1960s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, French cinema, Thriller

Les Biches (1968) / La Femme Infidèle (1969)

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Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenwriters: Claude Chabrol, Paul Gégauff / Claude Chabrol

In memoriam: Jean-Louis Trintignant 1930-2022
In memoriam: Michel Bouquet 1925-2022

By Roderick Heath

For fifty years Claude Chabrol, as if slyly mimicking one of his apparently benign but quietly, roguishly purposeful protagonists, turned out deftly crafted movies with the taciturn relentlessness of a fine jeweller in a small, dimly-lit workshop. Amongst the ranks of the French Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol stood out for many reasons. A provincial lad rather than a Parisian, Chabrol was the son and grandson of small town pharmacists, but he became obsessed with movies from the age of 12 onwards. When he headed off to study pharmacology at the Sorbonne he also hung around Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française and other movie theatres, where he made a clutch of friends fellow young movie freaks with odd ideas, men with names like Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette. After a stint in military service, Chabrol joined his pals in working for a film commentary magazine called Cahiers du Cinema. Chabrol took up some of the ideas of their elder statesman Andre Bazin in advocating the use of deep focus photography in aiding a generally realistic kind of art that engaged the audience’s attention without compelling it. He became particularly obsessed with the films of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, the dark poets of genre cinema, although Chabrol would absorb their fascination for criminality and the abnormal impulses in seemingly ordinary people and wed it to a more particular palette.

Whilst his pals faced making the leap from critics to filmmakers by shooting short films and learning craft on film crews, Chabrol used a lucky windfall from an inheritance to finance his debut, 1958’s Le Beau Serge, often seen as the first true movie of the French New Wave (depending on how one feels about Agnes Varda’s La Pointe-Courte, 1954). Le Beau Serge, essentially a character study of two troubled young medical students, proved a success. Chabrol quickly followed it with Les Cousins, a film that more properly instituted Chabrol’s career as it became known, evincing his fascination with morally ambivalent characters belonging to the French bourgeoisie, punctuated by acts of murder. Chabrol wrote the film with his soon-to-be regular collaborator Paul Gégauff, who would eventually be stabbed to death by his second wife. Chabrol’s early financial successes allowed him to help several of his New Wave compatriots make their own debuts. But Chabrol had trouble maintaining his profile through much of the 1960s even as he evolved in a different, more commercial direction from his New Wave fellows. His few admired and successful films in this period, like Les Bonne Femmes (1960), a portrait of four young women working in the same store but on different paths in life, and a study of a notorious serial killer, Landru (1962), were interspersed with failures that betrayed an uncertainty about just what kinds of films he wanted to make.

The ones he did make included several comic spy movies, and a tilt at winning some international traction, with the bilingual-shot, Anthony Perkins-starring The Champagne Murders (1967), a film that pointed where Chabrol was heading, including in showcasing the talents of his actress wife Stéphane Audran. Chabrol wed Audran, with whom he first worked on Les Cousins, after his first marriage broke up, and she soon became the obsessive focal point and ingenious performing linchpin of his films. Beginning with Les Biches Chabrol began working with the producer André Génovès, and their collaboration churned out a string of icy-crisp psychological thrillers including La Femme Infidèle, This Man Must Die (1969), Le Boucher (1970), La Rupture (1970), and Just Before Nightfall (1971), all slow, unnerving tales punctuated with carefully observed and prepared acts of violence, and often sporting ambiguous resolutions. Pauline Kael would quip these films resembled sardines in a can even as they largely remain his most famous works. Eventually Chabrol resumed varying his output, interspersing the thrillers he was now famous for with political and personal dramas an even the odd dark comedy, right up until his death in 2010. Chabrol confessed at one point that he made lesbianism an aspect of the plot of Les Biches to try and juice up its commercial prospects, but it seems to have helped Chabrol nail down the texture of woozy, strange, displaced sensuality that would charge his movies in this phase.

Les Biches, a title which translates as “The Does” – as in deer, a female deer – wields elusive mesmerism as it counts down the moments to what one feels instinctively from the start will be a bad end. Les Biches also ends at more or less a point which La Femme Infidèle (which would receive a slick and Hollywoodised remake years later in the form of Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful, 2002), uses as its pivot, tweaking narrative formula several degrees by displacing the inevitable moment of rupture to the middle of the film, and then studying the aftermath with much the same blandly dissembling style as it offered the prelude. Chabrol had famously identified the “transference of guilt” theme in Hitchcock’s films, and it proved a shared point of interest for the two directors as a zone of concern where psychological phenomena and Catholic theology overlap. This is the fascination for the way characters find themselves inheriting and contending with the wrongs of others, often manifesting as some sort of false accusation of a transgressive act, with a subtler underlying game of affinities, and the way this currency of moral debt underpins “civilised” existence on an explicit and subliminal level, as every urge to break a rule is matched by a desire to restore it. It’s a tendency Chabrol ultimately identifies as close to essential in close human relationships like a marriage, although he first began playing with it on Le Beau Serge’s study of two friends.

Les Biches seems to sidestep that kind of traditional moral prism nonetheless by focusing on what were at the time considered perverse relationships, only to find such reflexes can be especially strong in such cases. Les Biches concerns the triangular love affair that binds the imperious, idiosyncratic rich girl Frédérique (Audran), the reticent waif known as only as Why (Jacqueline Sassard), and listless ladykiller architect Paul Thomas (Jean-Louis Trintignant), and tells it in five named parts – three central chapters named for the three characters, plus a prologue and epilogue. The prologue recounts how Frederique encounters Why one day whilst sauntering around the Seine, in a sequence that has a studied feeling of erotic portent, like a fantasy realised. Why attracts attention with the naïf chalk art of does she scratches into the paving, and with her scrappy beauty, swathed in faded blue denim, whilst Frederique looks like she could be auditioning for a Dietrich-and-Von-Sternberg-influenced Vogue photo shoot: she in turn gains Why’s attention by tossing her a 500 franc note. The pair adroitly cruise each-other, and Frederique takes Why back to her house, treating her to a hot bath as they flirt and skirt around the point until Why tries to dress. Frederique, after insisting on tying her shirt in a knot across her wet belly, that starts caressing and picking at the buckle of her jeans. One of the great sexy vignettes of cinema, and also a mere entrée to a film that carefully avoids giving sexploitation thrills whilst conveying a deep-flowing stream of erotic fervour.

Chabrol employs a quick, witty fade from Frederique opening Why’s pants to a title card announcing the first chapter proper, named for Frederique: the goodies are opened but the trove is going to prove troublesome. Frederique takes Why to stay at her villa at Saint Tropez, close to the Port de Cogolin, a yacht basin she owns and operates and inherited from her grandfather. Frederique is vague and evasive in explaining the site’s roots in some kind of wartime deal. Frederique and Why, strolling around the basin and lying in the sun on a yacht, as Why tells Frederique she’s a virgin, a fact she expects Frederique to be sceptical about (“I think it’s noble of you,” Frederique assures her with a listless yawn), and Frederique recounts her own listless affairs with local yobs during the boring winters (“Games of bowls and games of cards…and other games as well…and then there are the intellectual pleasures.”) but also says she feels Why needs exposure to her peculiar little world, and Why does indeed fit in well, proving an accomplished bowls player. As well as stalwart housekeeper Violetta (Nane Germon) Frederique is also keeping at the villa Robèque (Henri Attal) and Riais (Dominique Zardi), a pair of eccentric, prickly, possibly gay men, and she regularly hosts parties for the local bohemians. Frederique and Why’s affair seems to be fairly idyllic until, at one of those parties, Frederique plays cards with Robèque, Riais, and Paul, one her acquaintances around town. Let the games begin.

Chabrol took some inspiration for Les Biches from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (Gégauff had already written René Clement’s adaptation, Purple Noon, 1960), flipping genders but retaining the essential motif of a poor stray taken in by a wealthy host-friend-lover and finding they can’t stand being weaned off the teat when the time comes. The title evokes toe-dabbing sinuosity of deer, a deeply sarcastic evocation of the peculiarly feminine type of violence depicted, and the balletic strains of Debussy, infusing the dances of character and camera. Chabrol’s peculiar art soon evinces itself in the way he seems to be extremely plainspoken about most of what goes on in the movie, both dramatically and stylistically, and yet remains tantalisingly reticent about the most vital. At the outset Frederique seems to be the character with all the power, broadly conforming to a stereotype of a wealthy, decadent lesbian with her penchant for mannish if still chic clothing, doing what Why suggests is a man’s job, her roguish seduction, and playing the manipulative queen bee for all in her sphere. She has a collection of game trophies and relics obtained from safaris in Kenya and Mozambique, as “I love hunting.” She’s also the emblematic representative of a privileged class, drawing people into her orbit with money and then controlling them with it.

But as events unfold Frederique proves a more complex and rather less formed personality than she poses as. The card match that introduces Paul proves a subtle, visually and behaviourally charged set-piece, as Paul notices Why and constantly glances at her, whilst she hovers a distance behind Frederique, munching on a suggestive apple. Frederique, dominating the table in both deed and in Chabrol’s framing, becomes increasingly glazed with a heavy-lidded and tight-wound as veneer of stoic calm as she continues to fleece Robèque and Riais and starts bossing Why around. Later, when the party breaks up, Paul and Why go off for a drive together, and Frederique promises to le Robèque and Riais keep the money she won off them if they’ll follow the couple and tell her what happens between them. The proposition here seems initially obvious – Frederique, fearing her lover will be stolen from her by a man, manipulates her two hapless minions to keep an eye on them and see if her fears will come true. And yet as the story unfolds Frederique sets her own sights on Paul, initially perhaps for revenge, but possibly also having deliberately wanted Why and Paul to pair off, perhaps to get rid of Why, or to use her as a kind of test case in a scientific experiment, as if wanting to see if Why will lose her virginity and what will happen as a result. Why herself hesitates before letting Paul seduce her with a warning on her lips, whether to inform him she’s a virgin or she’s been sleeping with Frederique, only to decide whatever it was isn’t worth confessing. The innermost thoughts and experiences of Chabrol’s characters tend to remain opaque in this manner. But the detonations that punctuate their behaviour aren’t necessarily more explicable to them than to the onlooker.

This idea is most vividly illustrated in the pivotal killing in La Femme Infidèle, where the urge to commit the killing seems to come and go like a muscle tic. “Of course,” Chabrol told Time Out magazine in 1970, “I’m not interested in solving puzzles. I am interested in studying the behaviour of people involved in murders. If you don’t know who the murderer is, that would seem that he is not interesting enough to be known and studied.” And yet Les Biches holds its cards close to its chest until the very end about who will kill and will be killed, and the manoeuvrings of the three characters ultimately tells us who they are without revealing all of what they are. It’s conceivable Paul might catch Frederique and Why together and experience some spasm of chauvinist outrage, just as it’s credible Frederique could kill one of the other in a show of desperate power. Or that Why’s bouts of floating melancholia might be hiding a maniacal streak, sparked by a need to cling on to what little toehold she has in the world of wealth and human warmth she currently has as an eccentric exile, and offence at being ejected by not one but two lovers.

All of this exists nonetheless in a superficial state of flux in a movie that plays out for much of its length as a muted study of sexual and romantic disaffection and uneasy cohabitation. A seemingly casual joke early in the film in which Frederique can’t tell a first edition from a reprint encodes the lurking danger of smudging authentic and chosen affinities. Les Biches could be called, in the fashion of Chabrol’s friend Eric Rohmer, a winter’s tale (much as Rohmer’s films often play as Chabrol films without murders, carefully inscribed legends about small but life-changing epiphanies): Saint Tropez, playground of the rich and famous in summer, is in the off-season just another dull resort town, the local beds as much refuges as playpens. The situation could easily be played for Buñuelian black comedy, new-age Lubistch, sex romp teasing, or hardcore porn. Instead Chabrol pushes cinematographer Jean Rabier’s camera on in motion, refuses to let anything resolve, forcing the sense of flux, travelling without moving. The sense of inertia extends to the careful art direction and costuming, mostly brightly lit and carefully dressed in pastel shades, rather than colours redolent of consuming passion. Frederique is often glimpsed in arrays of black and white, her authority and security encoded in hard clean hues, and a habit sufficiently signature that Why making herself over in Frederique’s guise becomes a statement, a game with identity suggesting interchangeable personas: “Using other people’s things is like changing your skin,” Why notes to the bewildered Paul.

The cult of the idea of the actress, thing of at once specific beauty and chameleonic prerogative, one Chabrol played more overt games with on The Champagne Murders, bobs to the surface here again as Why tries repeatedly to become Frederique. Frederique herself, smouldering in uncertainty after Why’s tryst with Paul, seeks him out, and finds him fairly nonchalant about his experience with Why: he is instead much more intrigued by Frederique herself as she hovers, robbed of her characteristic hauteur around him, and in his distraction Frederique forgets he was supposed to meet her “protégé” for a date. The pair drink up the dregs of a bottle of cognac and Frederique tosses the bottle in the bay. “She’ll be hurt,” Frederique comments. “Not as much as she would be if I dropped here in two or three weeks,” Paul replies. Paul and Frederique’s affair turns out quickly to be a hot one, and Frederique calmly tells Why they’re going to leave her in the villa and head off to Paris together. Audran and Trintignant’s toey chemistry on screen together can be put down to the fact they briefly married when much younger: Chabrol was fond of such casting stunts. Left on her own, Why wanders around town in a state of anxious disaffection, and pestered by Robèque and Riais as they presume to entertain her, as when they try to draw her into a game of making animals noises with aggressive weirdness: when Why starts silently weeping they guess she’s a crocodile.

Frederique and Paul’s return is inauspicious for Why: the ever so slight flinch Frederique gives when she moves to give Why a greeting kiss when she and Paul return, moving from an on-the-mouth kiss to one on the cheek, is a signal with enormous ramifications. Soon Frederique comes to Why’s bedroom and lies down beside her to report with hints of perplexity her love for Paul, so smitten that even getting books on architecture from him seems a romantic act. Paul moves into the villa, which means room has to be made as Robèque and Riais get increasingly bitchy and Why starts acting increasingly strange, including dressing up as Frederique. Riais describes himself as a revolutionary and encourages Why to act like one, but Why declares she’s fine with the things the way they are. Nor are the revolutionaries up to much. Robèque and Riais are thrown out of paradise when Frederique thinks they’ve spiked their dinner with unpleasant flavouring. Chabrol notably repeats the key framing of Frederique from the card match here, as if to visually declare her power is resurgent, but the impression is undercut with droll comedy as the two men immediately start wheedling money out of her (“It’s not enough for second class…and taxi fare to the station…and dinner on the train.”), which she hands over irritably but obligingly, finally handing over one large note and snatching back the wad of smaller ones. Noblesse oblige.

Finally Chabrol delivers the film’s true climax, which depicts not a murder but a drunken party involving the three lovers in the now-private villa. Paul tries vainly to tell an obscure joke about a man searching for a source of wisdom and failing, whilst Why tries to coax the other two into bed and realise the ménage-a-trois that’s been potentially percolating between the three. Locked out of the holy sepulchre of the master bedchamber, Why crouches at the doors, listening as Frederique and Paul have sex, Why writhing in remote sympathy and gnawing on her fingers whilst envisioning their contortions. Talk about the trickle-down effect. The radical shift of style here delivers an ironically orgasmic switchback that forces Why’s fervent, cheated, distracted state of mind into view as well as the sexual spectacle, one that’s also a dark joke on cinema itself, offering transmissions to the audience basking in the spectacle of other experiences. When she awakens the next day Why finds the other two gone, fled again to Paris, leaving her with some cash and the now totally empty villa.

Why finally begins her rebellion, selecting a poison-coated dagger from amidst Frederique’s African reliquary, and travelling to Frederique’s Parisian house. There she confronts Frederique and confesses her equal love for her and for Paul, a form of passion Frederique, for all her supposed sophistication, can’t or won’t understand: “Your love disgusts me.” Why also describes constantly hearing shouts, as if from people quarrelling, and isn’t sure if they’re living in her head or not, but says they want to make the leap from her to Frederique. “I’d like to throw someone out,” Why retorts when Frederique tells her to leave, “I’m fed up too.” Why stabs Frederique in the back with the dagger as Frederique touches up her makeup, trying to maintain a fierce and fetishised veneer. Chabrol hacks the moment of death up into a succession of quick cuts, life not simply ending but identity fracturing, as Why claims the very being of Frederique: “Have I told you, Frederique, that we look like one-another?” Faced with the choice of being reduced to a psychosexual parasite or to obliterate and subsume objects of ardour, Why chooses the latter. She dresses up in Frederique’s evening gown and gets into her bed: When Paul telephones, Why mimics her voice, breathlessly expressing her desire for his return. Chabrol, with the dry cold of a liquid nitrogen spill, brings up the end title card over the sight of Paul letting himself into the house, leaving whatever comes next to the viewer’s undoubtedly vibrating imagination.

La Femme Infidèle wields a more bluntly declarative title than Les Biches. What happens in it does indeed entirely flow from the central transgressive person and act mentioned in the title, even as its focus and meaning slowly complicates. Said unfaithful woman isn’t the focal point of the tale. Chabrol’s customary terseness again manifests immediately, opening without fanfare in a scene that introduces that woman, Hélène Desvallées (Audran), and her seemingly idyllic state, talking with her mother-in-law whilst seated in the spacious yard of their large house outside Paris. The first shot, a tracking shot moving like an idle trespasser with trees drifting between camera and the seated duo, sets up a motif returned to in the last scene. The two are soon joined by Helene’s husband Charles (Michel Bouquet), a successful insurer, and their young son, Michel (Stephane Di Napoli). Helene and mother-in-law chuckle over a photo of the young Charles, whose middle-aged visage has gained an aspect of roly-poly joviality in his soft and unharried salad days. This very brief pre-credit sequence has a similar flavour to the opening of Les Biches, presenting an islet of fantasy perfection of a kind, before the digging commences. Charles has an ideal job and often gives his wife a lift into Paris so she can spend the day shopping and running errands. Signs of trouble in paradise surface nonetheless when the predictable patterns of life are disrupted, when Charles can’t get Helene on the phone where she said she would be.

Where Les Biches obliged the viewer to offer sympathy and patience to some peculiar people, La Femme Infidele purposefully retells one of the oldest stories around – the tale of a jealous husband who, faced with his wife’s infidelity, kills his rival and tries to get away with it. Chabrol doesn’t offer new twists or present unusual slants on the characters. On the contrary, he strips away as much distraction from the central matter as possible, focusing in on this essential drama and watching it unfold with his customarily cool gaze, almost to the point of offering elemental myth. A key early scene is executed with a stark, satirical directness in portraying a marriage gone to seed: Helene prepares for bed by painting her toenails and donning a brief negligee and laying herself beside Charles, who, saying good night, turns out the light in complete apparent obliviousness to his wife’s evident desire for some connubial attention. Chabrol’s deadpan gaze doesn’t however register it as comedy, presenting it rather as the anecdotal flipside of the opening portrait of an ideal French bourgeois family. The whole film, in a way, follows this pattern, like a farce with the jokes cut out. Charles’ disinterest isn’t however the result of not loving his wife, or loving someone else. He has opportunities to be unfaithful, including with the keen, ditzy, miniskirted Brigitte (Donatella Turri) who’s been hired as a secretary in his offices and who’s already slept with one of Charles’ colleagues. But that’s not what he wants. Perhaps he doesn’t want anything.

Charles is then the victim of a brand of tepid complacency that viewed by Chabrol as a law of nature as pervasive as gravity or thermodynamics, at least in the world of the comfortable upper-middle class. He and Helene are drawn out to a nightclub with a friend who’s recently broken up with his wife, perhaps for the same reasons, where Helene makes a passable show of getting down to the hip-twisting pop music, but Charles looks comically out of place in, and they take too long to get out on the dance floor together to make good use of a slow dance number. Once they’re home bed Charles lies awake whilst his wife sleeps, meditating on his wife’s flimsy excuses for not being where she says she is (she tells him after one such occasion she went and saw Doctor Zhivago again and liked it the second time; and of course that’s a film about infidelity too). When he’s again unable to reach her during one of her Parisian sojourns, Charles unease blooms into outright suspicion, and when meeting with a private investigator he uses to look into insurance claims, he also hires him to follow Helene. When they meet again by the Seine a few days later, the investigator tells Charles his wife has been meeting with a man named Victor Pegala, an author with some independent wealth, visiting his apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine for two hour stretches, three days a week. This marvellous little scene sees the two professionally bland, discreet, unemotional men discussing the blatant and undeniable truth of a deeply wounding breach in clipped and businesslike terms, the plainly gut-punched Charles nonetheless retaining his calm and handing over wads of cash to the investigator, amidst an iconic Paris-is-for-lovers locale caught with its humdrum pants down.

Charles continues to dissemble his way through apparently normal events of life, like celebrating his son coming first in his history class with some champagne. Domestic bourgeois life as kabuki art. But part of Chabrol’s droll implication here is that, rather than this being mere fake window dressing, this is also the texture of ordinary life, of the willed-into-existence state of pleasantry that constitutes civilisation, and from which any extracurricular escapes are merely that. Certainly this seems to be the attitude Charles wants to take, but he cannot resist the urge that comes to pay a visit to Pegala (Maurice Ronet), who (recalling the doubling of Frederique and Why) resembles Charles, if more fit and robust and recently divorced and so ready and able to indulge a casual affair with a bored housewife. The hell of it is Pegala seems like a perfectly good fellow, one who Charles could easily be friends with. He’s solicitous and welcoming when Charles turns up at his door and lulls the lover into being upfront, by telling him that he and Helene both regularly have affairs but he’s a little perturbed by how long this one’s been going on.

By this point Chabrol has already shown a brief scene showing Helene and Pegala together, Helene lounging post-coital in his bed as rain pours outside and pegala bringing tea and snacks in: Chabrol fades from them kissing each-other goodbye (a moment itself modelled of the long kiss in Notorious, 1946), to Helene walking through the rain afterwards, lending their parting a breath of ephemeral poetry and a suggestion of the way these trysts linger on in Helene in revivifying fashion back out in a cold and dreary world, as well as offering tragic foreshadowing: neither knows this is the last time they’ll ever meet. Charles premeditates his visit to Pegala, presenting himself as a smiling charmer at his apartment door: “I’m not a salesman or a beggar…” As the pair settle and sip cordially at whiskey, Charles manages to manoeuvre himself with the skill of a salesman into a position of authority in his exchanges with the pleasant but understandably tense Pegala, not by acting irate and tough but by acting the worldly indulger he becomes a kind of detective, gleaning the tale of a sordid affair. Charles nonetheless loses his control when he sees, in Pegala’s bedroom on a table near his rumpled bed, a large novelty lighter Charles gave her as an anniversary present, but now passed on to Pegala because she felt Charles had forgotten it. After seeing this, Charles starts to act woozy and rambling. Pegala is concerned, and comments, “You look awful.” “Yes, I know,” Charles responds with a sudden flash of sickly amusement. He grabs up a bust from a table, bashing Pegala on the head twice with awful, killing blows, leaving him dead on the floor with rivulets of blood spreading on the floor and flecks of it on Charles’ shuddering hands.

Charles, quickly getting hold of himself after this abrupt act of bloody violence, begins calmly and methodically cleaning up any trace of his presence in the apartment, washing off the bust and other items, before bundling up Pegala’s body in a rug. This he carries downstairs and out to his car, stowing the corpse in the boot, and starts driving out of Paris. One can argue La Femme Infidele comes close to uniting the distinct influences of Lang and Hitchcock on Chabrol, as well as illuminated Chabrol’s distinct personality. The inevitability of Pegala’s killing recalls the relentless march to Siegfried’s assassination in Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), whilst Chabrol also recalls House By The River (1951) in depicting a murderer coping competently with his crime and even seeming to profit from it but facing being consumed by the reality-cracking implications of his act. The extended sequence of Charles tidying up the crime scene and disposing of Pegala’s body, also presents an extended variation on Norman Bates cleaning up Marian Crane’s murder in Psycho (1960). This is the centrepiece of the film in terms of technique and design: Charles, his face reset to its usual ice cream flatness, moves about the apartment with remorseless purpose, doing his best to erase every trace of his presence and even the appearance of a crime having been committed, all done with studious calm and boldness in broad daylight.

Chabrol taps this sequence not just for pokerfaced suspense but a level of carbolic humour. Charles has to contend with such petty difficulties as opening and closing a gate whilst manhandling a corpse like a bag of dirty laundry, and then gets tailgated by another driver (Zardi again) when he’s driving out of the city. The accident scene immediately becomes Charles’ worst nightmare as a crowd of gawkers gather to watch and yammer whilst the other driver insists on swapping insurance info and a gendarme comes to mediate and inspect the damage, feeling around the edges of the buckled rear hatch, whilst Charles becomes increasingly irate in his eagerness to escape. This scene is grimly hilarious in itself whilst also feeling like a Parisian in-joke that’s likely even better for anyone in on it. Finally Charles manages to continue on, reaching a bog somewhere in the countryside, into which he drops the body. Charles waits with tooth-grinding patience, peering down as the bundled body soaks up water and leaks out bubbles, sinking with agonising slowness until it finally vanishes under the soupy film of floating weeds.

Chabrol’s careful use of colour as a dramatic signifier provides associative psychological meaning and becomes important in the aftermath of this long central sequence. Pegala’s apartment is decorated in pale blue shades. Not long after his seemingly successful escapade, Charles joins his wife and son at a garden tea table: the shade overhead and a railing and tablecloth below, both blue and seeming to squeeze the image into a kind of cinemascope burlesque, framing the people between, including Helene who’s silently morose over her lover’s apparent vanishing and abandonment of her, and the upbeat, empowered Charles. Helene goes into the house and lies down in her bedroom where the drapes and sheets are also blue, contrasting the general greys and browns of the house’s décor: Helene lies back on the blue sheets and weeps. The tension ratcheting under the surface of the family soon begins manifesting as young Michel becomes distraught over losing a piece of a jigsaw puzzle he and his father are trying to assemble, whilst Helene stares dolorously into the television in the rear of the shoot, between arguing father and son. The visit of a pair of policemen, Inspector Duval (Michel Duchaussoy) and his partner Gobet (Guy Marley), is almost a relief. They’ve come to talk to Helene because they found her name and details in a notebook of Pegala’s. She claims to have only been a casual acquaintance who met him at a party. The cops are coolly professional and seem entirely accepting of all they hear, but their intense gazes speak another language. “We’re making progress,” Duval assures Helene, “In our hit-and-miss way.”

Despite the debts owed and paid to Lang and Hitchcock, Chabrol was really working within a common and popular tradition of French crime storytelling. Indeed, the greater sympathy French critics offered those directors than many did in other countries likely owed something to a crucial sense of recognition. That style was exemplified on the page by Georges Simenon and essayed by filmmakers Jean Renoir in films like La Chienne (1931) and La Bete Humaine (1937), and H.G. Clouzot in thrillers like Le Corbeau (1943) and Les Diaboliques (1956), as well as the poetic realist films of the 1930s. Chabrol’s aesthetic approach couldn’t be more different to the stylised effects of the poetic realists, even as he engaged with their fatalistic concerns, concerned much less with the mechanics of detection and action than with the processes that lead people to bad ends. This tradition arguably had some roots in the French novel tradition of Zola and Balzac, with their fascination in a quasi-zoological fashion with the presence of moral blight and corruption as it manifests in all sectors of society.

Chabrol is also notably good at deploying comic relief in both Les Biches and Le Femme Infidèle, in a way that helps intensify his theses as well as break up the tension. The wilful zaniness of Robèque and Riais in the former and the goofy appeal of Brigitte in the latter present characters strayed in from other worlds – the two men represent bohemia in all its perpetually improvising, smoke-blowing, opportunist skill, as well as a different, more absurd but also anxiety-free version of queerness to the strange kind the women enact. Brigitte impersonates the hip new generation oblivious to the niceties of the bourgeoisie as well as a possibly illusory promise of an age with different values coming on. Chabrol’s protagonists meanwhile are builders and maintainers as well as prisoners of their imploding universes. Just as Frederique ultimately invites her own destruction by refusing to countenance a fluid and multipolar kind of love, Charles and Helene are ultimately doomed not by the absence of love but by the processes of proving its survival. Helen eventually finds the photo of Pegala the private investigator gave Charles in his coat pocket, and burns it not just to dispose of evidence but as a votive to the proof of ardour it represents. She drifts back to Charles as he labours in their garden and the pair swap looks, locking them into the ultimate deed of mutual implication. The title then becomes perfectly ironic: in the last measure Helene is entirely, perfectly faithful, as is Charles. The very end returns to a stance of suggestive ambiguity, with the two cops returning and Helene and Michel looking on as Charles goes to talk with them, possibly to confess all. A mere aftershock, anyway, to Charles telling Helene what she already knows: “I love you like mad.”

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Nope (2022)

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Director / Screenwriter: Jordan Peele

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope opens with a pair of seemingly unrelated scenes. First we get a glimpse of a TV studio, filled with signs of bloodshed and rampage, a bashful-looking, bloody-pawed chimpanzee seated amidst the mess. Next comes a bucolic moment in the sun for father and son horse ranchers Otis Haywood (Keith David) and his son Otis Jnr, or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) as he’s found himself problematically stuck with being called: we see OJ going about his usual morning business of letting out the horses and exercising them, before chatting with his old man, who’s already mounted up. The two men are preparing for a TV show performance on star horse Lucky, which they hope will rescue their ranch from financial doldrums. The scene is shattered as a seemingly random shower of hard metal objects falls from the sky. A coin hits Otis in the eye, and he dies as OJ rushes him to the hospital. Cut to a few months later, as OJ uneasily tries to get on with his professional life by wrangling Lucky on the TV set, only for the horse to be irritated by a crewman and kick out dangerously. OJ is obliged to rely on his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), whose gregarious enthusiasm as a wannabe show biz player contrasts his sullen, taciturn, quietly grieving manner and fateful lack of assertive strength, but Emerald doesn’t want to be stuck with her brother in a failing business. OJ has been propping up the business by selling horses to a neighbouring ranch, the prosperous and popular Jupiter’s Claim, run by former child actor Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) and his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt).

That night, one of the horses, Ghost, bolts into the dark, dusty, hilly landscape around the ranch. Chasing after Ghost, OJ hears Jupe’s voice on a loudspeaker in the distance whilst the horse gives an unearthly shriek, and glimpses a large, strange object moving fast through the sky above, whilst a rolling blackout afflicts the locale. Convinced he’s seen a UFO, OJ and Emerald buy a new surveillance system for the ranch, and the morose IT salesperson, Angel (Brandon Perea), who sells and installs the equipment becomes increasingly interested and involved as he’s a UFO freak. They also try to interest the acclaimed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who they met on the TV shoot, as they feel only he might be able to get photographic evidence of this scary phenomenon. As the enigmatic situation begins to resolve, the Haywoods are eventually faced with alarming proof that the UFO is actually some kind of living organism that eagerly eats just about anything placed in its path, and that Jupe not only knows about its presence, but even seems to be trying to make it part of his act, luring it down to his ranch with free lunches, being OJ’s horses.

New York-born Peele was best known for many years as a comic writer and actor. After dropping out of college to start a comedy act with future writing collaborator Rebecca Drysdale and spending some time with the famous Second City comedy troupe, Peele gained his big break as a performer on the sketch comedy show Mad TV in the early 2000s. Later he teamed up with another Black comedian, Keegan-Michael Key, for their cable TV show Key & Peele (2012–2015). The duo wrote, produced, and starred in the film Keanu (2016), and Peele made his standalone debut as director with the 2017 Horror film Get Out, a film that represented for the most part an apparently radical switch of vision for Peele, offering a woozy, unsettling blend of social and racial satire and straight-edged Horror and thriller stuff.


That film’s huge popular and critical success came in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President, seemingly on the back of a new reactionary feeling swiftly met by a bold progressive backlash, and Get Out, along with the Ryan Coogler’s successes with Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018), seemed to announce a new mainstream hunger for films made by African-American filmmakers with a presumed, concomitant authenticity in needling racial and social angst. Peele’s success with Get Out was cunning in that regard, with his narrative of young Black man whose white girlfriend proves to be luring him in for her family to use in their business of swapping brains between bodies: Peele expertly made the mass audience empathise with his hero’s terror of having his identity erased and subsumed by representatives of a larger assimilating culture because it’s all the rage at the moment to be Black. He also deftly skewered and, ironically and if in all likelihood semi-accidentally, appealed to the white liberal guilt, portraying the wicked family not as overt racists but rather smiling, virtue-signalling bourgeois progressives pretending to be all cool with the new multiculturalism.

Peele has since become, with startling swiftness, a pop culture brand, evinced with his follow-up film Us (2019), through producing a refurbished take on TV’s The Twilight Zone and a reboot-cum-sequel of the 1990s cult film Candyman (2021), and now Nope. Peele is with increasingly plainness trying to position himself as an inheritor to talents writers like Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, with their penchant for depicting disturbing intrusions of the outlandish and the mysterious into exceptionally ordinary locales in tales touched with a mystique of fable. He also joins the ranks of directors anointing themselves as inheritors of Steven Spielberg, with his gifts as an orchestrator of the fantastic and of cinematic space for maximum audience impact. The traps in trying to occupy such a cultural crossroads were well-charted by M. Night Shyamalan in the 2000s. Peele’s chief proposition as a new and improved successor to Shyamalan is that he brings a less veiled approach to the metaphors inherent in those fable-narratives, with his specific perspective, which can keep his stories from dissolving into bombast: the idea that Peele’s critiquing gestures really mean something, rather than simply offering the usual glossy wrap of pseudo-meaning over the usual Hollywood bombast, is a big part of his cachet.

At the same time, Peele has also shown savvy commercial instincts. Get Out resisted going anywhere near as dark and mean as it might have, and whilst Us embraced a more surreal and allegorical aesthetic, also only took it so far: in the end it was still, mostly, the story of a threatened nuclear family winning through against erupting boogeymen. Nor were they so sharp a pivot from his previous metier of comedy as they might seem superficially. Get Out had a simmering sense of satirical bite and drollery throughout, such as the famous liberal cliche utterances of the white family’s patriarch (Bradley Whitford), like how he would’ve voted for Barack Obama a third time, and an encounter with one of their victims, the body of a young black man now inhabited by an old white bourgeois, that was pure sitcom shtick. Both Get Out and Us were preoccupied by imposters, absorption, and doppelgangers, concerns he took a few steps further in Us where the central family were confronted by chthonic lookalikes, representing a kind of shadow realm of the oppressed and excluded, with the ultimate twist proving that the mother is herself an escaped double, having forcibly swapped places with her overworld counterpart, who is now leading the buried horde in revenge.

Nope tries to move on a degree from the preoccupations of Peele’s first two films, which is both a good idea in theory but in practice one that doesn’t work so well for him. Nope strongly recalls Shyamalan’s Signs (2002): like that film it depicts an alien invasion, constantly teased in oblique and fleeting ways before finally resolving into a heroic tale of little people standing up to cosmic menace. Peele’s story and style are however better described as an oddball forced mating of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), borrowing many beats from each: the incredible, elusive visitor from the sky is also the territorial man-eating monster. Peele, despite his success thus far, occupies a potentially hazardous place in contemporary screen culture. He has been so eagerly embraced as a figure that many felt American film desperately needed that everything he does has to be met as either total greatness or risk sour disillusionment, rather than simply being a new and talented genre film voice. Well, the first third of Nope is quite strong – indeed, whilst watching it I felt the film was shaping up as Peele’s best yet. He expertly creates, as he did in the fairground prologue of Us, a mood of cryptic menace and simmering tension whilst playing patient games with perspective, as OJ and Emerald keep getting fleeting hints of the nature of their strange and malevolent new neighbour. Peele uses sound well, particularly in the suggestive gruesome shrieks of the horses echoing down from the sky after being swallowed. In one particularly effective and creepy sequence, OJ is menaced by what look like humanoid alien creatures stalking him around his darkened stables at night, only to realise they’re just Jupe and Amber’s teenage sons in costume, playing a prank as payback for Emerald stealing one of their horse statues to use as bait for the alien.

The title’s blunt, folksy quality is constantly uttered by characters throughout, mostly when confronted by sights that confound their sense of reality and set off a profound war of impulses on the basic level of fight or flight. It also signals the way the film seems constantly at odds with itself, toying with being a kind of send-up rooted in a particular tenor of Black scepticism, whilst also trying to reap the popular benefits of a good old Spielbergian ride. I’ve suspected that Peele might get into trouble when he tried more boldly to crossbreed his penchant for horror with his reflexes as a comedic writer. Not in the sense that he tries to apply too much humour to Nope – in fact it could do with more humour than it has, and might have been better pitched as a blend of laughs and suspense like, say, Tremors (1990) – but he applies a fondness for unexpected segues and bizarre pivots to his essentially straight-laced core story. The most significant subplot of Nope involves Jupe’s experience as a child actor, specifically the infamous incident on a sitcom called Gordy’s Home which he featured on in the ‘90s, opposite a trained chimpanzee who played the titular Gordy, and the two of them “invented” their signature gesture of an exploding fist-bump. But Gordy went berserk during filming one day thanks to some random fright, and brutally killed several of Jupe’s costars. Peele keeps teasing this event through snatched glimpses, including right at the start and then a brief vision of the terrified young Jupe (Jacob Kim) hiding under a table and trying not to attract the crazed animal’s attention. Peele effectively employs this vignette after Jupe has wriggled out of recounting the event to the Haywoods during a business meeting. Jupe instead takes refuge in talking up a Saturday Night Live skit that made dark sport of the incident.

This segue has some evident personal meaning and insider referential appeal for Peele as a wry glance into the world of TV he emerged from, bringing up once-famous, half-forgotten comedy stars like Chris Kattan. Jupe mythologises the greatness of the skit before the trauma he’s trying to suppress is then seen by the audience. Later, Peele gives a more sustained version of Jupe’s memory, his perspective on the event used to avoid showing gory detail whilst still putting across a grim sense of the event’s dreadful violence. Eventually the resolution is presented: Gordy approaches Jupe not to attack but to seek their signature gesture, the ape suddenly just a pathetic, frightened animal needing its costar’s assurance, only for the ape to be gunned down, his blood spraying across Jupe’s face. This portion of Nope is striking and the film’s highpoint in many ways: it’s a more effective moment of restrained horror than the more accidentally silly depiction of people being sucked into the interior of the alien. But Gordy’s rampage isn’t convincing or realistic in its details. Peele requires a CGI chimp to impersonate that kind of deadly ferocity, and we’re forced to wonder why there wasn’t an animal wrangler on the set. Also, the way the fake portions we see of Gordy’s Home lampoons a style of family sitcom that died with the ‘80s, although admittedly Peele does an uncanny job recreating that style. It made me wonder if this was a sketch Peele wrote out and, realising there was no way in hell he could get it made as a feature, decided to weave it into this script.

How this aspect of the story connects to the rest of Nope is tangential but, to be fair, also suggestive. Peele hints Jupe has a pathological need to get close to another monster and make it the star of another act of showbiz hoopla, as if to prove even the wildest, strangest, most inhuman thing can be made amenable to the pleasures of being a celebrity. Holst later makes this idea more literal when he notes the sad fate of tiger-taming performers Siegfried and Roy. When the Gordy element is connected with OJ’s unfortunate sobriquet, it seems Peele’s trying to make a mea culpa-tinged point about the industry of comedy making sport of all kinds of tragic stuff such as was rife in ‘90s American TV culture. This is interesting, but it quickly reaps multiplying problems. Firstly, it makes Jupe a more interesting and indeed more detailed character than the Haywoods, privileging his background and formative experiences with vivid and galvanising power, and yet Peele keeps Jupe a peripheral and blandly executed figure. He should be the focus, a beaming, televisually canny Ahab stirring up monsters. With Nope the lurking point of all this is at once obvious and feebly interrogated: it proposes to be about the nature of spectacle itself, of show business and performance and reality and authenticity in age where those things have become perhaps irreparably blurred. This is literalised by having the monster attracted by being looked at, whilst its presence causes electrical systems to fail, making filming it extremely difficult. Our heroes then must find a way of both looking and not looking at the alien: they most pointedly cannot gaze on in awe like Spielberg’s people.

To this end, after Angel’s security cameras fail, the Haywoods turn to Holst, a portentous being who sits around watching nature documentary footage of predators chasing and consuming prey – thematics are being underlined, dig. Wincott brings his long-neglected but still-persuasive gravel-voiced gravitas to a role that’s pitched as Werner Herzog playing the Quint role, but he’s stuck with a one-dimensional part. His final act of self-annihilating consequence – “We don’t deserve the impossible,” he utters gnomically to Angel before venturing up to get the ultimate shot of being sucked up into the alien’s maw – aims for a note of crazy, nihilistic bravado but feels more like, once more, Peele taking an easy way out of resolving one of his story elements with some shallow portent. Angel himself, winningly played by Perea, is in many ways the film’s most vivid and believable presence, a shambolic character still processing a bad break-up and taking refuge in nerdy frippery. He attaches himself to the reluctant Haywoods to become an unshakeable if jumpy collaborator in their hunt. Both he and Emerald are driven frantic when a praying mantis insists on perching itself before one of their new surveillance cameras just as the UFO appears.

Nope essentially replays, in less funny and snappy fashion, the driving joke from a portion of The Simpsons’ episode “Treehouse of Horror VI”, which depicted an onslaught by advertising signs and mascots suddenly come to life, and could only be defeated by not being looked at, a weapon ironically facilitated with an advertising jingle warbled by Paul Anka. Rather than following such a mischievously satirical bent, Peele tries an each-way bet, wanting the respectability of inferred parable and the base rewards of crowd-pleasing. Peele also steals an idea from The Trollenberg Terror (1958), as it’s eventually revealed by Angel, scanning the ranch’s security footage, that the UFO hides behind a perpetually present, stationary cloud just about the valley. The alien  itself (which I’ll call it although Peele ultimately never defines what it is), once properly glimpsed proves to be saucer-shaped but when looked at beam-on looks like a gigantic eye in the sky – thematics still being underlined, folks. Towards the end it unfolds as a diaphanously swirling thing, like a mating of kite and jellyfish, and with a square eye – the most extreme possible variation on the old parental warning to kids that too much screen time will make their eyes go square? Anyway, it’s clearly an attempt by Peele to come up with something new and interesting in movie monsters, but it just looks, well, silly.

As these misjudged ideas accumulate whilst the threat and its underpinning metaphors emerge into view, Nope, after its promising early scenes, start to slide vertiginously downhill. Where in Us Peele’s spongily fable-like underpinnings gained a certain amount of power through his filmmaking, Nope fails for the same reason. But let me define what I mean by fable, which is a seemingly simple, naïve form of storytelling that privileges the illustration of emotion, ideas, and a certain kind of dream logic over rigorous narrative. In both Get Out and Us the mechanics of Peele’s plots bore no scrutiny, for the most part deliberately, I felt. The conceit of the underground tunnels and anti-people they housed were presented as nominally present in a kind of reality but were rather an illustration of a psychological zone. It was absurd that Allison Williams’ girlfriend character in Get Out had to role-play and prostitute herself for months on end just to nab one schmuck college student, when surely it could have been accomplished in an hour. But the object there was to chart the double goad to the hero’s aspiration and anxiety about the many barbs of interracial love. If one took Peele’s films on such a level, they worked. If you didn’t, you were in trouble. As for me, well, as I often do, I hovered somewhere between.

On a more prosaic level, Nope indicates that, good as he is at building mystery and tension, Peele is still quite clumsy at orchestrating large-scale action, in a manner already hinted at with aspects of the climactic scenes of Us. We get endless shots of OJ riding around on his horse without any particular sense of his objectives or tactics, when the alien can hoover him at will. There’s an old trope in monster movies that’s been sardonically recognised by fans where incredibly dangerous and threatening forces easily decimate hapless victims in early scenes but for some reason can’t quite get to grips with the heroes because, well, they’re the heroes, and this phenomenon is so pronounced here it could represent it from now on.  Also, the plotting is almost perversely clumsy. The finale hinges on the sudden intrusion of an unwelcome visitor as the Haywoods, Angel, and Holst are trying to lure in the monster so Holst can film it on a hand-cranked camera. The visitor proves to be some jerk online journalist riding a motorcycle. His kinship with the alien as an embodiment of the voracious eye is unsubtly suggested by having him wear a crash helmet that is, like the UFO, silver and sporting one large, dark orb for vision. He soon gets himself stupidly killed, which proves fortuitous as Emerald eventually commandeers his bike to lure the alien into a trap. Was this an aim all along? Or did it just occur to Emerald? Meanwhile OJ seems to be swallowed up by the monster only to emerge unharmed later, a la Hooper in Jaws.

Peele could get away with fuzziness on story details in his earlier films because of that aforementioned fable quality. But the kind of story Nope tells lives and dies on a precise sense of how elements interact. The alien is supposed to be attracted by things that look back, and can tell when it’s being looked at by some tiny animal from a long distance, but cannot distinguish between living creatures and inanimate objects. Its kryptonite, amongst all the non-organic material it tends to suck up, proves to be small plastic string flags, which it first swallows when sucking up the horse statue around which some are wrapped. Later Emerald weaponises these indigestible things against it. Which, frankly, is damn near as a stupid as the water-kills-aliens reveal at the climax of Signs. This frustratingly points up the awkwardness of Peele trying to subsume that sweeping, compulsive blockbuster appeal whilst also maintaining a slight tint of the arbitrarily ridiculous in the unfolding action.

Peele interpolates a few of his now-familiar flourishes of racial consciousness-provoking, particularly in making the Haywoods the imagined descendants of a black jockey filmed by Eadweard Muybridge in his pioneering photographic studies, and also prominently featuring a poster for the relatively obscure but hardly suppressed Black Western Buck and the Preacher (1972). The object here is pretty patent, teasing the presence of a Black influence in cinema and its most stereotypically white American genre in particular. But part of me also wondered if Peele threw such flourishes in to make critics do the heavy lifting of inferring that he’s made some kind of profound parable, instead of a disjointed, half-digested one. Particularly in floating that dubious proposition that “everybody knows who Eadweard Muybridge is.” There’s also OJ’s name, which plays on evoking its bearer’s sense of exposure and connecting to that meditation on horror as exploited in the mass media, but also begs the question of who would keep insisting on calling their kid that when growing up in the last thirty years. There might have been some potential in the ironic portrait of Black and Asian-Americans applying their talents and identities to the cultural tradition of the Western, but again, it doesn’t progress much further than ultimately affirming OJ as a classical genre hero who looks good on a horse.

Kaluuya is a good actor – he was the visual and performative linchpin of Get Out as the bewildered, naïve, victimised protagonist, and was also great in the exact opposite kind of role as a vicious criminal in Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018). But he’s entirely miscast here playing a brooding cowboy, which makes OJ something of a nonentity. He’s supposed to be a strong, silent type who comes to life as his best gifts are provoked, but he remains out of focus. Palmer compensates with an energetic performance, even as I never quite bought Emerald as a character either. Peele presents the Haywoods as a mismatched pair of personalities, Emerald garrulous and slick, a creature geared to perform in a world of modern media, where OJ is shy and wounded and old-fashioned in his enclosed masculinity. Their chief bond is in their uneasy relationship with their father and his unpredictable, sometimes hurtful ways, ways which bound OJ closer to him and pushed Emerald on her own path but left both unfulfilled. Peele’s attempts to give them some personal totemic investment in the battle with the alien feel forced. At one point Emerald recalls how Otis Snr once proposed to give to her horse named Jean Jacket, but then took back to use on a film shoot, only for OJ to later dub the alien Jean Jacket as if to make it the embodiment of their angst.

The mixture here is of squelchy hipster humour – oh, Jean Jacket, that’s so retro and uncool – and unconvincing emotional ploys. Peele similarly has, in a visual pastiche-cum-lampoon of Quint’s monologue in Jaws, Holst sing the lyrics of “Flying Purple People Eater” in a gravely raspy way. All this is the sort of thing Peele ought sensibly have dumped on his second draft of the script, along with the plastic flags thing. Which really only points to the major lack of the film’s climactic scenes, which is any genuine sense of dramatic tension between the Haywoods in their aims in dealing with their quarry. Perhaps Emerald, in her need for validation, might have been made more and more maniacally determined to photograph the alien, whilst OJ becomes increasingly heated in his determination to simply kill the thing that eats his beloved animals and inadvertently killed his father. Instead, their relationship is by and large stated and then allowed to coast. There’s no particularly palpable sense of danger to either, which means there’s never any, genuine thrill to their eventual triumph. Much of the power of Get Out came, for me at any rate, not from the racial provocation but from the portrayal of romantic disillusionment, which culminated in the hero impotently trying to strangle his blankly treacherous lover: that was an idea, an image, a feeling, that communicated a sense of real danger.

The finale makes a big deal of Emerald finally trying to capture the alien’s photo on the old-timey tintype carousel camera that’s used a gimmicky tourist trap on Jupe’s ranch, whilst distracting and killing it by releasing a flag-bedecked balloon mascot. This touch tries to close a loop of meaning with Muybridge’s photography, and perhaps might intend to suggest the only the way to break through to true original vision is to wield a painstaking method with essential tools. Or is it just something as trite as old-timey stuff trumps modern junk? Either way, everything about this struck me as laboured. Nope holds not just the sight of the alien but most of its ideas and feelings in a kind of dip-eyed cringe, and it can’t even quite land the straightforward monster movie is essentially is. It made me long for the potency of something like Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob (1988), which also feels like an influence in the mix here – the kind of old-school genre film that easily encompassed its revisionism and charged subtexts whilst sprinting onwards with crazy energy and careless gore. Never mind anything by Peele’s genre hero John Carpenter. Nope isn’t a bad film exactly. It’s well-made on all technical levels and for a while at least drags you along with its teases. And yet it never coheres, and by the end, rather than feeling Peele had broken through to new ground, I felt he’d made something closer to a car crash. Which might, in the end, be good for him. Peele can just be a filmmaker now.

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2000s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Horror/Eerie

Death Proof (2007)

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Director / Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Death Proof has been the problem child in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography since it was released, when it proved the director’s only real box office failure after the zeitgeist-inflecting success of his early work. Even Tarantino himself more or less wrote it off as a miscalculation. But Death Proof stands as a pivotal moment in his oeuvre, literally and figuratively, if not for all the right reasons. Counting the two halves of Kill Bill (2003-4) as one movie, and diplomatically ignoring the portion of Four Rooms (1995) he made, Death Proof emerged exactly half-way through his directing career to date, the median point for Tarantino’s first four films and his subsequent four. The film’s initial failure was largely due to the intriguing but ultimately cockamamie conceit that birthed it. Tarantino and fellow independent film zero-to-hero Robert Rodriguez, who had previously collaborated on the Rodriguez-directed, Tarantino-written From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), wanted to revive and celebrate a lapsed tradition: the double bill they and many another movie freak once blissed out on in seamy movie theatres dubbed “grindhouses,” in the days before the age of VHS and the multiplex changed how movies were consumed. The two directors hatched the concept of Grindhouse, under the banner of which they would each offer a movie riffing on a classic brand of trashy genre fare. In the grindhouse manner, when retitling of movies was common, Death Proof itself is revealed to be the hastily inserted new title of a film called Thunder Bolt.

Rodriguez, for his part, made Planet Terror, a sci-fi horror crossbreed and freeform blend of George Romero, early James Cameron, and the kinds of movies turned out under the auspices of Roger Corman and Charles Band. Tarantino elected to make Death Proof, a characteristically eccentric twist on the hallowed tropes of the slasher movie. The two movies would be served up in a manner resembling the often scratched, shortened, scrambled prints that screened in those theatres, and connected by a number of trailers for other, imaginary horror and action movies. Grindhouse was gleefully defined by innate ironies, as a tribute to the fly-by-night world and rough-and-ready aesthetics of another age of moviemaking and viewing, and a supersized hipster-cineaste burlesque-cum-fetish object, executed with a big budget and classy collaborators. Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, and Eli Roth contributed unnervingly convincing fake trailers. But when Grindhouse proved a flop, largely for its unwieldy length and confusing marketing, Death Proof and its companion piece were rereleased separately, as was always the intention for the films’ European release (where the double bill tradition was much less common) and for home viewing, with scenes left out of the initial versions for the sake of running time and humour value restored.

Of the two films, Rodriguez’s fun, silly, gruesome semi-spoof seemed the more appropriate considering the project it was part of (and it is indeed probably Rodriguez’s best film). Whereas Death Proof was criticised and rejected by many as rather too eccentric and particular. When Tarantino moved on, he kicked off a string of absurdist-revisionist period movies with Inglourious Basterds (2009), leaving behind the most noticeable thread of his films up until Death Proof, their fascination with contrasting the heightened-to-epic-proportions effects of genre film with the petty weirdness of modern life. But I’ve regarded as Death Proof as one of Tarantino’s finest achievements since my first viewing, and have even ventured to call it my personal favourite, although an oeuvre as generally strong as his that can change from viewing to viewing. Certainly Death Proof is a movie that pushes certain tendencies of Tarantino’s style to an extreme perhaps just beyond its popular understanding, which is doubly ironic considering the film’s nominal function as a celebration of the trashier delights of moviegoing, as both as a work about the cinephilia Tarantino is so strongly associated with, and a self-reflexive, self-satirising work that today carries echoes very likely beyond what was intended.

Death Proof is a movie purposefully constructed in two halves, each defined by a sinuously detailed and conversation-driven slow-burn capped by eruptions of floridly filmed violent action, Tarantino the archly theatrical composer of dialogues and Tarantino the high cinema maven in extended argument. Of all his films it’s the least baroquely plot-driven, but is also actually perhaps his cleverly layered labour of narrative dexterity, functioning as straightforward thriller, a laidback and counterintuitive deconstruction of such a thriller, and a work of self-reflexive critique all at once. Tarantino tried to mate the radically disparate sectors of cinema that regularly preoccupy his movies in a particularly delicate balancing act of form and function – the very different brands of interpersonal filmmaking of the Howard Hawks-esque “hangout” movie and the dryly observational method of post-Jim Jarmusch indie film, crashing against the down-and-dirty pleasures of 1970s genre film and French New Wave-inspired self-consciously postmodern showmanship.

Time has also provided more discomforting subtexts: Death Proof, which deals explicitly with a predatory man who works in the film industry setting out to violate and destroy women he can’t have, was produced by the movie mogul and serial sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein, and prominently features at least one of his victims, Rose McGowan. There’s also some fascinating echoes of the car crash Uma Thurman suffered in making Kill Bill, on which Death Proof’s heroine, the stunt performer Zoë Bell, had served as Thurman’s stunt double.  Heavy stuff indeed to attach to a film by and large defined by a generally vibrant, collegial tone. Except that tenor was always superficial: Death Proof always contained a sardonic commentary on the misogyny too often inherent in the slasher movie and the problems of converting an inner fantasy landscape into the actuality of a film production, and a work that digs into the relationship between cinema and sexuality with covert bite. The basic plot presents what could be described as twinned variations on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), as it charts two disparate groups of young women, both of whom become objects of obsession for a nefarious serial killer, ‘Stuntman’ Mike McCay (Kurt Russell). The entirety of the film depicts each group’s encounters with Mike and the small, almost logarithmic variances that see one group fall victim to him and the other prove capable of fighting back. One of which is, of course, familiarity with old movies.

The first group is a gang of friends recently reunited in Austin, Texas: radio DJ ‘Jungle’ Julia Lucai (Sydney Poitier), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) go out for a night of sowing wild oats. The second group are all friends who know each-other from working on film crews – makeup artist Abernathy ‘Abbie’ Ross (Rosario Dawson), actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and stunt performers Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoë (Bell, playing a version of herself), who converge to work on a movie shoot in Lebanon, Tennessee, and encounter Mike during a harebrained escapade rooted in Zoe and Kim’s shared ardour for daredevilry and cinephilia, as Zoe obliges her friends to help her in her quest to borrow a 1970 Dodge Challenger from a farmer who’s selling it so she can execute her fantasy of riding on the exterior – a stunt she calls “Ship’s Mast” – of the car from Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971). The algorithmic structure of the film, with its twinned gangs of female friends, nods to the wash-rinse-repeat narrative replication of, for instance, the Friday the 13th series, whilst also performing revisionism. The lengthy yammering sessions between the two girl gangs explicates subtle differences in character and outlook as well as positing plot points, and in the second half the traits and characters of the female friends are purposefully laid out to make the audience aware of the various factors that will lead them to be triumphant over Mike rather than just be more victims.

One obvious and distinctive quality of Death Proof in Tarantino’s oeuvre is that it’s a movie mostly populated by and entirely concerned with women characters, if also following Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill with their female protagonists. This is partly a by-product of shifting ground to Horror cinema referencing as opposed to Tarantino’s usual stoping ground of crime thrillers and action movies, and also one accomplished with the director’s typical eccentricity as Tarantino blesses its performers with dialogue comprised of typically stylised Tarantino argot. Much of the film simply seems to consist, superficially at least, of the two gangs talking about jobs and relationships and hunting for a good time, unfolding in quasi-naturalistic manner that perhaps comes the closest of all Tarantino’s films to one of his acknowledged cinematic models, Howard Hawks. A lengthy conversation between the second gang whilst eating lunch in a diner sees Tarantino shooting it in the same manner as he did the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs (1992), turning into a conscious walk-through of his own stylistic reflexes, an algorithmic variation on his own cinema as well as of a certain genre.

Part of the design of Death Proof as a unit in the Grindhouse project was to recreate the exploitative and sexed-up aesthetic of ‘70s genre film with an edge of self-conscious irony. This intent is nodded to in a series of visuals in the opening credits laced with sarcastic commentary on the gazing – the long-legged Julia, strutting about her apartment in panties with butt impudently twitching, lies down underneath a poster of a starlet in the same pose; the camera zeroes in on Arlene’s crotch as she dashes up to Julia’s apartment but with urinating rather than horniness the spur. Later there’s a sequence in which Arlene performs a lap dance for Mike. But where your classical grindhouse movie was making its connections between sexuality and horror on a purely mercenary level, Death Proof is playing multiple games, the cheery recreation of a gauche aesthetic constantly underpinned by a narrative built around sexual display and frustration, one in which Tarantino repeatedly emphasises masculine attempts to defeat the essential and ultimate control of sex by women. This is depicted in the course of fairly normal sexual gamesmanship when out on the town but also on the ultimate, pathological level Mike espouses. In Arlene, Julia, and Shanna’s first conversation together as they drive through the streets of Austin, power dynamics underlying sex are a constant refrain, as Arlene explains her policy of trying to keep her boyfriends a little sex-starved to maintain firm control of her relationships, and Shanna comments wryly on Julia’s habits of flirting with Shanna’s father, to Julia calm retort, “I have my own relationship with Ben – you’re just jealous because it don’t include you.”

The interpersonal dynamics of the gang sketched in the scene point to the recurring notes struck in the film’s first half, particularly Julia’s too-cool-for-school persona and habit of playing queen bee and impresario. These stretch to setting up Arlene as butt of a slow-burn prank , having announced on her radio show that her friend from out of town is looking for a mate and will give a lap dance to any man who can successfully recite a certain poem to her. Julia’s habits of bullying are later resentfully recounted by Pam, and despite the good-humoured and sexy package Julia tries to wrap it in, her prank on Arlene has much the same flavour. Shanna herself wryly calls her “mean girl in a high school movie,” although Julia’s more positive traits are also apparent, as when she solicitously and apologetically nurses Arlene through disappointment. The arts of social discourse and sexual gamesmanship are themselves the subject of dramaturgical precision, as Julia insists on illustrating the scenario she’s dreamed up for Arlene by roping in her actress friend Marcy (Marcy Harriell) to role-play with Arlene, and the two do such a good job of recreating the flirtatious art that Shanna comments, “Y’all are making me hot!,” whilst Arlene gets revenge by provoking Julia with racially tinted scorn for her physique. Soon after, Arlene glimpses an old, souped-up, black-painted and menacingly detailed car cruising by the place where they eat lunch. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s had her first encounter with Mike, the man stalking her and her friends across town.

The first group encounter Mike in the flesh at the Texas Chili Parlour, a tavern belonging by Warren (Tarantino), where they drink with random boys whilst awaiting a pot-dealing friend, Lanna Frank (Monica Staggs), before they head on to a girls-only retreat at Shanna’s father’s lake house. Mike sits at the bar, despite being a proclaimed teetotaller, and offers to give a ride home to Pam (Rose McGowan), a former classmate of Julia’s but not a friend, left stranded by a date who didn’t show. Mike’s affectation of placid congeniality makes him seem like a rock of gentlemanly rectitude around which the river of nocturnal boozing flows, compared to the spivs who set out to seduce the girls, Dov (Roth), Nate (Omar Doom), and Omar (Michael Bacall), although, with his prominent facial scar, he’s also a strikingly odd presence. The younger men launch sniggering, whispered jibes his way when they take in both his disfigurement and his generally antiquated veneer of cool, in between plotting with aggressive intent to get the girls drunk and wheedle their way into joining them at the lake house. “If a guy’s buying the drinks, a fucking bitch’ll drink anything,” Dov declares as if expounding the Talmud of scoring. Mike’s arsenal for picking up is deployed throughout the night, including name-dropping the once-famous TV personalities he used to double for, drawing blank looks from the twenty-somethings he’s out to impress. He does better when carefully targeting anyone slightly split off the pack: most immediately Pam, and also Arlene, who has, despite her displeasure at Julia’s prank, been disappointed it hasn’t paid off in gaining her masses of male attention: Mike cleverly goads her into performing the much-anticipated lap-dance for his benefit.

As usual for Tarantino, familiar genre tropes and the presence of the fantastical are posited in an otherwise studiously mundane, if not exactly realistic, world, where style and substance have peculiar, be-bop-like interactions. The other major dialogue in the drama is one of age. This is couched in both human terms, with Mike the angry, damaged relic amidst a youth culture that, like all youth cultures, firmly believes it invented the pleasures of getting wasted and laid on a Saturday night and heedlessly pursues its wont, and in cultural and cinematic terms. The dance through the familiar landmarks of the classical slasher movie is eccentric, the beats all askew, the points of concentration distorted but recognisable. The long, ambling scenes in the Texas Chili Parlour are actually ingeniously choreographed in the outlay of characterisation and seemingly happenstance yet ultimately purposeful detail, under the guise of depicting messy, formless fun. Vignettes flow like the rain pouring outside, from Shanna telling off Dov for mispronouncing her name “Shauna” to Arlene succumbing to the requests of Nate to go make out in his car for a while, heroically brandishing an umbrella for her courtly protection (“You have two jobs – kiss good, and make sure my hair don’t wet.”). Complicating notes are struck: Julia’s stature in her gang and as a minor celebrity is juxtaposed with her increasing romantic frustration with her sometime filmmaker boyfriend, Christian Simonson, with whom she swaps text messages through the night only to get increasingly irritated when he doesn’t turn up.

Death Proof then seems to less to the vicissitudes of seamy genre film than to the particular accent of American indie film as mapped out by John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch, and Tarantino found his toehold in whilst not so subtly perverting it – mundanely preoccupied, dialogue-driven, concerned with mapping behaviour and charting the semi-underground life of bohemians and outsiders in American life and the dreamy textures of its pop cultural inheritance. When Tarantino does have to do some plain plot progression, he manages to approach it with a simultaneous mixture of showmanship and affected blasé disinterest, most wittily purveyed when Warren tells one of his employees (Marta Mendoza) to turn on a light in the parking lot, so she listlessly flips the switch. Cut to without, as Arlene, relaxing by herself and smoking a cigarette, suddenly beholding the sight of Mike’s car revealed by the sudden illumination, the lurking presence of menace and the patterns in the algorithm wheeling about her suddenly beginning to come into focus. Later Arlene tells Mike his car makes her uncomfortable, but he’s able to disarm her instinctive worry by readily and happily posing as a good old-fashioned horndog on the prowl essentially after the same thing she is. Mike’s scar carries a host of associations, linking him to the disfigured murderers of films like Friday the 13th (1980) and The Burning (1981) but also to Scar of The Searchers (1956) and through him to Ahab, captain of another marauding, doom-purveying craft in combat with nature itself.

Mike’s pathology however must wreak its vengeance not on a mindless symbol but on the taunting, wilful, immediate presence of young women. Mike tolerates slights and humiliations all night with a patient, foreboding expectation of payback, with his preselected gallery of lovelies. He keeps photos of the gang he’s targeting pinned to the sunshade of his car, all taken with a telephoto lens, describing them as his “girlfriends.” Russell’s ingenious performance depends on the easy masculine charm that always defined him as a star and helps put across a sense of roguish, conspiratorial energy for the audience to share, down to smiling directly at the camera just before commencing his project of murder. As a role, Mike demands that kind of innate audience liking, before he’s eventually revealed to be less the familiar kind of forbidding and determined Horror movie villain, invulnerable a la Michael Myers to pain and unswerving in purpose, than a Looney Tunes-like character, alternating puffed-up delusions of potency and absurdist displays of pain and frustration, able to violate the fourth wall but still imprisoned by the whims of his creator, a la Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck (1953). Mike has pretences to being the director in his little drama as well as the stuntman, casting his bevies of beauties and forcing them to performers.

When the evening at the Parlour finally runs its course and everyone starts heading off their disparate destinations, Mike successfully lures Pam into his car, which he explains is “death proof,” carefully reinforced to protect the driver from injury during stunts. But the unfortunate passenger is not so protected, and is indeed caged and unprotected, and Mike veers about wildly to knock Pam to a bloody pulp even as she begs him to stop and tries, with a note of pathos as she tries to use a note desperate humour to disarm him (“I get it’s a joke and its really funny…”) before Mike performs his coup-de-grace with awful, mocking relish, slamming on the brakes and bashing her head in on the dashboard. This scene is singular in Tarantino’s oeuvre as a pivot to genuine, intimate cruelty, resisting the cartoonish safety-valve quality of much of his depictions of violence, instead properly discomforting in confronting the awful intimacy of misogynistic torment and victim plight. McGowan’s unnervingly convincing playing of the scene enforces this, whilst Russell expertly conveys the slipping of the mask he has worn through the previous scenes, the smouldering anger and relish for annihilating what he can’t have.

Alongside his dialogue, Tarantino’s most famous trait is his penchant for slow-burning suspense in long, nerve-wracking sequences that build and pay off in unpredictable ways. This is famously evinced in sequences like the cop’s torture in Reservoir Dogs, the tavern scene in Inglourious Basterds, and the dinner at Candyland in Django Unchained (2012). Death Proof marked an attempt to push that tendency as far as it would go by Tarantino, anticipating Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood (2019) in essentially offering a film that almost entirely devoted to that slow burn, building through the course of its twinned halves to eruptions of violent action. In this case, because he’s riffing on the slasher movie with its subtextual connection between a violent act and a sexual one, the evocation of desire and its eradication in terms of the filmic image, as well as the more obvious and literal conception of Mike as an aging lothario with a sexual problem who can only “shoot his goo” by killing his objects of desire, the structuring of Death Proof is inherently sexual, punctuated by two orgasmic moments of carnage. After killing Pam, Mike subsequently chases down of the other girls – Julia, Arlene, Shanna, and Lanna racing down the highway rocking out to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mitch and Titch’s “Hold Tight” – and rams their car head on, shattering and mangling their bodies and destroying their car whilst his flips crazily down the road.

This scene is a highpoint of 21st century cinema as a piece of set-piece filmmaking that announces its own construction with hues of sarcasm – the elaborate means Julia has to go to get just the right song to score thrilling highway action (she calls up a fellow DJ at her radio station to make the request) and Mike’s vicious showmanship (calculatedly turning out his headlights a split-second before ramming their car to dazzle them). The thunder of the crash pays off the slow burn in a pure spectacle of terrible physical damage examined in forensic, instant-replay detail: a squall of shattered glass through which sails Julia’s pathetically severed leg, whilst Arlene’s face is torn off by a tyre and Shanna is launched like a bottle rocket through the windscreen and crashes against the tarmac. The peculiar quality of all this, over and above the intricate brilliance of the filmmaking which far excels just about any movie it’s riffing on on a technique level, is that Tarantino has actually succeeded in making a Horror movie that critiques the Horror movie and also fulfils it to the letter, having set up victims in reasonable depth and sympathy and sacrificing them all to the dark gods anyway.

Tarantino’s fadeout from the scene of carnage leads to a subsequent scene in a hospital where Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) and his son and deputy Edgar (James Parks) discussing Mike’s seemingly miraculous survival and minor injuries, as Earl analyses the crash and immediately picks it as a calculated murder that will be impossible to prove as such thanks to Mike’s carefully contrived stage management of the event. This scene mediates the film and provides several strands of meta meaning: McGraw, a character created for From Dusk Till Dawn and subsequently featured in Kill Bill alongside Edgar, is the quintessential crusty, canny old Texas lawman, and in the Tarantino universe graced with dimension-hopping and death-defying abilities, appearing along with his son and his daughter Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) who had also appeared with her father in Planet Terror, acting here as Mike’s physician who explains the painful but essentially superficial injuries he took in the crash.  Earl’s keenness as a lawman immediately sees through Mike’s smokescreen, and he suggests and then rejects a possible course of action in relentlessly hounding Mike to catch him up but elects against it, declaring he can at least make “goddamn sure he don’t do it again in Texas.” Whilst the meta-narrative trappings are superfluous in a film that’s otherwise highly sophisticated in such things, this scene finds a witty way of plodding through a necessary point of exposition, with Earl tantalisingly raising the notion of becoming a dogged nemesis to Mike as in some Horror movies only to decide the remainder of his life would be better spent “following the Nascar circuit.”

The second half, announced with dry humour in white-on-black titles declaring a shift to “Lebanon” before amending that to “Lebanon, Tennessee,” varies the algorithm whilst returning to particular images and actions, such as a more attentive member of the girl gang noticing Mike’s hovering presence as he loops back in his car for another gawk at his prey. Movie jokes proliferate with viral rapidity, befitting the half of the movie that’s looking back on itself, trapping the story told in the first half within the cage of revision. Lee, the designated hot young starlet, is delighted by any media coverage of herself and gets Abbie to buy a magazine she’s featured in. She also wears a cheerleader outfit throughout, for the role she’s playing in the movie she’s filming and likely to look cute, a character joke that’s also a nod to the hallowed traditions of the teen Horror movie. Noticing this, the cashier in a 7/11 sells the women a copy of the Italian edition of Vogue like an illicit drag stash. The area that’s supposed to be rural Tennessee is actually a stretch of California that also looks a lot like the kinds of Australian outback locale many an Ozploitation action film was shot in. Tarantino kicks off the second half in employing black-and-white as the viewpoint is temporarily that of Mike, as he hovers around the women he’s spying on, insinuating himself into their zone of existence. He pushes his daring fetishism and sense of secret possession to the limit, sneaking up on the snoozing Abbie with her feet jutting from a parked car’s window and caressing them until she snaps awake.

Whilst it’s tempting to push a little too far and claim Death Proof is a kind of secret parable for Weinstein’s behaviour and Thurman’s crash, it’s also difficult to deny from today’s vantage that both inform it to a degree. But ultimately it’s Tarantino’s ultimate, ironic commentary on the vicissitudes of being a filmmaker. Tarantino posits himself in the film in multiple guises, turning the nominal drama into a labyrinth leading back to himself as impresario of sex and violence. He’s Warren, the garrulous, party-mongering bar owner just trying to make everyone happy. He’s Julia, trying to arrange playlets of character and frisson-inducing encounters with friends as performers, and digging up classic songs to pervade life with a perfectly curated life soundtrack. He’s Mike himself, the guy who knows all the details to forgotten pop culture and feels frustrated nobody speaks his language these days, as well as the aging wolf frustrated he’s losing his youth culture cachet. He’s the much-mentioned director “Cecil” who’s directing the movies the second gang are working on, who has maintained his sexual status through being the locus of authority in his little world. And he is himself, in the director’s chair offscreen, heard calling “Got it!” at the end of a brief scene, mimicking the opening shots in Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), where the move camera becomes a spying still camera, focusing on and taking unknowing possession of women about to fall prey to a killer.

This multivalent presence of Tarantino is both an ultimate statement of auteurist ownership and ego domain and a dissection of it. However playfully, Tarantino both celebrates and indicts himself as the particular gateway for a work of cinema where sexuality is both constantly evoked and portrayed but also necessarily sublimated into the flow of images, in the context of genre and mainstream cinema niceties where the orgasmic is registered through displaced destruction. This directly engages with and animates a familiar idea of criticism of the slasher movie, that with its deliberately blank-slate killers and common use of first-person camerawork, the style of the slasher was designed to allow the audience to experience the pleasure and frustration of the stalking killer trying to possess/annihilate the object it pursues. Tarantino links this quirk of style to the act of directing itself, at once constructing and destroying fetish objects and doppelgangers. And the inverse of that, the creation of heroic and empowering figures whose vitality can sometimes slip the bonds a creator can put on them. Much as the crazy proliferation of women-in-peril movies in the 1970s and ‘80s Horror films eventually forged the figure of the Final Girl – a female protagonist obliged to fight for survival without any rescue at hand – and then the James Cameron brand of action heroine, and Death Proof, humorously but also earnestly, encapsulates that evolution in its narrative whilst also linking it back to other traditions in the oft-dismissed but often quietly dissident traditions of the trash movie, with gestures to the rampaging Amazons of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966), the tough ladies of ‘70s Blaxploitation, and the reforged avengers of rape-and-revenge thrillers.

And so, the second half of Death Proof creates a trio of heroines whose capacities and outlooks give them advantages lacked by their tragic counterparts from the first half. Kim discusses the handgun hidden in her purse as a safeguard against being raped. Zoë’s extraordinary physical agility and durability is expounded on at length. Abbie fills a similar place in their gang to Arlene as the butt of the gang’s idiosyncratic hierarchy but stands up for herself more effectively than Arlene, and the gang lacks a figure like Julia who controls it. The women haven’t abandoned their femininity, but laying claim to “masculine” pursuits like stunt work and car loving becomes a virtue, an idea summarised when Kim and Zoë acknowledge having grown up on the regulation diet of “that John Hughes shit” like Pretty In Pink (1986) but also a roster of classic drive-in hotrod and action films that both serviced and instilled a love for thrill-seeking, and so, in oblique fashion, trained them to deal with real evil when it comes at them. All of this is explored in the flow of seemingly formless conversation, Tarantino setting himself the challenge of showing Chekhov’s Gun (or Kim’s, in this instance) without anyone noticing, but then not being surprised when it’s fired.

Lee is the weak link in the gang as a girly girl who’s not too bright to boot, the embodiment of a more vacuous modern Hollywood, so she’s left behind when the trio head off for a fateful joyride. More intertextuality: the Dodge Challenger’s owner Jasper (Jonathan Loughran) is the same redneck creep who gets his tough bitten off molesting the Bride in Kill Bill, and Lee’s understandable reaction to being left in his company is to mutter, like Bug Bunny in a fix, “Gulp.” As usual with Tarantino, the onscreen action is accompanied by music scoring consisting of myriad harvested music cues and needle-drop oldies that drape the drama in a referential and bygone form of cool. But here this familiar artistic conceit comes on with a more layered and intricate sense of meta humour, often playing games with diegetic sourcing within the drama. The scenes in the Chili Parlour unfold under a near-constant flow of vintage Stax singles – approved hipster retro culture, of course, but as many of the songs belong to the classic “love advice” genre that comment sarcastically on the vignettes of modern romance played out in the tavern.

Tarantino’s snippet of Pino Donaggio’s score for Brian De Palm’s Blow Out (1981), as two-faced in its romanticism as ever in that composer’s work for the old master ironist, accompanies Julia texting Christian as a vignette of very modern romance – the directness of expressions of ardour and anger in this medium are far more clear and direct than what goes on between the young folk in actual physical proximity. This gives way to more a more overt joke riffing on the idea of matching thematically appropriate music to images as Julia accidentally provides Mike with the perfect soundtrack for high-speed murder. Mike’s constructed image as an old-school tough guy is illustrated as he shows off for the second gang of girls by gunning his car to make smoke with the wheels whilst Willy DeVille’s “It’s So Easy” blares from his tape deck, only to wring a mocking comment from Lee – “Little dick!” – that casually indicts his overcompensation and datedness (as well as the inference of association with William Friedkin’s Cruising, 1981, another film about the ambiguities of sex haunted by the presence of a serial killer).

The film wraps up with end credits set to April March’s careening translated cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Laisse tomber les filles,” concerning an infamous womaniser heading for deadly punishment from his many lovers. Those end credits also intersperse the familiar scrolling names with flash-edits of leads from old film reels, sporting female models whose names are forgotten by history and whose faces were included on those old reels to aid with colour and lighting collection by cinematographers. This peculiar touch again carries multiple associations. It is at once Tarantino’s signal of pure delight in the expressive tool of a medium, one immediately under threat by digital photography, and a random, peculiar piece of ephemera associated with it. It’s also a flourish of cultural commentary, reminiscent of the dummies that mimic and mock the cast in the opening credits of Mario Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (1963), evoking a bygone ideal of femininity rendered glossy and artificial and thoroughly trashed by the film’s end.

Death Proof is also unusual as the only film Tarantino has shot himself, achieving a fleshy, colourful texture overlaid with a scratchy and washed-out veneer to capture the rough grindhouse print look, and use of wide-angle lensing to emphasise space and give objects a looming, surging impact. This becomes particularly vital in the climactic scenes, in which Zoe successfully engineers her fantasy of playing Ship’s Mast – riding on the hood of the Dodge Challenger, dangling from belts – on the legendary vehicle of Vanishing Point, a car that is, in homage to the original’s eerie symbolism but also befitting into Death Proof’s own dichotomy, snow white, whilst Mike’s muscle car is black with a skull-and-crossbones painted on the hood. But Mike, having followed the women into the boondocks and seeing the ideal opportunity to raise hell with them, begins chasing the Challenger, ramming into it to make Zoe fall from the car, but she manages nonetheless to ride like a gecko upon the sleek hood of the charging vehicle as the vehicles hurtle down country lanes. Finally Kim loses control and crashes to a halt on the roadside with Zoe hurled into the bushes on the shoulder. Kim shoots at the gloating and unwary Mike, wounding him and sending him fleeing, whilst Zoe pops up again, saved from injury by her astounding reflexes. Once sure everyone’s okay and hot for revenge, the trio race off in pursuit of Mike.

This makes for of the great movie finales, a dedicated statement decrying the increasingly artificial and smoothed-over tenor of millennial Hollywood cinema, a tendency that’s only grown far worse since 2007. Mike’s rueful awareness that CGI is stealing away both his livelihood and the peculiarly intense glamour his profession used to lend to cinema in general presages Tarantino’s employment of Bell to demonstrate just what a great stunt performer can do and how much spectacle it injects into a movie, over and above the formidable filmmaking technique which emphasises the essential veracity of what’s being shown. Tarantino’s deployment of Bell as the film’s can-do wonder woman betrays inherent respect for stuntpeople as well as for Bell’s effusive personality, anticipating Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood’s vision of the stunt performer as a being who most clearly and potently links the fantasy world of film to the real world, the figure required to perform acts of real daring and danger to make the cinematic illusion work. Moreover, in the context of the film Bell is presented as the light to Mike’s dark, the true practitioner of the risk-taking art that is stunt work, compared to Mike, who has fallen from grace. Her game of Ship’s Mast, which involves great danger and testing of all her physical and mental skills, pointedly contrast’s Mike’s “death-proof” car, his attempt to deliver himself from real danger even whilst indulging the orgasmic pleasure of dealing out death and carnage.

This dovetails in turn with the swivel in theme from misogynistic rampaging to nascent feminist revenge fantasy. Mike proves to have chosen exactly the wrong bunch of women to piss off this time, and he’s chased across the countryside by the ferociously determined Kim, who delightedly mimics sexist flirtation lines whilst tormenting the killer, and Zoe, who wields a length of pipe like a medieval knight’s lance. Mike himself, upon being shot, immediately degenerates from swaggering demon to howling coward, and doesn’t take too well to having the tables turned, desperately trying to outpace the Challenger. Their careening chase bursts out onto the highway, where, naturally, modern cars are humiliated by the power and steely integrity of the older vehicles, the instant metaphor for the film’s entire presumption and aesthetic. When Kim finally manages to ram Mike and flip his car over, the three women pluck him out and beat the shit out of him, their relentless punches causing a breakdown in the texture of the movie itself. When he collapses, Tarantino officially ends the film immediately, bringing up “The End” title over the triumph a la the end of many of a wu xia epic, only to then offer a kind of epilogue as he comes back to the scene to show Abbie breaking Mike’s neck with a well-place kick. Again, a very Tarantino motif – the defeat of one monster might well birth others – but one he carefully brackets to soften as more a fantasy addendum, a little like the curtain call spanking in The Bad Seed (1956). Fitting nonetheless for a movie that dismantles and then reconstructs a fundamental idea of cinema, that space where fantasies, ranging from the most depraved to the most heroic, are allowed free rein.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Rollerball (1975)

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Director: Norman Jewison
Screenwriter: William Harrison

In memoriam James Caan 1940-2022

By Roderick Heath

Science fiction movies produced in Hollywood in the late 1960s and 1970s have a tantalising quality from today’s perspective. After the genre’s boom in popularity in the 1950s ended, sci-fi remained a niche audience thing, until it suddenly returned as the stuff of major movies, a revival that might have been stirred by the James Bond movies and began properly with 1966’s Fantastic Voyage. The 1968 triptych of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, and Ralph Nelson’s Charly made science fiction cinema prestigious and won it popularity amongst the younger audience of the day, who latched onto the genre’s ability to offer witty and thoughtful reflections of contemporary concerns as well as future dreaming through a lens of parable and satire. For the next decade sci-fi simmered away with a string of usually modestly budgeted but thematically ambitious entries, with futuristic dystopias, often involving nuclear war or environmental degradation, and quasi-fascistic regimes aplenty. Many movies of this moment, including A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Omega Man (1971), Silent Running (1971), THX-1138 (1971), Soylent Green (1972), Westworld (1973), Zardoz (1974), and Logan’s Run (1976), remain objects of fierce cult followings. The success of Star Wars (1977) suddenly made the genre the stuff of blockbusters, but also by and large skewed the genre back to its less elevated roots.

Norman Jewison’s Rollerball is at once of the most sorely undervalued and significant entries in the style. Jewison himself was for a long time one of Hollywood’s most respected and prestigious directors, reputed for constantly tackling socially conscious subjects whilst proving himself across a range of genres. Jewison, born in Toronto in 1926, served in the navy during World War II, and when attending university after the war became involved in student theatre. He eventually found work in the fledgling days of Canadian television, quickly proving adept in many areas of production. When he moved to New York to work for NBC in 1958, he directed mostly live shows and star showcase specials, and eventually the actor Tony Curtis suggested he try feature filmmaking. Curtis gave him his first shot, too, with 1962’s 40 Pounds of Trouble. After a few middling comedies Jewison gained his first real attention for The Cincinnati Kid (1965), a film he was ironically only hired onto as a quick replacement for Sam Peckinpah, as Jewison proved he was able to balance serious character portraiture with an overlay of slick, inventive, then-modern style, a talent Hollywood urgently needed at the time. His follow-up, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), became a cause celebre in depicting the chaos ensuing when a Soviet submarine appears off the coast of New England, offering a puckishly depicted possibility for rapprochement between Cold War foes. Jewison then made In the Heat of the Night (1967), a deft and moody blend of cop thriller and social issue movie, and captured the Best Picture Oscar, although it also marked the second of the seven occasions he’d be nominated for Best Director and lose.

Jewison scored further big hits with a segue into pure pop cinema, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and adaptations of the musicals Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). A filmmaker of Jewison’s stature making a violent sci-fi film was a reasonably big deal in 1975, and sparked some mild controversy. Rollerball, adapted by writer William Harrison from his own short story, represented a coherent extension nonetheless of Jewison’s recurring fascination for brilliant but assailed protagonists who have the potential to be ignominiously crushed or emerge as messianic heroes, a tendency explored most obviously on Jesus Christ Superstar but perhaps most truly fulfilled on Rollerball. Aspects of Rollerball are extremely dated today. But in other respects it’s proven one of the more uniquely prognosticative sci-fi entries of its time. Its concept of the future, one where people increasingly seek proof of heroism’s possibility in non-intellectual settings, particularly sports, as the rest of the world becomes increasingly corporatized and conformist and narcotised by media consumption, feels damn near Nostradamus-like. The way it seeks messianic heroism amidst crushing fascistic realms in the genre setting would transmit that figuration to Star Wars and on to the likes of The Matrix (1999) and The Hunger Games (2012): the latter film in particular would riff on a similar proposition of sports used as a form of violent sublimation and social control. In more immediate terms Rollerball anticipated the following year’s Rocky in anointing the popular ideal of an underdog sporting hero, and sparked a brief run of futuristic gladiatorial competition movies, including Paul Bartel’s glorious Death Race 2000 (1976). Rollerball even gained a remake in 2002, but the less said of that the better.

Rollerball also gave star James Caan one of his finest lead roles after The Godfather (1972) cemented him as a major star. Caan was cast as Jonathan E, the champion of the eponymous sport. Jonathan plays for the Houston team in the international Rollerball league sometime in the 2080s. Jonathan has become the sport’s one indisputable legend, to the degree that he’s about to become the first individual player to ever be the subject of a showcase of a special on “Multivision,” the future’s multi-screen, multi-camera version of TV. Rollerball, as depicted in forensic detail in the film’s long opening sequence, is a brutal, gladiatorial sport that resembles a mixture of ice hockey, roller derby, and American football. Two competing teams charge at speed around a circular course, most players on roller skates but some also riding motorcycles, and fighting for control of a heavy metallic ball fired at speed from a cannon, with points scored by punching the ball into a small magnetic hole. Deaths in the game aren’t just common but expected. Jewison memorably raises the curtain on the film with Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” blaring out as technicians prepare the arena for the upcoming match, spectators and bigwigs file in, and the players assemble.

The opening sequence depicting the unfolding match with its odd mix of the chaotic and the ritualistic in its unfolding is remarkable for making the imaginary sport palpable and convincing in its details. Jewison extends the oddball period punk aesthetic he explored with his Roman soldiers in Jesus Christ Superstar, here with the helmeted, padded, gauntleted look of the Rollerball players. The differences between this futuristic sporting event and more familiar ones soon become apparent, as the players and crowd are required to stand not for a national anthem, but for corporate anthems, as this future has seen the world carved up between a handful of colossal, omnipotent corporations, each with a different area of the world economy to maintain monopolistic control over. Houston represent the home of the Energy Corporation, also their sponsors, with their high-ranking executive watchdog Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman) looking on from the stands. Houston play Madrid in the quarter-final match: whilst there are some rules and curtailing limits, the competitors have relatively free rein to beat, bash, and run over each-other in the flow of play. Jonathan scores all three of Houston’s goals to win the match, whilst he’s given expert protection by his pal and protégé ‘Moonpie’ (John Beck), who specialises in taking enemy players out of the match with targeted hits and tackles, and Blue (Tony Brubaker), who rides a motorcycle used to haul whoever has the ball around the track to the goal. By the game’s end eight players are listed as injured or killed.

After the match the Houston team members are treated to a locker room visit by Bartholomew, a great honour that grows greater as Bartholomew charms the players by assuring them that whilst they might fantasize about gaining the power and privileges of a corporate executive, the executives all fantasize about being Rollerball players. Bartholomew offers Moonpie a recreational drug pill from his personal stash, and asks Jonathan to come and see him at his office the next day. When he does, however, Jonathan is left bewildered and chagrined when Bartholomew tells him that that the executives want Jonathan to announce his retirement on the Multivision special. This request, couched in the most smoothly affable terms by Bartholomew, is nonethless laced with a clear undercurrent of baleful coercion: “Take your time, take a few days…think about it, but understand it. Do understand it. Because I don’t understand your resistance, and I don’t think anyone else will.” This request however stings Jonathan out of the detached holding pattern he’s been maintaining since his wife Ella (Maud Adams) left him, or, as he thinks, was taken from him by a high-ranking executive. Other women assigned to him regularly to serve essentially as concubines, including current paramour Mackie (Pamela Hensley), who is aggravated when she finds Jonathan is having her replaced and plainly wanted her gone by the time he returned home. Jonathan is much happier to return to the company of his former coach and mentor, now personal trainer, Cletus (Moses Gunn) Cletues still has some contacts in the corporation hierarchy, and agrees to try and find out why the executives want Jonathan retired.

Rollerball’s unusual style pivots repeatedly from the bristling, bloody furore of the three Rollerball matches depicted to the muted, drifting, naggingly melancholic tone of the rest of the film, which Jewison depicts as a kind of lotus eater world of narcotising luxury and disorientating, deliberately ahistorical, amniotic existence, at least for people in Jonathan’s sphere. The use of classical music as the only scoring for the film, probably influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey but achieving its own, rather different impact, underpins the mood of detached and bewildered absence that dogs Jonathan with works of lilting, longing emotionalism. Jonathan nominally misses his wife but in fact, as he eventually realises, suffers from an aching absence defining his entire existence: the only time Jonathan is entirely alive is on the Rollerball track. Which proves, eventually, to be exactly the problem: Rollerball as a game, it eventually emerges, is designed not simply to be an orgiastic outlet for the violent bloodlust of the audience in a perpetual cycle of repression and sublimation, but also one where the damage wrought upon individual players is a feature rather than a bug. It’s supposed to demonstrate the futility of individual effort, to use up human bodies in the course of entertaining and disarming the crowd. Jonathan himself holds the record taking the most opposing players out of a single match, standing at 13. And so Jonathan’s rise as a player who hasn’t just grown strong but properly and legitimately titanic in the sport is quite literally a violation of its whole ethos and purpose, and threatens the corporate establishment in case people start feeling themselves empowered. The essential matter of the fable questions whether the quick death of the body is any worse than slow death of the spirit, whilst presenting a situation where the two go hand in hand.

Rollerball at least offers a little sympathy for the devil in that regard because, as Bartholomew notes, the age of the corporate overlordship has delivered an age of apparent peace and plenty after the old nations all went bankrupt, and even the days of “The Corporate Wars” are past. Of course, such contentment is actually embalming, and Jonathan, as he tries to learn a little more about why things are as they are, finds himself coming up against a barrier of pleasantly beaming secretaries, suit-clad officials, and company-appointed courtesans trying to keep him safely within bounds. Rather than necessarily putting this down to nefarious deliberation as in, say, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Rollerball hints this is due as much to general indolence and anti-intellectual habits from this future society, and the overly confident fiddling of technocrats eager to subsume knowledge into their computers, as it is from the corporations trying to quash the nuances of history and culture. Again, this feels quite keenly prophetic. Trying to learn some of the history of the rise of the corporations, Jonathan learns that all books have been transcribed and summarised on computer and the unexpurgated versions kept on an AI supercomputer called Zero, located in Geneva. When he travels there to get answers, Jonathan encounters Zero’s keeper, known as the Librarian (Ralph Richardson), who proves eager to please the great celebrity. This proves a vivid interlude of dark and woozy comedy, warped genre poetry, and dystopian sarcasm. The Librarian escorts Jonathan in to the innermost sanctum of Zero, which runs on “fluid mechanics…a memory pool. He’s supposed to tell us where things are and what they might possibly mean.” But the Librarian also laments that the erratic Zero is erratic, having recently lost all its knowledge of the Thirteenth century after a performing a colossal memory dump when someone asked it a specific question. “Not much in the century,” the Librarian tries to assure Jonathan, “Just Dante, and a few corrupt popes.” Jonathan beholds the core of Zero, a cage-like structure around a bubbling fluid memory bank, but when he asks his question the computer degenerates into incoherent phrases about corporate governance and the word “Negative” constantly repeated, whilst the Librarian furiously kicks the errant machine.

Sci-fi often works best when embracing qualities of fable in terms of narrative but insisting on realistic detail in its minutiae, and Rollerball offers this, pointing the way to other successful variations on the same template as Blade Runner (1982), if in a more modest fashion. The idea of corporate dictatorship as one of many possible futures of illiberalism had been fairly common in 1950s sci-fi writing, and aspects of Rollerball had been anticipated by the radical British filmmaker Peter Watkins with films like Privilege (1967), The Centurions (1968), and Punishment Park (1971), with his interest in systems of power degenerating into violence and atavism. In offering its own, more accessible take on such notions, Rollerball wields its own brand of cunning in the way it recognises and only exaggerates familiar phenomenon of its day just a little, phenomena that have only grown more acute over time. Particularly aware is the way it perceives the sporting hero as a genuine locus of worship and admiration as a figure retaining and employing primal virtues like strength, skill, physical courage, and a particular kind of reflexive, predatory intelligence once required everyday back when humans were hunter-gatherers but now suppressed and necessarily dulled, only allowed to be unleashed in certain arenas like competitive sports. Only the athlete and the actor have retained that kind of electrifying connection with the modern psyche.

Rollerball takes up that kind of sympathy and also the way great athletes and sportspeople become avatars for ordinary people the more they’re feted and rewarded rather than less. The previous year’s prison football drama The Longest Yard had sketched out the theme of the sportsman as a particular bastion of individualism against bullying power, and Rollerball took it considerably further. Much of the film’s first half is given over to perceiving the tension underlying Jonathan’s seemingly luxurious, indulged, and insulated life, manifesting in his interactions with Mackie, and her replacement Daphne (Barbara Trentham), who Jonathan quickly realises has been placed with him to keep him on a short leash in this decisive moment. During what’s supposed to be an interview recording session for the special, Jonathan finds he’s being fed lines via autocue trying to force him into retirement, with Bartholomew and his aide (Richard LeParmentier) watching on from a booth and Daphne lolling about in a drug daze, but Jonathan resists. Jonathan begins to suspect he might be assassinated, particularly as he continues to resist Bartholomew’s efforts to make him retire before the upcoming semi-final that will pitch Houston against Tokyo. Despite Bartholomew’s personal entreaties when they meet at the party Jonathan throws to coincide with the Multivision special, Jonathan insists on playing with the team in Tokyo, because the rules are going to be changed, eliminating all penalties and limiting substitutions, and with even more extreme measures being slated for the final match when it comes. When Daphne tries to prod Jonathan into toeing the line with veiled threats he furiously throws her against a couch and scratches her cheek with his studded uniform bracelet, telling her not to be around when he returns, and avoids taking a private flight to Tokyo, electing instead to travel with the team.

In a touch Steven Spielberg would appropriate in Minority Report (2003), Jonathan feeds his grieving and alienation by constantly rewatching old personal recordings of his glory gays with his missing wife: Daphne’s first arrival comes during one of these sessions. Here Rollerball successfully anticipates another aspect of modern life: technology becoming a kind of stasis chamber feeding out emotional reflexes and nostalgia urges back at is in a loop. The Multivision night party proves a uniquely epic vignette as realised by Jewison and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, whose images, at once sleekly lit and gritty, capture a drifting, languid, detached quality amidst the flashy pleasure-seeking that presents a sarcastically amplified edition of a Hollywood player party. Moonpie, contending with a bevy of beauties and a dash for a quickie upstairs with one, is the one person who still knows how to enjoy themselves, amidst a sea of drugged-up gladhanding and benumbed sensuality, whilst odd guests experience private gibbers of intense, inchoate emotion, signalling that the bewildered and displaced experience Jonathan is dealing with is a common lot. Amidst the seemingly objective, almost unmoored play of zoom and tracking shots that survey the party we see characters engaging in plays of looks that signal unacknowledged but vitally important dramas unfolding – Jonathan arranging with Cletus a time to sneak away and discuss what Cletus has learned; Bartholomew watching them with intent; Mackie glaring after her former lover.

The Multivision special, filling the many screens all around the house, offers powerful slow-motion analysis of Jonathan’s gameplay, viewers applauding and gaping in glee with each shot of Jonathan clobbering challengers conveyed with both aesthetic and forensic intensity. Lustrous, dreamy beauty and intimate brutality meet, the thrill of sublimating violence and the transformative power of art blended into catch-all for the needs of the audience. That Jewison had his career beginnings as a shooter of live television and star showcases lends personal subtext as well as convincing technical approximation to the film’s depictions of such. The raw immediacy of the Rollerball matches is contrasted by the stylised spectacle of the special, both nonetheless conjoined as part of the apparatus of pacification and manipulation of the audience. Whilst Bartholomew confronts Jonathan and admonishes him for his intransigence, confessing that he and others have been embarrassed, the party guests head out into the dawn light as one man has brought a laser pistol. The glitzy-dressed society damsels begin shooting trees that erupt in fireballs to electric, orgasmic pleasure, experiencing the pure joy of destruction for its own sake, finding their own way of tapping what they imagine is a reserve of power only Jonathan can know.

Rollerball belongs to a strand of Hollywood cinema common in the 1970s that had an unusually European-feeling glaze of style and atmosphere, exacerbated here through location filming. Jewison himself, dismayed by American politics in the early decade, had relocated to London. The film is also a product of a time when a lot of directors assumed all you really needed to do to evoke a cold and pitiless future was film around some particularly odd and flashy examples of high modernist architecture – and it usually worked. Jewison found some particularly ripe examples in shooting portions of the film in Munich, including at the then-new BMW headquarters, and at the Palace of Nations in Geneva, whilst the Rollerball matches themselves were filmed in the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle, built for the Munich Olympics. All the lettering and numbers seen throughout are in the supposedly super-futuristic “Westminster” computer-readable font, a more amusingly dated touch, if also one that serves the film’s construction of its particular, sequestered reality. Amidst the lead-in to the match against Tokyo, the Houstonians are obliged to listen to an expert (Robert Ito) in the Tokyo players’ martial arts-derived playing style which represents a threat of precision and dexterity to the Houstonians’ celebrated forceful approach. Moonpie, encouraged by Jonathan, acts as self-appointed tactician and morale officer and refuses to listen to the expert, instead working up his fellow players until they converge en masse on the luckless lecturer whilst chanting their team name with warlike zeal.

Jewison strikes a foreboding note in this spectacle of camaraderie, Moonpie’s resolute refusal to countenance the idea any foe can foil his team’s strength returning to haunt him in the ensuing match. The semi-final proves every inch the dreadful battle Jonathan feared as players on each team are clubbed, bashed, and broken. Jonathan and Moonpie contrive to drag an opponent up into the path of the fired rollerball itself, the projectile breaking his neck, and this in turn prods the Tokyo players to target the two. Whilst Jonathan is taking a time-out after suffering a gouging blow to the arm, three Tokyo players tackle Moonpie and, just as he suggested to his own teammates, they waylay him, strip off his helmet, and punch him in the ganglia, a blow that leaves Moonpie instantly comatose and brain dead. Jewison stages this moment with brilliance as he shifts from the documentary-like style he shoots the rest of the Rollerball scenes to create a moment of tragic, hallucinatory clarity. The camera performs a quick zoom in on Jonathan’s face as he beholds his friend about to be destroyed by considered and ruthless violence, before switching to his viewpoint for a delirious slow-motion shot of Moonpie taking the blow. Jewison then moves in for a close shot of Moonpie’s dead-eyed gaze as his head strikes the track. Blue helps Jonathan get payback by cornering the player who struck Moonpie with his motorcycle, allowing Jonathan to grab him and smash his head in, but Blue himself is soon sent driving wildly against the wall of the track by an opponent’s blows, and burned when his bike explodes after being hit by the launched ball. So thrilled and moved are the Tokyo crowd they begin tearing down barricades.

The steady degeneration of the Rollerball matches from a coherent if madcap game into what are essentially gladiatorial bloodbaths and glorified street fights proves eventually to be cleverly motivated by a reasoned purpose on the behalf of the executives. As Bartholomew notes during the one scene depicting the various corporate honchos interacting over screens, they’ve voted against taking Jonathan down by illicit means, because they need Jonathan to either quit or be destroyed in the arena now that he’s raised the possibility of heroic achievement there. Instead it’s Jonathan’s allies who fall victim to the mounting carnage. Jonathan refuses to let Moonpie’s body be euthanized for transplant surgery, so he’s spirited back to Houston and kept in a clinic where Jonathan comes to visit him just before the last match, and he meditates on the likelihood that Moonpie could live on in his vegetable state long after Jonathan himself has met his end in the final. Jonathan is briefly reunited with his wife Ella thanks to Bartholomew’s string-pulling. Ella tries to argue Jonathan into accepting his fate and retiring, and Jonathan quickly divines their reunion could be made permanent as a reward for doing so, and that Ella will accept that despite now being happily settled with her executive husband and children. Jonathan is so disillusioned when he realises this he erases his recordings of Ella, and sets off in a state of complete existential readiness for the final match.

The role of Jonathan required both a virulently athletic presence and a fine acting touch to portray a troubled, quietly consumed figure, a man who’s not stupid but can express himself with far more clarity and authority when in combat than when confronted by systems of power that are deliberately and dangerously opaque, but still determines to press along his own path. Caan was one of the few actors of the time capable of convincing in both spheres, and he’s exceptionally good at conveying Jonathan’s quiet, deflecting, self-effacing manner when not playing – a common quality of top sportspeople that Caan plainly grasped. Jonathan barely weathers his life outside the arena as a constant succession of disorientating codes and bewildering absences, suddenly arriving and vanishing lovers and teammates. Jonathan isn’t at all a perfect or even always terribly good guy – he is after all someone who’s become enormously successful by unleashing a killer edge in games, whilst also keeping it on a tight leash at all other times – and gives few shows of specific emotion, like his rage at Daphne, and his evident happiness in training with Cletus. He tends to farm out his feeling through indirect gestures – giving Daphne a pill that makes her sleepy rather than alert during the interview, or letting Moonpie rev up the Houston team – and his rebellions petty, unfocused. Perhaps one of the more obvious touches in the film was casting Houseman as Jonathan’s nemesis, the personification of the corporate world order. Not because Houseman is ineffective: he’s characteristically good and intriguingly subtle in the part, conveying a more insidiously intelligent kind of villain and seeming all the more hateful for it, as in the way he quietly, gently, but coercively places his hand on Jonathan’s knee when telling him his time is up. Rather, because of his anachronistically patrician manner to contrast Caan’s rugged, plebeian grit: it’s a backward-looking touch, rather than one that confronts a less comforting schism than snobs versus slobs. Especially from today’s perspective, when all the magnates are trying desperately to seem like you chilled-out bro.

But Jonathan’s journey is rendered with strokes appropriate to mythology, with inevitable Christlike echoes, but also very strong hints of Achilles: like the Homeric hero Jonathan is the essential natural warrior, profoundly offended by the theft of his woman and the killing of his great and beloved fellow fighter. Jonathan’s attempts to learn about history and society meanwhile have their own tint of parable, of a man seeking wisdom who is constantly stymied and blocked, contending with gnomic watchdogs and psychotic machines, and ultimately finds the only way he can express himself is also the one he’s best equipped for, one that requires no learning from outside himself. So great has Jonathan’s cult grown that before the final starts Jewison shows locales around the world, all deserted and silent, whilst the chanting of his name from people watching both in the arena and their homes is heard on sound, registering the starved fervour he’s stirred in the people. The final match of the film which provides its apocalyptically-tinged climax sees Houston playing New York in a game played without penalties and no time limits, which essentially means it will play out as a long session of mutual murder. Soon enough the arena is a stygian space filled with sprawled corpses and blazing fires. Jewison wrings some juice out of asides like the sight of even Bartholomew’s aide being seduced into the cult of Jonathan, as the great player survives all efforts to bring him down.

Finally only Jonathan is left of the Houston team, pitted against two New Yorkers stalking him as the crowd has fallen to utterly fixated silence, only the billowing fires and the revving engine of the motorcycle under one opponent breaking the hush. Jonathan seems badly injured as he takes up a waiting station directly before Bartholomew’s ringside seat, only to prove to be feigning as he grabs the NY player who charges him, and crushes the life out of him before Bartholomew’s sternly concerted gaze. When the last opponent attacks, Jonathan tackles him, swiping him off his bike, but this time catches himself and, instead of killing his foe, gets up, takes the rollerball to the goal, and scores the game’s only, winning point. Instead of killing Jonathan or reducing him to a mindless killing machine, the corporate game finally hands him the proper venue to achieve apotheosis. The crowd take up their chant again from a breathless, ecstatic whisper to roaring triumphalism as Jonathan cruises around the arena, bloodied and battered but gaining new and fearsome determination with every second, until Jewison offers a succession of freeze-frames of his glowering face as “Toccata and Fugue” suddenly resurges, now the anthem of Jonathan’s wrath. Such gestures very quickly became cliché in popular moviemaking, but in the context of Jewison’s brilliantly sustained slow burn, they retain enormous, thrilling power. The film’s ultimate point isn’t that Jonathan is a singular titan who can slay armies or take down a single, hated tyrant, but one fit in the most ironic way for the role he was chosen for, the avatar for embodying and focusing human ferocity, the hero who stole back some of the gods’ fire.

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1980s, 1990s, Comedy, Films About Films and Filmmaking

The ’Burbs (1989) / Matinee (1993)

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Director: Joe Dante
Screenwriters: Dana Olsen / Charles S. Haas

By Roderick Heath

It’s been a long time now since Joe Dante was regarded as much more than the maker of a few fondly remembered movies, and a perennial talking head commenting on even older movies. There was a moment nonetheless when he was counted amongst the ranks of major Hollywood talents who, like James Cameron and John Carpenter, emerged from the exploitation film scene of the 1970s and ‘80s to become a big-league hit-maker. Dante, the son of a professional golfer and born in New Jersey, first had ambitions to being a cartoonist, a slant on visual art that would inflect the rest of his career even as his interests turned towards movies. He gained attention with an artfully edited movie mash-up called The Movie Orgy (1968) and landed a job with Roger Corman. Dante became a member of his burgeoning New World Pictures studio, working in a variety of roles including editing Grand Theft Auto (1978) and making his directorial debut collaborating with Allan Arkush on Hollywood Boulevard (1976), a mischievous movie business satire which stitched footage from a variety of New World projects into a semi-original feature. Dante broke out as a director with 1978’s Piranha, a Jaws (1975) cash-in-cum-send-up that wielded its own peculiar sensibility, including an oil-black sense of humour and merry gore-mongering, and united Dante with then little-known writer and sometime actor John Sayles, who penned the script.

The duo left Corman behind to make The Howling (1980), another funny, more wilfully oddball genre effort that helped Sayles kick off his own, more serious-minded independent film career, and boosted Dante to mainstream attention. Dante found a second vital producing collaborator in Steven Spielberg, who brought Dante aboard to direct an episode of the ill-fated The Twilight Zone – The Movie (1982), and then backed Dante in making the comedy-horror monster movie Gremlins (1984) and the zesty Fantastic Voyage riff Innerspace (1987), with the teen sci-fi adventure Explorers (1985) in between. Dante worked out his rowdy, referential, horny side with the uneven sketch comedy Amazon Women of the Moon (1987) and his more overtly satirical streak resurged with The ’Burbs. Of these only Gremlins was a hit, whilst Explorers, seemingly the perfect expression of the ‘80s youth movie zeitgeist until its wry, deliberately anticlimactic last act, and Innerspace, with its loose energy and brilliantly delivered if slightly overextended comic spectacle, were both bruising failures. Dante revisited old ground with Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) to get his box office mojo working again. But Dante’s career after this proved awfully patchy: his follow-up Matinee did poorly at the box office, and he’s only made four features since, including the well-reviewed but barely-successful anti-militarist fantasy Small Soldiers (1998) and the failed Looney Tunes: Back In Action (2003), as well as occasional TV episodes.

Dante had evident similarities with generational fellows like Spielberg, Carpenter, George Lucas, and Stephen King, in wielding a particular penchant for remixing the infrastructure of growing up American in the 1950s and ‘60s in terms of a personal fantasy landscape, the kinds of kids who had a dresser crammed with issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland and painted Ray Harryhausen figures. Dante was often characterised as the impish rapscallion producing anarchically satiric desecrations of the same suburban Middle America Spielberg was perceived as enshrining. There was some truth in that, but at the same time it’s awfully reductive of both directors: Dante plainly loved his evocations of humdrum suburbia and the big dreamers it so uneasily houses, just as Spielberg’s visions of the same zones usually saw obsession and threat lurking under the placid surfaces. From today’s vantage it seems rather that Dante’s ultimate nemesis proved to be Tim Burton, who appeared on the scene just as Dante was losing career traction. Burton wielded a similar sensibility – fixation with the same zones of retro Americana and old movies, a mordant approach to lampooning the permanent 1950s lodged in the American collective mind, a fondness for plucky misfits as protagonists – and a more overtly stylised visual approach. Also, over the decades Burton proved willing to compromise in ways Dante never quite was. Dante’s approach was inherently ironic, presenting his seemingly straitlaced protagonists as bland on the surface but covertly perverse and unruly, where Burton signposted his inversions and dissensions in a manner that suited an emerging alt-culture better.

The ‘Burbs was a modestly profitable movie but critically it met a largely indifferent response in 1989. Nonetheless it stands as one of Dante’s most quintessential expressions, and it’s a personal favourite film. Dante worked with a screenplay by writer Dana Olsen, who based it on his own childhood memories and having fun with the many urban legends of everyday whackos whose memories haunted the suburban placidity. The ’Burbs could well be the all-grown-up experience of the three young dreamer-adventurers of Explorers, having settled into monotonous adult life in the same suburbs where once the bushes could be a jungle and the neighbour’s yard an alien planet. The film kicks off with a technically brilliant and visually dazzling flourish as Dante perverts the Universal Pictures spinning planet logo by using it as the start of the longest zoom shot in cinema, descending relentlessly from space and zeroing in on Mayfield Place, a cul-de-sac in a Midwestern suburb. The gag is manifold – as well as outdoing Spielberg’s famous jokes with the Paramount logo in his Indiana Jones films, Dante connects the tiny stage of a suburban street with the vastness of the Earth and the cosmos, at once dwarfed but also forming part of an infinitesimal texture. This commences a film that plays as a companion piece to the famous The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” in the tingling sense of paranoia amidst the utterly ordinary, and sense of a rascally mastermind toying with paltry, reactive humans all too ready to realise their violent and destructive sides. Except there are no aliens here, only Dante himelf.

Dante has his own “directed by” credit appear as shirtless, vest-wearing, hairy-chest exposing Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) appears, slipping on aviator shades with attitude as heavy rock starts pounding. Tom Hanks, still in his young, gangly, charming everyman phase, plays Ray Peterson, a man on holiday from his job who’s elected to spend that time lounging around the house rather than head off to a vacation spot, in part because he’s trying to escape the programmatic wheel of suburban behaviour. But being home all day proves a taunt to his imagination, a la James Stewart in Rear Window (1954). Ray is draw out of his house in the dead of night when a strange mechanical whirring noise and brilliant light are emitted from the basement of a neighbouring house. The house, which previously belonged to a well-liked couple named the Knapps, has recently been sold to a shadowy family called the Klopeks who never seem to come out by day, taunting the proclivities of the other people on the street. Ray’s other immediate neighbour is phone line worker Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommon), a tubby miscreant who’s likewise been left alone with his wife out of town and nothing to do but snoop. Across the street lives (Bruce Dern), a Vietnam veteran and military hardware freak who ritually raises the Stars and Stripes every morning and lives with his much-younger bombshell wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal). Teenager Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman) has been left alone by his parents, whilst the elderly Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon) keeps his real front lawn lush and the fake lawn on his head just as lush.

Dante sets all of these characters and their microcosmic lives up in a deftly choreographed sequence as the bike-riding paper boy tosses his wares into yards and the various denizens emerge in the sunshine – the boy hits Ray with the paper he throws him, so Ray reacts by tossing his cup of morning coffee after him. Walter avenges himself by sending his poodle Queenie on guerrilla raids to bite the paper boy, only for Queenie to prefer pooping on Rumsfield’s grass, a gift that spoils Rumsfield’s flag-raising ceremony. Jerry Goldsmith’s playful score makes sport of John Williams’ twinkly scene-setting for Spielberg, even sporting dog barks remixed into the music. Ray’s wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) tries to talk Ray into going away for the week, but he commits to playing the bohemian homebody. Ray’s curiosity nonetheless keeps being lassoed by both the strange behaviour of the Klopeks and his friends’ increasingly tantalised and pushy obsession with it. Dante’s approach to all this is at once indulgent and sardonic, gleefully playing up the weirdness that magnifies under the gaze of the adventure-starved heroes with technically accomplished and wittily fleeting pastiches of various genres of film grammar, whilst also perceiving the ways those heroes become just the sorts of agents of malicious discontent they seek to uncover.

When one of the Klopeks, the youngest, Hans (Courtney Gains) finally emerges in daylight, Ray and Art finally goad each-other into heading over and pay a welcome-neighbour visit. This sequence becomes a masterful unit of humour and quick-fire pastiche and comic staging. Dante touches base with a burlesque of a Sergio Leone gunfight stare-and-shoot -out, diving in for close-ups of the many staring onlookers including the dog Queenie, watching in tense fascination as Ray and Art venture in, whilst Goldsmith quotes Morricone on the soundtrack. The camerawork shifts gear into a faintly gothic style with high angles and perspective distortion to create a menacingly looming effect. Facetious menace turns to farce, as the pair put their feet through weak wood in the porch and dislodge fixtures when striking the doorknocker. The house number 669 turns to 666, and a swarm of bees emerges from a secreted hive, driving the hapless duo to take shelter under Rumsfield’s hose: Rumsfield dashes forth to the rescue only for his lawn hose to snap and send him tumbling, and the scene concludes with men squirming desperately under squirting water. Later in the evening Ray takes his dog for a walk – or rather he takes it out and lets it off the leash to run riot – and finishes up falling into conversation with Art and Ricky: in arguing the Klopeks might be dangerous fiends and also trying to freak Ray out, Art cites local folklore in recounting the story of Chip, a soda jerk who slaughtered his family and went about his life normally for weeks afterwards only for summer heat to stir the stench of corruption. Soon Ray and Art witness Hans driving a car out of the garage simply to remove garbage from the trunk and pound it into the bin, before driving rain starts to fall: Ray then observes three Klopeks feverishly digging in their backyard in the storm.

Art is the devil you know: a boy-man who quietly hates his wife and takes any opportunity to stuff his face when he visits the Petersons, whilst his first appearance in the film sees him sneaking up on crows that flock about the Klopeks’ yard with a shotgun. “Art’s got a gun!” Ray alerts Carol when he sees him trying to shoot one of the birds, as if that very phrase immediately evokes good cause to be afraid. Rumsfield keeps his own vigil, looking down into the street, silhouetted in his window and smoking a cigar. Meanwhile Ricky is so entertained by watching the trio’s expeditions he first invites his girlfriend around for a dose of prototypical reality television (“This is real – this is my neighbourhood!”) and later all of his friends to gawk when the chaos reaches a climax: Ricky even puts on catering (“I called the pizza dude!”) for his free show, and his guests form a ready-made audience for the shenanigans, clapping whichever piece of slapstick inanity provided for their amusement. What is still a relatively innocent preoccupation takes a turn towards the urgently obsessive for Ray, Art, and Rumsfield when Bonnie finds Queenie seemingly alone and bedraggled, and when the neighbours go to Walter’s house they find he’s mysteriously vanished, leaving his signature toupee behind. Not long after, Queenie brings bone for Ray to throw which Art recognises is actually a human femur, convincing them both it’s Walter’s. Carol finally tries to put an end to their snooping and paranoia by arranging for her, Ray, Rumsfield and Bonnie – Art is pointedly not invited – to pay a call on the Klopeks for a nice neighbourly housewarming.

Part of the specific pleasure of Dante’s films lies in his recurring gags and casting choices, and his delight in film buff touches for their own sake. Goldsmith pushes the point even further by including passages very lightly transforming his own iconic scores for Patton (1970) and the Rambo movies for the mockery. Dante contrives to evoke the Bates house of Psycho (1960) in the crumbling grandeur of the Klopek house and the occasional, backlit sight of someone mysteriously watching from high windows. As he so often did, Dante casts perpetual refugee from the Corman factory Dick Miller, who appears with another constant regular in Dante’s films, the inimitable Robert Picardo: the duo play garbage men Vic and Joe, who find themselves the bewildered audience as Art and Rumsfield charge out to stop them compacting the Klopeks’ garbage so they can check it for human remains. “My taxes pay your salary!” Joe tries to talk Vic into attending a meditation group, whilst Miller mutters ruefully after listening to the locals theorising, “I hate cul-de-sacs. There’s only one way out and the people are kinda weird.” Rumsfield fiercely reminds the complaining labourers as he lies upside down in a pile of garbage with shaving foam on his face. When Ray tries to ignore Art’s ravings about the Klopeks being Satanists by sticking his fingers in his ears and mumbling a mantra to drown him out, Art insists he’s already succumbing to the brainwashing influence and twists his words it into a mocking version of a Satanic chant: “I wanna kill. Everyone. Satan is good. Satan is our pal.”

A highlight of the film comes about half-way through as Ray, head ringing with his own imaginings, an occult book Art showed him, and too many horror movies on the TV (Dante inserts clips from The Exorcist, 1973, Race With The Devil, 1974, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, 1986), has a nightmare where he awakens in the night and finds Carol missing. Venturing out of the bedroom, he’s assailed by a huge chainsaw blade cutting through the wall, and then finds himself tied to a huge barbecue by masked Satanists. Carol dreamily calls to Ray, swathed in white silk, praising him for inviting the neighbours to a barbecue, as the devil worshippers tie him to a giant grill whilst repeating Art’s chant. Ray sees Walter and Queenie together rising from a garbage can, in a joke that feels plucked straight from Dante’s beloved Looney Tunes cartoons, where both dog and master give spooky warning with medieval axes buried in their head. Art appears in the guise of Chip, met by peals of canned laughter and applause like a beloved sitcom character and making cheesy one-liner quips, a flourish that anticipates the more sour media lampooning of Natural Born Killers (1994). Finally Ray awakens from the vortex of nightmare to the no less disorientating sight of Mr Rogers on morning TV singing ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbour?’ Here Dante explicitly identifies Ray’s mind with his own, a whirling centrifuge where comedy and horror lose form, permanently colonised by a post-genre melange of pop culture stances.

Much as Matinee contemplates the nerve-jangled era of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with its clear-and-present-danger sense of imminent extermination, The ’Burbs evokes the fallout of the Reagan era’s homiletic appeal to renewed centrism and stability. That stability Dante sees rather as a kind of balkanization along the lines of suburban fence lines, everyone from the fairly decent young family man to the gun-toting coot and the hard rock-playing teenager segmented in their little worlds in uneasy truce rather than balance, but simultaneously, desperately seeking some cause to rally to, to relieve themselves of the pressure of their ordinariness in a country (any country) that needs mythmaking to cohere. Art’s leap to thinking the Klopeks are Satanists plainly lampoons the Satanic Panic that gripped the reactionary sectors of the 1980s, fuelled by texts like the fake memoir Michelle Remembers and the McMartin school trial, whilst he also evinces a fascination with seemingly ordinary people like Chip who abruptly become lunatics. Eventually, in the film’s climactic, sententious but well-handled speech from Ray, he indicts himself, Art, and Rumsfield as the actual examples of that madness in this story. Dante’s capacity to explore socially satiric themes with an unexpected edge of relevance and insight had been present since his early B-movies and would reach a height in his almost scarily prescient 1996 telemovie The Second Civil War, which took the themes in The ’Burbs to a natural conclusion and came up with a warning for the Trump era.

The urge to childlike anarchic action was one Dante had safely cordoned off in Gremlins in the title critters as the represented all the septic forces lurking under the surface of the idealised small town; in The ’Burbs the citizens degenerate into something like gremlins themselves. Dante is amused as well as alarmed by the immaturity of his protagonists, watching them become infantilised as they indulge their seemingly adult concerns. Art is glad to be out from under his wife’s thumb because it’s plain he regards her more like a parental control figure, and Carol increasingly acts like Ray’s mother rather than wife (casting Fisher as the film’s most mature person was a stroke of genius), resulting in a scene where Art and Rumsfield retreat like dejected boys when Carol won’t let Ray come out and play “until he resembles the man that I married.” For all his man’s man affectations, Rumsfield gleefully directs the other two using a “Red Rover” rhyme over a walkie-talkie. Hanks’ innate likeability is key for presenting a main character who does increasingly unhinged and destructive things. Meanwhile Ray’s actual child son Dave (Cory Danziger) is increasingly mortified by the spectacle of his father’s mischiefs. Ray’s attempts to remain reasonably sane and a restraining influence on Art are repeatedly foiled, as when Art writes an accusatory note to the Klopeks and Ray fears correctly they might assume he did it. Eventually he’s drawn into the mesmerising influence after the discovery of the femur – Dante gleefully mocks melodramatic style as Art and Ray scream in panic upon Art’s certainty the femur belongd to Walter, camera zooming in and out like it’s having a palpitation – and later when he discovers Walter’s wig mysteriously transposed from his house to the Klopeks’.

Carol’s attempts to defuse the escalating situation and make nice with the Klopeks results in a painfully uncomfortable and bitterly funny scene as Ray and Carol and Rumsfield and Bonnie finally encounter the three new neighbours. Hans is a jittery, pale, perverse youth, Uncle Reuben (Brother Theodore) is a fierce and cranky elder who barely controls his simmering anger at Ray, and his brother, Dr Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson) who first appears in a burlesque of horror movie anticipation as he emerges from the cellar, glimpsed in menacing silhouette, wearing surgical gloves smeared with red, only for this to prove paint from his hobby of making art from surgical scenes. The Klopeks (“Is that a Slavic name?” Rumsfield questions, sensing both Reds and corpses under the bed) are a perfect alloy of strange traits, from their midnight excursions and oddly impersonal furnishings (“It came with the frame.”) and general of foreignness, but Werner proves such a pleasantly affable, almost fey host that he seems to finally put relations on common ground. At least until Rumsfield starts in with aggressive questioning and Art, sneaking into the house whilst everyone’s distracted, unleashes the snarling beast chained up in the cellar – a Great Dane – and runs for his life, setting off the Klopeks’ improvised alarm system. Hanks’ comic acting is at a height in this sequence as Ray uneasily accepts the hospitable offer from Hans of his idea of an entertaining munchies – a canned sardine and pretzel – and tries to eat it, and later tries to distract from one of Rumsfield’s obnoxious ploys by suddenly suffering a sneezing fit that quickly becomes a real one.

Newly convinced of the Klopeks’ malfeasance by finding Walter’s toupee in their house, Ray resolves to take advantage of what he knows will be the family’s absence and contrives to get rid of Carol and Dave for the day, before setting out with Art and Rumsfield to invade the Klopek house. Art successfully knocks out the power to the house by shimmying up a power pole and cutting a live wire, an act that results in him getting shocked and falling through a shed roof, emerging singed and smoking, but does succeed in disabling the Klopeks’ alarms. Rumsfield keeps watch from his rooftop with a rife, infrared scope, walkie-talike, and animal crackers. Ray furiously digs holes in the Klopeks’ yard whilst Art lounges about, before they shift their attention to within the house. There they finally seem to identify the source of the strange rumbles and glowing, in the form of a huge, baroque furnace the Klopeks have been restoring. The Klopeks return home only to recognise someone’s broken in and retreat unnoticed to fetch the police, whilst Art and Rumsfield behold the beggaring sight of Walter being returned home by his children, having just been in hospital after a spell of heart trouble. Still digging in the cellar floor for any signs of buried bodies, Ray’s pickaxe hits something metallic, only for this to prove a gas line: Art manages to flee but Ray is still inside when the gas explodes and blows the house to pieces. Thankfully Ray emerges, battered and burned but alive.

The flow of great comic business continues right through The ’Burbs, from Ray plucking Walter’s toupee from where he stashed it in his shorts to Ricky, trying to distract the police brought by the Klopeks, leaping onto their windscreen and trying to pass off his houseguests as riotous invades: “There’s these people and they’re in my parents’ house and…they’re eating all their food!” The aftermath of the explosion brings the world onto the cul-de-sac, including cops who represent the judgement of authority and reality. In a moral-of-the-story vignette, Ray unleashes a berserk harangue at Art and accepts they’ve been acting like crazy people: “We’re the lunatics!” he thunders in between bouts of trying to strangle the still-recalcitrant Art. The peculiarity of The ’Burbs is that it tries to present a nimble, scabrous comedy with the trappings of a big-budget Hollywood movie, with Dante embracing the imaginative exaggeration of his heroes and his own genre movie touchstones, constantly, ironically contrasting the looming, swooning camerawork and amplified weirdness of the Klopeks and their home with the gleaming, idealised neighbourhood around them. Where Burton’s Edward Scissorhands a year later would touch many of the same conceptual bases of The ’Burbs, it allows its nonconformist heroes the stature of myth, where The ‘Burbs refuses to indulge, seeing as everyone, whatever their personal mythos, as victims of the persona they make for themselves as part of the general comedie humaine.

At least until the very end: in a climax reportedly reshot to please test audiences, Ray pledges to help mitigate the damage he’s caused, only to be confronted by Dr Klopek, who reveals a sudden sinister side and confirms that he did indeed murder the Knapps and intends to kill Ray too. Ray manages to fight him off and the sight of the Klopeks’ car boot stuffed with the bones of their victims confirms their villainy. This ending presents an interesting dichotomy when it comes to the difference, and occasional disconnect, between theme and movie language. On the one hand, it seems to spoil the theme of the self-appointed guardians of normality proving to be the true reprobates and seeming to finally justify their paranoia. On the other, given Dante’s blackly comic exaggeration throughout, to simply have the Klopeks prove to be mere, victimised innocents would see a bit of a long bow, and the revelation finally gives the constant come-ons of Dante’s outsized style, at long last, some proper horror movie images to indulge, including Dr Klopek snapping on surgical gloves in a slyly congenial but menacing manner, and the horde of bones. Dante tries to have his cake and eat it in finally seeing everyone as a bit cracked, as Ray wanders home dazedly with Carol whilst Art and Rumsfield smugly ride out the switchback in swerving between the status of villains and heroes. The resulting ambivalence is, ultimately, perhaps more interesting and lasting than any didactic message.

When Dante made Matinee four years later, he purposefully redeployed the core theme of The ’Burbs in introducing a major character, Sandra (Lisa Jakub), who’s the child of beatnik intellectuals and earns the distrust of her fellow students and the wrath of authority when she refuses to play along with her high school’s duck-and-cover drill, instead loudly and desperately insisting it’s all a sham and waste of time in the face of the immediate threat of nuclear annihilation. Here the voice of weirdo dissent is plainly valourised, as Sandra becomes the girlfriend of Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), the main character, despite him being the nominally straitlaced son of a Navy sailor. Matinee unfolds over the course of a week coinciding with the Cuban Missile Crisis: Gene and his family, who often relocate depending on where his dad is stationed, have recently arrived in Key West, and Gene becomes aware his father isn’t out on manoeuvres as he’s been told, but is on one of the blockade ships. Gene himself harbours his own subversive appetites, his burgeoning delight in B horror and sci-fi films. The ultimate sop to that proclivity falls right in his lap amidst the general unease: independent auteur Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), maker of such masterpieces as The Brain Leeches and The Hypnotic Eyes of Doctor Diablo, announces he’s going to be premiering his new atomic monster movie, Mant!, at the Key West Strand, a local movie theatre, to take advantage of the island’s current, flashpoint role in the zeitgeist.

Dante’s sense of personal connection with the meat of Charles S. Haas’s script is easy to discern, as Gene eventually comes under Woolsey’s wing, much as Dante did with Corman, the older shyster-artist schooling the kid in both the flimflam side to his business but also his genuine, peculiar creative ideals in trafficking in safe, cordoned experiences of the dark side as necessarily purgative and cathartic. Woolsey is, nonetheless, more patently based on the legendary William Castle, the former big studio B-movie wiz who went independent and reinvented himself as the downmarket Alfred Hitchcock, making personal appearances in his movies and advertising and employing attention-grabbing gimmicks to hook his audiences. Many of the stunts and tricks Woolsey utilises in promoting Mant! are drawn directly from Castle and Corman’s playbooks, like wiring up seats to deliver mild electric shocks and trundling out dangling skeletons mid-movie, and trying to whip up audience enthusiasm by ironically appealing to their desire to see things possibly forbidden or just amusingly bad. Woolsey has his leading lady and girlfriend Ruth Corday (Cathy O’Donnell; her character’s last name Corday is a nod to Mara Corday, star of Tarantula!, 1955, and The Black Scorpion, 1957) also pose as a nurse selling fake insurance policies to prospective audience members, a nice gimmick that falls flat when Ruth repeatedly shows no professional interest in the actually injured.

Matinee indulges a portrait of teenagers from a “more innocent time,” for whom sneaking a listen to a Lenny Bruce album is the height of sophistication and daring. Gene, because of the family’s constant moving, always faces the problem of making new friends, and he dreads going to the local high school. He also has to take care of his younger brother Dennis (Jesse Lee) a lot of the time, and his tendency to get freaked out by the scary movies Gene loves sometimes forces Gene to run the gauntlet with his fretful mother Anne (Lucinda Jenney). When some boys prefer him to the company of some nerd at lunch he meets Stan (Omri Katz), and they become fast friends. Stan has a fierce crush on school goddess Sherry (Kellie Martin). Stan works up the pluck to ask Sherry out on a date, and she happily accepts, but Stan is soon intimidated by Sherry’s older former boyfriend Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire), a petty criminal recently released early from a jail stint because he also fancies himself as a Beat poet and impressed a literary figure. Stan connects with Sandra, as another misfit, albeit a local who’s never felt at home, and who refer to her parents by their first names. Meanwhile Woolsey is dealing with his own problems, including an increasingly disgruntled Ruth, who’s annoyed he won’t marry her, and his urgent design to get Mant! a booking in a large theatre chain, to pay off nagging debts like the impending lab bill for the movie, as he’s threatened with a lawsuit: “Boy this business has changed,” Woolsey comments, “They used to settle these things with violence.”

Matinee has a strong resemblance to many other post-American Graffiti (1973) nostalgia piece movies cast a half-humoured, half-anxious eye back to the prelapsarian days before JFK’s assassination. But it belongs in a special niche with something like John Waters’ Hairspray (1988) in exploring a similar blend of candy-coloured retro and sceptical coming-of-age meditations, laced with the director’s simultaneously fulsome and ironic sensibility. Matinee is probably the sweetest and sunniest movie Dante made, despite its depiction of a uniquely fraught moment in history that still transmits unease in cultural memory, and during the slow build towards the kind of comic chaos Dante was so good at it risks getting rather more cute than was his usual wont. Still, Dante captures the surreal segues for the lives of the boys into a world of grown-up threat, as when Gene and Stan go down to the blissful beachfront only to find soldiers and their great dark war machines ranged along it. Dante uses The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as a leitmotif, both bang-on as period detail and a musical gesture conveying breezy, dreamy nostalgia and longing. The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” is used more archly as a theme for Harvey as he lurks in the bushes watching Sherry. Dante constantly illustrated his heroes’ inner worlds and transformative urges through dream sequences used as a vehicle for unfettering both fantasy and fear: Ray’s nightmare in The ’Burbs is one example, whilst the dreams shared by the trio in Explorers is perhaps the quintessential instance, as Dante depicted a shared subliminal space in which the heroes discover designs that open other worlds. Here Dante’s variation on this comes as Gene thinks he hears his father’s return and gets out of bed, only to find his house deserted, and when he opens the front door witnesses the apocalyptic eruption of a mushroom cloud followed by an exterminating wind: only then does Gene awaken, delivered back to much safer waking dreams of mutant man-ants.

Whereas in The ’Burbs the movie pastiche was kneaded into the style of the film, Dante often settled for delivering films within films making wry sport of disreputable wonders, like the episodes in Amazon Women of the Moon that give the movie its title, a hilariously precise recreation of of ‘50s space siren movies, and the send-up of cheap Italian space operas in Explorers. Here Dante pokes good-natured fun at the general run of entertainment for kids in the day, when his mom makes him take Dennis to see a movie called The Shook-Up Shopping Cart. This proves a frighteningly accurate pastiche of the kind of live-action pablum Disney was turning out at the time, with the movie-within-a-movie sporting a very young Naomi Watts as a sunny blonde starlet opposite a double-taking co-star. Later, of course, he gets around to Mant! itself, which resembles less one of Castle’s or Corman’s films of the period and looks more like fellow trash titan Bert I. Gordon trying to make a Jack Arnold film. After getting bored during The Mixed-Up Shopping Cart, Gene and Danney leave, only to encounter a scene outside the theatre: two men, Herb (Miller again) and Bob (Sayles), claiming to be from a morals group called Citizens For Decent Entertainment, are protesting the upcoming Mant! screening. They face opposition with Sandra’s parents Jack (David Clennon) and Rhonda (Lucy Butler), who espouse First Amendment rights, whilst Woolsey himself emerges to argue with the men and pass out free tickets, encouraging people to make up their own minds. Gene susses all this out when he recognises Herb from a still from one of Woolsey’s previous films, and realises Woolsey’s just drumming up publicity from a different flank.

This sequence takes a deft poke at the art of using negative publicity as good publicity, and again later when Bob and Herb try to entice Harvey with their two-faced wiles: “What messages do these movies send to the youth of America? That atomic power is nothing but trouble? That it’s all right for atomic mutations to rip the clothes off of young women?” There’s also a dose of sly metatextual commentary on Dante’s constant casting of Miller in restoring him to his original setting as a B-movie face. When Gene confronts Woolsey about his stunt, Woolsey at first tries to report that “Herb turned against me,” but then drops the pretence in realising Gene’s too smart for that. Instead he explains he hired Herb when he was actually a shake-down guy sent to collect money and Woolsey saw an inexpensive actor instead, whilst Bob is a blacklisted actor. Much of the near-sublime quality of Matinee lies in the way Dante captures two ways of looking at Woolsey, from one angle a fly-by-night exploitation entrepreneur who’s a professional bullshit artist, and from another a hero bringing fun and fright a world of young Genes. Casting Goodman, at the height of his rotund charm and performing vigour, as Woolsey makes him instantly charismatic and likeable, and he readily opens up to Gene in sensing a kindred spirit. Gene and Woolsey’s conversations articulate the credo of a hermetic order of horror movie freaks, as Gene confesses to Woolsey, in a manner just about any cineaste might recognise, that with his rootless childhood he found his friends in the oddball likes of Herb and Vincent Price on screen. Woolsey readily identifies with Gene’s problems, recalling his own trouble fitting in, only to assure him, “Now I get my revenge, I get to scare everyone else – but it’s for their own good.” Woolsey goes on to explain the delight he takes hin making monster movies with philosophical zeal, describing some ancient encounter between a caveman ancestor and a woolly mammoth the man survived and felt the need to record his exhilarating escape for posterity. So he a picture on his cave wall and exaggerating its terrible features: “Bang!,” Woolsey announces as the caveman’s vision is illustrated as a threatening cartoon projected with imagination upon a brick wall, “The first monster movie.”

Woolsey goes on to explain that ebb and flow of fear and release, anxiety and catharsis, is the essence of the movie business and why he loves it so much. Dante stages Woolsey and Gene’s exchanges in a series of flowing, unifying tracking shots as Woolsey leads the lad off the street and into the temple of cinema. That temple is however also a profane space, a place for rowdy kids to stamp feet, roll malt balls down the aisles, and to gawk at anything that might provoke the ghost of a sexual fantasy, which Woolsey also knows well. The Strand’s manager Howard (Picardo) is a panicky fussbudget who has installed a fallout shelter in the theatre basement and keeps a radio on him at all times tuned to a military channel to get an early warning if the bombs start falling. Meanwhile Harvey, whose last name pays an unsubtle nod to the infamous serial killer Charles Starkweather, is present for bad boy angst, threatening Stan in between recitations of his poetry: “Destiny – it’s like a crazy river – where you see different people’s boats that they have going by on it…but tomorrow! Tomorrow’s a knife!” Homage perhaps to Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1958), which starred Miller. Harvey is both a source of comedy as an utter dope, and also a more immediate menace than the atomic bomb with his unstable and violent streak. He tries to steal Bob’s wallet when he and Herb are going through their spiel, only for them to catch him and reclaim the wallet, making as if they’re going to beat him up but then releasing him. Harvey takes their advice and gets a job, which happens to be for Woolsey, filling out a Mant costume with instructions to operate all of Woolsey’s gimmicks and lurch out to frighten the audience at intervals. Woolsey’s stunts include “Rumble-Rama”, which shakes the theatre, and his now process, “Atom-O-Vision,” for the grand finale.

Mant!, glimpsed in random passages during the screening itself, is a lovely if broad lampoon of ‘50s monster movies, styled much like the send-ups in Amazon Women of the Moon and, with O’Donnell-as-Ruth playing Carole, the wife of an unfortunate man named Bill (Mark McCracken), who’s transforming into a giant ant after being bitten by an ant whilst getting a dental x-ray, and becomes increasingly unhinged. Dante casts classic movie faces William Schallert as the dentist, The Thing From Another World’s (1951) Robert Cornthwaite as the compulsory grimly prognosticating scientist, and Kevin McCarthy as an army general trying to battle the gigantic, mutated Bill, and inserts stock footage borrow from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1951). In recreating the classic style Dante does a good job nailing down the look and sound of such movies, particularly the lighting, usually a touch directors get badly wrong, although the prosthetics for “Mant” and the later giant ant puppet are far too good to be from a real movie of the period. Dante makes sport of the sexism littering many such movies, building to the relished moment when Mant gooses his wife with his slimy claw (a queue for the watching audience to be shocked) as well as breathless sexual melodrama (Schallert’s lecherous dentist drive Bill to a murderous rampage by trying to seduce his wife whilst he’s encaged), whilst Cornthwaite’s scientist insists on repeating everything he says in a dumbed-down fashion: “He’ll continue to metamorphose – or change!”

The Mant! premiere kicks the film’s gentle, ambling tenor to a higher gear as the characters intersect and Woolsey’s machinery collapses the boundaries between life and apocalyptic fantasy, and provides one of Dante’s greatest set-pieces of orchestrated madness. Gene does good pal service when he helps Sherry and Stan make up by spinning a story that carefully omits Harvey’s menacing, suggesting Gene has nascent talents for good fiction. Harvey, catching sight of Stan kissing Sherry in the audience whilst he’s supposed to be menacing the crowd, socks Stan and chases him and Sherry around the theatre. The Rumble-Rama makes Howard think the bombs are falling, so he dashes to the basement to set his shelter to close, only for mix-ups to result in Gene and Sandra being locked inside it. Woolsey, with his can-do attitude and general cynicism (“I’m in the wrong business,” he sighs when Howard tells him the shelter was sold to him as completely impregnable), works to get the shelter door off before the two kids suffocate, only to find when he does dislodge it that the pair inside are kissing. Meanwhile a theatre chain owner Woolsey’s trying to land a deal with, Spector (Jesse White), is utterly delighted, taking the violence for ingenious choreography and part of the overall show. The theatre’s upstairs balcony becomes dangerously overloaded with rowdy kids having the time of their lives, and with the added Rumble-Rama the balcony threatens to collapse, with Dennis on it.

As in The ’Burbs, the chaos unleashed is a by-product of rowdy human energy, the desperate need for thrills and voyaging, and the urge to expiate darker urges, even when articulated via schlock. Only the steady hand of a clever film director can impose some form of order on such bedlam, as Woolsey confirms when he deliberately uses Atom-O-Vision, which deploys a mixture of lighting and 3D colour footage to make it seem as if an atomic bomb has blown out the back of the movie theatre, to frighten the audience into evacuating the theatre and empty out the collapsing balcony. Except Dennis doesn’t escape, requiring Gene to risk life and limb grabbing Dennis off the balcony before it sways and crashes down on the empty theatre floor. Meanwhile Stan tries to intervene as Harvey tries to kidnap Sherry at knifepoint, getting knocked out for his pains, but Harvey’s flight quickly comes to a halt as he crashes his car and is apprehended. All ends happily, with the blockade ending, Woolsey proposing marriage to Ruth as the drive off and assuring the kids that adults are just as clueless as they are, and Gene and Sandra going down to the now soldier-free beach to watch the Navy chopper bringing his dad home arrive. An ending that obeys Woolsey, and Dante’s, dictum that a good movie should end with the lights coming up and a sigh of relief, and an instance of life, if never entirely for good, for once playing along.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Epic, Historical, War

55 Days At Peking (1963)

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Directors: Nicholas Ray, Guy Green (uncredited), Andrew Marton (uncredited)
Screenwriters: Ben Barzman, Bernard Gordon, Robert Hamer, Philip Yordan

By Roderick Heath

The history of cinema is so often one of fallen empires. Producer Samuel Bronston was born in Tsarist Russia and was, bewilderingly enough, a nephew of Leon Trotsky. Bronston grew up in the US and had some success as a movie producer in the early 1940s. He then fell into a long fallow patch that didn’t break until 1959’s John Paul Jones. Shooting that film partly in Spain, languishing under the Franco regime at the time and still trying to reconnect with the rest of the world, Bronston grasped the unexploited potential of making movies in that country. Costs were so low and the countryside so varied and littered with historical structures it was a perfect place to make costume epics, at that time the stuff of official blockbuster appeal. Soon Bronston’s move would be imitated by entire film industries. But Bronston’s blend of thrifty cunning and gaudy ambition would eventually ruin not only his career but those of two of Hollywood’s greatest directors. Bronston quickly scored an enormous hit with El Cid (1961), helmed by Anthony Mann, and the Jesus film King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray, one of the era’s most vital and floridly talented but fatefully maverick filmmakers. Bronston then embarked on two more mega-budget historical epics, hiring Ray to make 55 Days At Peking and Mann for The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

By this time, Ray’s personal life was in a tailspin and his health declining thanks to his constant drug and alcohol use. Ray collapsed during the shooting of 55 Days In Peking, and the movie had to be taken over by Andrew Marton, the second unit director and an experienced shooter of action sequences, until the former cinematographer turned director Guy Green was hurriedly brought in to finish it. The results were punishing for all concerned: the film’s budget skyrocketed to the then-astronomical sum of $17 million and only made half of it back at the American box office (although it seems to have been much more popular elsewhere), beginning the collapse of Bronston’s fortunes. Ray himself was finished in Hollywood, only turning out sporadic collaborations with film students and a final testimonial with Wim Wenders, Lightning Over Water (1979), in the rest of his days. Today there are reasons to hold 55 Days At Peking in misgiving, on top of what it cost Ray. It’s set in China but at the time it was impossible to actually shoot there, so Bronston simply built a replica of Peking in a Spanish field. Major Chinese characters are played by Caucasian actors in Asian makeup, despite being released at a time when that sort of thing was falling firmly out of favour, whilst about 4,000 genuine Chinese extras were obtained from all over Europe. It depicts history that’s still a touchy subject, the infamous Boxer Rebellion of 1900, largely from a western perspective. Some of the gaps from the production turmoil are obvious, like the way a priest played by Harry Andrews suddenly enters the narrative as if he’s been there all the time.

Despite such obvious and not-negligible problems, I feel some sort of love for 55 Days At Peking, an ungainly problem child shot through with flashes of unexpected art. Like some of the other epics made in that early 1960s moment that were largely dismissed by both critics and audiences, it’s much richer and more complex than it was given credit for, as well as a movie where, as the cliché goes, the money can all be seen up on screen. It’s a transitional work, mediating the end of classic Hollywood and looking forward to where certain things were heading, and despite his tragic exit from the production, Ray’s distinctive blend of sour realism and stylised romanticism still permeates the whole of this, a fervent and fretful kiss goodbye to the age of cavaliers and gilded kingdoms and an uneasy bow to the modern world’s complexities. One of a string of expensive and often ambivalent movies about besiegement made at the time, along with The Alamo (1960), The 300 Spartans (1962), and Zulu (1963), 55 Days At Peking shares their nervous preoccupation with the Cold War zeitgeist as mediated through historical likenesses, as well as marking the first Hollywood film exploring what would eventually become clearly identified as Vietnam War angst. The film’s contention with the possibility of political blocs forced into cooperating takes as its intrinsic subject the birth of the modern world springing out of the colliding egotisms and breakdown of the old.

Today, with China a verified world power, the fractious and unruly state of the country 123 years ago can seem rather shocking, and even when 55 Days At Peking came out its look back to the turn of the century seems charged with bewildered fascination for how the world have both changed and not changed, its narrative hinting at the seeds for what would later happen to all the countries involved as found in this peculiar window of history. The Boxers, more properly called the Yìhéquán or the Militia United in Righteousness, gained their common sobriquet for their practising of martial arts disciplines, or Chinese Boxing as it was called at the time. The Boxers were a coalition of societies built around such activities, some of them uninterested in political matters, others obsessed with them, but many were unified by their sweeping hatred for various forms of foreign influence muscling in on China in the late 19th century, and evolved into religiously-fuelled quasi-revolutionaries with a militantly anti-Christian as well as anti-Western Imperialist outlook. Boxers created initial alarm and fear through persecution and eventually murders of missionaries and other foreigners. Eventually convincing themselves they had divine protection from modern weapons, they began agitating for a crusade of purification in mid-1900, and marched on Beijing, or Peking as it was styled at the time. Meanwhile the Qing Dynasty, led by the Empress Dowager who had deposed her nephew for trying to impose reforms, was being fatally stymied by lost wars and encroaching foreign powers.

In a storytelling flourish that feels entirely and perfectly Ray-like, political blocs are mapped out musically: the film opens with a survey of old Peking, when the various foreign powers share an enclave known as the Foreign Compound, and the various nations war in the morning with their bands playing their rival national anthems at full volume. The camera descends to two hapless Chinese men trying to have their breakfast, only for one to clap his hands on his ears and ask in desperation, “What is this noise?” His friend answers succinctly: “Different nations saying the same thing at the same time – ‘We want China.’” David Niven’s Sir Arthur Robertson, a fictionalised version of the real British legation chief Sir Claude MacDonald, is presented as a man who, on the surface at least, is the very model of an English diplomat. As an emissary from the world’s leading power of the time, Sir Arthur presses the English point of view and a sense of steadfast resolve and forbearance with such ease and class he obliges all the countries and their less easy representatives to play along in his great and dangerous game of chicken with the oncoming rebellion. He inspires his German counterpart Baron von Meck (Eric Pohlmann) to comment, “You know, I admire Sir Arthur – he always gives me the feeling that God must be an Englishman.”

Lines like that betray the contribution to the script by Robert Hamer, the director of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), credited here with additional dialogue, and his sardonic sense of humour about the great old days of British identity. 55 Days At Peking’s opening credits utilise paintings by Chinese-American artist Dong Kingman to lay down the aesthetic of a lushly stylised view of the past and the setting, slipping over the horizon of general memory. The story commences with tensions on the boil between three factions, the court of the Empress Dowager (Flora Robson), the great foreign powers comprising Great Britain, the US, France, Russia, Spain, Austria-Hungary, Japan, and Italy, and the Boxers. The Empress’s nephew Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann) is trying to foment resistance to the increasing stranglehold the foreigners have over the country and is surreptitiously encouraging the Boxers, whilst the head of the armed forces, General Jung-Lu (Leo Genn), resists such moves. The Imperial court is portrayed a medieval holdover despite the gilded spectacle, with Jung-Lu fiercely establishing his authority over lessers as a factional power struggle commences by lashing an officer in the face with his fly whip, whilst the Empress orders another officer executed because the argument over his fate, amongst other reasons, “disturbs the tranquillity of the morning.”

A detachment of American Marines under Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) arrives back on rotation to Peking to take over defence of the US legation just in time to behold some Boxers torturing a western priest on a water wheel. Matt tries to buy the priest off them but he dies first, resulting in a discomforting stand-off during which a Boxer is shot by a sergeant, Harry (John Ireland), but Matt manages to defuse the situation by buying the Boxer’s corpse instead and docks the price from Harry’s pay. There’s a discomforting undercurrent to this scene beyond the immediate tension in the square-off between armed gangs, as Matt readily grasps and accedes to an understanding that anything, be it faith, patriotism, revenge, or gratitude, can be translated into a dollar value. Matt finds himself mostly answering to Sir Arthur as the American envoy Maxwell (Ray himself) is ill, and soon witnesses Von Meck’s assassination by some Boxers under Tuan’s direction. When Sir Arthur and Matt are brought before the Empress, it becomes clear she has elected under Tuan’s influence to let the Boxers do what they like to the foreigners. Readying their enclave for siege, the international factions are forced to ally and protect their citizens whilst hoping for relief.

The opening vignette and the locals’ sarcastic reaction to it sets in play a film that remains intensely ambivalent about the political manoeuvring and game of national egos unfolding, the Imperial court envisioned as encrusted in arcane and empty ritual and spectacle no longer backed up by anything resembling legitimacy. The musical motif is matched by the visuals as the mammoth recreation of a large chunk of Peking sees the Foreign Compound littered with transplanted architectural styles like gothic forms amidst Chinese. The international representatives swan about in varied postures of arrogance but little real backbone, with only Sir Arthur’s determination to project unruffled calm and principled grit forcing the others to go along with him, because to do otherwise would be embarrassing. It feels revealing that Ray cast himself as the American representative who dismisses any interest in territorial concessions, as the film expresses a kind of idealism that feels consistent with Ray’s scepticism over grand-sounding ideals, although of course he can’t push this as far as he did in something like Bitter Victory (1957). He does nonetheless insist on portraying his heroes as indecisive, brittle, confused creatures, ironically nearly as unsure of themselves in facing down geopolitical crises as the wayward young folk of They Live By Night (1948) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955).

Heston’s Matt is offered as a prototype, a professional soldier who knows his way around upper crust climes as his job and rank require but who seems like anything but a blue blood, a wilfully rootless figure given up to the demands of the army. A man who tosses out most of his correspondence, collected for him by his hotel in the concession, because “Read it and you might have to answer it.” Matt soon finds himself drawn in close to Baroness Natasha Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), an exile from the Russian aristocracy with still-virulent scandal in her past. The Baroness is persecuted by her late husband’s brother, the Russian delegate Baron Sergei Ivanoff (Kurt Kasznar), who has a singular motive in trying to force her to return an enormously valuable gold-and-jade necklace her husband gave her, a combative relationship spiced by Sergei’s jagged blend of vengefulness and attraction to his former sister-in-law and the Baroness’s offended pleasure in resisting. The Baroness courts Matt’s attention when she’s ejected on Sergei’s behest from her hotel room which is then given to Matt, although her turns of sharp wit almost drive him away: “Clever women make me nervous.”

Nonetheless Matt and the Baroness form a connection in their shared liking not only for each-other but their penchant for ruffling feathers, with Matt agreeing to take the Baroness as his date to a Queen’s Birthday ball thrown by Sir Arthur, giving the Baroness the chance to make a splash wearing the necklace and forcing everyone to be polite to her in the social setting. Ray’s gift for cramming frames with absurd decorative beauty is certainly in evidence in the ball scene, drinking in the riot of colours and the chic allure of a bygone age’s way of expressing confidence and social import. The ritual is quietly violated by Matt and the Baroness’ gesture, Ray noting the reactions of many of the other men in the room when catching sight of the Baroness and her accoutrements with an edge of sexual satire, the Baroness possessing the power through her sheer presence and aura of beauty to disturb social niceties from the level of statecraft down to a few aggravated spouses. This is supplanted by a more calculated and meaningful disruption as Prince Tuan arrives and proposes to entertain the ball guests by bringing in some tame Boxers to give a show of their prowess in martial arts. When Matt is asked to help them in one trick, seemingly to arrange his humiliation in payback for the shooting of the Boxer, he turns the tables by striking not at the Boxer he’s supposed to but suddenly bailing up and tripping a huge Boxer.

Matt’s show of slyness and toughness gains a proud cry of “Bravo!” from Von Meck, but Sir Arthur senses well some delicate balance of politesse and all too substantive political arm wrestling has been upset. Rather than put up with the crowd any longer, Matt and the Baroness leave and enter a Buddhist temple where they waltz away to the strains of the orchestra surrounded by ancient, abiding idols. This image the feels like one pure crystallisation of Ray’s sensibility in the film and its emblematic pivot, west and east, vivacity and boding, male and female, old world about to crumble and be supplanted by the new, two pan-global lovers dancing along the precipice. In basic concept Matt and the Baroness are stock melodrama figures. And yet, rather than their romance becoming the dramatic pivot of the film a la great romantic epics like Gone With The Wind (1939) or Titanic (1997), however, they’re become instead very Ray figures, polarised, consumed by their divergent needs and by the quality of separateness, of wilful repudiation of the world, that brings them together in the first place, unable to properly connect and instead doomed to labour through the consequences of their emotional stymies. Both are ultimately obliged to become figures with a duty of care and rise to the challenge in different ways connected to the larger drama around them.

The film somewhat undercuts its attempts, from a contemporary perspective, to comment seriously on racism and cultural schism with its casting. Try as they might, Robson, Genn, and Helpmann can’t help but give the impression they’re starring in a high-class production of The Mikado. The resemblance might not be so accidental: Helpmann in particular seems to have been cast to put his dancer’s skill to good use in recreating the elaborate formal flavour of the Imperial court. And yet the film’s nuances are surprising as it engages with the theme in a very Ray-like manner, that is, couching it in human terms stemming from the affections and weaknesses of his characters. Matt’s friend and subordinate Captain Andy Marshall (Jerome Thor) has a daughter, Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon), by a Chinese mother: Matt and Andy speak about Teresa before she’s seen in a cool and clinical fashion, with the two men agreeing that Andy must leave her in safe hands in China when he goes home because, as Matt puts it, “She’d be a freak back home.”

But when Teresa comes to find her father during the soldiers’ entry into Peking he snatches her up with a desperately loving gesture, making plain his genuine anguish at the thought of leaving her behind. Later, Andy is killed in battle with the Boxers, leaving Teresa orphaned and facing a bleak future as a mixed race child there, and Teresa begins doting on Matt as an alternative father figure despite his complete lack of any experience or readiness for such loaded gift, no more than he is to help the Baroness. The Baroness’ own transgressive past eventually emerges when, to disarm the threats of Sergei, she tells Matt about how she betrayed her husband, a golden boy of the Russian establishment being groomed for a great career, by having an affair with a Chinese General, heavily implied to be Jung-Lu. “Can’t you imagine yourself falling in love with a Chinese girl?” The Baroness asks Matt, before noting sourly, “That’s not the same.” The political situation begins to lurch towards this conflict when Matt accidentally sees Von Meck’s assassination and he and Sir Arthur visit the Empress in the splendour of her palace, Sir Arthur deftly kicking aside the cushion placed for him to kneel on.

This small but infinitely consequential gesture signals a refusal of any further kowtowing, despite Sir Arthur’s words suggesting to the Empress being patient will benefit her country far more than rash gestures, quickly answered by the Empress and Tuan, who make it plan they will not stop the Boxers from making an assault on the Compound. Initially trying to escape as the war breaks out, the Baroness finds herself forced to return, but then finds her path to revitalisation through volunteering as a nurse under Dr Steinfeldt (Paul Lukas), an elderly German physician who finds himself caring for the wounded during the siege, and the Baroness swiftly becomes beloved by her charges and even the aged doctor. Steinfeldt’s makeshift clinic is a striking islet of Ray’s stylised visual mystique, a crude space transformed into a ward of healing simply by splashing whitewash everywhere. The ever-so-faintly surreal quality here is amplified by the way all colours are subtracted including the costuming of the actors as if to suggest they are part of the space, humans vying towards the angelic, broken up only by the crude blues of the soldiers and the red blood pools stark and bright, the corporeal brutality of the war duelling with the transcendental. Later the Baroness sells off her necklace to buy medical supplies and fruit through the black market.

The credited screenwriters were Bernard Gordon who was just re-emerging after years on the blacklist, and Phillip Yordan, a regular collaborator of Mann’s who had made a good living also serving as a front for blacklistees like Gordon. Such a background is detectable in the Countess’ exile and the very strained politesse of her re-entrance to polite society. “I just do a job patrolling the rice paddies out in the back country,” Matt comments to Sir Arthur in their first confrontation, evincing the first sunrise glimmers of the emerging sense of what the Cold War was becoming via the historical parable. After their visit to the Empress, Sir Arthur and Matt are forced thanks to Tuan’s machinations to head back to the Compound without escort, locked out by the gates of the Forbidden City. This cues a sequence Robert Wise would offer a variation of in The Sand Pebbles (1966) as the Vietnam echoes firmed up and a plain resemblance to TV news reports of unrest in third world locales, as the two men are forced to run the gauntlet of a furious mob.

The diplomat and soldier are quickly rescued by Captain Hanley (Robert Urquhart) and when Sir Arthur makes plain to the other envoys he has no intention of bowing to threats and leaving, he obliges them all to begin barricading the Foreign Compound and prepare for assaults by the Boxers. Matt allies with other capable officers like the British Hanley, the German Captain Hoffman (Walter Gotell), and the Japanese Colonel Shiba (Juzo Itami). Another very Hamer-esque joke gets by as Sir Arthur confesses to his wife, Lady Sarah (Elizabeth Sellers), that he doesn’t mind all the French history books her mother bought him to be used on the barricade because the topic bores him, before Ray cuts to the French ambassador having the same reaction with his books of English history. This joke cuts deeper than it seems: it helps flesh out the coherent theme threaded right through the film about the illusions of factionalism and the opacity of history as a way of understanding them, creating false zones of identity.

The raw and pressing crisis of the siege forces demands communal action illustrate by another good joke as Harry awakens the motley crew of defenders from sleep, offering versions of “Good morning” in each language until he’s stumped by a Japanese sailor and so says it in English, to which the sailor replies in perfect English. Sir Arthur, the perfect diplomat, is meanwhile revealed to hold serious doubts as to both the wisdom of his actions and his own motives. Glimpsed early on satirising himself by dryly suggesting cutting the family dog in two to please his two children to his daughter’s annoyance – “Oh father, don’t play King Solomon.” – Sir Arthur is soon left squirming in a morass of guilt and questioning when he son is shot and lingering close to death in hospital, ransacking his actions and the reasoning behind his choices. His wife has fits of dark reckoning in questioning whether the soul of someone who’s never been “home”, that is has never actually lived in England as their children haven’t, could ever find its way back or would be stuck in “an enormous, empty Chinese limbo.”

The troubled but ultimately tender relationship between the Robertsons is another Ray-like flavouring that contrasts the other, more ambivalent relationships in the film. So too is the motif of children paying the price for their elders’ actions and blindness, in both the Robertsons’ son’s ordeal and Teresa’s status as the unwanted avatar for the possibility of fusing worlds. Matt is pushed to face paternal responsibility towards Teresa when first Harry prods him determinedly to explain her father’s death to her, and then by a priest, Father de Bearn (Andrews), dedicated to looking after the orphans hiding out in the Compound: the Priest comments, “Someone, somewhere said that every man is the father of every child – but I suppose it’s only true if you really feel it.” Father de Bearn, sudden as his entrance into the film is, is a great character who ironically has more military inventiveness than the professional soldiers, improvising canons and mortars to fend off the Boxers’ increasingly ambitions attempts to attack the walls of the compound, including bringing up artillery and a siege engine, alternating warlike arts and soft-spoken humanism. De Bearn stands in for the so-called contingent of “fighting parsons” led by missionary Frank Gamewell, who took on the task of fortifying the Foreign Compound during the real siege.

Ray’s signature visual lushness serves the purpose of illustrating the dramatic concerns, in marvellous shots like one of Teresa hiding after setting up a flower in a gesture of domestic loving for Matt while he’s off in battle, only for the warrior to return bedraggled and exhausted, sitting upon his bed in a room festooned with aged artworks painted on the walls and the huge statue of a warrior with sword. The shot dramatizes the gap between people, between cultures, between aestheticized past and the all too painful now. Undercurrents of satire are readily detectable in the way the puffed-up envoys of the foreign nations are filmed in surveys of bloviating in rooms of plush Victorian only to find themselves forced to commit to a course of action because Sir Arthur is, whilst the Imperial grandees commit themselves to arcane rituals in realms of splendour, fronts of grandeur that have their crude brick backings. The Empress is eventually convinced by Prince Tuan to give the Boxers proper backing against Jung-Lu’s counsel, and the Empress orders Jung-Lu to give the help of the Imperial troops to besieging the Compound and holding off a relief force. This means the defenders of the Compound must face artillery fire.

Before they are handed such weapons, the Boxers try scaling the stout fortifications of the city walls adjoining the Compound and making a charge at dawn, but Matt, Andy, a French officer, and some other stout soldiers use a cobbled-together rolling barricade, backed up by Hanley with an equally cobbled-together canon, and push back the Boxer onslaught. Until the canon explodes and kills Hanley, and Andy is shot on the ramparts. The film was essentially completed by experienced action directors, and as you’d expect the action is strong, amplified by the awesome scale of the sets Bronston was able to build, aiding Ray and the other filmmakers in recreating the popular images of the Rebellion disseminated through correspondents’ artworks in the years following. One great portion of epic moviemaking comes late in the film when the Boxers drag up a rocket-festooned siege tower in the night, men with torches appearing in the dark, leading a horde hauling the tower into view. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s scoring is particularly good here too, in combining slow-thudding drums and a deep-voice male chorus to unnerving effect, as if the Boxers are bringing some kind of monster into battle. The tower’s alarming appearance is however quickly answered as De Bearn improvises a mortar and manages to set fire to the war engine.

Cinematographer Jack Hildyard’s brilliant work made the most of the Super-Technirama 70 scope and Technicolor, capturing all the lush colours of the sets of costumes of course as well as the spectacle of battle, but also backing up Ray’s compositional élan. A dialogue evolves between balanced geometry and lopsided groupings, indicating the flow of power and desertion of structural certainty. Shots of the Empress Dowager in her palace with her handmaidens see human and architectural elements arrayed in harmony, eloquent of a structure tightly and tensely ordered, counterpointing the ebb and flow of human power in the meetings of the foreign diplomats, where one man – Sir Arthur – ensconced behind his desk can contend with many standing on the other side. Even the most chaotic action sequences have a painterly integrity to them.

Shots of Matt barking orders to his men on the city ramparts with the soaring brickwork and overhanging eaves see them dwarfed and enclosed by the infrastructure of cultural, military, and historical might. A visual joke is apparent as the Baroness is glimpsed standing by a guttering lantern whilst Jung-Li hides in the corners, the literal old flame. One major set-piece is more familiar in terms of old-school action-adventure but well-done in its own terms, as Sir Arthur talks Matt, Shiba, and others into a nocturnal venture through the sewers to blow up an ammunition dump whilst the Empress is celebrating her soldiers’ victory over the relief forces. Sir Arthur joins the venture but the guerrilla unit has to contend with interruptions and delays that almost get them blown up, before they finally succeed in lighting the conflagration. Later Matt and one of his men set out to try and fetch reinforcements on a railway handcar, only to hit a mine on the tracks, leaving both men injured, with Matt carrying the other on his shoulders back to the Compound.

Young Teresa stakes a claim to instinctive heroism when she manages to rescue a wayward toddler who’s wondered into the temple during an artillery barrage, seconds before a shell knocks the structure flat. Meanwhile the Baroness is injured when she brings in the load of supplies she managed to purchase with the necklace only for a brokered ceasefire to suddenly collapse, and she dies under Steinfeldt’s care. The film takes an interesting approach to the Baroness, despite the fact that Gardner always feels miscast as an exotic and multivalent Russian aristocrat if not so much as a love goddess incarnate, as she’s revealed to have both sacred and daemonic power over men, able to incidentally destroy her husband and also able to make rooms full of men fall in love with her, including the aged and cynical Steinfeldt. Again there’s something in common here with Ray’s fascination for characters like Rebel Without A Cause’s Jim who possess a lustre, however endangered, that draws people to them.

Ironically, only Matt seems at all ambivalent about the Countess, in part because he is intimate with her, knowing the sordid story of her background and only able to come to terms with her appeals for help when he declares “a soldier’s pay buys a soldier’s woman,” that is, a prostitute. After the Countess dies, Matt is accosted by a working class English soldier (Alfred Lynch) who became one of her worshipful wards for failing to appreciate her, leaving Matt, who has also just failed to bring his injured comrade back in time to save his life, is left cringing in the shadows, a battered remnant amidst a collapsing historical epoch. It’s odd to strike such a queasy and stricken note in such a movie, and signals for Heston in particular a crucial moment in his screen career, playing the character who seems anointed as the cavalier hero but who is ultimately left confronting his own damaged and damaging machismo, lost within the carnage he cannot end. Some anticipation here of how Sam Peckinpah would make use of him in Major Dundee (1965), as well as his general shift to playing flailing titans in films like Planet of the Apes (1968) and The Omega Man (1971). The ultimate lifting of the siege comes with a return to the musical motif of the opening as what seems to be a last-ditch charge by the Boxers proves instead to be them fleeing before advancing foreign soldiers.

The soldiers enter Peking accompanied by various specific marching tunes, flowing together suite-like as the besieged citizens dash to embrace their soldiers, representing the highpoint of what Matt and Sir Arthur muse upon as a brief episode of international cooperation. Of course, the inevitability of the accord’s collapse is quickly signalled when the victorious forces parade and resume the cacophony of clashing sounds, and the touch of humour in the Japanese Imperial force primly marching in and the very honourable and upright Shiba saluting the leader of the new contingent contains an appropriate undercurrent of foreboding. By contrast the Imperial majesty of China is envisioned as shattered, as the Empress Dowager, dressed in common clothes in preparing to abandon the palace, meditates on the end of the dynasty. But the ultimate potential for nations working for a common end is the far-off but tantalising anticipation of 55 Days At Peking, casting its mind forward to the founding of the United Nations once the great spasm of the new century’s conflicts fall still. The very last moments of the film look forward to the collapse of barriers and the hope for synthesis, as Matt finally reaches out to Teresa as he and he men prepare to march out, taking her onto his horse and accepting his fate at last to be her father. One of my favourite final scenes in a movie and one that again feels very Ray-like, a final, fragile connection between generations and tribes that can grow to something new and splendid.

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1980s, 2020s, Action-Adventure, War

Top Gun (1986) / Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

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Directors: Tony Scott / Joseph Kosinski
Screenwriters: Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr / Ehren Kruger, Christopher McQuarrie, Eric Warren Singer

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

The release of Top Gun: Maverick has proven a striking moment in contemporary pop culture. That is, it’s a blockbuster movie release capable of wringing the same reaction out of grown-up audiences usually reserved these days for the 14-year-olds flocking to see the latest comic book movie. Top Gun: Maverick is the belated sequel to the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, a movie directed by Tony Scott but designed and implemented by its producer team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer as a precision-tooled star vehicle for Tom Cruise, who was 24 years old at the time of release. Top Gun’s long-simmering cult following is both a little surprising and not surprising at all. It made Cruise, already a fast-rising young star, a major-league big screen heartthrob and instant generational avatar. Its glitzy, glibly stylish look and hit-churning soundtrack pinioned it to a very specific moment in the cultural survey, a flagship of the 1980s cinema movement where pop movies were closely wound in with pop music, both in terms of their look and in their constant deployments of songs, and their mutual celebration of adolescent fancy. Now Cruise, who turns 60 this year (although Top Gun: Maverick has been delayed a couple of years because of the COVID-19 pandemic), returns to his first real signature role. Apart from the Mission: Impossible series which has proven an archipelago of popularity for him amidst the stormy waters of a late career and current screen culture, Cruise long resisted such backtracking.

Cruise has been a curious product of our love of movie stars right from the early days of his career. At once he was the inheritor of handsome ingénues from the dawn of time, the kind who set teenage girls (and quite a few boys) aquiver in their stomachs and itchy in the pants. But Cruise swiftly evinced far more canniness than most in establishing and protecting his stature. He seemed to emulate the careers of stars like Paul Newman and Jack Nicholson, who could for the most part effortlessly step between popular, image-cementing vehicles and artier, riskier, more challenging fare. Cruise has never quite gained their flexibility and reputation as an actor, however, because he remained first and foremost a star, but it’s precisely that quality which has remained his advantage. Acting cred was always a far-off citadel he could storm when he felt like, but his real business was making movies for the widest possible audience, at a time when many a potential rival was sabotaging themselves by acting as if being called a movie star was an odious travail. Whilst Cruise had emerged playing relatively familiar kinds of young male starring parts – a football player in All The Right Moves (1983), a horny teen out for action in Losin’ It (1983) and Risky Business (1984) – Top Gun saw him emerge from a chrysalis as the perfect emblem of the yuppie era. Ahistorical in persona, white bread in ethnicity but disconnected from any sure sense of social identity, he morphed into a blank slate of Reaganite ambition.

With his carefully honed body, his capped teeth, his notoriously intense work ethic, his air of self-willed exceptionality able to easily straddle personal ambition and embodiment of a creed, Cruise embodied the yuppie ideal perfectly. Cruise’s remarkable resistance to aging, his aerodynamic features only very slightly thickening and hardening over the years, has only amplified his strangeness, the way he seems to embody that essence of the movie star as something disconnected from normal life processes and inhabiting an exalted realm. After decades of having his character, sanity, even sexuality rifled from afar, the verdict has finally come fully down on the side of Cruise being perhaps the last common avatar of that ideal, and the very qualities that once made Cruise the most normcore and antiseptic of movie stars for all his occasional gestures towards stretching and perverting his image, have now become proofs of his specialness, his gift-from-the-movie-gods electness. Top Gun: Maverick is interesting in this regard but it finally evinces that Cruise is at least vaguely aware of his own mortality, especially when it showcases the ravages of aging has inflicted on his Top Gun costar Val Kilmer. Both Top Gun movies are, both literally and metaphorically, about defying gravity, but finally must admit that gravity always wins.

Top Gun was based on a magazine article about the new elite training methods adopted by the US Navy air wing during and after Vietnam to improve dogfighting skills in their fighter pilots. Cruise was cast as Pete Mitchell, whose piloting call-sign is Maverick, a cocky but sublimely talented young fighter pilot. The film’s lengthy opening sees Maverick and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), on deployment on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, off some purposefully vague conflict zone where their squadron of F-14 Tomcats encounter enemy pilots flying the flashy new (and imaginary) MiG-25 fighters. The MiGs outmanoeuvre the American pilots and seriously rattle the flight leader, Cougar (John Stockwell), by successfully targeting him, only for Maverick to expertly reverse the humiliation by flying more cleverly and making sport of the foes. After Cougar elects to quit flying, their CO, ‘Stinger’ (James Tolkan), chews Maverick out for his impudent and insubordinate antics, only to then inform him that with Cougar out he and Goose will take his place in the elite training scheme known as TOPGUN where they’ll be pitted against fellow hotshots, based at Miramar, North Island, near San Diego.

At TOPGUN Maverick encounters his one great rival as a pilot, Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer), and makes waves with his risk-taking tendencies, earning Iceman’s haughty assurance that he’s “dangerous,” and tangling with tutor ‘Jester’ (Michael Ironside), and program boss and Vietnam-era ace Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf (Tom Skerritt), particularly when he violates the “hard floor”, that is the minimum altitude allowed during training, in his relentless chases. He also finds himself involved with another of the program tutors, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), who he first meets in a bar and tries to pick up, only to learn her true identity later. Maverick’s close encounter with the new MiG gives him distinction and makes him a valuable source of information for her. As she gets to know him Charlie learns Maverick is haunted by his father’s fate as a fighter pilot, having vanished during an operation in 1965. During a training exercise where Maverick is playing wingman to Ice but the rival hotshot can’t nail a target, Maverick is caught in Ice’s engine wash, sending his plane careening out of control, and when he and Goose eject Goose hits the canopy and dies. Maverick is cleared of responsibility, but his friend’s death hangs heavily on him, and he considers leaving the Navy. He eventually turns up for graduation, just as he and the rest of the class are called to action back in the conflict zone and are flung into a deadly air battle.

One immediately eye-catching aspect of Top Gun is the burgeoning talent of its moment it ropes in, including Cruise, Kilmer, Meg Ryan (as Goose’s wife Carole), and Edwards, as well as notable also-rans like McGillis, Rick Rossovich, Adrian Pasdar, and John Stockwell, and counterbalanced by experts in surly elder attitude in Skerritt, Ironside, and Tolkan. Composer Harold Faltemeyer, straight off providing one instantly iconic theme for a new Hollywood hero on Beverly Hills Cop (1984), here provided the score and attached to Maverick a canoodling guitar theme that recurs every time Maverick does something cool, almost to the point of self-parody. The film opens with consciously glorifying images of the Naval pilots and their ground crews preparing to take off in shots drenched in a sunrise glow, men and machines made equivalent in their adamantine, architectural function in the buzzing enterprise. Segue into shots of the sky-thrashing pilots cavorting to the strains of the Kenny Loggins-sung, Giorgio Moroder-penned rock song “Highway To The Danger Zone.” Moroder also helped write the soundtrack’s other big product, “Take My Breath Away,” performed by the band Berlin, which captured the year’s Oscar for Original Song, and Scott does use its pulsing, breathy, deathless romantic quality to effect, interpolating it over a sex scene for Cruise and McGillis shot exactly like some high-end aftershave ad, complete with fluttering white curtains in a steely blue room.

As a movie, Top Gun belongs to a venerable subgenre. Films about the rarefied world of daring aviators date back to classic Hollywood flyboy flicks like Ceiling Zero (1936), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Test Pilot (1940), Dive Bomber (1941), intersect with war movies like Twelve O’Clock High (1949), and continue through the likes of Toward The Unknown (1956), Jet Pilot (1957), and The Right Stuff (1983). The popularity of this kind of movie is obviously rooted in the basic thrill of flying really fast, an inherently spectacular and dramatic business not many people have access to experience for themselves. But it also constantly touches base with an essential dramatic dynamic: such movies depict the hermetic, rivalry-filled, thrill-loving world of pilots assigned to push the limits and the constant wrestle required to balance such necessary roguish will and the needs of the hierarchies they nominally belong to, be they civilian or military. In this regard the flyboy movie is an ideal one for exploring the tension between individualism and group identity, a theme immediately interesting and compelling for a vast bulk of the audience who experience that tension daily. Many older movies were concerned with the wildcard having his burrs shaved down to more cleanly fit in with the group or die in failing to heed the lesson, befitting products of an age where conformity required by mass mobilisation and imperial emergence.

Top Gun, by contrast, explicitly taps its potential as a metaphor for different fantasies promulgated by a new epoch. Maverick’s nickname encapsulates the idealisation of the main character as someone whose exceptionality and independence are ultimately affirmed as virtues. He embodies the dream of being at once undisputed as an individual whilst fitting into an institution, free but also dedicated, cool and square at the same time. He is the personification of a particular tide-mark in American culture, balancing the individualist ideal, both as manifest in classic American mythos and also post-counterculture anti-authoritarianism, and the new conservatism that insists that yes, that individualism can be achieved, but can and must be suspended when higher duty calls. Maverick as a character, like the film’s depiction of the American military in its moment, is rooted in a haunted sense of generational severing involving the Vietnam War that both bent things out of shape but also informs a new determination to get back on top. Only the nostalgic evocations of the former era’s music is retained – “The Dock of The Bay”, “Great Balls of Fire,” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” are wielded as shared touchstones, a lingua franca connecting new to old – but washed clean of any former meaning: like the film about them, the songs have no specific meaning but as rhythmic variations for what the film is expressing about Maverick.

Maverick himself is offered as a vehicle for perceiving military service as a geopolitical equivalent of a football game, cemented by shared signs and gestures, expressions of both team identity and individual triumph. The film’s most famous catchphrase, recited by Maverick and Goose after a gruelling training session and facing down the snootiness of their rivals and bosses, “I feel the need – the need for speed!” is cemented with a high-five, summation of this fantasising. Maverick and Goose are idealised in the film’s first half as the quintessential pair of wild-and-crazy guys who know how to make a party happen anywhere, with set routines for flirtation and a penchant for sitting at the piano banging on the keys and wailing Jerry Lee Lewis off-key. These moments are a recognisable point of descent for this kind of movie: some of those old flyboy pics I mentioned were directed by Howard Hawks, who was constantly fascinated by the rituals of close-knit groups dealing with specific pressures, and scenes of characters gathered around pianos. And yet the differences are very telling. Top Gun is Hollywood product at its most unrefined, much more the offspring of the desire to sell its star as simultaneously unstoppable and relatable and the producers’ mental check-list of how to ensure that, than it is of any authorial voice. Maverick’s friendship with Goose is positioned purely to impact upon Maverick’s journey. Goose’s death occurs to invest the last act with some emotional weight, and yet its real purpose seems to be to allow Cruise to be photographed in some different emotional registers. Here’s Tom Cruise looking moody. Here’s Tom Cruise still looking great in tighty-whities whilst mourning. Here’s Tom Cruise nobly resolving to lift from the ashes.

Similarly, the rest of the TOPGUN team are barely characterised beyond their postures of general antagonism with Maverick, and their inevitable shift to obeisance before his awesomeness. One of the film’s most famous/infamous vignettes sees Maverick and Goose playing Ice and his RIO Ron ‘Slider’ Kerner (Rossovich) playing a gleefully competitive game of beach volleyball, a moment beloved by many for its unabashed celebration of male physiques attached to charismatic actors. A brief interlude of carefully crafted pizzazz that says nothing about the characters beyond what we already know – they’re young, hot, and macho show-offs – when it might have been crafted to demonstrate the evolving camaraderie and inner natures of the heroes, as another potentially Hawksian moment. All of these are however illustrations of the postures the movie wants the audience to take towards the on-screen elements, and thus exist in a realm closer to advertising than drama, the audience being sold on the need to be/have/watch Maverick. Ice is the only rival graced with solidity, and Kilmer tries to give the character sharp angles of behaviour, particularly when he tries to console Maverick after Goose’s death, as if fighting to pierce a membrane of tension between the two of them. But even he’s essentially a one-dimensional foil, a locker room big-mouth with frosted tips and representative of the onus of establishment judgement. There’s some inherent irony in the casting insofar as Kilmer and Cruise as cast in roles the other might, given their career arcs and general ethos, more reasonably have played.

Top Gun is essentially Star Wars (1977) for jocks, mimicking that film’s essential story arc but removing its mythic element, not just by resituating it in the present day, but by reconfiguring the Luke Skywalker figure – the far-flung dreamer who realises brilliant potential – and substituting a state of already-achieved perfection, a hymn to narcissistic self-appreciation and fuck-I’m-good-just-ask-me posturing. The only quality Maverick needs to learn is humility, which Goose’s death finally instils – he learns to look outside of himself to a voice from beyond. The film plays an interesting game in this regard. The story makes much of Ice’s conviction that Maverick flies dangerously, but when there is a deadly consequence to his flying it’s carefully contrived to not really be his fault, but a by-product of several different forces converging to create a tragedy, of which Maverick and Ice’s competitiveness is only one. Maverick feels responsible because he finally learned he does not have godlike control in the air: he is graced both the gravitas of loss but relieved of the pressure of definite culpability. Maverick’s budding relationship with Charlie is both impaired and given new heat when she criticises one of his risky aerial moves, sparking a show of childishly argumentative behaviour from them both – they careen individually through traffic in their his-and-hers choice of vehicles – that inevitably leads to the sack. I’m sure there are more boring and asinine romances in cinema than that between Maverick and Charlie, but I’m not quite sure where. And yet Scott simply takes that emptiness as an opportunity to unabashedly sell music video-like fantasy, picturing the pair riding around on his Kawasaki and pashing on it in artful magic hour shots, much in the same way that Cruise’s general acting response to his situation is to flash his million-dollar super-cocky grin.

There’s no nice way of saying this – not that I feel any desire to be nice – but Top Gun is not a good film. Certainly from a technical filmmaking viewpoint it’s still mostly impressive, and the sheen of Jeffrey L. Kimball’s photography retains its gorgeous, high-end magazine-shoot gloss. And yet it’s a curiously patchy work that scarcely has a plot, has assemblages in place of characters, and almost dissolves into a succession of shots roughly accumulating into scenes, illustrating a script so shallow it can barely pass muster as a bubblegum wrapper. Nonetheless Top Gun proved a vital pivot and permanent landmark in Tony Scott’s oeuvre, and indeed in recent years the general affection for Tony, following his tragic death in 2012, amongst movie fans who grew up on his big-budget, big-flash movies has begun to rival that being shown for Cruise. The younger brother of Ridley, Scott’s career mimicked his elder sibling’s, graduating from the same art college and moving into advertising at Ridley’s invitation, similarly investing heavily stylised visuals into commercials he directed. After forays into directing television, Scott made his feature filmmaking debut with the 1981 Horror film The Hunger, a movie that bombed at the box office but won some attention for its style, including from Bruckheimer and Simpson, who had begun their rise to eminence in Hollywood by shepherding the successful Flashdance (1983), which had been directed by Adrian Lyne, another flashy Brit talent the duo brought in.

Bruckheimer and Simpson hired Scott for Top Gun, and a lot of the film’s success is certainly owed to his arch use of flourishes like sunset backlighting and delight in gleaming fuselage – both human and aircraft. By contrast with his brother’s woozy ambition and genre-hopping, Scott essentially and happily remained a maker of slick B-movies, investing them with a superficial intensity of look and sound. But I’ve never been able to get on board with the belated Tony Scott cult. Apart from a handful of top-level works like True Romance (1992), Crimson Tide (1995), and Enemy of the State (1998), which were mostly distinguished through Scott’s relative stylistic restraint, most of Tony’s films represent the glibbest form of chic. The phrase “style over substance” doesn’t quite cut it in summarising Tony’s aesthetic: the substance exists purely to serve the style. Tony’s later movies like Domino (2004) are insufferably gimmicky in their shooting and cutting. The Hunger is the most boring lesbian vampire movie ever made, and whilst it presaged Top Gun in establishing Scott’s comfort with extolling various forms of homoeroticism, it also established his airbrushed approach to such things, wrapping everything in a kind of haute couture glaze. Rather than erotic, it’s a post-sexual world he inhabits, where all things are permitted so long as they have no definable weight and can be made to look really cool. Top Gun does at least move, but there’s a weird jerkiness to its construction, as if the film had a troubled shoot and what we see had to be laboriously patched together (a problem that would become more defined on the production team’s follow-up, Days of Thunder, 1990).

The most effective scenes in the film are actually its two real character moments, both of which revolve around Maverick’s troubled relationship with his father’s memory. When Maverick tells Charlie about his father’s disappearance, Scott performs a simple, effective tracking shot that slowly moves around Cruise as the actor expertly shifts from laughing nostalgia to musing introspection, a clear signal that Cruise is a performer who knows what he’s doing. Later, Viper takes for a walk on the beach and explains that he was a part of the mass dogfight that claimed his father’s life, but which was hushed up because it “took place on the wrong side of some border,” and assures Maverick his dad really was a hero. This scene certainly gains a lot from Skerritt’s expertise as a grizzled character actor. These flashes of substance are however quickly disposed of. They serve less to tell us that Maverick has psychological issues than to have one of the last impediments to understanding himself as awesome have been removed. The inevitable action climax, in which Maverick is sent out to rescue Ice and others from an ambush by MiGs and saves Ice by shooting down three of the enemy planes, is spectacular stuff in a jumpy sort of way. Where in the training scenes Scott and his filming team do a good job of establishing the relationships of the various aircraft, in the combat the editing turns chaotic. The film’s most truly outstanding element remains the flying, when you can see it properly, which is almost entirely authentic.

Top Gun concludes triumphantly, of course, with Ice and Maverick cemented finally as mutually appreciative if still sardonically rivalrous comrades, and Maverick reuniting with Charlie after she seemed to choose her career over him, whilst Maverick contemplates turning TOPGUN instructor himself. Flashforward to the present day. Top Gun: Maverick has the difficult task of locating any form of seriousness in the inherited material, and its main choice in doing so is to make Goose’s death a cross Maverick has been carrying throughout his 30-plus-year flying career. Maverick is rediscovered working as a test pilot on the Darkstar, a prototype plane that can hopefully go to Mach 10. That’s, like, really fast, yo. When he learns the project is being shut down early by its overseer Rear-Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), Maverick, hoping to save the project and its employees from the scrapheap, takes the plane up and goes for broke, busting Mach 10 before crashing. Maverick earns a customary chewing-out, and it’s made clear he’s never risen above the rank of Captain because of his habits of insubordination, and only has a place in the Navy still thanks to Ice’s protection, as his former rival turned eternal pal is now an Admiral.

Maverick is nonetheless saved once again when, through Ice’s intervention, he’s called to TOPGUN to quickly school a select group of graduates for an extremely dangerous mission: they’re assigned to attack and destroy a clandestine uranium enrichment facility in some other (or the same) unnamed rogue nation, an installation built in a remote and rugged locale and heavily defended to the point that Maverick describes as needing “two miracles” to destroy. Maverick soon has to deal with blasts from the past upon returning to Miramar, most agreeably in the form of Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), one of his former girlfriends (who is mentioned in a running joke but not glimpsed in the first film) and the daughter of an Admiral who now runs a bar at North Island for pilots. More disturbing is the presence of Goose’s son Lt. Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), who has become a top pilot in spite of Carole’s wish for him not to follow in his father’s footsteps, a wish Maverick hesitantly tried to enforce by failing to recommend him for the Naval Academy when it was in his power. Maverick also chafes under the watchful eye of the Naval Air Forces honcho ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (Jon Hamm), who has no time Maverick’s loose cannon antics, dammit.

Perhaps taking some heed of how angrily many fans took to the borderline contemptuous use of the classic Star Wars heroes in the new Disney-backed trilogy, and perhaps also thanks to Cruise’s ever-rigorous grip on how to manage his screen image, Top Gun: Maverick resists making sport of its hero’s condition of arrested development. When, in the film’s opening minutes, Maverick is glimpsed sweeping the canvas cover off his old Kawasaki and dashing across the desert to work like he’s still the same flashy kid he was in the original, it’s not to service any humour but for the audience to delight in the way Cruise-as-Maverick still embodies their fantasies – in this case to still act like a 24-year-old when you’re pushing 60. Top Gun: Maverick’s most vital theme nonetheless quickly proves to revolve around fear of obsolescence, as Maverick stares down his last real chance to make a mark in the Navy. Maverick’s opening escapade is very obviously based on Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) and director Joseph Kosinski acknowledges the model by casting Harris. Cain is nicknamed “The Drone Ranger” and wants to shut down the Darkstar specifically to channel its funding into his drone warfare projects, an offence to any self-respecting, old-school warrior. Thus, the onus of hierarchical command’s paternalistic authority and sometimes blind verdicts Maverick faced in the first film is here also conflated with the threat of the new, a newness that’s blandly impersonal, technocratic, and, well, just plain unmanly.

Not that piloting is strictly a manly business anymore: Maverick’s trainee squad also includes female pilots Natasha ‘Phoenix’ Trace (Monica Barbaro) and Callie ‘Halo’ Bassett (Kara Wang), as well as the braggart  Jake ‘Hangman’ Seresin (Glen Powell, stealing scenes with his smugly louche alpha act), whose rivalry with Rooster echoes Maverick’s with Ice. Hangman is more of a provocateur and bully than either of them were: Phoenix comments dryly that his call-sign stems from his habit of leaving his comrades “hanging out to dry” in tough situations. There’s even a dorky non-alpha named Bob – just Bob (Lewis Pullman) – who serves as Phoenix’s RIO. Throughout their training Rooster’s resentment of Maverick clashes with Maverick’s fear of sending Rooster off to his death, compounding the Bradshaw family tragedy. Hangman eventually catches wind of Rooster’s spurring loss, which also purposefully echoes Maverick’s in the first film. The film hits many of same basic story beats as the original, even going so far as to have Maverick sent on his way to TOPGUN by a bald character actor, before entering into some deliberate doppelganger moments, building to a strong vignette as Penny notices Maverick staring into the bar with a stricken look whilst Rooster within bangs out “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano for his pals just as his father used to. Arguably this is going a few steps too far in positing Rooster as a chip off the old block, considering he was an infant in the original film, but of course it gives both Maverick and the audience familiar with it a hot dose of instant nostalgic connection.

Top Gun: Maverick keeps in mind lessons from some of the more successful extensions of venerable franchises or “legacequels” of recent years. There are detectable likeness to Rocky Balboa (2006) and Creed (2014), Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and Kosinski’s own Tron: Legacy (2011), from which it repeats the idea of positing a generational interchange as, basically, a father-son tale. This is one of the best aspects of Top Gun: Maverick, but also an exasperating one, as the film avoids giving much information about just what kind of relationship Maverick and Rooster had as the young man grew up. Their relationship is also defined in a way that resembles the original film in skipping around the issue of responsibility: Rooster’s anger at Maverick for holding him back is used as a stand-in for the audience’s awareness of Maverick’s role in Goose’s death whilst also dismissing that as a lingering issue. The film also generally still exists to affirm Cruise as the fount of all awesomeness. When the hat is tipped to the original’s volleyball scene as Maverick and his students play football on the beach together, it’s mostly to draw the viewer’s admiration for how good Cruise’s physique is still, rather than celebrate those of any potential replacements, and Kosinski avoids filming with the same soft-core sheen that Scott so readily indulged.

Kosinski is one of the more interesting talents to break into big-budget filmmaking in the past decade or so. He started off as a would-be screenwriter but gained attention working with CGI on advertisements and cutscenes for video games, developing a fine eye, a sleek sense of style and function, but also emerging as a film director with a good feel for actors. He’s more classical and has a finer touch than Scott ever had – he cares that Cruise and Connelly seem to really get along on camera where in the original Cruise and McGillis seemed to be thrown together because of their clashing eye hues and bone structures. But he also lacks the fetishistic clamminess that clung to Scott’s imagery, the quality that, for better or worse, defined Scott as a premiere Dream Factory stylist. Scott’s film also belonged to an era when filmmaking was strongly attuned to physicality, which Scott took to typically hyperbolic lengths by coating just about every actor in sweat to catch all the lighting hues but also give the impression these are guys feeling extremes at all times. Top Gun: Maverick by contrast has no such feel for hothouse climes. Kosinski links his shots together better than Scott, but lacks his pictorial intensity. Kosinski settles for reproducing the opening of Top Gun in his edition, down to the backlit crew and planes and playing “Highway To The Danger Zone” on the soundtrack, as if this isn’t some epic years-later revisiting but maybe the first or second imaginary sequel that might have come down the pipeline in the late ‘80s if Cruise had been so inclined. Perhaps if I was more nostalgic for the first film this would pinion me with Pavlovian sense-memory, but apart from mildly liking the song it doesn’t have that power. This sort of thing is instantly reassuring to fans but it also signals just how derivative and unimaginative this take is going to be. The film doesn’t even have some of the eccentric qualities Kosinski invested in the generally underrated and trend-setting Tron: Legacy.

Similarly, Top Gun: Maverick also reproduces the original in failing to sketch the members of the pilots beyond a couple of basic traits. Kosinski tried his best to invest a definably Hawksian sensibility in his firefighter drama Only The Brave (2017) through portraying group dynamics in difficult, cut-above jobs: he failed – who wouldn’t? – but it was a nice try. He makes a similar play here, introducing the pilots in the trainee team in a lengthy sequence in Penny’s bar as they josh and jibe, compete and party. This sequence is also clever in the way it remixes Maverick’s meeting with Charlie in the original, with the young pilots mistaking Maverick for just another old fart, and later cringing when he strides out before them at TOPGUN. But despite Kosinski’s best efforts everyone remains locked into their specific, generic functions, barely fleshed out or given characteristics, except for Hangman, whose preordained act of redemptive rescue is both delivered with a dash of humour and again tips its hat to Maverick’s role in the original’s climax. And that’s ultimately both what distinguishes and hampers Top Gun: Maverick. Whilst it’s both much more of a real movie than its predecessor, it’s also a simple, straightforward, unambitious one. That sort of thing can be a relief in today’s blockbuster zone filled with multiverses and cross-promotional tie-ins, and it’s plain by the general, initial reaction it’s proven exactly that for many.

But I can’t help but wonder when the mass audience became so undemanding. Despite being a paean to unruly willpower, there’s nothing of the like to the film’s crisply ordered, very familiar plot progression, nor anything daring about its approach to its characters and their stories. Where the original at least made gestures towards complicating its morality and destabilising the aura of its hero before reconfirming it, Top Gun: Maverick just goes through the motions of character conflict. Maverick’s calls this time are far more insubordinate than they were in the first film but the movie essentially assures us they’re the right ones (even in the opening vignette where he destroys a multimillion-dollar aircraft). His skirmishes with Rooster are ultimately straw-dummy headbutting. Maverick’s relationship with Rooster is essentially the same as his with Penny – they knew each-other back when, they’ve been through some stuff, and despite the superficial spurning they all still like each-other, and we don’t have to go to any effort making them connect. Those connections are just there.

Cruise and Connelly bring a decent level of chemistry to their scenes together, convincingly portraying a couple who’ve been around the block a few times but still have the fire of their younger selves guttering within. Kosinski works in some amusing flourishes that give some flickers of life: Penny takes Maverick out on her yacht and has to teach him basic seamanship despite him being the career Navy man, and later he has to sneak out of her bedroom to avoid giving the game away too early to Penny’s teenage daughter Amelia (Lyliana Wray), only to drop down directly before her expectant gaze and stern warning, “Don’t break her heart again.” Still, none of this escapes the bonds of a standard-issue C-plot romance, and the scene where Penny consoles Maverick through a crisis of confidence feels like it copy-and-pasted from the script of Rocky Balboa, which also dug up an obscure character from the franchise opener to serve as the fill-in for a previous love interest. The film’s best scenes are calculated in divergent ways. The first comes when Maverick goes to visit Ice, who, like the actor playing him, has been debilitated and left almost voiceless by cancer. Maverick confesses his worries and doubts to his old comrade and defender, who tells him by computer that “it’s time to let go” when it comes to Rooster, and then huskily pronounces, “The Navy needs Maverick – the kid needs Maverick.” It’s virtually impossible not to be moved by this, even given what stick-figures the actors played in the original. Part of the new gravitas comes from time and affection for these two actors who remind us for good or ill that more time has passed since the original than anyone involved would care to remember.

Kilmer’s strength as an actor still glows under the ashes of illness and his bond with Cruise has a genuine feel, and the scene ends with a deft flash of designedly audience-tickling humour when Ice then prods Maverick with the question “Who’s the better pilot, you or me?” and Maverick responds dryly, “This is a nice moment, let’s not ruin it.” Later in the film Ice dies from his illness, leaving Maverick defenceless before the military hierarchy, but he decides to take another risk after Cyclone decides to dump him and try a more conservative approach to the raid when it seems no-one can traverse the twisting terrain in the necessary span of time to avoid detection on the impending bomb run. Maverick takes a plane and puts all his piloting legerdemain on the line to prove it can be done, convincing Cyclone that only he can effectively lead the team into battle. This sequence is certainly on point, exploiting both the sophistication of the aerial photography and flying and the straightforward rah-rah of seeing the old hero get his mojo back and prove the world still bends before the awesomeness of Maverick. The actual bomb run proves almost a little too straightforward, despite the inevitable little foul-ups like failing laser guidance that requires so old-fashioned down-home shooting skill.

Both Top Gun movies are inarguably about celebrating the legend of American military strength. The first film, famously, generated a 500% spike in applications to become pilots. The narrative through-line of both movies, whilst preoccupied with Maverick as, well, a maverick, his arts nonetheless simply make him the apex predator in this kind of warfare. But the movies’ pitch also comes with the curious caveat that it is above all just that, a legend. That strength is rendered as a trope, as inconsequential in their way as the realities of Charlemagne’s empire to the stories of Roland or Dark Age Britain to the Arthurian Knights, or the Bengal Lancers in some 1930s Hollywood-made film extolling British imperialism. The abstraction of the enemy in both films, with their menacing black aircraft and face-covering helmets, underlines this legendary conception, even as it also highlights a worrying aspect of military thinking. The “enemy” becomes an amorphous thing, detached from all geopolitical immediacies, turning politics and war into an eternal duel pivoting from foe to foe. Both movies tap tension in anxiety that American military capability isn’t really that much – the MiGs in the first film and the “fifth generation” enemy fighters in the sequel are both described as being formidable and more sophisticated than the US fighter planes – and it’s the calibre of people flying them is what really counts. In the original Top Gun the enemy starts shooting first, and the American pilots are forced to fight for their lives, placing them not only in an underdog position but also in the right. In Top Gun: Maverick they’re engaged in a covert operation and pre-emptive strike.

The potential repercussions of this, and how the pilots feel about it, could be very interesting, but aren’t investigated at all. “Don’t think, just feel,” Maverick instructs Rooster and the rest of the team, which is supposed to relate purely to the required surrender to pure instinct in the heat of jet-powered flying, but also describes every other aspect of their roles. Ours not to reason why, etc. The similarity of Top Gun: Maverick’s basic plot to a host of older war movies is also hard to miss. The bombing run is closest in nature to Mark Robson’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), and indeed it’s basically the same film, down to Maverick getting shot down after successfully completing the seemingly impossible mission. Except that where Robson took a risk and kept the downbeat ending of James Michener’s source novel, which saw both pilot hero and his would-be rescuers shot dead, Kosinski sets up the same situation but delivers crowd-pleasing stuff. Rooster returns to save Maverick from a helicopter that pursues him across the snowy wasteland, only to be shot down himself, forcing the duo to make their way across country together.

Teller, not an actor I’ve felt much liking for thus far in his career, proves surprisingly effective in his role, as far as it goes. With a scruffy moustache he looks enough like Edwards but with a slightly burlier, overcompensating edge. His interactions with Cruise are however more stated than felt. The last portion of the film sees Maverick and Rooster trekking across the snow-crusted landscape and electing to steal a vintage, surplus F-14 from a hanger bay. As far as fan-pleasing touches go this is again pretty good, setting up a finale that wrings excitement from this twist, as Maverick has to not just outfly but outthink two far more modern and formidable opponents in the ultimate dramatization of his career doldrums. But the situations are robbed of what should be some of their tense and immediate impact by the blankness of the setting and the absence of enemy soldiers. It remains as bland and plastic and straightforward as a mid-2000s video game. Which is a significant lack considering that what distinguishes Top Gun: Maverick up until this point is the remarkable beauty and immediacy of the flying sequences, which mostly eschew special effects enhancement as much as the first film and indeed go a few steps further, utilising the cutting-edge camerawork and lensing to show the audience the cast in the planes, and giving a potent sense of the thrills and dangers of weaving a path up a narrow gorge in a plane going hundreds of miles an hour.

The visual drama and immediacy of the flying and filming throughout have been immediately celebrated by viewers and critics alike, and it feels like it could be an important moment in the history of current big-budget cinema, if anyone cares to learn the lesson. At the very least, Top Gun: Maverick is, quite genuinely, an islet of old-school cinema values: putting good-looking people on screen and having them do interesting, spectacular things – an essentialist approach to making popular cinema going back to Pearl White. For all the advancing sophistication of CGI-era cinema, the human eye retains a capacity to tell what’s real from what’s bogus, and Hollywood has begun using its computers as a catch-all for all its efforts, but Kosinski and his crew and actors provide ample evidence that approach to making movies need not be the whole future. Top Gun: Maverick also manages the rare feat of improving enormously on a facile precursor and using it as a solid template, which might well be because that template in turn is rooted in primeval Hollywood lore, however bastardised. Top Gun: Maverick aims to summarise and provide apotheosis for Cruise as a star, but it does so in a manner that confirms just how much of the star’s ambition has waned, and how much the audience expects of him, taking this mostly bland, efficient, solid programmer as some sort of grand return.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Bullitt (1968)

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Director: Peter Yates
Screenwriters: Harry Kleiner, Alan R. Trustman

This essay is offered as part of the Sixth Annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2022, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and/or available to view online

By Roderick Heath

Words like classic, iconic, and seminal are very often overused, but feel entirely right in describing Peter Yates’ Bullitt. It’s a film that wielded vast and immediate influence – it’s doubtful William Friedkin’s The French Connection or Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (both 1971), or a host of hard-driving action-thrillers in the 1970s and ‘80s, would have been made. It’s difficult to imagine Michael Mann’s oeuvre without its example. Both Robert Altman (in Brewster McCloud, 1971) and Peter Bogdanovich (in What’s Up, Doc?, 1972) would lampoon the title character and his famous car chase. But Bullitt was the hit no-one saw coming. Like Point Blank from the previous year, which plays like Bullitt’s fractured, psychedelic sibling, Bullitt saw an established Hollywood star court a rising British directing talent. In this case Steve McQueen followed the advice of co-screenwriter Alan R. Trustman, who went to see Yates’ Robbery (1967) whilst writing the screenplay, and enthusiastically suggested Yates as director for the project. Yates himself suspected he had been hired just to keep the demanding McQueen busy and out of Warner Bros’ hair, at a time when nobody thought of British directors as action filmmakers. The Aldershot-born Yates, son of an army officer, was a RADA graduate who cut his teeth in British theatre, and also gained some surprisingly consequential experience when it came to fast cars by working as a manager for some racing drivers.

After drifting into film work and becoming a reliable assistant director working under heavyweights like Mark Robson, J. Lee Thompson, and Tony Richardson, Yates made his film directing debut with the Cliff Richard film vehicle Summer Holiday (1963). After Bullitt made him an A-list filmmaker, Yates famously resisted becoming pigeonholed in any particular genre, a resistance that has ironically perhaps diminished his reputation in posterity for the lack of a clear auteurist project. Yates instead oscillated between the kind of hard, realistic, atmospheric crime and action dramas he made his name with and more interpersonal and modest movies. Yates however could find the flexibility within genres too – technically works like Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1974), The Deep (1977), Suspect (1987), and The House on Carroll Street (1988) exist within the boundaries of the thriller but are all very different, and those all seemingly a world away from the like of Breaking Away (1979) or The Dresser or Krull (both 1983), and genre-straddling exercises like Murphy’s War (1971) and Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976). Except perhaps in Yates’ gift for carefully-paced, slow-burn tension, and his attitude to their central characters, with Yates’ admitted fondness for rule-bucking, underdog characters who take chances to ensure their personal vision will win through, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. That facet to Yates’ sensibility was certainly key to the success of Bullitt, which enshrined the heroic figure who is at once an authority figure and also detached from the establishment as an essential one in pop culture.

Bullitt also became the quintessential relic of McQueen himself, as the film sees the actor paring his persona and performance down to its root DNA with the perfect character to inhabit, one who generally only registers the most powerful and profound emotions through the contraction and dilation of his glacial blue eyes and degrees of tautness to his lips. McQueen’s personal passion for fast vehicles and borderline-neurotic obsession with minimalist efficiency in life and art likewise infuses Bullitt, which presented in 1968, and still does in a way, a perfect style guide for cool. The opening credits, which unfold over events cryptic in meaning but eventually explained as the movie unfolds, are themselves a tight thumbnail of iconographic cool, as Lalo Schifrin’s ice-cold jazz theme strums away over credits that slip and slide and leave distorted impressions in the imagery that become portals into the next shot, and swaps between colour and black-and-white. The film title proper is projected over a quartet of impassive, tensely waiting hoods, bathed in cold blue light, like they’re cast for a zombie movie rather than a thriller, the hard lines and clean angles of the modern architecture promising geometric order but laced with tear gas and sweltering under the gaze of Willim A. Fraker’s cinematography.

As this game of aesthetics unfolds, a story also commences, as the hoods smash their way into a suite of chic offices: Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), hiding within, is a Chicago underworld lieutenant who’s embezzled a fortune from his organisation’s wire service, and now that he’s been rumbled he eludes his would-be assassins and escapes in a car. One of the hoods (Victor Tayback) lets Ross get away; this is Ross’s brother, indulging his kin one last time. A couple of days later in San Francisco, a man who looks and dresses like Ross and uses the same name (Felice Orlandi) goes through a series of enigmatic encounters, including with a hotel messenger service that proves bewilderingly negative, and a long-distance phone call listlessly observed by the cabbie he’s hired (Robert Duvall). Not long after, this individual is presented to SFPD lieutenant Frank Bullitt (McQueen) and his partner ‘Dell’ Delgetti (Don Gordon) by Senator Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn): Chalmers, hoping to make a big splash by presenting this Ross as a special witness before a senate crime committee has arranged with Frank and Dell’s Captain, Sam Bennett (Simon Oakland), to protect Ross until the hearing, as Frank’s been recommended as a smooth operator.

Robert L. Fish’s source novel (written with the pseudonymous last name Pike) was entitled Mute Witness; Bullitt on the other hand places its hero front and centre, partly no doubt because it’s a thoroughgoing star vehicle, but also because thanks to the intricate collaboration of script, director, and actor, Frank Bullitt emerges as an intriguing and detailed protagonist. His last name seems to inscribe him through polysemy as an innate man of action, and yet Yates permits our first sight of the great urban swashbuckler as a man tired and cranky and a little pathetic. Here’s the great detective irritably limping downstairs to let Dell in, startled like a nocturnal creature when Dell lifts his blind and lets sunlight in, and warming a cup of instant coffee with a bedside heating gadget. Dell, plainly used to the vicissitudes of Frank’s lifestyle, helping himself to canned milk from his fridge and reading his newspaper. Immediately Frank is posited as a person with an identifiable life, as the film perhaps takes some licence from Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965) which similarly, carefully constructed its tough hero as nonetheless an opposite to a James Bond-ish playboy. Bringing in a class-conscious British director to an otherwise very American milieu served McQueen’s penchant for depicting ambitious men who have found themselves adrift or alienated in a social sense, elevated through their talents and smarts or general refusenik cynicism, but still retain strong working class traits. Frank’s head-butting with Chalmers is laced with sociological as well as temperamental and professional tension, Chalmers representing a nominally respectable but actually rapacious ruling class for which Frank is supposed to play sentry.

In other respects Frank pointed to an ideal for an onscreen authority figure that echoed back to James Cagney being cast as a streetwise operator turned FBI agent in “G” Men (1935), as a cop who seems vaguely like a congruent member of the community rather than a member of an occupying army. Frank straddles two zones: he’s fairly young if weathered, good-looking, and has enough good taste and savoir faire to date commercial artist Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) and possessed of enough hip attitude to own a Mustang and dig a little cool jazz with dinner, illustrated when he and Cathy go out for the night. He has his own sense of style, his distinct dress and way of wearing his gun separating him from the pack. That McQueen based his characterisation on the film’s technical advisor Frank Toschi, a serving SFPD detective who later, famously investigated the Zodiac killings, gave extra credence to the portrayal. And still Frank keeps at least one toe on the ground, calling in to his station so he’s on call before settling down to eat, and living a most humdrum, borderline vagrant life when he’s not on the job. Yates extends this aspect as he depicts Frank, after a long and gruelling night of work, using a little sleight of hand when he realises he doesn’t have any small change to steal a newspaper, with a furtive glance around to make sure no-one’s seen him, and then going into a corner grocery store, from which he plucks a stack of TV dinners without any inspection and carts them to his apartment.

Whilst Bullitt certainly isn’t a character study of a suffering policeman a la Sidney Lumet’s The Offence and Serpico (both 1973), or Richard Fleischer’s The New Centurions (1972), Yates laces these droll moments of scruffy, very human behaviour into the film partly to give it convincing texture and to back up the core narrative, which is preoccupied less with the danger Frank faces from criminals, although he certainly does, than the danger from Chalmers. Chalmers is the pure embodiment of the asshole politician, a prince of darkness often followed about by his own personal golem, Police Captain Baker (Norman Fell), a glowering lump of animated clay who, like many others, obeys this Mephistopheles because Chalmers holds out lying promises (in the police’s case a promise for political support) on one hand and threats of hellfire on the other. Yates makes a motif out of associating Chalmers with social rituals and public meeting places, waylaying people and finding their pressure points for enticement and coercion. He’s introduced holding court in a gathering of high society ladies amongst which Frank looks entirely absurd, later intercepts Captain Bennett when he and his family are going to church, watching for their arrival like a well-suited gargoyle, and dogs Frank in the hospital and at an airport.

Frank becomes increasingly uneasy in his assignment when he finds the hotel room Chalmers has stashed Ross in is exceptionally vulnerable to snipers, but leaves Ross in the care of another of his men, Stanton (Carl Reindel). Danger doesn’t need a good aim: two hitmen, Mike (Paul Genge) and Phil (Bill Hickman), using Chalmers’ name, come up to the room. Ross surreptitiously unlocks the door as if expecting someone friendly, only for the killers to shoot Stanton and then Ross himself. Yates’ staging here is brutally impressive, in allowing what was then a potently graphic edge touched with peculiar grimy beauty, globs of spurting blood erupting from Ross as he’s gunned down and hovering for a split second in focus whilst the man is hurled away by the blast, whilst the gunmen remain shadowy, almost monstrous figures, their cool, ultra-professional efficiency noted as the gunman immediately disassembles his shotgun and hides it in his overcoat and removes balls of cotton wool he was using as earplugs to stifle the deafening noise. Opponents truly fit for another ultra-pro like Bullitt. The grievously wounded Stanton still manages to put Frank on alert about Ross’s strange action, and both men are taken to a hospital where Ross is operated on.

The rest of the film unfolds with the tick of a relentless metronome as Frank tries to understand what has just transpired and why, whilst resisting Chalmers’ aggressive attempts to either get Ross on the witness stand or nail down a fall guy for the failure, preferably Frank himself. “Lieutenant, don’t try and evade the responsibility,” Chalmers drones with tightly controlled smugness when Frank tries to ask him about what dealings he had with Ross: “In your parlance, you blew it.” Chalmers also makes clear he doesn’t care about the wounded Stanton, and tries to get Ross’s black surgeon, Dr Willard (Georg Stanford Brown), replaced by someone “more experienced.” Yates offers a brilliant vignette, very subtle in playing but laced with dimensions of socio-political meaning requiring no dialogue to explicate, where Frank, eating a sandwich and sipping a glass of milk, and Willard, washing his hands, give each-other knowing glances as both understand they’ve both made Chalmers’ enemies list – a noble fellowship of victimised factotums at The Man’s mercy despite their aspirations.

Yates’s carefully mediating visuals, often playing with foreground and background, occasionally crystallises potent visual vignettes, as when he spies Frank watching Willard operating on Ross through the OT window, vigilant in electric silence, knowing full well the avalanche that will fall if Ross dies, and a semi-surreal tracking shot as Frank strolls through the ER patients and monitoring equipment surveyed in sworls of white and mechanics, until a young woman’s face enters the frame – Stanton’s girlfriend in tired, listless vigil over the sleeping, injured man, in a moment of low-burning empathy. The hitman Mike makes a foray into the hospital to take another whack at killing Ross: he attempts to be casual in asking directions but the doctor he asks still reports the encounter to Frank. A nurse interrupts the killer before he can use a secreted ice pick on Ross, and Frank tracks him through the labyrinthine corridors of the hospital in a sequence that feels like a powerful influence on the paranoid visions of Alan Pakula and Michael Crichton’s Coma (1978), a place of glistening utilitarian forms that is nonetheless eerie and ambiguous. Yates and Fraker include a baroque shot of Frank walking into a therapy room, in the shadowy background of the shot, whilst the tracking camera pans onto the hiding hitman, ready with ice pick in hand, in the looming foreground of the shot, the imminence of danger revealed to the audience, all filmed into blue chiaroscuro with rippling pool water flickering on the far wall.

Whilst Bullitt as a film resists some of the more overtly distorted argots of film style of the period, such moments come charged with both efficiency as visual exposition and a glaze of enriching technical prowess and artistry. When Ross dies without extra help from the killers, Frank, knowing Chalmers will shut down the operation and make him the scapegoat if he learns this, talks Willard into keeping this a secret to give Frank time to investigate. Bennett, trusting in Frank’s judgement despite warnings to walk the straight and narrow, plays interference for him, resisting Chalmers and Baker’s pressure. Meanwhile Frank begins assiduously tracing Ross’s movements, working with Delgetti in jaded but capable good cop-bad cop pressuring the desk clerk (Al Checco) of Ross’s hotel to overcome his reluctance after and give up information, then following the trail on to Ross’s cab driver, whose own attentive streak proves vital. Frank also talks to an informant, Eddy (Justin Tarr), who fills him in Ross’s background and the events in Chicago. Frank’s efforts to fool Chalmers also have the unintended but lucky consequence of obliging the hitmen to follow Frank around town in the belief he can lead them to him. When the cabbie drops Frank back at his Mustang in a parking lot, Frank soon realises he’s being tracked, and begins a nerveless process of leading the hitmen on and then using his knowledge of the city streets to turn the tables and get behind them. At which point the hitmen fasten their seatbelts and step hard on the gas.

Thus begins the most famous and consequential scene of Bullitt, as the hitmen try to outrun Frank up and down the hills of midtown San Francisco before making a break for the highway out of town. Where Don Siegel, in The Line-up (1958) and again in Dirty Harry found obsessive fascination in San Francisco’s ravioli explosion of freeways and overpasses in their stark, charmless modernity and frenetic functionality, and Alfred Hitchcock for Vertigo (1958) had stuck to the dreamy precincts of the bay, Yates decisively found the vertiginous slopes of the Mission District the ideal landscape for car chase action, at once like they’re dancers in a ballet, and as if the earthbound drivers are nonetheless trying to mimic astronauts and take off for space every time they fly over a shelf and careen down a slope. Editor Frank Keller won an Oscar essentially for his work on the scene. Car chases were of course nothing new in action movies, having been a constant since the days of Mack Sennett in Hollywood. What made Bullitt’s chase cutting-edge then, and still-thrilling now, was the immersive fierceness of Yates’ and his crew’s staging and filming. Where what would once have been filmed all at a distance on some cleanly flowing road here exploits the tyranny of the unsuitability of the topography an aspect of the action, and completely avoiding rear projection, camera speed tricks, and other gimmickry, complete with close-ups of McQueen driving at high speed.

Yates toggles between manifold camera angles including shots taken within the cars moving fast down chassis-jarring angles, zoom shots moving and in and out to emphasise a documentary veracity, sometimes allowing the cars to move out of focus or become momentarily lost in hose-piping shots that at once add to the visual excitement and turn the action into semi-abstract art, whilst the editing discontinuity seems right in the age of the action replay. The whole sequence, including the cat-and-mouse stalk and then the roaring of the motorised lions, takes 10 minutes. One irony behind the scene’s impact lay in Yates and team forgoing precise realism, splicing together as they did multiple takes to amplify its symphonic impact, with attendant continuity goofs, with damage to the cars coming and going and one green Volkswagen Beetle that seems to be looping in a time warp. Yates’ feel for realism is nonetheless still crucial – the streets are quiet but not suddenly, conveniently empty, as Frank is briefly frustrated by cars blocking him at first from giving pursuit. The bucking bronco moves on the sloping streets give way to fast, flowing motion once the two cars get onto a parkway, as Mike takes the chance to shoot at Frank with his shotgun. The ultra-pros in their element, stalking each-other on the tarmac veldt, with only the very faint smile Bill gives when he thinks he’s lost Frank behind providing a hint of emotion.

But action is also characterisation: Frank swerves to avoid hitting a toppled motorcyclist, almost losing his prey as he crashes onto the dusty verge, but manages to catch up again. The chase has a structural and figurative similarity to the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959), its mock-ancient equivalent, with Mike’s attempts to shoot Frank’s car like Messala’s use of a whip in the earlier film proving a recourse that invites self-destruction in breaking the informal rules of the chase, Frank forced to ram the assassins’ Dodge off the road, and the killers crash into a gas station, blowing up with it, whilst Frank skids to a halt. This climax to the scene was almost a total disaster due to an accident in the filming, but Keller saved it with clever cutting. Another smart touch here was removing music scoring from the actual fast chase portion, instead allowing the tyre squeals and engine grunts to provide music of a kind. Yates might well have been thinking of Jules Dassin’s silent heist scenes in Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964) in ironically making the suspense sequence the one that doesn’t need amplification in that fashion. The sequence did wonders for Mustang sales, too. The streamlined form of the Mustang seemed to combine the sleek aesthetic of modern, often European design with the muscle of a good American roadster, and so is the perfect style object for the film, as Yates blends aspects of cinema cultures to create a sleek and chitinous new form. Of course, movies are deceiving: in actuality the villains’ Dodge Charger was so much faster than the Mustang Hickman had to keep slowing down to let it catch up.

Bisset’s presence signifies a similar fruition, emblematic posh British beauty transplanted somehow to American shores, bringing a fresh gust of Swinging London chic. Cathy provides Frank with his anchor in the everyday world and also one who elevates him out of it. Bisset’s role in the film isn’t large and yet her character provides genuine substance as a presence in Frank’s story. Their growing relationship is given an amusing underlining when, with his own car wrecked after the chase, Frank gets Cathy to drive him in her trim primrose roadster in tracking down a lead. This however proves to invite trouble, as Frank finds a murdered woman at the end of the trail, and Cathy accidentally becomes witness. Cathy also provides Yates with another pole to explore his own dualism: as a transplanted artist she finds Frank immensely appealing but is also repelled by the things he countenances every day, embodying Yates’ own oscillation between warm and intimate stories and jagged tales of violence and exile. Observing that the murdered woman barely causes Frank to bat an eyelid, demands to be let out of the car on the drive home and runs down to a stretch of shoreline where, once Frank catches up to her, she plaintively notes they live in different worlds, and wonders what would happen to them in time if they continue together. “Time starts now,” Frank responds simply.

Yates films this exchange in extreme long zoom shot, lending a voyeuristic aspect but also a gauzy lacquer of romanticism despite the fraught and ugly feeling being invoked. Purposefully oblique framing hides Bisset’s mouth by McQueen’s shoulder, illustrating the potential for emotional disconnection between them, where when he reverses the shot Frank’s calm, simple answer is entirely clear, assuring Cathy that however taciturn he acts the one advantage is gives him, far from being emotionally anaesthetised, he knows rather what he wants and needs with a special rigour denied the more frivolous. Cathy and Frank’s exchanges have a structural similarity to Frank’s contretemps with Chalmers, in that both demand surrender from him, if with entirely different motives, Chalmers demanding obeisance and fault, Cathy prodding Frank to be a loving man, each on a ticking clock. The real source of tension for most of Bullitt is Frank’s efforts to keep moving, like an ice skater who’s ventured onto dangerously thin ice but can only keep driving for the opposite side, before the hammer Chalmers so desperately wants to drop lands. This is also a source of sour humour, particularly when Chalmers, having dragged Frank out of the shower to make more demands over the phone, then puts Baker on the line to emphasise the threat: “Now you listen to me,” Baker utters, only to hear dial tone.

Bennett’s stalwart defence of Frank as his actual boss sees Yates expertly using Oakland’s stocky physique and accompanying terse performance like a rampart, fending off the wicked. The film’s true climax then isn’t the car chase or the shoot-out finale, but the concluding scenes between Frank and Chalmers. Frank’s diligence and risk-taking are finally justified as, after finally revealing that Ross has died to Chalmers and Baker, Frank waits for the dead man’s fingerprints to be relayed to Chicago and their identification returned via laborious 1960s faxing. Chalmers, Baker, and Bennett wait in silent expectation whilst Frank’s expression turns concertedly pokerfaced, except with his eyes ablaze, betraying his awareness that his entire career and life will hinge on the next few minutes and what comes out of the fax machine. What emerges, as Frank by this time plainly already suspected but needed to prove, was that the dead man calling himself Ross was actually a used car salesman named Renick, a lookalike hired by the real Ross to pretend to be him long enough to take the heat off him: the murdered woman was Renick’s wife, killed to silence her and let him leave the country on Renick’s passport. Frank’s tone barely changes as he informs Chalmers he had him guarding an imposter even as he delivers the killer blow.

Chalmers is not so easily defeated, however, as he insists on following Frank as he and Del head to the airport in hope of netting Ross before he can fly out, still hoping to get him to testify. By this point Frank abandons any further pretence of putting up with the politician when Chalmers suggests the case has all the trappings for a publicity coup for them both, telling him point blank, “I don’t like you,” and riposting to Chalmers’ sanguine suggestions that “Integrity is something you sell the public” and “We all must compromise,” with a curt statement: “Bullshit.” Here Bullitt managed something borderline miraculous in presenting a cop hippies could cheer for. The notion that the truest public servants are the ones who take the lumps from both ends of society without much reward beyond their own inner satisfaction is of course a romantic one, and one that’s been through endless variations since, to the point where it may have outlived its worth.

It was also one becoming more fashionable in the late ‘60s, a time when, then as now, leadership as a broad concept had taken awful blows. Where, say, James Bond was the revenge of primitivism in an epoch so futuristic to be atavistic, Frank Bullitt provided a full-proof blueprint for his spiritual opposite, a romantic hero tailored for a cynical age, someone who actually gives a damn about the public good but also under no illusions about what society actually is – that is, Chalmers is the face of society, venal, corrupt, predatory, and masked with righteous stances. Bullitt’s relative lack of interest in its official villain Ross only more firmly emphasises this as the real drama, but Ross is also the naked face of it, greedy and murderous and manipulative, throwing up doppelgangers to distract and confuse: Renick is his patsy but Chalmers is his real puppet, used and discarded once he’s provided the necessary distraction. At the same time Yates constantly suggests the soul-wearying strain all this puts Frank under, as he must keep operating after seeing friends maimed and deal out death himself. Of course, McQueen’s face was carved by the movie gods to convey existential distress. The film’s ending is another intense, slow-burn sequence that uses similar elements to the car chase to very different effect, again spurning music and filling the soundtrack with incessant airplane racket.

Frank and Dell comb the airport for the real Ross and find he’s boarded a taxiing plane: when the plane is called back and Frank ventures aboard, he spots Ross, who jumps off the plane and leads the detective on a chase across the runways, the bizarre sight of monstrous metal planes with their churning turbines making enough noise to make the dead, and make tracking by ear impossible, cruising by as Ross eludes Frank in the scantly-lit precincts between the brilliant runways, and Frank barely avoids being shot and run over by a 707. Mann paid obvious homage to this in the finale of Heat (1995). Ross manages to get back inside a terminal, and almost reaches the doors as Frank and Dell close in: Ross guns down a cop as he tries to make a break, demanding that Frank shoot him turn, leaving Ross’s very dead form splayed on broken glass and the airport in panicky chaos. Chalmers, eventually cheated of his prize, drives away to the next opportunity in the back of a limousine, whilst the sirens echoing about the airport gain a strange, amplified loudness, as if mimicking the dizzy ringing in Frank’s ears. The weird, queasy brilliance of the film’s final moments lies in the way it confirms Frank did what he had to to a very bad guy, making him at last victorious in this tale, whilst also making clear it still costs him something vital. He returns home to find, by way of salutary grace, Carol asleep in his bed, having elected to remain with him for at least another day, but also faced with the eyes of the killer in the mirror.

Bullitt is available to watch on many streaming services, including Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Redbox.

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1940s, 1970s, Drama, Thriller, War

The Damned (1947) / Rider On The Rain (1970)

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Les Maudits / Le Passager de la Pluie

Director: René Clément
Screenwriters: René Clément, Henri Jeanson, Jacques Rémy / Sébastien Japrisot

By Roderick Heath

When it comes to the exalted ranks of great French filmmakers, René Clément belonged to a generation of filmmakers who helped bring French cinema renewal and new international attention after World War II. In those ranks Clément was linked with the likes of Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Jacques Tati. This crew mostly began making movies before the war but emerged most truly during or immediately after it. François Truffaut, in his infamous essay “Notes on a Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” noted Clément as one of the vital emergent figures who helped the national cinema by moving on from poetic realism to psychological realism, a mode Truffaut and his fellow Nouvelle Vague compatriots then set out to demolish in turn. Clément became indeed the preeminent director of that period when pre-war greats like Jean Renoir and René Clair were yet to come home or those, like Marcel Carne and Jean Grémillon, who kept labouring through the Occupation, who seemed to lose steam at its close. Clément had started making short films and documentaries before the war, commencing with the 20-minute Soigne ton gauche in 1936, starring Tati. Clément claimed top prizes at the renascent Cannes Film Festival twice in as many years, first with his docudrama The Battle of the Rails (1945), detailing the fight over the French rail infrastructure between the Nazis and the Resistance, and then with his first proper feature, Les Maudits, aka The Damned. He won the then-special Academy Award for best non-English-language film twice, with The Walls of Malapaga (1949) and Forbidden Games (1952), and also claimed the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion with the latter.

Like the major directors of the Italian neorealist movement, who he was often compared to for his early technique and outlook, Clément then faced subsequent decades negotiating with commercial cinema. Like Clouzot and Melville, Clément was usually at his best engaging with fraught portraits of people engaged in hazardous and morally ambivalent behaviour, but he stretched his talents further and scored his most acclaimed work in Forbidden Games with a poetically measured style. Clément did run afoul of the dangers of international coproduction with the poorly-received This Angry Age (1957), an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ The Sea Wall, but when he made a shift back into genre filmmaking with Purple Noon, a 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, he scored another hit, one that today might well be Clément’s best-known movie, particularly since it was disinterred after Anthony Minghella’s top-heavy 1999 version. Clément’s 1966 film Is Paris Burning?, an attempt to balance epic trappings with his early docudrama mode in recounting the 1944 liberation of the title city, received a bewilderingly harsh reception upon release, but it stands as a superior achievement. He again resurged to general success and acclaim in 1969 with Rider on the Rain, a swerve back to the chic thriller mould of Purple Noon, but Clément finally retired after 1975’s La Baby-Sitter.

As products from either end of Clément’s directing career, The Damned and Rider on the Rain have obvious differences. One is a rough-and-ready product that has the moment it was made in etched into its frames, filmed in stark black-and-white that seems to directly channel the raw-nerve, almost post-apocalyptic feeling of that time. The other is a sleek and moody psychodrama shot in colour, sporting an American star and meditating sardonically on shifting social mores as well as character and atmosphere. But the two films are also defined by a strikingly similar, smothering feel for intense psychological straits, with protagonists who find themselves adrift and cut off from the world at large, sweating their way through entrapped situations, sweltering through the consequences of their own culpability. The Damned, not to be confused at all with Joseph Losey and Luchino Visconti’s films with that title but bearing certain thematic and conceptual similarities to both, opens in the French port city of Royan, damaged by fighting and only liberated in the waning days of the war. The bleak scenery consists of broken buildings and rubble-filled streets and evening murk, streaming evacuated townsfolk returning to their home to find, if they’re lucky, dark and shattered hovels, the pall of grey broken only by flashlights: this is the end of the war as just about everyone in Europe was still very familiar with when The Damned was filmed.

Clément’s protagonist is one of these returning refugees, a doctor named Guilbert (Henri Vidal). Guilbert finds the building he lives in blacked out and battered but still essentially in one piece. He’s pleased and moved to nostalgic reminiscing to find his old harmonica lying on the floor by his bed and lying down in the dark to play the instrument as flitting lights from outside play across the ceiling. By rights the war should be over for Guilbert at this moment, but as his rueful, film noir-esque narration quickly establishes, his rest won’t be long, and forces that will affect his immediate fate are being set in motion in a distant locale. Clément moves into a flashback to explain just what he means, as a few days earlier a U-boat prepares to sail from Oslo, about to embark on a mission to save several high-ranking Nazi and collaborators. Senior Wehrmacht General Von Hauser (Kurt Kronefeld) and Forster (Jo Dest), a Gestapo honcho closely linked to Himmler, have been assigned to lead this escape, with the intention of continuing some embryonic form of the Nazi government in South America and setting up networks for other fugitive Nazis: “Victory is never final,” Von Hauser tells a gathering of his motley collective. One of the collaborators travelling with them is the Norwegian scientist Ericksen (Lucien Hector), who the Nazis seem to hope might one day help them re-emerge with nuclear weapons.

Also on board for the voyage is Italian Fascist and magnate Garosi (Fosco Giachetti), accompanied by his Sudetenland-born German wife Hilda (Florence Marly), who is he actual reason they’ve made it aboard, being as she is Von Hauser’s lover. Guilbert’s narration notes that Garosi doesn’t speak German and Hilda doesn’t speak Italian, so “French was adopted as a diplomatic measure.” Frenchman Couturier (Paul Bernard) was a right-wing newspaper publisher and major collaborator, who quips of their vessel, “Like Noah’s Ark – all that’s missing is the Flood.” Forster is accompanied by Willy Mouris (Michel Auclair), described by Forster as his right-hand man and by Guilbert as a Berlin hoodlum, and who, Clément carefully reveals as the film unfolds, is Forster’s sadistically dominated lover. The passenger list is rounded out by Ericksen’s teenage daughter Ingrid (Anna Campion), an innocent completely out of place in such company of pathetic rogues and killers: the only creatures aboard she forms any connection with are Guilbert and the ship’s cat. The U-boat sets out expecting to make a quick voyage across the Atlantic and gain aid from an agent in Mexico, Larga (Marcel Dalio). But when they’re attacked with depth charges by a British ship, Hilda is flung against a hatchway and receives a concussion, and the Nazis realise to their chagrin they have no doctor aboard: “We thought of everything except the essentials,” Couturier notes. Von Hauser and Forster order the U-boat’s businesslike captain (Jean Didier) to put into Royan, but they find to their shock the city garrison has surrendered, so they send Couturier, Morris, and a couple of sailors ashore to track down a doctor. Which is how their path crosses with Guilbert, who has already returned to practice helping his direly needy compatriots amidst fears of a diphtheria outbreak.

The Damned is a bitter, punch-drunk reverie on the meaning of an age. The evocation of a pervasive atmosphere of moral rot is palpable, the mood distinctly post-apocalyptic, the result hovering in a hazy post-genre zone, not quite a thriller, not quite a war movie. The preoccupation with an entrapped hero squirming under the hand of characters who are at once fugitive criminals and representatives of authority and state repression has immediate tonal and situational connection with the film noir movements flourishing in Hollywood and Britain, playing out like a less rhetorical take on Key Largo (1948). But this is mixed with simmering political overtones beyond the range of noir’s usual interests: Clément is portraying still-intense anxieties and blocs of sympathy and reflex in the war’s aftermath, seeing no clean divorcement between the wartime milieu and after, and notably providing a nudging reminder of widespread French collaboration in the person of Couturier at a time when the legend of the Resistance was being officially played up. Nor do the film’s stakes of tension and character drama play out in a familiar manner. Even Guilbert, the nominated victim of the enterprise, has a load of guilt and grief that isn’t entirely explicated: he seems to have lost his wife Helen in the war, and can speak German but tries to keep this secret, perhaps to give himself an advantage and also perhaps to avoid questions how he acquired this talent. “My life was going finally going to resume its proper course,” Guilbert muses in the opening, followed by rueful awareness that fate has other things in store, a ruefulness that Clément sees permeating the whole post-war world and its uneasy mindset.

Guilbert quickly diagnoses and treats Hilda’s injury but realises the Nazis have no intention of releasing him, and indeed intend to kill him as soon as possible. To buy time, Guilbert, asked to check up a sailor with a sore throat, tells the Nazis that he has diphtheria and must be isolated, obliging them to retain his services. Guilbert immediately sees tactical advantage too: isolated the sailor will force his comrades and the passengers to cram together into smaller compartments: “Hate would become contagious,” Guilbert muses, and, as his plan begins to work, he declares, “I’d created a psychosis of contagion…I was the organiser of this shambles, this floating concentration camp.” During the voyage Clément carefully cross-sections the fugitive Nazis, their interpersonal tensions and quirks of outlook and temperament. “What I miss is going to the movies,” the Vichy collaborator laments, “I love the movies.” Guilbert becomes less an actor in the drama, fool of fate that he is, than a witness to the death throes of an epoch and these last exemplars. He comes to perceive the game being played out between Garosi, Von Hauser, and Hilda, with the Italian too lovesick over his wife and too weak in character (it’s made clear he finished up a Fascist because his father was one) to put up any fight against her affair with Von Hauser. Forster keeps his thug toy-boy in line with fearsome beatings, much in the same way he comes to completely dominate the mission as his companions falter in their will and look for ways out.

The feeling of The Damned mediating eras in cinema as well as history stems from the hangover mood of the pre-war poetic realist movement in the depiction of desperate fatalism amongst doomed people in a cramped, fin-de-siecle setting – co-screenwriter Henri Jeanson had written classics of that style including Pépé le Moko (1936) and Hotel du Nord (1938). A couple of key scenes, like the murder of a traitor and a manhunt through a warehouse filled with sacks of coffee beans, could very easily have been in Pépé le Moko. But the narrative’s swerves and the tone avoid the blasted romanticism of those chicly disaffected works: The Damned is at once more spikily immediate and more punitive in its attitude to the damned of the title. Clément’s direction and visuals are for the most part more realistic and hard-edged, leaning much closer to neorealism, employing non-actors for authenticity in some roles and blending in documentary footage to emphasise verisimilitude and trying to exactingly convey the cramped, tense interior of the U-boat in as convincing a manner as possible. Clément wrings atmosphere and unease out of a touch like a creepily creaking buoy in the Royan harbour. His stern, grey-scale aesthetic had its own influence – John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1965) seems to my eye to have used it as a template – with his emphasis on low, looming angles where the metal universe of the U-boat crowds in the antiheroic lot and cuts through boiling ocean. A long hand-held shot depicting Guilbert’s arrival on board ship and his uneasy march through its halls predicts Wolfgang Petersen’s roving steadicam shots in Das Boot (1981).

At the same time, there’s an added edge of something close to metanarrative play to the way the story unfolds, with Guilbert writing down the tale which he describes as buzzing before his eyes “just like a movie” and himself as writing feverishly as if being dictated to by the haunting personalities of his shipmates, as he is by the end left as a solitary survivor on a ghost ship, surrounded by the echoes of the dead and vanished but still remembering them vividly: The Damned is much about a witness and an artist’s response to the spectacle of war and fanaticism as it about those things. More immediately and practically, Guilbert looks for a way to escape, and gets aid from the U-boat’s Austrian radio operator, who tells him there’s an inflatable dingy and oar ready for him to use to steal away when he gets a good opportunity. Guilbert dithers too long, however, constantly expecting to be betrayed or discovered, and eventually when he does try to flee finds Ericksen has beaten him to it, leaving behind his daughter. Despite the official glaze of determination and sense of historical mission these Fascists set out with, all of them except Forster eventually prove to be contemplating their future with the deepest angst. Couturier plays with a canister of poison pills he carries, the last vestige of choice he has left in his life. When the Nazis finally make landfall in Mexico and visit Larga, who operates as a profitable merchant and seems bewildered this gang of lunatics are still playing war, he listlessly gives aid more to get rid of them than anything else, and encourages Willy to flee Forster and make a new life for himself while he has the chance, even advising him on how to do it.

The queer theme in The Damned, which I suppose should be designated as “strongly implied” but couldn’t be more obvious, reminds me of Roberto Rossellini’s similar use of lesbianism in Rome, Open City (1945) as a metaphor for fascist suborning and exploitation. Such an angle reads as rather homophobic these days, but it’s invested with a fascinating, unsettling potency in the unfolding. Early in the film Forster tells Von Hauser he wants to turf Hilda off the submarine at Royan because she’s dead weight, and tells the General he needs to put duty before pleasure, only for the General to riposte coolly that can very easily get rid of Willy for the same reason. Later Forster furiously bullies and slaps Willy when he teases him for losing a chess match to Von Hauser, and whips him with a belt when he tries to run away at Larga’s suggestion. The introduction of Larga sees the film shift away from the claustrophobia of the U-boat but without any feeling of relief, as Larga tries to obfuscate his way through talking with his visitors and encouraging Willy to abscond, but then faced with the particularly wrath of Forster as he searches for his lover. Clément wrings quintessential noirish energy from this sequence as Forster furiously stalks Willy through Larga’s warehouse, which is crammed with stacked sacks coffee beans, the space Larga recommended as a hiding place instead proving a trap, alleys between the bags lit in brilliant pools by overhanging lights and Willy’s hiding place given away by a gash he leaves in a sack, spilling out tell-tale beans in a gently shimmering shower. Forster advances and collects him with grim, Golem-like authority, and leads him back to Larga’s office where, by virtual pure force of will, he obliges Will to kill Larga: Willy, sweating and glaze-eyed, advances on the cringing Larga, before finally emotion flees his face and accepts the delivering pleasure of being a thrall and stabs Larga through the curtain he makes a last effort to hide behind.

Garosi, eventually humiliated just a little too much, sneaks up onto the submarine’s deck and silently slips into the water to drown himself. Hilda soon searches through his belongings but finds no money or valuables, much to her stung and infuriated chagrin: “Garosi had not even left what would have made him missed,” Guilbert’s narration comments. This scene is a great little vignette for Marly, her icy eyes flashing as Hilda desperately tries to put up a good front in realising she’s now entirely dependent on Von Hauser’s graces, putting earrings on brushing a lock of hair down to hide the dressing covering her wound. Marly’s presence in the film seems to violate the realist texture by pure dint of her hallucinatory beauty, an islet of French movie glamour in the hard, grey panzerschiff zone: Marly, whose subsequent move to Hollywood proved a disaster as she was mistakenly blacklisted, is best remembered to cineastes today for her part as the title character in Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (1966). She’s just as much a vampiric alien here, with her high, razoring cheekbones and rapacious eyes, sowing discontent between the two drone males who lay nominal claim to her whilst also binding them in complicity. Of course, Marly does exactly what Clément asks of her in this, embodying twisted glamour and the erotic appeal of the power-hungry, delivering what Guilbert in recollection describes as “the disturbing Valkyrie widow.” “You only respect the dead that were respectable when they were alive,’ Forster comments when Couturier criticises everyone for carrying on normally after Garosi’s death, only to get up and bawl out some sailors for singing when the Fuhrer has died.

The greater part of the power of The Damned lies in the way it keeps the screw on whilst portraying the self-cannibalising nature of its characters, the weak ones falling away, running away or dying trying, whilst the strong lay waste finally to everything they nominally defend, including, ultimately, their own bodies. Garosi’s suicide and Willy’s failed escape reveal fateful cracks in the alliance. When Forster and Willy return to the U-boat in a boat of Larga’s and cast it adrift once aboard, Couturier tries to flee by swimming desperately for the drifting craft, only for Forster to shoot him in the water. All the while as the last vestiges of the Nazi regime are imploding, with reports coming in on the radio of Hitler’s suicide and then of the official surrender, only for Forster to impose a tight new blackout from the U-boat crew to try and maintain  control long enough to gain their destination. Dest is palpable as the ultimate Nazi fanatic, a man with the face of an aging bank manager but the build of a weightlifter, intimidating despite not being a military man – he looks like he could break Von Hauser over his knee, and he later pounds Guilbert until he drops unconscious with pure brawn – and easily bending the young and potent Willy to his purpose. “You planned for everything except defeat,” Forster snaps at Von Hauser as the pressure builds: “I planned for everything including defeat – I’m the son of a blacksmith, not a general.” These kinds of details actually make Forster a unique and potent character, a gay and working-class avatar for Nazism rather than the usual mould of icy aristocrat or the vulgarly devolved, one for whom the credo is essential to his identity as one who feeds off other people.

The film builds towards bleak and ruthless spectacle as the U-boat rendezvous with a supply ship as they run dangerously short of fuel. Forster tries to keep the submariners from speaking with the ship’s crew. But they insist on shouting down the happy news that the war is over. This spreads aboard the U-boat, and a battle erupts between the sailors between those trying to enforce authority and those who demand their release from duty, resulting in a fascinatingly realistic tussle between the men where only one officer is vaguely proficient in punching and so gets the upper hand. Von Hauser elects to remain aboard the supply ship, whilst Hilda overhears Forster proposing to torpedo the ship in revenge: she attacks him in a grip of hysterical repudiation and tries to climb up a rope ladder onto the ship, only to fall in between the two vessels and be crushed as they roll together. Forster carries through on his threat, not just to punish those he calls traitors but also desiring to erase anyone not loyal to him who knows he’s alive. He and a loyal officer sink the ship, and then mercilessly machine gun their own fellow German sailors as they cling to lifeboats and rafts. This miniature holocaust is the climax of Clément’s parable, as he has tried to film the ultimate logic of the fascist mindset, as the numbers of the acceptable and worthy and true are whittled down to an ever-tighter circle of fanatics, until fellow Germans are being murdered in the same fashion as Allied soldiers and many others have been.

Finally, effective rebellion: the remaining ordinary sailors overcome the zealots and Willy kills Forster, albeit still only able to dare it by stabbing him in the back: “Bastard!” Forster groans as he sinks down and dies. The remaining crew flee the U-boat in a life raft, taking Ingrid with them, and Willy jumps aboard too: only Guilbert is left behind, having been knocked unconscious by Forster, with Willy refusing to go back for him in the fear he’ll be able to denounce them, despite Ingrid’s entreaties. The scene of the crew’s flight from the submarine is striking both in the filming and in the starkly evident lack of artifice, beheld in Campion’s frightened face as the actors helping her into the raft accidentally fall into the ocean and nearly take her with them, leaving her clinging onto the raft’s edge. When he comes to the doctor finds himself adrift on the unnavigable craft, the last resident of the Third Reich one dazed, baffled, filthy Frenchman, the last, bitterest irony. Guilbert, with no idea if he’ll ever be rescued, passes the time writing an account of his experience, the one we’ve been experiencing, by an improvised lantern. Relief comes at long last as Clément reveals Guilbert picked up by an American warship, which then sinks the U-boat, as Guilbert tells an officer that he plans to call his story “The Damned.”

Rider on the Rain, despite the many disparities in the two films, conjures a similar mood of opiated reverie from the outset as The Damned: much as Guilbert on his bed is oblivious to his oncoming trial and yet also seems to be dreaming it up, Rider on the Rain begins with its heroine, Mellie Mau (Marlène Jobert), gazing wistfully out a window on a day of omnipresent grey-blue drizzle. The setting is a small town on the French Riviera coast. Mellie sees the bus from Marseilles deliver a tall, bald man carrying a red-and-white TWA flight bag at a stop. Her mother, bowling alley proprietor Juliette (Annie Cordy), is sceptical when Mellie reports this odd sight, as she insists no-one every gets off that particular bus in this locale. The differences between Mellie and Guilbert are obvious too: Mellie is a young housewife, and far from being a survivor of war, is the product of dull, indolent, repressive peace. Mellie is married to Tony Mau (Gabriele Tinti), a Spanish airline navigator with a hot jealous streak, and maintains an uneasy relationship with her dissatisfied and sceptical mother. Mellie seems a good young bourgeois, trying hard to dress attractively, but not too provocatively, for her husband, in buying a dress from her friend Nicole (Jill Ireland): as she changes into the dress, clad only in her underwear, she realises the bald man is starting at her through the shop window, and hurriedly pulls a curtain shut. She drives home in the still-pouring rain and strips off her clothes to have a shower. Returning to her bedroom, she’s bewildered to find one of her stockings missing, and is suddenly set upon by the bald man, who’s wearing the stocking over his face: he ties her up and rapes her.

As far as movie openings go, the first ten minutes of Rider on the Rain weave a singularly powerful spell. Legend has it Jim Morrison was inspired to write “Riders on the Storm” after seeing the movie. Clément uses the Riviera locale, normally associated with blissful good weather, and the pall of rain to create a rarefied atmosphere, dreary and deserted, in which Mellie, whose full first name we later learn is the very apt Mélancolie, moves about in vague approximation of life, and what we see in the course of the narrative works on one level as a succession of conjurations of her haunted imagination. That the film commences with images of the bus bringing the marauding masculine force to her town with a quotation from Alice In Wonderland emphasises this dark fairy-tale feel. The opening credits unfurl over images of the bald stranger walking in the rain, the visitor signalling the arrival of threat that looks for another stray person to latch onto. Even when Mellie is assaulted, the sense of submersion continues. The space of her large and prosperous home becomes a trap where the monster lurks even after seemingly departing. Clément’s visual grammar anticipates the dinner party sequence of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in close-ups victim and attacker’s eyes in strange duet of fear and relish. Mellie claws at the stocking mask, tearing holes in it so her attacker resembles some melting homunculus. After he seems to finish with her, the limp, sweat-soaked Mellie slowly slips her bonds, dresses, and phones the police, but cannot bring herself to actually talk to them.

When she hears a noise coming from the basement, she loads a shotgun and commands the attacker to come out: he does, but when he teases her by making a strangling gesture with the stocking, she shoots with both barrels and he tumbles back into the cellar. When she bends over his body, she finds he still isn’t dead as he tries to grab her, so she finishes the job by frenziedly beating him to death with an oar. Mellie, seeming to decide it’s much easier to dispose of the man’s body than try and explain how all this happened, methodically cleans up the house and drags the corpse into the back of her wagon, and drives it to a remote stretch of coast to dump. Along the way, to her great unease, she encounters a police roadblock, but luckily it’s being overseen by a friend of her husband’s, Inspector Toussaint (Jean Gaven), who furtively asks Mellie if she can arrange for Tony to give him a loan as he’s lost all his pay playing cards. Mellie drops the corpse over a cliff and returns home, only to find Tony waiting for her, and when she tries to pretend she was with her mother, finds Juliette is there too. Tony’s jealousy is whipped up and he constantly recalls how his father would have reacted if his mother had been caught being unfaithful. Nonetheless Mellie is able to burn the last evidence of her action and seems able to resume the comfortable façade of normality, until, a couple of days later, she meets a tall dark stranger, Dobbs (Charles Bronson), a pushily charming American who insists on dancing with her and begins hinting he knows what happened to her.

A cat-and-mouse game develops between Dobbs and Mellie. She at first assumes he’s some kind of blackmailer, as he oppressively inserts himself into her life after Tony heads off for a long haul to Djibouti. Dobbs bullies her and forces her to get drunk so he can then get her to spill her guts, whilst also implying he’s seeking a fortune her attacker stole, which was likely in the TWA bag, which has gone missing. Mellie leaps to the conclusion Dobbs thinks the attacker might have been working with Tony in some kind of drug smuggling scheme, a suspicion that seems to be confirmed when Dobbs encourages her to steal a TWA bag from a shelf in the bus station in belief it was the bald man’s, only to find merely a photo of Tony inside it. The subtler part of Clément’s stylisation here is the way all the various characters seem to have hostile intentions towards Mellie, running the gamut from her indolent, critical mother to her hot-headed and hypocritical husband, and all the way to the man who really does cruelly and viciously assault her. Mellie, as Clément carefully explicates, has a childish aspect to her character, with life experienced as a succession of ugly and wrenching randomness, sourced in a key trauma of her youth, in which she caught her mother having an affair and eventually told her father, who then promptly walked out on them. Whilst he certainly wouldn’t get a job in a rape crisis centre with his method of badgering Mellie and guessing the circumstances of her violation, Dobbs nonetheless walks the line between romantic fantasy, father confessor figure, and masculine threat, at least until his purposes start to become more clear.

Rider of the Rain is dated in some aspects, particularly the gender politics and Bronson’s incarnation of a certain ideal of bristling masculinity as tough-love assaultive, as when he’s glimpsed literally pouring booze down Mellie’s throat, even given that he’s trying to find out if Mellie is a thief and murderer. But it also reflects the shifting mores of the era with some agility, as Mellie shifts from being essentially a decorative object for her husband to someone capable of holding him and others to account, and avenges herself with deadly force, but not with malice. The pitch of Mellie as an innocent abroad trying to leave behind her childhood angst amidst a myth of death and pain signals that in the end Rider on the Rain is much a product of the side of Clement that made Forbidden Games as the one that made The Damned. Nicole is a hipper lass who relies on Tony to bring her records from Swinging London and gleefully awaits a recording she hopefully describes as “bestial,” much to Mellie’s fascinated bewilderment. One notable product of Rider on the Rain’s success was that after nearly two decades as a familiar and increasingly prominent movie face and a smattering of lead roles including Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), it was actually Clément’s film that made Bronson a colossal star in Europe, and his full emergence in Hollywood came soon after. As the film was shot simultaneously in French and English, Bronson was a sport and did his own French dialogue phonetically, but didn’t bother doing it again. This swerve in Bronson’s career was particularly interesting given his role as a character who’s not his usual type of character: Dobbs certainly requires Bronson’s aura of igneous physical and character strength, but who for the most part keeps them restrained, entering the movie as a figure more akin to Cary Grant’s in Notorious (1946) as a smoothly insinuating agent who impersonates and goads the heroine’s guilt complex.

Sébastien Japrisot’s script is replete with nods to Hitchcock, most obviously and a little cornily when the bald rapist is eventually revealed to be named Mac Guffin. And yet Rider on the Rain maintains a very different tone and style to Hitchcock, playing with his beloved transference-of-guilt theme and fascination for highly ambivalent relationships that seem poised between ardour and brutality, but approaching it more as a character investigation where the tension derives almost entirely from the interpersonal encounters. Like The Damned, Rider of the Rain doesn’t quite belong to any genre. It could be said to be Clément’s revenge on Truffaut, as it’s a far better Hitchcock riff than Truffaut ever managed. Rider on the Rain also fits into a mode of art-house thrillers from the time, fusing French cinematic mores and Hollywood-styled narratives also including the likes of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969) and The Outside Man (1972), as well as films by Claude Chabrol and Jean-Pierre Melville. The accoutrement of plot in Rider on the Rain is then mostly unimportant except as it reflects Mellie’s choice to hide her crime and refusal to play along with Dobbs. Her determination to keep the secret is rooted in her sense of responsibility for her father’s abandonment, which she confesses to Dobbs after he’s made her drink two bottles of whisky, a drink she eventually seems to enjoy as much as she says her mother does: “She’s a wiz at infidelity and alcohol.” When a kind of story does develop, it’s the by-product of their gamesmanship.

Mellie is such a goody-goody she can’t even swear, instead substituting the word “saxophone” for any curse she wants to utter, but her unexpected streak of savagery unleashed on the rapist provides vivid proof she’s a tougher, stranger, more formidable person than anyone suspects. Her deflecting way with Dobbs maintains a similar kind of resolve, trying to erase what little proof he can dig up to support his entirely correct summation of what happened between her and Guffin: she threatens Dobbs with the same shotgun she killed the rapist with, but deliberately shoots the wall to obscure gouges left by the original shots. In the course of defending her psychic barricades, she is however forced to pay attention to things she’s been studiously ignoring, like the fact Tony is unfaithful to her with her friend Nicole: when she confronts Nicole, the couturier admits to sleeping with Tony twice, and when Mellie starts slapping her, Nicole halts her angrily after the third blow: “I said twice!” Dobbs meanwhile represents as much fatherly authority to Mellie as an image of masculine menace and fancy: when she tries to lock him out he kicks down her bedroom door, which reminds her, in flashback, of a man who helped her and her mother break into her parents’ locked bedroom, where they found the martial bed shredded by her departing father. “This house is like my life,” Mellie quips after her battles with Dobbs leave it a mess, “Two days ago everything was in order.”

When Nicole comes visiting, hoping to make up with Mellie, Mellie kisses Dobbs to make Nicole think they’re lovers. Dobbs explains as their bickering continues that he’s been able to construct a timeline that brought him to her simply by asking questions around town of people like Nicole and Juliette: “The hell you did,” Mellie objects, “Nobody gets anything from my mother.” She also explains the story of how she got her name, which was rooted tellingly in her father’s whimsical and mercurial nature. Business between Mellie and Dobbs becomes increasingly like a parody of marriage, as Dobbs gets Mellie to fry him some eggs breakfast, which she does dutifully only to then drown them in ketchup (“Americans live on ketchup and milk – I’m a wiz at geography.”), whilst Dobbs takes to sarcastically calling her Love-Love after the writing on her kitchen apron, and introduces her to a game played with chestnuts, chucking them at panes of glass – if the pane breaks, then the thrower is in love. Every time Mellie does it the glass breaks. “You and your Cheshire Cat smile!” Mellie snaps at Dobbs, who has thus far resisted settling down but carries a photo of a son – “I always keep my children.” Finally Mellie does discover the rapist’s bag and the money in it where he left it in her car. Emboldened, she goes to Dobb’s hotel room and finds he’s not a crook or an opportunist, but an American Army Colonel on an investigation.

When Mellie hears of a dead man’s body discovered along the coast, she immediately assumes it’s the rapist. Toussaint tells her it’s been identified as a former boxer and gangster named Bruno Sacchi. Mellie hears that Sacchi’s girlfriend, Madeleine Legauff (Ellen Bahl), is the leading suspect for the killing as she also had underworld connections, and drives out to the beach where Toussaint and other cops grill her to get a look at her. Mellie is stricken with remorse and determines to try and help Legauff beat the rap: she travels to Paris, where Toussaint told her she worked, and follows leads to the place where Legauff’s sister works, after mailing the money back to her home to keep it safe. Trouble is, this proves to be a brothel her sister Tania (Corinne Marchand) runs under the auspices of some sanguine gangsters. Clément nods again to a similar preoccupation with illicit desires as he had in The Damned as Tania tries to seduce Mellie by stroking her thigh, before passing her along to her bosses who, bewildered by Mellie’s entreaties, promptly torture and torment her to find our what she’s about, forcing her to walk about on all fours like a dog and threatening to burn her with cigarettes. Fortunately Dobbs, who the gangsters deride as sounding like a figment of her imagination when she tries to explain about him, chooses this moment to break into the brothel, having tracked Mellie down on the urging of his superiors in fearing she might be endangering herself. Dobbs lays waste to the gangsters in a few artful moves.

This scene provides the closest thing Rider on the Rain has to traditional action, but remains part of the film’s dizzy texture in that it comes about purely because of misunderstandings. It’s easy to see nonetheless why this scene probably did much to cement Bronson’s popularity (after a notable earlier shirtless scene showing off his formidable build), as he genuinely seems like a man who can toss goons around like nine-pins, and blends this confirmation of sheer bullish physical strength with peculiar delicacy in reclaiming Mellie and carrying her out. This whole sequence, whilst essentially a long narrative discursion, provides rather an emotional catalyst on a subliminal level, as Dobbs makes up for some of his obnoxiousness and Mellie finally gains the kind of paternal protector she lacked before. Soon Dobbs explains the truth, that Scchi was actually killed months before and his body was only discovered because Dobbs had the police hunting for Guffin’s. Dobbs himself was sent out to track down Guffin after he broke out of a mental hospital, where he’d been consigned after raping three other women with the same pattern as his attack on Mellie, and stole Army funds. Whilst Bronson got the stardom, Rider on the Rain really depends on Jobert, with the French actress (ironically today probably best known as the mother of actress Eva Green) deftly playing a difficult role as a character who is at once trying to truly grow up and also already has the tools of a survivor, both sympathetic but also eccentric and sometimes insufferable, oscillating between extremes of sweat-sodden suffering, peevish resistance, and crisp, combative humour.

Rider on the Rain is a beautiful-looking product of Clément’s mature style, with visuals that share a near-indefinable quality with those in The Damned in wresting both semi-abstraction and palpability from his mise-en-scene, but in a more sophisticated manner, constructing a psychological universe with his slightly oblique framings and space-perverting zoom shots and mediating long shots. His deployment of colour effect is almost as exacting as Michelangelo Antonioni’s or Michael Mann’s, with most of the film utilising carefully dressed locales and costumes blending blues, greys, and whites, only broken up by specifically associative touches like the fiery red linked with Dobbs (in his sports car and hotel room curtains) and the suggestively uterine saturation of the décor in the brothel. This is a world seen through the eyes of the melancholy Mellie. Clément’s careful framing and use of mise-en-scene is similarly careful, constantly framing along horizontal lines and moving his camera deftly in keeping the performers in orbit with each-other. Some shots evoke the fussily subverted naturalism of Magritte whilst others, like Dobbs setting on a seaside breakwater, and Mellie watching Legauff from a distance on the beach, have a quality reminiscent of minimalist artists like Jeffrey Smart and Alex Colville, utilising stark forms and desolate locales.

Clément risks some in-joke cameo casting touches in employing Bronson’s wife Ireland and Jobert’s stepsister Marika Green, of Pickpocket (1959) and Emmanuelle (1974) fame, as a hostess at the brothel, as if trying to work the theme of family and generational angst into the form of the movie. Another aspect of Rider on the Rain that helped make it a hit was Francis Lai’s score, modish for its time in some ways but very effective, with strains of gently played guitars and organs and thrumming sitars providing a shimmering, haunted texture, and interludes of tinny barroom piano and woozy waltzes lending a faint hint of burlesque to moments of melodrama. The aftermath of Dobbs’ rescue of Mellie leads to a series of epiphanies that finally make sense of the odd behavioural and genre plot flux of the bulk of the movie. Surviving a confrontation with ugly force and self-betrayal brings Mellie to a gentler shore where her mother is now more caring and solicitous, finally murmuring her daughter’s full name for the first time as she watches over her sleeping, whilst Mellie is able to calmly insist Tony take her to London with him on his next trip where they can talk through their problems. The last gift to her comes from Dobbs, who finally locates Guffin’s body and finds a button from Mellie’s dress in his grasp, which he gives to her as a gesture of release. The film’s punch-line is finely humorous as Dobbs, watching Mellie and Tony drive off together, casually tosses away a chestnut he finds in his pocket only for it to shatter a window, leaving him to gaze after the departing Mellie in bewilderment. Rider on the Rain is a peculiar but mesmerising and cumulatively affecting work, and with The Damned stands as a testimony to Clément’s artistry and versatility.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Historical

The Northman (2022)

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Director: Robert Eggers
Screenwriters: Robert Eggers, Sigurjón Birgir ‘Sjón’ Sigurðsson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Emulation and synthesis are eternal processes in art as young talents arise and pick and choose touchstones and heroes and try to find new ways of appealing to audiences. Since the millennium’s turn we’ve seen many a new talent positioning themselves, or being positioned by studios and the media, as cinema’s next Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lynch, Cronenberg, Kubrick, Malick, or Woody Allen. More intriguingly if not always satisfyingly, in the past few years a fresh cadre of filmmakers has tried to blend styles in moviemaking once thought irreconcilable, mating art house, independent film, and Hollywood hit inflections in novel fashions, each commenting on the others. But the spark of real creativity that turns such busy remixing into authentic original art, on whatever level, is something much more rarefied. Native New Yorker Robert Eggers emerged with a bang in 2015 with The Witch, a Horror movie that proved a substantial box office success on a modest budget, made an instant star out of lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, and Eggers, in his attempts to mate art house movie-style textures, the simultaneously vivid and dreamlike approach of directors like Werner Herzog and Lynch, to a period tale of supernatural menace broadly conforming to the Horror genre, announced he belonged to the gathering wave of directors similarly trying to fuse aesthetic modes and genre presumptions once thought irreconcilable, and in particular a specific wing of this tendency labelled “Elevated Horror.” The main connection of many of the Elevated Horror directors lay in their efforts at quoting classic Horror movie imagery and metaphorical potential but atomising them in a narrative sense, trying to evoke states of dread and fragmenting psychological states.

That said, Elevated Horror very quickly became a set of cliché stylistic gestures, and what was often greeted as groundbreaking in the movement was, to anyone with a strong grounding in the genre as it was in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, rather old-hat. But Eggers also evinced a strong visual imagination and a fascination with surrealism-touched imagery in common with other directors like Ben Wheatley, Peter Strickland, Panos Cosmatos, and David Lowery, filmmakers who, whatever their individual qualities, certainly all seem to share a desire to annex the stature once by filmmakers like Herzog or Kubrick, and reinvest some of the stylistic freedom and atavistic power to cinema that inflected periods in the medium’s history as in the heyday of German Expressionism and late 1960s psychedelia, at a time when both mainstream models and independent alternatives are all but exhausted of personality and visual imagination and potency. The Witch, a film that was certainly exceedingly well-made and impressively styled, nonetheless wielded a contrived brand of onerousness too many seem to automatically accept as artistry, and strikes me as fussy, over-managed, and dead to the touch. I hesitate to say that stylistic instability is, far from a failure in moviemaking, is the essential source of art in the medium, and excessive control is its slow death. But I still often feel it’s true. Eggers’ second film, The Lighthouse (2019), highlighted both his specific strengths, expertly exploiting strong acting performances in depicting a crisis of besieged personality, and his potentially aggravating weaknesses, as he wrapped the central character tale in imagery and Horror movie teases that refused to resolve into much more than student film showboating, an extended stab at trying to have your art house cake and eat your genre film too.

Nonetheless Eggers seemed like a director of promise who could be forgiven the contemporary critical tendency to latch on to the new voice as the greatest thing ever. The Northman sees Eggers taking a leap most of his contemporaries have been unwilling or unable to execute so far, in making a big movie – the budget of The Northman is somewhere in the $70-$90 million range – and trying to bend the mindset of the mass audience to bold and challenging vision, much as, say, Kubrick managed with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The Northman is also a Viking movie, a perennially popular movie subgenre stretching back through the likes of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), Roger Corman’s The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958), Mario Bava’s oddball Norse Westerns Erik the Conqueror (1961) and Knives of the Avenger (1966), Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships (1965), Robert Stevenson’s The Island At The Top of The World (1974), Charles B. Pierce’s The Norseman (1978), John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999), and, for some actual Scandinavian input, Nils Gaup’s Pathfinder (1988) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2010). One could even stretch this to include works like John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, being as they are film drawing heavily on Norse myth for their more overtly fantasy settings.

More recently all things Viking have been hugely popularised by TV shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, and now also permeate music genres and subcultures. Those include, rather controversially, sectors of the far right and white supremacists, which has some basis in the idiotic cultural theories and ideals of the Nazis. I suspect the greater part of their penchant for the imagery Norse culture and mythology is essentially the same as everyone else’s at the bottom of all: it’s really cool. The Viking mystique is at once deeply alien and peculiarly familiar, violent and menacing and contemptuous of the more pastoral visions of medieval Europe and the evolving structure of its power and institutions, but also reflects a folk culture defined by powerfully appealing things like camaraderie, macho virility, and rowdy boozing in the mead hall. That Eggers wants to examine the charisma of the old Norse culture more incisively, unsentimentally, and palpably than many such precursors is signalled not just in the sturm-und-drang he invests in his movie’s look and sound, but in the material he takes on to give his project form. The Northman adapts the Danish folkloric tale of Amleth, which William Shakespeare annexed for Hamlet. The Northman isn’t the first film to bypass Shakespeare for the source stories: Gabriel Axel’s Prince of Jutland (1998) also took them on, although, despite featuring a notable cast including Gabriel Byrne and Christian Bale, it didn’t make a cultural ripple.

Amleth’s story might be sourced in lost bardic poems and sagas from Norse culture, but no extant version comes to us earlier than the versions found in two 12th century texts, by the historian Saxo Grammaticus, who included it in his Gesta Danorum, and another, slightly different version in the Chronicon Lethrense. Both versions contain scenes familiar from Hamlet, like the crafty protagonist rewriting an execution order carried by two guardians during a voyage to Britain. Eggers and his coscreenwriter, the Icelandic poet and musician Sjón, by contrast only utilise the loosest outline of the tale, as if trying to peel away the layers down to some presumed origin point as a Viking campfire tale, a myth of bare-boned moral reckoning emerging out of a wild and savage time and culture. This also gives him leave to work in a myriad of harvested movie likenesses. Nonetheless, the basic story is hazily recognisable. Young prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) is overjoyed when his father, the king of the island of Hrafnsey, Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns from war, badly injured and weary. He’s reunited with Amleth, his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and resolves to initiate Amleth into the mystical secrets of being king in a rite overseen by Heimir (Willem Dafoe), who is also the Fool in Aurvandill’s court and under the guise of lampooning suggests Gudrún is sleeping around. As father and son walk together, Aurvandill is struck with arrows by a hidden sniper, and Fjölnir and henchmen surround him and slay him, even as Aurvandill curses his brother.

The henchmen chase Amleth through the woods, but he manages to cut off the nose of the one who catches him, and he glimpses his mother being carried away by Fjölnir. Amleth reaches the beach and rows away from Hrafnsey, vowing revenge. “Years later,” as a title card puts it, Amleth, now grown into the hirsute beefcake bodaciousness of Alexander Skarsgård, has become a mercenary berserker in a band of marauders who attack a village in Rus’, slaying many and taking others for slaves. When he hears that some slaves are going to be shipped to Fjölnir, who has since been dispossessed of Hrafnsey and has relocated to Iceland with what’s left of his clan, Amleth slips aboard the ship transporting the slaves and pretends to be one of them: one of the Rus’ prisoners, Olga of the Birch Forest (Taylor-Joy), sees him come aboard and becomes his helpmate, chiefly because she also intends escape: “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” she comments, “I have the cunning to break their minds.” Brought to the homestead of Fjölnir and Gudrun, who now have a son together, Gunnar (Elliott Rose), as well as Fjölnir’s snooty adult son Thorir (Gustav Lindh), Amleth believes his mother feigns affection for Fjölnir to protect Gunnar. He and other slaves are pressed into playing knattleikr, a brutal field sport, during a celebratory meeting of clans in the district, and when Gunnar gets too excited and invades the pitch he is knocked down by a hulking rival player (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), who then in turn is beaten to a pulp by Amleth, a sign that Amleth feels some familial attachment to his half-brother. This thorny situation demands Amleth chart a careful path to his retribution, but also earns him a level of privilege amongst the slaves, including being allowed to marry Olga.

From its earliest frames The Northman declares its ambitions with volume, as Eggers’ camera swoops over long ships sailing towards the Hrafnsey coast with the booming, drum-and-dissonance-laden scoring of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough immediately establishing a mood of strange, jagged grandeur, and scarcely lets it up for the next two-and-a-bit-hours (the quality of superficial weirdness is as prized by the current crop of would-be film artists and cineastes as much as it was in pop music in the early ‘90s). One distinct facet of The Northman, and the one that Eggers seems most intent on putting across to make this something more than just your average muscleman revenge movie, lies in the way Eggers tries to anatomise Viking culture, to force the audience to share the viewpoint of these almost primeval people who peek over the edge of civilisation before burning it down. In this regard The Northman reminded me less of all those other Viking movies than it did of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s versions of Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), and Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and Sayat Nova (1968), with their usage of relic narratives less to tell their stories than to recreate the societies in their customs and philosophies and the forgotten cultural precepts lurking behind the plotlines.

Applying this approach to The Northman, stripping away the psychological qualities of modern drama and instead immersing itself in the way such things were conveyed and explored in myth, in symbols and archetypes, is a potentially very interesting one, particularly given that Hamlet is one vital source point for modern psychological drama. To radically deconstruct a couple of millennia of western art is certainly no small project. Rather than adapting Amleth’s story straight from the original sources The Northman harvests ideas and images from a variety of classical myths – Eggers and Sjon introduce hints of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, The Odyssey, Beowulf, Medea, and more. Less elevated influences are apparent too: Amleth’s habit of repeating his to-do list of revenging recalls that of Arya Stark in the novel and TV series Game of Thrones, whilst at time I suspected Eggers was somewhat desperate to play Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” but couldn’t as it has recently been profaned by use in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). The Northman also reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) as an odd and fulminating blend of a specific personal lexicon of images and concepts with the blankness of mythical metaphor and the pressures of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Eggers also follows David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) in applying a similarly self-conscious style to illustrating an almost equally archaic but very different tale. If The Northman is a much less insufferable a film than The Green Knight, it’s because at least it seems to know what it wants to say about the artefact it tackles, and adds up to more than a succession of stylistic gestures. On the other hand, it lacks the kind of grand synthesising reach of parable Aronofsky achieved. Where he linked the ancient and futuristic and ages of human development with his approach to Flood tale, Eggers is stuck fetishising rites that at times look like a really far-out men’s encounter group session.

Eggers dedicates himself to portraying the hallucinatory religion and ritual that pervades Amleth’s life and world and strongly suggesting an intended dialectic. Early in the film he dedicates a lengthy sequence to depicting the Aurvandill and Heimir inducting Amleth into a mystic union where they bring him through a process of mimicking and animal and making music with his body – burps and farts – before he then ascends to the status of man and then leaves his body. This ritual cements Amleth’s love for his father in terms both physical and spiritual. It’s echoed later when the priest of the berserkers (Magne Osnes), who took Amleth under his wing, leads the rampaging band in a dehumanising rite. Other visions are proffered as portals of understanding for his psychological functions. This is particularly notable when, sent by a He-witch (not to be mistaken for a Manwich; anyway he’s played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) to claim Draugr, a magical sword, from its owner known as the Mound Dweller, an undead being who resides on a throne in a buried barrow: Amleth battles the Mound Dweller when he comes to life for the sword, and finally bests him, only for the camera to return to Amleth standing before the dead man and simply pluck it from his hands, the battle we saw representative of Amleth gathering to courage to risk the taboo and take the weapon. Whether Eggers really nails what he’s aiming for is another thing entirely.

One problem is how he purveys it, with some special effects visions of Valkyries and the mystical family tree that bears forth its progeny living and passed like so many apples, that sway towards the CGI generic in execution, and spoil the integrity of physical solidity he pursues elsewhere. But the feeling of jammed gears also stems fromt he way Eggers approaches the story. Eggers and Sjon try to situate the tale in an overtly realistic and fetishistically authentic depiction of his world, but then lace it was aspects of magic and irrationalism, full of wise seers and preternatural animals. One can see the intellectual project Eggers tries to articulate, but then won’t stick to. He strips away all hint of depth from Amleth and then tries to reinvest it as the story unfolds. Eggers justifies this in part through Amleth’s single-minded project and his berserker schooling, which is depicted in a scene early in the film as he and other warriors whip themselves up in ritual manner to become animal beings who unleash bloody mayhem on the Rus’: Amleth is so dead-eyed a being in this state he doesn’t notice when he fellows seal the village children up in a hall and set it on fire, a casual act of genocidal contempt for anyone weak enough to fall prey to the Viking marauders. By contrast his journey of bloody revenge is an act of a civilised and rational man, insofar as it involves honouring bonds of identity and some basic code of ethics. This leads Amleth to experience a prototypical tragic experience, as seeking revenge commits him to acts that seem self-defeating.

Eggers takes definite risks with this film. Several people walked out of the film during the screening I attended during interludes of violence and overt weirdness, which, whilst perhaps not great for the movie’s bottom line, is a sign that whatever else you can say about it, The Northman is not yet another toothless mass media product. Eggers’ view of the Vikings is hardly exalting: he portrays this world as squalid and replete with brutality and oppression, and leaves you with the impression no sane person would want to live in such a world. The Northman serves the cult of the Viking with a hot dose of undiluted junk. Eggers tries with all his might to force the viewer into the atavistic zone he describes, to enter into a world where codes of speech and behaviour obey their own, peculiar, ritualistic rhythm. Trouble is, Eggers’ manner of doing so courts ridiculousness and a brand of stilted ye-olde-isms and rejected Death Metal lyrics that lack a compensating poetic quality, offering a parade of rasping-voiced men who say things like “I will meet you at the Gates of Hell!” and “Furnish this fierce heart and slayer of men with a drink that I might drink to him!” with a straight face. Eggers and Sjón pull off an interesting flourish however as Gudrun speaks consistently in a more elegant and sophisticated manner than those around her, even employing quasi-Shakespearean metre and metaphor on occasions (“Let my words be the whetstone for your mighty rage.”), befitting her status as a former slave stolen another culture as well as a power behind thrones.

Throughout, Eggers exhibits cinematic traditions he’s eager to annex. There are repeated nods to Conan The Barbarian, particularly in Fjölnir’s attack on Aurvanduill, and later when Amleth battles the Mound Dweller, which takes the scene in the Milius film where Conan discovers the Atlantean sword a few steps further. The sequence of the berserker attack on the Rus’ village is staged in a series of fluid tracking shots and culminates in a long single shot that variably does artful tracking and then pivots from a fixed position, whilst pseudo-objectively capturing acts of carnage and chaos, in a technically impressive but arch imitation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s shooting style on Andrei Rublev (1966). Vignettes like Amleth encountering a Rus’ shamanka (played, in a most inevitable in-joke, by Icelandic singer Björk) wearing funny stuff on her head echo Pasolini and Paradjanov in portraying pagan creeds. Hell, the climax, which situates the final battle of revengers in the midst of flowing lava with the seething magma mimicking the protean moment for civilisation as well as two warring psyches and bodies, directly mimics Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). There’s nothing wrong with homage and magpie borrowing in filmmaking, but like many younger directors of the moment, Eggers’ mix-and-match approach struck me as if he seems to be seeking a fast track to being hailed as a great artist, when the actual meat of the film is prosaic and straightforward, the human-level gestures by and large blunt and obvious, and the images have a contrived quality, so desperate to knock your socks off and yet so often arriving as lumps of conceptual show-off.

Eggers’ Tarkovsky-quoting tracking shots, for instance, don’t wield the same immersive feeling of being a wandering tourist in another world the Russian master achieved, but rather simply feel strenuous in technique and distancing from the horror it portrays rather than making it more immediate. His desire for flamboyance sometimes even hurts the story he’s trying to tell, like the long, mobile take of young Amleth sneaking about wearing a purloined robe amidst slain bodies of his father’s loyalists and glimpsing Fjölnir carrying his mother. Amleth then steals away in full view, rather bewilderingly paid no heed at all by Fjölnir’s men. It’s clumsy staging purely because Eggers doesn’t want to cut yet. Elsewhere Eggers’ barrage of surrealist visions occasionally made me feel like I was watching an especially long music video. The Northman is also one of the most stringently humourless films I’ve ever watched, perhaps out of fear even the most casual gag or moment of ordinary human interaction will spoil the desired credulity for this stylised world, and disrupt the texture Eggers labours to weave. I could have some sympathy there, but even the less heaviosity-charged interludes are encaged by style, as when Amleth and Olga meet to bump uglies in the forest in good pagan fashion, filmed with a kind of iconic import and inescapable aesthetic that chokes off any depiction of real sexual ferocity and feel for the strange catharsis of two fearsome personalities meeting in a place of tenderness.

Amleth begins terrorising Fjölnir and clan by chopping up some of the guards and also two priests of Freyr, acts of violence that seem present mostly because it’s been a few minutes since we had some baroque violence and so Eggers can work through his obsession with imagery of mangled flesh. One of the few sequences that effectively varies the onslaught of ostentatious style is an interlude depicting a mating rite for the younger Vikings, a male and female pair of singers performing for the gyrating lovers. Just for a moment a different sensibility gleams out of the muck. Eggers makes a point that this world is cruel and rough, and otherwise evokes virtually nothing but cruelty and roughness. Still, Eggers attempts through Amleth’s journey to chart the one real force that counteracts such barbarity, the bonds of family and lovers, but even these gets seriously stress-tested. Most broadly, The Northman can be described as a critique on the classic revenge tale, substituting Hamlet’s careful, intellectualised ethical contemplations for Amleth’s more visceral confrontations with the ironies of his quest. Self-professed critiques on revenge tales are pretty common these days, and, again, something of a short-cut to being taken seriously. Most classical revenge tales end nonetheless with varying forms of self-defeating mayhem unleashed.

Eggers’ main twist on this most ancient and hallowed realm of cliché is to essentially present everyone in the film as standing at some point on the timeline of a revenge path because everyone has some spur to seek payback and play such games, because everyone is aggrieved in an endless chain of power. Whilst the film is officially bracketed by the course of Amleth’s, it is also revealed that we’re in the end game of Gudrun’s and see other revenges launched and delivered or deflected. Amleth’s “heart of cold iron” and washboard stomach, honed in his years as a mindless berserker, give him the tools to pursue his end, but they have simultaneously retarded aspects of personality that need reawakening. In a pre-modern world like the one Eggers tries to portray matters of justice, like every other human value, has no greater muscle or strength in the world than the individual human holding them, and the radial of their connections to others, family first and foremost, then whatever can be called their community. Fjölnir’s act of treachery towards his brother is, in a manner never really fleshed out, partly inspired by a general feeling that Aurvandill has failed as a king, but this in turn leads to Fjölnir being labelled “The Brotherless” and tossed out of his kingdom by another, greater king.

The film’s vital story and character pivot comes when Amleth finally manages to sneak into his mother’s rooms in her and Fjölnir’s homestead, believing he’s bringing her the promise of rescue and righteous revenge. But Gudrun instead explains to her son that she pressed Fjölnir to kill her husband, who took her as a slave and then to bed, and far from being her beloved progeny Amleth is the last tether to that slavery and doesn’t care if he lives or dies as the product of her body’s colonisation by a hated foe. Kidman delivers a neat lesson in star acting cunning in her role here, erupting with feral energy as the formerly idealised maternal figure of Amleth’s faith suddenly reveals herself a ruthless and equally primal character even with her greater word power. This scene hits a note of volatile and unexpected emotional perversion but also one that wreaks subtle havoc on Eggers’ theme and approach to it. Rather than taking on Hamlet’s Gertrude as a clueless, sensual thrall, he remakes Gudrun after other Shakespearean archetypes like Queen Tamora and Lady Macbeth, a cunning embodiment of will to power aimed at what engendered it, who is also, to boot, rendered a rather demonic figure, laughing mockingly and employing incestuous appeal to dazzle and disorientate her son-foe.

Trouble here is Eggers nonetheless insists on straying into the kind psychological narrative he was supposed to be avoiding: he presents in Gudrun a furious counter-avenger created by the world’s evil and paying it in kind, one who wields a knowledge of how to manipulate men to control them. Olga, meanwhile, is an earthier archetype, a witchy woman who has cunning arts of her own but uses them more precisely, driving the Vikings to crazed fits by feeding them hallucinogenic mushrooms and keeping Fjölnir from raping her by showing off her blood-smeared crotch. Eggers makes a point about differently gendered forms of payback and power-exercising in this world, the women using guile, stealth, and manipulation to achieve their ends, but just as invested in their aims. At the same time despite his hardening to an engine of insensate wrath Amleth is saved from becoming a self-satisfied princeling like Thorir. Thorir reminded me strongly of the character Senya in The Saga of the Viking Women  and Wigliff in The 13th Warrior, both similarly peevish, hysterically insecure and fey princelings trying to prove their strength in a forbiddingly patriarchal world. This indicates the thematic preoccupations of the Viking movie as a subgenre are more codified than one might expect, and more than Eggers quite realises: they’re all fascinated by definitions of masculinity and the strange weeds that grow in the family plot in the shadow of virile patriarchs.

I couldn’t help also but think back to Bava’s Knives of the Avenger, a film which similarly used a Viking-age setting to explore the moral ambiguity of revenge, masculine rage, and fatherhood, in the character of Rurik, a man who in a fit of madness after his family’s slaughter avenged himself by leading a rampage of his warriors and raped the wife of one the enemy’s leaders, and years later inadvertently becomes protector to her and her son. Most crucially, Bava, despite much smaller advantages of technical resources and budget, casually delivered the kind of complex blending of mythological starkness and dramatic complexity depicting the evolving human psyche that Eggers here labours to execute. Late in The Northman Amleth is distracted very briefly by the sight of Olga running away, giving his enemies a chance to to capture him. ‘Twas beauty killed the beast. There’s some guff about Amleth being just like his father, but I’m not sure what that means beyond the very obvious: they’re both dumb enough to be captured by Fjölnir. Anyway, here Eggers tries a pivot of perspective as Fjölnir, confronted by Thorir’s slaying by Amleth, is filled with paternal wrath, wrath Gudrun tries aim properly, whilst Amleth, when captured, manages to delay Fjölnir’s execution of him by taunting him over the whereabouts of Thorir’s heart. Cue a scene of Amleth being tortured and making an escape that nods to another evident model for Eggers, in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) (or is it A Fistful of Dollars?). Except that Amleth’s freedom comes thanks to some ravens who peck at his blood-soaked bonds – with the hint it might also be Aurvandill’s spirit animals to the rescue.

Eggers also resorts on occasion to very hoary suspense-building tricks, as when Amleth crouches out of sight behind a hut hiding from some of Fjölnir’s men only to be barked at by one of their dogs, and Amleth is only saved from discovery by that time-honoured mistake of villains not to advance one or two steps more or turn their heads slightly. The film’s last act is enabled when Amleth and Olga, after she has helped spirit him away from the homestead elect to leave Iceland to together, only for Amleth to experience a vision telling him Olga is pregnant: deciding he needs to protect his incipient brood from any chance of Fjölnir hunting for them, he leaps off the long ship, swims ashore, and starks wreaking havoc at the homestead, carving up henchmen. Amleth dealing death to the same warrior whose nose he cut off as a lad feels indicative of the film as a while – cleverly done, wince-inducing in its gory verve, and lacking any true irony or purpose. Bang, a Danish actor who has brand of dark charisma well-suited to playing superficially charming but rather seedy characters, catches the eye as Fjölnir, even if he’s not really present that much in the film.

At least as the film veers towards a climax Eggers ventures into morally abyssal climes as Amleth, on the hunt for Fjölnir, is attacked by his mother, and then by Gunnar who tries to defend her, and Amleth kills them both. Both acts are done in self-defence but spring directly from his resolve, having fully accepted that, if they’re not encompassed within the aegis of his nominally defensive wrath, then they must be sacrificed to it as a matter of course. Eggers captures the spectacle of violently contradictory emotional impulses as Amleth later pays homage to their bodies where Fjölnir has laid them on the volcanic ashes below the Gates of Hel – an erupting caldera – that serves as the primal temple of their mutual fury. There’s a contradiction in here that’s potentially, endlessly rich, in presenting Amleth as at once a lover and a killer, the force of destruction and the seeder of soil contained with his bulbous body, that doesn’t fully emerge, in part because by this point we’ve seen so much death a little more doesn’t make much difference. Amleth and Fjölnir’s battle amidst the lava floes, as well as the likeness I’ve mentioned, is foiled in part because it wants so desperately to finally and fully anoint the drama in a perfect mythic tableaux, two naked men waging a perfectly symmetrical war of motives and heaving abs. But, again, this tries so hard to be instantly iconic that I couldn’t give myself up to it, particularly as the glossy, digitally-enhanced look of the scene and its calculated silhouetting robbed it of the kind of concussive physical immediacy it needed. It’s hard to deny The Northman is a compelling, intermittently fearsome piece of work. But I was left with the feeling the would-be visionary’s reach still exceeds his grasp.

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