those who can’t understand why he can’t explain a phrase in his book). However, while we hear about the workers plenty in the first half of the movie, we don’t hear from them again (though we can guess what happened to them), and that’s a shame.
Other Voices: Mr. Freedom, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.
John Abbey as “Mr. Freedom”.
William Klein is probably best known as a photographer, but he was also a filmmaker. Born in the U.S. but living in Paris (after falling in love with a woman, he’s stayed there ever since), he was never formally aligned with the French New Wave, but did copy many of their techniques while combining them with his own penchant for comic strip images. All of that comes firmly into play with his attempted satire on American imperialism, Mr. Freedom (1969). John Abbey plays the title character, a superhero-type soldier who’s sent by his father (Donald Pleasance) to France to help bring freedom to them, while fighting the forces of Moujik Man (Phillipe Noiret), who’s opposed to “freedom”. Other than his documentary on Eldridge Cleaver (which I discuss in the following post), I’ve never seen any other Klein films (though I’m a fan of his photos), but it looks like he’s trying to make a satire and an exploitation film. Unfortunately, the latter wins out, making the satire annoying after a while. Not only that, but by shooting in English, many of the actors (Abbey and Pleasance are the only non-French actors among the main cast) seem distinctly uncomfortable, even though they’re game for what Klein is trying (Delphine Seyrig, who plays Mr. Freedom’s close ally – or maybe not – comes off especially awkward). Finally, Abbey himself is simply flat and annoying as well, Only Pleasance comes off well, and he’s only in the film at the beginning and end. Klein shows good intentions aren’t enough for a film; if it’s satirical, it should take its target seriously even if the film itself is trying to be funny.
Gian Maria Volonte in “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion”.
Pontecorvo, of course, wasn’t the only political filmmaker in Italy during the 60’s and 70’s, as Bernardo Bertolucci, Francesco Rosi, and Lina Wertmuller also emerged during that time. Less well known, but well-regarded at the time, was Elio Petri. Influenced as much by Kafka as Communist politics, Petri, inspired by a story about the police murdering two people, got the idea to make Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). The movie tells the tale of Il Dottore (Gian Maria Volonte), who, on the eve of his promotion from head of the homicide squad to head of the political squad (cracking down on dissidents), kills his mistress Augusta (Florinda Bolkan) by cutting her throat, and then practically dares his former colleagues in homicide to implicate him in the murder. The theme here is those in power who think they’re above the law, especially among the police (and with the rise of police-related shootings, that makes this particularly relevant here), and Volonte (who played a character completely different from this in Petri’s previous film We Still Kill the Old Way) does an excellent job at playing his character’s arrogance, and yet the same time his guilt. I only wish Petri and cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller hadn’t used so many close-ups throughout the film. They make sense later in the film, as the net starts to tighten around Volonte, but used throughout the film not only makes them lose their power, it also gives you the sense Petri is trying to work us over as well. As it stands, it is a queasily effective film showing how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Angela Winkler in “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”.
When talking about the filmmakers that emerged from Germany in the 70’s, like Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders, one name that doesn’t get mentioned much anymore is Volker Schlondorff. This is too bad, as I think at its best, his filmography stands up very well, and he hasn’t been afraid to engage in the politics of the country. This especially comes out in his 1975 movie The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which he co-directed and co-wrote with his then-wife Margarethe von Trotta (adapting the novel by Heinrich Boll). Angela Winkler stars in the title role, a maid and former prostitute who becomes infatuated with Ludwig (Jurgen Prochnow), who turns out to be a member of the Baader-Meinhof group, which had been terrorizing Germany at the time. Because of this, the police ruthlessly interrogate Blum, demanding to know if she knows where Ludwig is, and not believing her when she insists she doesn’t. While the police could be seen as just doing their jobs, the media, in the form of Werner (Dieter Laser), a right-wing journalist who begins a smear campaign against Blum, are seen as monstrous. Even though this is long after the time of the Baader-Meinhof group (as well as such similar organizations as the Red Army Faction in Italy), given we live in the age of the War on Terror and of even worse tabloid journalism in the form of Fox News, this movie is especially relevant today. If there’s one quibble, the movie doesn’t really develop Ludwig, so we never know if he’s as dangerous as everyone says he is, or more importantly, we never quite see the extent of his relationship with Blum which makes her want to protect him so much. Still, the movie does work as a stinging indictment of yellow journalism and an overreaching police, and in the end, we see Blum has been turned into what everyone in the police and press thinks of her anyway.
As I mentioned in my introductory post, while most of the films made In Hollywood and America during the Vietnam War and the time of civil unrest that were informed by those chaotic times did not address the times directly, but did so through genre or by using the past as a way to comment on the present. However, there were a few movies that did take on the times directly, and since they don’t get written about very much, I thought they might be worth covering.
——————————————————————————————————————————————————- “One, two, three, what are we fighting for?” – Greetings, Hi, Mom!, Alice’s Restaurant, Getting Straight, The Strawberry Statement, Drive, He Said. Robert De Niro in “Greetings”.
Today, Brian De Palma is known, or remembered as, a director of horror/thrillers, and most of all as someone who blatantly copies Hitchcock in his films. What’s less well known is the fact he didn’t start out that way. In fact, while there are Hitchcock influences in his work from the beginning, there were also indications he was primarily influenced by Bunuel and Godard even more. Greetings (1968), which takes its title from the first word in a letter from the military letting you know you’ve been drafted, is a revue-type film more than a film revolving a plot. In his film debut, Robert De Niro plays an aspiring filmmaker who’s also a peeping tom, while Jonathan Warden is a lovelorn man trying to meet women through a computer service, and Gerritt Graham is obsessed with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, specifically with proving it was a conspiracy. Aside from being friends, what links them all together is all three of them worry about being drafted, and that’s pretty much the closest thing to a plot the film has. It was the first film ever to be rated “X” under the new ratings system (likely for the scene where Graham uses a naked woman to prove his theory’s about how Kennedy was really killed), and is more interested in sexual mores than politics, but it was one of the first films to question not only the official version of Kennedy’s assassination, but also question the idea of going off the fight in Vietnam. Also, like most revue-type stories, it’s hit-and-miss, but there’s enough that works here to recommend it. Hi, Mom! (1970), De Palma’s unofficial sequel, brings back De Niro, who’s come back from Vietnam and is trying to become a pornographic filmmaker. Most of the film concerns his sexual escapades, but this is worth mentioning here not just as a portrait of a Vietnam vet who’s (relatively) normal after getting out (De Niro’s turn in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, about another former Vietnam vet, couldn’t be more different), but also for a sequence where De Niro joins a revolutionary theater group (headed by Graham), made up mostly of African-Americans, that engages in a confrontational theater piece called “Be Black, Baby”, where white liberals put on blackface and are treated as blacks (the blacks are made up in whiteface), and De Niro, pretending to be a cop, bosses the people in “blackface” as he would regular blacks. This may be an uncomfortable piece to laugh at due to recent events, but it’s designed to be that way anyway, and De Palma is quite audacious here (especially in how he tweaks both sides). It’s interesting to wonder how his career might have turned out if Warner Brothers hadn’t taken away his equally experimental Get to Know Your Rabbit, and he hadn’t turned exclusively to horror films and thrillers.
Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant”.
Timothy Leary once told a group of hippies at the Human Be-In in 1967, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969), his follow-up to Bonnie & Clyde, shows a group of people trying to live that philosophy, more or less (the drop out part more than anything else), with mixed results. On Thanksgiving day in 1965, Arlo Guthrie, son of famed folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie, and soon to be a singer/songwriter as well, went to a dump to throw out garbage from a meal he’d had with his friends Alice and Ray Brock. When Arlo and his friend Richard discovered the dump was closed, they decided to put the garbage on the street with another pile that was already there. Unfortunately for Arlo, the police discovered what he had done (he left an envelope with his name in it at the scene), and they arrested him for littering. Though the charge was eventually dropped, when Arlo received his draft notice, he was eventually deemed unfit for service because of the littering charge. This so amused Guthrie that he wrote a song about it called “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, which Penn and producer Hillard Elkins decided would make a good movie.
In turning the song into a movie, Penn (who also co-wrote the movie with Venable Herndon, an off-Broadway playwright) doesn’t get to the events described into the song until about an hour into the film. Instead, Penn portrays the community that Guthrie (playing himself) finds himself in when he hooks up with Alice and Ray (Patricia Quinn, who plays Alice and appeared in Penn’s The Chase, and James Broderick, who plays Ray and had done plenty of TV work). Quinn and Broderick were the only professional experienced actors in the cast (though M. Emmet Walsh – as an recruiting sergeant – and Tina Chen – as a girlfriend of Guthrie’s in the last third of the film – have small roles), and the use of non-professionals and locals (William J. “Obie” Obanhein, the officer who arrested Guthrie, plays himself, which he justified by saying he didn’t want anyone else making fun of him; folk singers Lee Hays and Pete Seeger also appear as themselves) lends the film an authenticity that wasn’t apparent in other portrayals of hippies at the time. Not only that, but the film doesn’t paint an idealized portrait of the community or the main character; Guthrie, for example, turns down a 15 year old groupie (Shelley Plimpton) because he doesn’t want to take advantage of her, but soon after turns down the owner of a coffeehouse for being too old. Penn also shows how the women of the community get marginalized, as Alice herself starts to realize by the end, especially when Ray makes a big decision near the end without consulting her. Penn’s film isn’t perfect – the subplot involving Roger (Geoff Outlaw), a troubled friend of Arlo’s whom Ray tries to take under his wing, often veers towards melodrama that the movie doesn’t know what to do with, and while Guthrie’s amused detachment comes off well, he doesn’t always have the presence to hold our attention on screen. Still, this was probably the most honest attempt by American movies to show both the hippie culture and why it ultimately failed (at least on the scale its leaders wanted to succeed at).
Elliot Gould and a young Harrison Ford in “Getting Straight”.
Though they weren’t the only places where protests against the war took place, college campuses were often the most visible location of the nation’s unrest, partly because of all the controversial events that took place there (the attempted shutdown of Columbia University, the Kent State shootings), but also because the students were all draft age and felt a personal connection. After Easy Rider, the studios were quick to cash in on the “youth” trend and make movies about campus rebellion. Unfortunately, the ones I saw all miss the mark. I had hopes for Richard Rush’s Getting Straight, not only because I loved Rush’s The Stunt Man, but because Rush’s work up to Getting Straight, on exploitation movies such as Psych-Out (1968), while campy, at least didn’t treat the setting and characters with condescension. However, in adapting Ken Kolb’s novel about a college teacher (Elliot Gould) trying to get his Masters degree so he can go back to teaching literature, seems removed from the subject matter, despite the fact Rush and screenwriter Robert Kaufman update the novel (written in the early 60’s) to the Vietnam era. Gould’s character is now a Vietnam vet and radical who nevertheless sees the folly of both the establishment and the protesters (at a party, Gould ridicules the students as having facile goals, yet also berates his colleagues for missing the point about what they’re protesting). But the characters of the students come off as actors playing dress up rather than real characters, Candace Bergen (as Gould’s on-again, off-again girlfriend) doesn’t have much of a character to play, and she lurches from one extreme to the other, and while Gould is a perfect fit for the role, he’s forced to flail around at times, especially in the worst scene in the movie, when he’s giving his oral presentation for his masters but loses his temper when one of the judges insists F. Scott Fitzgerald was gay (this was also a bad scene in the novel, but Richard Anders’ campy portrayal makes it worse).
Bruce Davison in “The Strawberry Statement”.
When James Simon Kunen wrote The Strawberry Statement, about the protests at Columbia University in 1968, he was a 19 year old student participating in the protests, and while you might argue he lacked the perspective to talk about what was going on, but it was clearly written by someone who was sorting through his feelings about everything, and it’s compelling because of that and to hear about history as it was happening. The fact the movie version, directed by Stuart Hagmann (best known as a TV director to that point) and written by playwright Israel Horovitz, moves the setting from Columbia to Berkeley doesn’t hurt the film by itself; after all, Berkeley was another hotbed of campus unrest. What does hurt the film is just about everything else. Kunen has been changed in the movie to Simon (Bruce Davison), a member of the rowing team who gets involved in the protest movement on the campus (run by, among others, Jeannie Berlin – who was also in Getting Straight – and Bob Balaban) just on a lark rather than through any particular feelings about the state of the world (as opposed to Kunen), and he initially stays mostly because of his attraction to Linda (Kim Darby), one of the students in the protest. The fact that he becomes more radicalized over the movie might have been meaningful if we had seen the transformation, but Hagmann and Horovitz (who has a cameo as a professor) seem more interested in showing off with some truly bizarre scenes such as the camera zooming in and out on Simon as he imagines himself speaking out (you wonder at times, with some of the shots, if Hagmann thinks he’s making a Busby Berkeley movie instead of a protest movie). There’s plenty of talk in the one scene where Simon comes into the ad building the students are occupying, but again, Hagmann and Horovitz seem to think it should only be interesting as a background event. Also, once again, the women are ignored; Darby comes off more natural here than she did in True Grit, but has nothing to do. The only scene that really comes together, since it’s done in a straightforward way, is when Simon and Linda go to a grocery store to get food for the others, and James Coco, as the grocer, offers them encouragement and food and then pretends they robbed him so he won’t get in trouble. Horovitz apparently said in an interview he wanted to reach the average student, not the committed radical, but The Strawberry Statement (taken from a Columbia University administrator who said students opinions on how the school was run meant no more to him than if they said they liked strawberries) doesn’t seem to be made for anybody except for fans of show-off cinema.
Bruce Dern as the coach in “Drive, He Said”.
Drive, He Said (1971), which marked the directorial debut of Jack Nicholson (he also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeremy Larner, based on Larner’s novel; Terrence Malick and Robert Towne also did uncredited work), opens with the juxtaposition of a college basketball game being played (the name of the school isn’t given, though it’s meant to take place in Ohio, and was shot at the University of Oregon) while a group of revolutionaries plan a piece of theater to disrupt the game to protest the war. It’s an effective scene, and I wish the rest of the movie – which follows the life of Hector (William Tepper), the star of the team, who isn’t sure if it means anything to him anymore, and his roommate Gabriel (Michael Margotta), who participated in the protest, and wants to avoid getting drafted – had lived up to it. Unlike the other two films, Nicholson does seem to have a real feel for the campus unrest (it helps he shot one scene during an actual student protest), and as a real-life basketball fanatic, he knows how to present the basketball scenes as well (it also helps his friend Bruce Dern gives a very good performance as the coach). But the subplot about Hector still being hung up on his ex-girlfriend Olive (Karen Black), who’s now with a professor (Towne), seems shoehorned in, and Gabriel also seems like an ill-defined character at times. There are striking scenes, as when Gabriel shoots up a television after calling it an instrument of evil (apparently Nicholson’s own real-life feelings), but it feels like an unfinished film. Still, like Zabriskie Point, this deserves to be remembered as a film that doesn’t actually patronize the students protesting the war.
Black Power: Medium Cool, WUSA, The Man.
“The whole world is watching” – “Medium Cool”.
Haskell Wexler is probably best remembered today as a cinematographer of such films as In the Heat of the Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Coming Home, but he’s also a filmmaker in his own right. Most of his directing output has been documentaries dealing with various left-wing causes he’s interested in, but one of his few features, Medium Cool (1969), is one of the best movies about the unrest of the time. Shot during the weeks leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the film is told through the eyes of John (Robert Forster), a TV news reporter, and Eileen (Verna Bloom), a woman from the Appalachia area who moves to the city with her son Harold (Harold Blankenship). There is a relationship that develops between the two (started when John catches Harold trying to break into his car), but most of the film is about the type of stories John covers, and of course the events unfolding around them. John happens upon a story of a cab driver named Frank (Sid McCoy) who finds an envelope with $10,000 in his cab and tries to turn it into the police, only to come under suspicion for stealing the money because he’s African-American. John claims he wants to tell the story to show what kind of a person Frank was for turning in the money, but the militant group Frank is living with accuses John of exploiting Frank for the story, asking why the media is never interested in the real story of African-Americans.
In an interview included on the Criterion edition of the film, Wexler admits while the main reason he wrote this scenario (which the actors mostly improvised) was because of the friends he made in the African-American community who he wanted to represent fairly, but while he had a feeling violence would erupt in Chicago during the convention, he thought it would be involve African-Americans (which, given the riots that had erupted in other cities, was a reasonable guess) rather than anti-Vietnam War protesters. Still, Wexler did prepare for the latter by showing riot police preparing early on by having training sessions with other police pretending to be anti-war protesters (which was documentary-like footage Wexler shot himself). Wexler also inserts his characters into both the convention (John is covering it) and in the protests around it, especially in the memorable sequence when Eileen runs through the protest looking for Harold, who’s run off (in one bit of humanizing, one of the policemen, who’s taken a hard-line approach to the protesters, allows Eileen to go through without comment when he hears why she’s there). And Wexler has other instances of foreshadowing to the violence to come (as when John does a segment at a firing range and the manager (Peter Boyle in one of his first roles) is showing housewives how to use handguns), as well as the way the Powers That Be view the citizens (John is outraged when he finds out from his station manager the FBI is using his footage to try and catch the members of the militant group Frank was with). Instead of making the story “Hollywood”, Wexler is out to capture the reality of what’s going on (while still telling a fictional story), and doing it in a way Godard (who Wexler acknowledged as an influence, and even pays homage to in a scene where John apes Jean-Paul Belmondo from Breathless) would have tipped his hat to, I think.
Paul Newman and Anthony Perkins in “WUSA”.
One of the subplots of WUSA (1970), adapted by Robert Stone from his novel A Hall of Mirrors and directed by Stuart Rosenberg, also involves a character realize a story he’s doing about African-Americans is being used by his bosses for sinister purposes. Rainey (Anthony Perkins) is doing a survey of people who are on welfare, which he think will be helping them out, but is actually being used by higher-ups, led by Pat Hingle, the owner of the right-wing radio station of the title, to kick them off of welfare. Perkins’ usual nervous persona here works very well, not only making his awkwardness during the interview scenes credible, but also keeps his anger at being used and by what’s being done by Hingle and his cronies from curdling into self-righteousness. The whole sequence would have worked better, however, if Rosenberg and Stone had taking a page from Wexler and actually taken the time to get to know the characters Perkins interviews instead of just using them for the purpose of the story. That, in a way, is symptomatic of the problem of the entire film, which mostly concentrates on Paul Newman as a cynical former musician who gets at WUSA, and his real-life wife Joanne Woodward as a former prostitute. In trying to tell the story of how the right-wing is co-opting the media and is becoming dangerous because of this (a not-unreasonable fear even then), Rosenberg and Stone, while capturing the atmosphere of the setting (New Orleans) very well, seem only interested in the characters as stick figures (Stone admittedly developed them better in the novel), especially Woodward’s ill-defined character. Plus, Newman, who was a passionate liberal in real life, seems to be sleepwalking through the role, and he’s let down by the ending of the movie (different from the novel, where he was inspired to action). Except for Perkins and Hingle, the only performer who registers is Laurence Harvey as a con artist who’s aligned himself with the right-wingers.
James Earl Jones in “The Man”.
Even when Barrack Obama was running for president back in 2008, it seemed amazing the country had come along far enough that an African-American could have a legitimate shot chance at the highest office of the land. 50 years earlier, it was outright inconceivable. At least, that was the viewpoint of trash novelist Irving Wallace, who, in his novel The Man, had his African-American character become President through a bizarre set of circumstances (I don’t know if this is a mistake or intentional, but in the “Library Use Only” section of one of the branches of the Manhattan library, the novel is classified as “Science Fiction”). In 1972, eight years after the novel was published, director Joseph Sargent (the original adaptation of The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3) and writer Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) made a movie from it. I’ve not read the novel, but while most of the circumstances are similar in how Douglas Dilman (James Earl Jones) becomes president – the president and speaker of the house die in an accident, though in the movie, the vice-president (Lew Ayres) refuses the presidency because he’s too ill to assume office, where in the novel, he’s been dead for a while – Sargent and Serling concentrate on one major challenge Dilman has during his term as president. Robert Wheeler (Georg Stanford Brown), an African-American activist, is accused of going to South Africa and throwing a bomb in the car of one of their ministers, and Dilman must decide whether to have him extradited or not, particularly when Wheeler claims he’s innocent and Senator Watson (Burgess Meredith) comes up with evidence that he claims proves Wheeler is lying.
Sargent had intended to make the movie for TV, but it was put out in theaters instead, and when Jones was interviewed not long before President Obama took office, he admitted he wished they had the time and money to make a proper movie when they heard they were headed to theaters instead of TV screens. You can see Jones’ point; everything is spelled out completely, especially in scenes where an African-American reporter (Robert DoQui) spurs Dilman to take charge of a press conference by wondering when Dilman will get to speak his own mind, and where Kay (Barbara Rush), wife of Arthur (William Windom), the Secretary of State, denigrates both Dilman and his daughter Wanda (Janet MacLachlan) right in front of them at a state dinner. Also, obviously, the production values weren’t as good for a TV movie back then as they would have been for a regular movie. Nevertheless, this is still worth watching for a couple of reasons. Most of all is Jones’ performance as someone who knows he’s a pawn for several different sides but manages to weather things as best as he can. At first, I was worried he was playing things a bit too stiff, but once his character starts to assert himself more, he gets better and more expansive in the role. The other reason is what many films from well-intentioned directors about race have left out – namely, casual racism. Hollywood has been very earnest in portraying the real bigots, less so in portraying those who would say, “I’m no racist, but…” and then turn out to be just as bad as the obvious racists, or in portraying those who are more patronizing than racist. The only out-and-out racist character here is Kay; even Senator Watson, who apparently is pro-segregation, never becomes a caricature, and you can see how the other characters, in trying to help Dilman – including Jim (Martin Balsam, who, along with Jones, gives the movie’s best performance), his chief of staff – treat him in a patronizing manner, writing out his scripts for his questions (which is why the reporter calls Dilman out), which might be reasonable for a politician who’s not prepared for the office of presidency, but still comes off as if they feel Dilman might not be able to handle the office because of his race. That, and Jones’ performance (along with Balsam, MacLachlan as Dilman’s more radical daughter, and a few others) lift The Man above not only most made-for-TV movies of the time, but also most “well-intentioned” movies dealing with race.
“We’ve got to pick a candidate” – Nashville.
Ronee Blakely and Henry Gibson at a political rally in “Nashville”.
When Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), my third favorite movie of the decade (behind the first two Godfather movies), gets discussed, it’s usually in terms not only of its technical achievements – the way he and writer Joan Tewkesbury are able to juggle 24 major characters in a movie almost three hours long without breaking a sweat – and its portrait of both the city of the title and of country music, that city’s main product. But it’s also worth discussing in terms of politics and the way it references the unrest of the time. After all, one of the main storylines Altman and Tewkesbury weave into this panorama of a movie is how Hal Phillip Walker, a candidate we never see but hear throughout, is running for President as an independent (for the Replacement Party). We hear his slogans (written by Altman’s friend Thomas Hal Phillips), and while some of what he says makes sense (“Congress is made up of 535 individuals. 288 are lawyers. And you wonder what’s wrong in Congress”), but he also spouts platitudes that sound both safe and ridiculous (“Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?”), and takes some out there positions (he wants to eliminate tax subsidies to farmers), which makes him like most every other politician, no matter how much he paints himself as an outsider. Not only that, but John Triplette (Michael Murphy), Walker’s campaign manager, and Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), a local political organizer, are as unscrupulous in their own ways as any other politician’s campaign staff, especially when maneuvering Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), a fragile singing star, into singing at a rally/concert for Walker, or getting Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a waitress and tone-deaf singer who doesn’t know she can’t sing, into doing a striptease at a fundraiser for Walker.
Just as important, we see how closely, through the prism of country music, the entertainment industry and politicians are entwined. This had been a fact of American life since at least the 30’s, but rarely acknowledged in the movies. Altman and Tewkesbury are less interested, however, in how politicians might use the lessons of Hollywood to change their image – as Elia Kazan had done in A Face in the Crowd – and more in showing how cozy and yet fraught with negotiation that relationship is. One of the stars Triplette tries to nab for the rally is Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who pens patriotic hymns (for the upcoming millennial of the country, he’s penned a song which includes the refrain, “We must have done something right to last 200 years”), and professes himself above politics, refusing to endorse any candidate, yet agreeing to play the rally only if Barbara Jean plays (meaning Connie White (Karen Black), Barbara Jean’s rival, won’t play). That’s just one of many ways Altman and Tewkesbury subvert our expectations. Due to not only the horrors veterans had to face in Vietnam, but also the way that had started to be portrayed on screen, we expect Pfc Kelly (Scott Glenn), who follows Barbara Jean around, to be a deranged stalker of some kind, but he turns out to be just a devoted fan. We also are set up for some kind of assassination, given not only the mistaken signals we think we see with Kelly, but also Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), Haven’s mistress, speaking with melancholy about both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, so it comes as quite a shock when not only have we guessed the wrong assassin (it’s Kenny Frasier (David Hayward), a quiet man who had hitchhiked to the city), but the wrong target; it’s Barbara Jean and not Walker (this, by the way, shows another subversion of our expectations; Haven, who had come off as unctuous and selfish up till this person, ignores the wound he gets, thinks of others instead of himself, and pleads for the crowd to keep calm and to remember, “This isn’t Dallas!”). Medium Cool ends with chants of “The whole world is watching!” (taken from the audio of the protests outside the convention), and a cameraman (played by Wexler) pointing his camera at us after a tragedy as if to remind us of that fact. Altman’s movie, by contrast, ends with a rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me”, a song that had sounded complacent earlier, but now comes off with a combination of defiance and of the feeling of “bash on, regardless”!
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows -“Subterranean Homesick Blues”, Bob Dylan
Scene from “M*A*S*H”, a Vietnam movie in all but name.
Along with being a successful screenwriter and novelist (the novel and movie versions of Marathon Man and The Princess Bride), William Goldman is probably best remembered as the man who, in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, coined the phrase, “Nobody knows anything.” He was, of course, talking about the fact no one knows while thinking of, making, or releasing a movie whether it’s going to be a hit or not (also, nobody knows if it’s going to be any good or not). At best, he argued, it was an educated guess. Of course, that hasn’t stopped people who work both in the movie industry and the media from deciding there are certain “rules” about what kind of movie will be a hit or flop, or whether it will be any good or not. Among those rules, there’s quite a few when it comes to so-called “political” films. The most well-known, even today, is arguably Samuel Goldwyn’s dictum, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union” (never mind that one of the most famous movies he produced, The Best Years of Our Lives, is sending a message about how veterans of WWII – and of any war in particular – have difficulty adjusting to life at home). There’s also the idea that political movies don’t make money, because they automatically alienate any of the audience that disagrees with whatever statement the movie is trying to make. Along those lines, there’s also the argument in an industry where profit is the most important thing, political movies will inevitably get watered down in the attempt to please everybody (or not offend anybody), the result being they please nobody. In addition, there are people who argue that movies (and art in general) is best at either not talking about politics, or, if they have to talk about politics, by doing so in an indirect or metaphorical way, either by using genre, or by using the past to comment on the present, or even a combination of the two (along the lines of using the past to comment on the present, there’s also the view that hindsight brings wisdom and understanding to movies, and movies about recent events suffer from not having that hindsight and wisdom). Finally – and this especially comes out when movies (or, again, any work of art) try to talk about the unspeakable horrors of something like the Holocaust – there are those who argue movies (and again, any work of art in general) automatically diminishes any major event it tries to depict.
To be fair, there’s some truth lying in a few of those “rules”. For one, many of the best films of the late 60’s/early 70’s dealt with the volatile times by going through genre, whether dealing with racism (Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes), Watergate (The Conversation), the influence of corporations (The Parallax View), and so on. Not only that, but many films of the time also used the past to comment on the present, especially with Westerns (Little Big Man) and war movies set during WWII (Catch-22, The Dirty Dozen, Slaughterhouse Five) or Korea (M*A*S*H) commenting on the Vietnam War, as well as some of the other turbulent issues of the time (as The Dirty Dozen and Little Big Man both took on racism). Also, plenty of movies that have put distance between us and the events of the past have been better for it, like Steven Soderbergh’s Che (a much better, and more honest, movie than the biopic made in the 60’s) and Olivier Assayas’ Carlos). For another, many movies that have attempted to put the statement before the art have been heavy-handed and not particularly memorable as movies, or they have compromised in their efforts not to offend anyone. Still, I tend to agree with Steven Soderbergh, who, in an interview on the Criterion version of Battle of Algiers – one of the greatest political movies ever made, and one which i’ll be covering in another post – pointed out at some point, saying, “Oh, political movies don’t make money/don’t work” is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and just used not to make anything like that. Not only that, but I would argue to the “don’t send a message”/”art by definition diminishes any historical event” crowd that while art shouldn’t be restricted to doing any one particular thing, if it doesn’t at least partly touch on the world we live in today, than it isn’t worth anything.
John Wayne in “The Green Berets”.
The period in American film we think of as “the 70’s”, or Hollywood’s second Golden Age – which actually probably started in 1967-68, and only lasted until 1975 or so, until, so the argument goes, Jaws and Star Wars ushered in the era of the blockbuster (another argument I find rather simplistic, but that’s a topic for another blog post) – has been pretty well discussed in terms of the movies that chose to comment on the chaos of the real world of the time indirectly, either by doing it within a genre film or by using the past to comment on the future. But in selecting this period to write about (though I chose the era of 1968-72 for the purposes of this blogathon, I’m going outside of the parameters slightly; more like 1967-75), I became interested in looking at those few films that did try, however clumsily or confidently, to confront society’s ills of the time head-on. I did bend the rules in a few instances to talk about some particular films, but that was usually to talk about a film that doesn’t get mentioned much when talking about this time, or, if it does, not in the way that I try to look at it. Obviously, what was going on in America is important, not just because Hollywood was back then the biggest movie-producing country in the world, but also because the chaos that happened here and elsewhere around the world took off largely from U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as other conflicts around the globe. While it’s true there were no Vietnam combat films to come out of Hollywood during the war (with the exception of The Green Berets, John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam War film; and frankly, in my opinion, the less said about that one, the better), there were a few films that took on the protest against the war. This will not be a comprehensive overview, as some of these films are still unavailable in any form that I could find (though I’ve heard nothing but bad things about Stanley Kramer’s R.P.M, I’m still curious to see it, and am disappointed I couldn’t find it anywhere), and I was limited by time, but it will, I hope, shed some light on the films in this milieu that do work, as well as on the ones that didn’t (for the latter, I’ve already written about Zabriskie Point, so I won’t repeat myself). Also, a few films took a direct look at what was going on with politicians at the time, and I’ll explore those as well. Finally, the Vietnam War wasn’t the only issue tearing the country apart during the time. The civil rights movement was a big part of the 60’s, and the fallout of the promises made to African-Americans that were broken was also a big part of the era. Unfortunately, as badly as Hollywood lags behind these days when it comes to race, it was even worse back then, and so there were few, if any, features taking on the civil rights, or black power, movements of the time, though a few of the Vietnam protest films do touch on it somewhat, and I mention those.*
Jean Luc Godard.
While Hollywood was slow to look at the chasms tearing the country, and the world, apart, the rest of the world wasn’t, and Part 2 will be dealing with how other countries confronted the chaos of the time. Again, I was guided mainly by availability issues here. There’s quite a number of films from those who were considered major political filmmakers of the time that simply aren’t available, from such acclaimed filmmakers as Marco Bellochio (China is Near), Alain Tanner (Middle of the World), and Bo Widerberg (Adalen 31), among others. And that’s just among European filmmakers; anyone from Africa or Asia is ignored. I do try and have somewhat of a variety within Europe when I can, but mostly, I’m going to be concentrating on two of the most well-known – certainly, two of the most notorious – political filmmakers of the time, Jean-Luc Godard and Constantin Costa-Gavras, not only because of the quality of their films, but also because they worked in French, and next to the U.S., France had the biggest occurrence of unrest in the Western world during that time (May 1968). Finally, while feature films in the U.S. may have lagged behind the times, at least in dealing with the hot-button issues of the time directly, documentaries, then as in now, were a step ahead. I’ve seen several documentaries dealing with the Vietnam War made during U.S. involvement, and those will all get a look. Also, there are a few documentaries about major African-American leaders during the racial unrest of this period.
Along with the fact this is an incomplete overview due to both availability issues and time issues, frankly, there are a couple of other missing chapters I feel I must address. Firstly, you will notice the virtual absence of anything dealing with the feminist movement. This is because, for the most part, Hollywood ignored the feminist movement, mirroring not just the power structure in the U.S. at the time, but also many of the factions of the anti-war and the civil rights/black power movements of the time. Hollywood didn’t start making movies about women’s rights, or at least about dealing with women’s issues, until later in the decade. Most of the few that do so simply aren’t available. I do try to take a look at how the films dealing with the unrest of the time shortchanged women, but that will be it. Also, you will notice a distinct bias, not on Hollywood’s part – Hollywood, after all, as I said before, is primarily a business, and therefore primarily out to make money – but on mine. Admittedly, I’m dealing only with films that took a left-wing or radical point of view (which is in line with my political thinking most of the time), but that’s also because, again, with only a few exceptions (The Green Berets, which I mentioned above, and Costa-Gavras’ The Confession, which I will deal with in part 2), most of the films that explicitly, or implicitly, expressed a right-wing point of view were genre films (Dirty Harry is a cop film, Death Wish a vigilante film), and in addition, these are all well-known and have been written about; again, I was looking for films under the radar and not genre films (The Confession qualifies on both counts). Finally, I had hoped to be able to see The Boys in the Band – despite its mixed reputation and my negative feelings for the work of William Friedkin – to at least touch on the fact that while stereotypical portrayals of gays still abounded in the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s in general, there were works that, for their time, did attempt to treat gays as humans instead of as just caricatures, but I was unable to see it in time. So again, this is far from a complete overview of the films that tried to deal directly with the chaos of the time during the Vietnam War period, but I do hope it’s enough of a cross-section to show, for good and bad, how Hollywood and, to a lesser extent, other countries, tried to come to terms with it.
*-I had planned on talking about how movies dealt with, or didn’t deal with, race relations before the recent events in Charleston, but of course that helped influence my decision. Also, I don’t address the genre of “blaxploitation” films because while of course they dealt with the anger that African-Americans had with white society, and, like almost any genre, it had its good and bad films, they weren’t explicitly political, and were more genre films in that respect.
These days, when the term “Pre-Code Hollywood” gets thrown around in certain circles of movie fans, it’s usually meant to emphasize the content filmmakers (and studios) were able to get away with before the Hays Code was fully enforced in 1934, like the just-short-of-explicit suggestiveness of Trouble in Paradise or The Divorcee, or being critical of the institutions of the time in ways that wouldn’t have been possible post-1934, as in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The Marx Brothers certainly had their share of suggestive content in the pre-Code films they made at this time (my favorite example still being Groucho’s line from Animal Crackers; “Signor Ravelli’s first selection will be ‘Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping’ with a male chorus”), and both Horsefeathers and Duck Soup mocked, respectively, colleges and politics (among other things). But the content of the Marx Brothers’ films made in the pre-Code era – all at Paramount – and the ones they made afterwards isn’t just in the content, it’s how the brothers were used.
Like many actors in Hollywood in the late 20’s and early 30’s, the Marx Brothers came from Broadway, as the studios grabbed talent from there who could handle the adjustment from silent films to sound films. Like many other comedians at the time, the Marx Brothers originally came from vaudeville, which is where they had originally developed and perfected their personas. Groucho was the fast-talking wisecrack artist, Chico was the book dumb but crafty con artist who told lots of bad puns, and Harpo was the silent (by choice) comedian who seemed to be on another planet. To further the Broadway angle, the Marx Brothers’ first two movies, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) were based on two of the plays that had first brought them acclaim. I’m not a big fan of the former; it’s not just, like many early sound pictures, it looks somewhat stilted, it’s also that no one looks really comfortable, except for Harpo (who gets some good gags, like eating a telephone). There are some good scenes, like Groucho wooing his perpetual foil Margaret Dumont (“Oh, I can see you now, you and the moon! You wear a necktie so I’ll know you”), the auction scene (“Believe me, you have to get up early if you want to get out of bed”), and the famous “Why a duck?” scene. Groucho would blame this on co-director Joseph Santley, whom he claimed didn’t understand comedy, while Joe Adamson, author of the Marx brothers biography Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo felt the fault lay with the other co-director, Robert Florey, who apparently didn’t think the Marx Brothers were funny.* Whatever reason, while it does set the template of their other films for Paramount – in that the plot is just an excuse for them to run amok, especially Harpo – it’s not especially memorable.
Animal Crackers, on the other hand, is when they start to hit their groove. It’s not that the plot is that much more sophisticated – in The Cocoanuts, it’s a jewel robbery, while here, it involves a rare painting and two forged copies of it – or that those playing off of the Marx Brothers had much more to work with (Kay Francis plays a thief in the former, while Lillian Roth (the subject of the 1950’s biopic I’ll Cry Tomorrow) plays the ingenue in the latter). It’s more the Marx Brothers themselves seem more comfortable in front of the camera, and director Victor Heerman (who went on to contribute to the screenplays of such films as Stella Dallas, Meet Me in St. Louis, and both the Katharine Hepburn and June Allyson versions of Little Women) seemed comfortable enough with them. Though one line from “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”, the Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby song that became Groucho’s signature song, was cut by the Hays Office (Groucho’s “I think I’ll try and make her”), there’s some risque material here; in addition to the line I quoted in my opening paragraph, there’s also Groucho’s line about visiting Africa (“We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed. But we’re going back in a couple of weeks!”), and his proposing marriage to both Dumont and comic villainess Margaret Irving at the same time (“Why, that’s bigamy!” “Yes, and it’s big of me too”). More importantly, however, once again, it’s the fact Groucho, Harpo and Chico are allowed to act pretty much uninhibited. There’s the occasional bit where someone gets the better of them (like Irving and butler Robert Greig getting the drop on Harpo), but mostly, it’s things like Chico and Harpo humiliating Louis Sorin as art collector Roscoe Chandler (he gives them a check so they won’t reveal to everyone else he used to be a fish peddler; Harpo bounces it on the floor), as well as Groucho (when Chandler says he’s glad Groucho asked him something, Groucho retorts, “I withdraw the question!”), Chico and Harpo playing bridge with Dumont and Irving (naturally, every card Harpo plays is the ace of spades), and the insane ending, where Harpo sprays knockout gas at everyone, including himself.
Monkey Business, which came out the following year, is even less inhibited, and is the only film they made in which they didn’t really have any characters at all and are more or less “themselves”. They’re stowaways on an ocean liner, and while they eventually stumble into a plot involving warring gangsters (played by Rockliffe Fellowes and Harry Woods), the daughter (Ruth Hall) of the former (Zeppo romances her) and the jealous wife (Thelma Todd) of the latter (Groucho flirts with her), once again, it’s just an excuse for the gags. Adamson cites as a highlight the scene where Groucho breaks into Woods’ room, flirts with Todd (“Oh, no. You’re not gonna get me off this bed”), and then talks his way out of being confronted at gunpoint by Woods with nothing but his wit (“I’m wise!” “You’re wise, eh? Well, what’s the capital of Nebraska? What’s the capital of the Chase National Bank? Give up?”), and it’s really funny and anarchic. Just as good are when Harpo gets involved in a Punch and Judy show on the boat (when the captain (Ben Taggart) and first officer (Tom Kennedy) try to pull Harpo out of the booth, Harpo joins them), Groucho and Chico breaking into Taggart’s quarters (“One of (the stowaways) goes around with a black mustache!” “So do I. If I had my choice, I’d go around with a little blonde”), all four brothers trying to sneak past customs by impersonating Maurice Chevalier singing “If a Nightingale Could Sing Like You” (Harpo, naturally, plays a phonograph he’s hidden in his coat of Chevalier singing), and Fellowes introducing the most “beautiful” creature in the world at his party (his daughter), which Harpo naturally takes as his cue to make an entrance. The movie does have a somewhat conventional ending, with Woods kidnapping Fellowes’ daughter and taking her to a barn, and Zeppo saving the day by beating Woods in a fight, but even that gets mitigated by Chico and Harpo bopping Woods’ cronies on the head even after they’ve been knocked out and Groucho’s shenanigans; he unfurls himself from a haystack and asks, “Where’s all those farmer’s daughters I’ve been hearing about for years?”, he pretends to announce the fight, and when it’s all over, he’s tearing through the hay again (when Fellowes demands to know what he’s doing, he replies, “I’m looking for a needle in a haystack”).
Horsefeathers, which came out the following year, sticks them back in a plot. Groucho, as Professor Wagstaff, the new dean of Huxley College, is told by his son (Zeppo) that he needs to recruit football players to beat rival university Darwin in order to become a successful college, but he ends up recruiting Chico and Harpo by mistake. Oh, and all four of them try to romance a college widow (Todd), who is also involved with a gambler (David Jennings) trying to fix the game for Darwin. Again, the brothers observe the niceties of college life in the same spirit they observe the niceties of being aboard a ship, which is to say not at all; Groucho allows Chico and Harpo (who have become students at Huxley) to throw out a boring professor (Grieg again) so he can take over and make puns (“Beyond the Alps lies more Alps, and the Lord Alps those who Alp themselves”), Harpo can pull out of his jacket a candle lit at both ends (he also points out, at other points in the movie, a cup of coffee, a fish, and an ax to “cut” cards with, among other things), and Chico hides in a locker because he’s practicing secret signals. And while there is a big game at the climax, there’s no sentiment; Harpo throws banana peels to keep Darwin players from tackling Zeppo, then throws one under Zeppo’s feet, Groucho hangs out by the stands or lounges on the field reading a newspaper and smoking his cigar, and as for Chico’s signals, they speak for themselves (“Hi diddle diddle/The cat and the fiddle/This time I think we go through the middle; hike!”). Like the Marx Brothers’ other pre-Code films, there’s been some bits here and there that were cut out, though Groucho does get to say to Todd, “I was going to get a flat bottom but the girl at the boat house didn’t have one”). I don’t know who was actually the first one to break the fourth wall in the movie, but Groucho was an early contender; while Chico is playing and singing “Everyone Says I Love You” (a song all four of them perform at one point or another), Groucho walks up to the camera and says, “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t got out into the lobby until this thing blows over.” Finally, while an ending involving the four brothers playing cards while the college burns down was apparently cut, the current ending – all four of them marry Todd – is twisted in its own way.
Duck Soup, which came out the following year, is usually considered their best by Marx Brothers fans (though I prefer Monkey Business and Horsefeathers). Part of this is because some feel the musical performances by Chico (the piano) and Harpo (the harp) in the previous movies made those movies drag (I wonder why no one complains about the songs performed in Duck Soup, as they’re really not that great), but a lot of it has to do with, unlike the previous films, a genuinely great director was at the helm. Leo McCarey, at the time, was still best known for his work with Laurel & Hardy, and his best films (Ruggles of Red Gap, The Awful Truth, Make Way for Tomorrow), as well as his best known films (Going My Way, Bells of St. Mary’s, An Affair to Remember) were still ahead of him. But while, as Adamson points out, there seems to be two movies going on at once in Duck Soup (Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly making wisecracks as ruler of Freedonia, while Chico and Harpo, who are allegedly working as spies for Louis Calhern, ruler of rival country Sylvania, seem more interested in annoying Edgar Kennedy, a peanut vendor outside the government office; not only that, but much of it plays like silent comedy), McCarey does make it all work for the most part. The movie is best remembered for the famous mirror routine, where Harpo, who’s dressed as Groucho to steal Freedonia’s secret war plans, breaks a mirror and has to pretend to be Groucho in the mirror when Groucho arrives at the scene. It’s also been much debated as to whether the movie is consciously a political satire; when Adamson interviewed the principals involved, all of them denied it, saying they were just out to entertain (Groucho would later say it was just “four Jews trying to get a laugh”), but Nat Perrin, who was credited with writing additional dialogue for the movie, did allow that satire might have crept in because of what everyone thought at the time (certainly, Groucho has been political, mocking the blacklist and admitting in a newspaper during the Vietnam War that if he had a son of draft age, he would encourage his son to go to Canada rather than fight). It’s also obvious the movie doesn’t take politics any more serious than it did college; Groucho would rather play jacks than conduct a meeting, he slaps Calhern and provokes war because Calhern calls him an upstart, Chico changes sides because he likes the food better, and Harpo’s idea of recruiting is to wear a sign that reads, “Join the army and see the navy”. And at the end, the four brothers win the war for Freedonia by pummeling Calhern with fruit; when Dumont, once again playing Groucho’s love interest (Groucho says of her to the others, “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did”), sings “Hail Freedonia!” in triumph, they all turn and throw fruit at her.
While Duck Soup, as I said, has become regarded as the Marx Brothers’ best film, starting when it played in revival houses in the 60’s, it was a box office disappointment, and critics at the time weren’t crazy about it either (Adamson quotes Time, the Nation, and the New York Times as all finding it disappointing). Most importantly, the studio wasn’t crazy about the film or about its box office, so the Marx Brothers parted ways with them and ended up at MGM. By the time they made their first film at the studio, A Night at the Opera, in 1935, the new, beefed-up version of the Production Code was in full force, so it was harder to sneak in more risque material (though when Groucho hears about an opera singer being signed for a thousand dollars a night, he claims you could get a record of “Minnie the Moocher” for 75 cents, and adds, “For a buck and a quarter, you can get Minnie”). More importantly, however, Irving Thalberg was supervising them, and while he found them funny, off-screen as well as on (Thalberg was legendary for keeping people waiting for interminable periods while overseeing the detail of every production he was involved in. The Marx Brothers – down to three, as Zeppo had retired to become their agent – reacted to being kept waiting by, among others things, stripping down naked in Thalberg’s office and roasting potatoes in his fireplace. When Thalberg came back and discovered this, according to Adamson, he called the studio commissary and ordered butter), he also insisted they needed to be “relatable” to audiences, and wanted to make sure the rest of the story and music also worked as a story and music, rather than just an excuse for the Marx Brothers to react to. Therefore, instead of Harpo, for example, simply creating chaos at will, he only reacts to being picked on by the comic villain (Walter King); Chico, who used to always hustle for money, now insists to the romantic hero (Allan Jones) he’s happy without money (though not food); and even Groucho gets a softening moment when he passes along a note from Jones to his love interest (Kitty Carlisle Hart). The film has enough great gags – the contract scene, the stateroom scene, the scene where the three of them, and Jones, are trying to hide in a hotel room from a detective (Robert Emmett O’Connor), and, of course, the climax at the opera – that the film manages to get by anyway, and it was profitable enough and well-received. However, during the making of A Day in the Races (1937), Thalberg died, and Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, didn’t think the Marx Brothers were very funny, and didn’t give them talent to work with. Therefore, while Thalberg at least understood there needed to be some genuine humor to counterbalance the sentiment and story, the later movies, while having maybe a handful of good gags (in A Day at the Races, the scene where Chico cons Groucho out of betting on a sure thing), just don’t hold a candle to the earlier ones. It’s been said the films the Marx Brothers appeared in were never as good as they were, but at least with the pre-Code films (except, as I said, for The Cocoanuts), you see them closest to their unvarnished best.
*-For the most part, both Florey and Santley’s subsequent careers were unmemorable, though Florey at least did direct the Bela Lugosi version of Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders at the Rue Morgue, one of the better pre-Code horror films.