1990s, Action-Adventure, Scifi, War

Starship Troopers (1997)

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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriter: Ed Neumeier

By Roderick Heath

Starship Troopers suffered from a serious case of bad timing. Starship Troopers saw Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier, the creative hands behind RoboCop (1987), one of the signal cult hits of the 1980s, reteaming for another trip to the same well of genre thrills blended with high concept satire. Verhoeven had followed RoboCop’s success with Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992), two more big, disreputable hits, but hit a career reef with the failure of Showgirls (1995), an attempt to marry acidic camp satire and exploitation movie precepts. Starship Troopers was supposed to reverse Verhoeven’s fortunes but finished up compounding his problems by also bombing at the box office, bewildering an audience expecting something more familiar and straightforwardly fun. RoboCop had nailed down the fetid mood of the late Reaganite era’s strange blend of conservatism and hedonism, and its spiky humour added zest to a classical tale of the hero triumphing over the corrupt and profane. But the mood of the late 1990s was at odds with Verhoeven’s new gambit in satirising war movies and militarism, a time of general peace and prosperity for much of the western world as well as eddying uncertainty, the paradigms that had shaped collective thinking for nearly a century suddenly irrelevant. Verhoeven’s sardonic call-backs to the gung-ho stylistics of World War II propaganda films and posters, a very retro-style frame, blended with violent, flashy contemporaneous filmmaking offered a strange and unstable aesthetic clue. At the time the burgeoning internet was still seen as a great new portal with a generally progressive application, whereas Verhoeven presented it as a new mode for propaganda and curated worldview manipulation.

The film’s chief relevance to its moment seemed to be in smartly identifying the general frustration for a lot of ‘90s youth that they’d never been given a great generation-defining task like war or, as for many of their parents, resistance to one, even whilst provoking with the warning to be careful what you wish for. It didn’t take long however for Starship Troopers to reveal its wicked prognosticative edge as the War on Terror commenced, when the narcotic-like addiction to macho imagery applied to great patriotic use became an entire political paradigm, the slow and painful weaning from which we’ve seen acted out in gruesome detail these past few years. Starship Troopers also came out at a moment when the kinds of social and political assumptions contained in a lot of classic Science Fiction as a genre was being investigated and critiqued by critics and scholars. The film’s approach to Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo Award-winning source novel, published in 1959 and intended as a blood-and-thunder yarn for younger readers, was entirely in synch with this movement, and counted in itself as a radical act of genre criticism. The film also recognised the subtext in popularity for movies like Star Wars (1977), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1986) in refashioning the narrative patterns of old war movies and westerns for a new age absent any obvious and immediate geopolitical enemies to render as villains, and made sport of it.

Heinlein was long a leading sci-fi writer and one who wielded some sway as a thinker, particularly thanks to his novel Stranger In A Strange Land which served as a strong influence on the counterculture movement of the 1960s with its theme of an alien-raised human who returns to Earth and sets about remaking its culture. Heinlein had started off as a liberal but became a staunch libertarian, and his writing was often preoccupied by exploring social ideas. But his writing also represented a mishmash of political repercussions through articulating a need, commonly worked through in sci-fi, to celebrate a kind of transformative individualism. Starship Troopers told the story of some young heroes in a futuristic Earth society that’s become politically united but also reverted to a kind of Spartan state structure where citizenship is attendant on military participation, and prospective citizens are trained to the limit to become warriors resisting a war of species pitting humans against extra-terrestrial arachnids. In many ways Heinlein’s novel simply did what sci-fi is supposed to do: create a coherent vision not simply of dramatic events and technological concepts but to think through ideas of what society looks like it does and what form it takes in other situations. Heinlein had the then still-recent experience of mass mobilisation and indoctrination of World War II to draw on. But his vision was troubling regardless, and the fascistic undercurrent to the vision he and some other early sci-fi heroes often wielded had been noted and artistically reacted to by a subsequent generation of genre writers.

One aspect of the novel Verhoeven and Neumeier didn’t bother transferring, perhaps to avoid potential special effects difficulties or, more likely, so Verhoeven could sell his WW2 movie lampoon more easily, was abandoning his concept of mechanised armoured suits worn by his future soldiers, today a common trope and one Heinlein is generally seen as having popularised. Verhoeven rather makes the mismatch of the seemingly fearsome but actually insufficient machine guns his space warriors carry and their monster foes part of his own commentary on fascist precepts: a person in uniform with a mass-produced gun is at once the most cynically expendable and rhetorically exalted phenomenon in human society. That, or firing off “nukes” that provoke enormous and indiscriminate destruction. Verhoeven’s take on Heinlein becomes something of a moveable feast encompassing a multiplicity of genre mockeries that relentlessly disassemble their nominal purpose. Early scenes evoke the glossy glory of movies mythologising a high school experience, presenting good-looking young folk who play American Football (albeit some kind of weird, future indoor variety) and go to proms, highlighting a not-so-secret motive behind this mythology that goes back to the unadorned ambitions behind the founding of the Olympic Games: training a warrior generation through sports and competition. Then the film into an extended, extremist riff on films like Allan Dwan’s The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) where some raw recruits are given harsh training and where eventually they emerge not only battle-readied, but intellectually persuaded of the rightness of their cause and duty, the once-dubious protagonist entirely indoctrinated into following in the footsteps of his hard mentor.

Where RoboCop had helped create context and weave in satire with the recurring motif of TV news reports, Starship Troopers commences and returns regularly to a kind of internet site on the “Federal Network” proffering clips of state-provided informercials and news stories that give insight to both the political and social moment, and punctuated by the recurring phrase, “Do you want to know more?” by the announcer (John Cunningham), which, notably, the person nominally surfing the site never does. Some clips offer seemingly benign factoids whilst another reassures the viewer with the vignette of a murderer “caught this morning and tried this afternoon,” with his execution scheduled for live viewing. The tone of the clips often segues within a blink from the broad and shiny tone of community service advertising and unadorned bloodlust-stoking. The opening recruiting commercial for the Mobile Infantry features ranks of soldiers, modelled after shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1935), broken up by the sight of a pint-sized moppet gaining laughs from the soldiers when he claims, “I’m doing my part too!” The dig here at a very recognisable kind of cutesey-poo from advertising and TV is withering. Later Verhoeven offers the sight of kids stamping on more familiar insects in a ritual of patriotic involvement and killing, the words “Do Your Part!” flashing on screen whilst a mother cheers the kids on in hysterical fashion, in one of the most subtly disturbing scenes in mainstream cinema.

These jolts of sleazy suggestion about the brutal and repressive underpinnings of the future society are given more dimension as the film’s central figure Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his girlfriend Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards) are properly introduced, in a high school class being lectured by their teacher Mr Rasczak (Michael Ironside) teaching civics. Rasczak proudly shows off the curtailed arm he received in military service and explains the basic philosophical presumptions of their world, including “Something given has no value” and “Naked force has resolved more issues throughout history than any other factor.” As in the novel, the characters are from Buenos Aires, and yet their modes of speech and culture have been entirely subsumed into caricatured all-Americanness, whilst the one-world government, the United Citizen Federation, restricts citizenship to only those who have served in the military. Humans have colonised much of the galaxy but are coming up against a truly ferocious enemy in the form of a society formed by multiple species of giant arachnid, or bugs as they’re usually called, whose apparent lack of higher intelligence doesn’t prevent them pursuing the same intergalactic habits of colonisation and territorial expansion.

The film’s opening proper after the first web break depicts an attempt by human soldiers to invade the bugs’ home planet of Klendathu as seen through the lens of a new crew for the Federation web service, a blur of bloodshed and mayhem as the soldiers seem to be routed by the rampaging monsters. Johnny is glimpsed as one of the soldiers being terribly wounded by one, collapsing before the dropped camera of the dead photographer, screaming him pain. This scene seems to have had an immediate impact on the subsequent burgeoning of the found-footage movie style, containing all its essential motifs as well as style. The shift into flashback explains what brought Johnny to such a fate, as he resolves to join the Federation mobile infantry in part to please Carmen, who has her heart set on joining the Federation space fleet to gain citizenship, but he can’t follow her there because his math skills are too lame. Nor can he kick along with his best friend Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), whose psychic talents lead him towards becoming a senior tactician.

Johnny’s decision to join the infantry stirs his parents’ (Christopher Curry and Lenore Kasdorf) concerns and he finds himself in a struggle to assert his independence, going through with joining up despite being cut off by his angry father. In Mobile Infantry boot camp he gains friends and allies in his training squad, including the brash Ace Levy (Jake Busey), ‘Kitten’ Smith (Matt Levin), Breckinridge (Eric Bruskotter), Katrina (Blake Lindsley), and Shujimi (Anthony Ruivivar). His former quarterback from high school football, Isabelle ‘Dizzy’ Flores (Dina Meyer) also enters the squad, and Johnny thinks she’s followed him into his training unit because of her long-unrequited crush. The squad must face the harsh, bordering on cruel, training methods utilised by Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown), which include impaling Ace’s hand with a knife and almost throttling Dizzy when she and he have a bout to test his recruits’ hand-to-hand skills. Johnny is left depressed and unsure of what he’s doing when he gets a video message from Carmen telling him she loves the space fleet life so much she’s joining up for life. His physical prowess allows him, with some help from Dizzy, to shine during training. Johnny is made Squad Commander, but then a fatal accident during training gets one of his people killed and another drummed out. Johnny elects to take “administrative punishment” of ten public lashes, only to then decide to quit, but before he can go home Buenos Aires is destroyed by a meteorite propelled by the bugs, and the Mobile Infantry are mobilised for the Klendathu assault.

Verhoeven’s fork-tongued wit applies itself as much through style as storytelling detail. Part of his peculiar cachet as a director, the source of both his moments of great success and his ultimate failure in Hollywood, stemmed from the gusto with which he set out to nominally give audiences what they seemingly want, but piled on with a reckless excess quickly annexing camp and subversion. I’ve often felt that aspect of Verhoeven’s sensibility hampered the intelligent edge of Total Recall to a great extent, but it’s perfectly deployed here. Starship Troopers comes on with violence, gore, action, sex, nudity, piled up to the point of obviously becoming camp, whilst still working on a basic genre film level. Early scenes with their bright, glossy cinematography applied to handsomely angular young stars ape the broad tone of TV teen soap operas. Jokes nod to standard TV broadness, like Carmen vomiting as she and Johnny do some dissection for biology class, except Verhoeven distorts through excess, as they’re dissecting a bug carcass with Johnny enthusiastically dumping piles of innards into Carmen’s hands. Casting Harris at that time was a particularly dry touch, as he was still chiefly known for his show Doogie Howser M.D. , and soon enough Verhoeven has him swanning about in a kind of generic brand SS uniform. Rue McClanahan, star of the jolly, saccharine sitcom The Golden Girls, appears as a weird and haughty biology teacher who saunters about like some ballet grande dame with sunglasses and walking stick whilst instructing her students on the superiority of the bugs as a species. Meanwhile Van Dien and Richards suck face they look like they’re in danger of cutting each-other with their jutting facial features.

A football contest between Johnny and Dizzy’s high school team and some visitor present Johnny with a rival in both sport and love in the form of Lt Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), who has chemistry with Carmen and soon turns out to be her flight supervisor when she’s assigned as pilot to a space warship, the Rodger Young, commanded by Captain Deladier (Brenda Strong). When Johnny finally encounters them as a couple just before the assault on Klendathu, the two men have a brawl in a shipboard common room and are finally dragged apart by their respective service chums. The attack on Klendathu, seen again now from a familiar cinematic vantage, is revealed to be a total disaster where the humans are ambushed on the ground by hordes of the fearsome soldier arachnids and the fleet is badly damaged by the gigantic globules of superheated plasma huge bugs are able to fire into space: so effective is the bug response that people begin to theorise the arachnids have an intelligent caste of “brain bugs.” Johnny’s unit is wiped out save Ace and Dizzy, whilst Johnny takes a terrible wound that is repaired whilst he’s immersed in a stasis pod, mechanical arms stitching him fibre by fibre. After his recovery, the three are reassigned to a new unit whose fearsome commander is infamous but also saved their lives on Klendathu. This proves to be none other than Rasczak, who leads “Rasczak’s Roughnecks” with both a literal and metaphorical iron hand, and soon Johnny and his pals begin to find their feet as warriors, with Johnny promoted repeatedly by Rasczak for his displays of prowess whilst the people he replaces die.

Verhoeven’s formative experiences, as a child of World War II and someone who fell in love with movies in the 1950s, are apparent throughout Starship Troopers. The film contends with superficial jauntiness and a deeper level of queasiness with the matter of militarism, trying to understand the appeal of something that had laid waste to the world Verhoeven had grown up in. The movie influences are fonder, with many nods to the films of Byron Haskin, most obviously the infernal hues of The War of the Worlds (1953), and also his The Naked Jungle (1953) with its marauding insect hordes and Conquest of Space (1955), with a similar scene of the Rodger Young dodging a colossal meteor. Beyond those, a plethora of war and sci-fi movies. The hyperbolic recreation of a zillion movies about recruits being trained for combat pushes familiar motifs to ridiculous limits, climaxing in near-pornographic style with Johnny’s lashing, beefcake body spreadeagled in a frame and bloody trails carved in his back. When Johnny is inducted, a veteran lacking both legs and an arm processes his request, commenting that “the Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today!”, a scene close to one in All Quiet On The Western Front where the officer overseeing training is similarly war-mangled.

Such noble clichés as the chicken officer who freaks out, the commander who orders his subordinate to shoot him if he’s badly wounded, the key lines of patented tough talk handed on from one generation to another, and the soldier who dies heroically blowing himself up in a rear-guard battle make the grade, are purveyed with such intensity they become new again. Verhoeven also keeps intact from more generic WWII flicks the motif of the motley, multiracial gang of recruits, with the added twist that the Mobile Infantry unblinkingly includes women, leading to such odd sights as a group shower where everyone’s buck naked and chatting casually about their reasons for joining up. One quality that’s particularly shrewd about Starship Troopers in this fashion is that where a tinnier satire might avoid complicating its portrait, this one presents its future fascist-tinted state as one that’s also utopian in a lot of ways, lacking gender and racial prejudice, obliging a more ambivalent response that lies at the root of why the film made as many viewers uncomfortable as those who got the joke. Utopias are an old and ever-controversial subject of intellectual reverie and it’s a particular provenance for sci-fi as its creators can dream them up and pull them apart at whim. What’s particularly odd here is that in the 1990s and through today dystopias are, pop culture-wise, much more popular in sci-fi, dark portraits of glamorously decayed societies.

Starship Troopers actually tries to get at why such suspicion lingers, baiting the viewer with a shiny, inclusive, gutsy future world as if actively seeking to make people ache for such a world whilst constantly signalling its dark, cruel, iniquitous side: it offers a vision of such a society as that society would like to see itself, which is indeed what an awful lot of mainstream art provides. Of course, to be a human being in any society at any time means accepting as normal things that other humans in other times and societies might consider barbaric and evil. Whilst it’s hardly a direct parody, Starship Troopers can be described as Star Trek’s evil twin, with its vision of a future Federation conducting gunboat diplomacy in space, egalitarian in social make-up and yet conveniently unfolding in a setting still defined by militaristic hierarchy (although the Gene Roddenberry TV show might have been borrowing some ideas from Heinlein in the first place). In Starship Troopers a white Sky Marshall (Bruce Gray) takes the blame for the Klendathu disaster and resigns to be replaced by an African woman (Denise Dowse). The female characters in the film are strong and strident figures, particularly Dizzy, a top athlete and good soldier whose only foil is the torch she carries for Johnny. Meyer, who might rightly have expected have had a much better career after this, is terrific as Dizzy, able to be at once ferocious and smoulderingly sexual all at once in a manner few movie heroines have ever been allowed to be, as if Verhoeven was trying to conscientiously recreate the femme fatale figures Sharon Stone had played for him in Total Recall and Basic Instinct as a positive figure.

Nonetheless, perhaps with tongues in their cheek, Verhoeven and Neumeier said on their audio commentary for the film’s DVD release that they ultimately had Carmen survive and Dizzy die, despite a general audience sentiment preferring her, to be “good feminists.” The crucial difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers lies ultimately in the attitude to the central characters and their relationship with their society. Whilst RoboCop presents the title character as a literal corporate construct and mercilessly teases its futuristic landscape, the storyline ultimately affirms Alex Murphy’s regaining of self, in tension with the powers that create him, standing up for a set of values that exist distinct from an increasingly debased society. Whereas in Starship Troopers there’s no such reassuring message cutting across the grain of the invented society’s mores. Rather on the contrary, Johnny, Carmen, Carl and others all learn how to become better conformists as the story unfolds. They fully embody undoubtedly heroic traits of bravery, self-sacrifice, fervent camaraderie, and leadership, but these are ultimately streamlined to the Federation’s needs, as they’re served up as claw fodder. Carl berates Johnny and Carmen for being appalled at his cynicism when it’s revealed he sent the Roughnecks into danger to lure out the brain bugs, countered with “You don’t approve? Well too bad. We’re in this for the species, girls and boys!”

Meanwhile Ironside, who had done good villain work for Verohoven in Total Recall after graduating from David Cronenberg’s Canadian films, gives an inspired performance that works on a level not that dissimilar to all those old B-movie faces in Airplane! (1980), somehow managing to utter a line like “They sucked his brains out!” in all seriousness but with the finest thread of camp knowing attached. Rasczak amusingly transfers authority from the classroom into the real world, merely amplifying the mix of brutality and pedagogy he wielded in the former setting once unleashed as a commander in the field. The bloodcurdling tenor to the violence as Verhoeven presents humans ripped to shreds by arachnids and having the flesh burned off their bones by their plasma expulsions is alternatively amusingly gross and properly horrifying. What’s notable here is Verhoeven takes advantage of the fantastical-absurd context to confront physical horror as often elided in war movies, as well as trying to animate the cringe-inducing possibilities of warfare with an inherently different survey of species. These range from the soldier arachnids with their huge, torso-bifurcating mandibles to flying bugs with lance-like limbs and the huge plasma-spraying tanker bugs, one of which Johnny manages to take out singlehandedly by leaping onto its back, penetrating its armour with his machine gun, and throwing a grenade into the wound that blows it to pieces. This act of warrior grit marks the beginning of Johnny’s rehabilitation and ascent up the ranks.

Part of what makes Starship Troopers still work as entertainment despite its insidious subtexts and satirical nudges is the way Verhoeven invests even the most absurdly cliché character moments with a weird seriousness. Such moments range from Johnny’s father betraying his ultimate pride in his son despite all his objections – just before being annihilated by the Buenos Aires meteor – by asking over a video link where his uniform is, to Johnny’s register of offence when he sees Carmen and Zander as a couple, and Rasczak’s earnest advice to Johnny never to pass up a good thing when he notices Dizzy’s ongoing flirtation with him. The portrayal of the young soldiers as a community full of cheeky good-humour recalls the respect Verhoeven gave the police in RoboCop as the human edge of the corrupt wedge, as when they mercilessly tease Johnny as he records a video message to Carmen. The Roughnecks’ celebration after a battle offers the oddly delightful sight of Rasczak handing out beer and sports equipment to his soldiers who immediately improvise a kegger-hoedown. Ace happily sawing away on an electric violin to regale his comrades, tipping a hat to the Western genre roots of so much space opera fare whilst giving it all a space-age sheen. The party sees Johnny and Dizzy finally hooking up in one of Verhoeven’s patented sex scenes, notable for their being actually sexy, as here when the two kiss passionately with Dizzy’s shirt pulled halfway up over her face. They’re interrupted by Rasczak who tells them they have to mobilise again in ten minutes, only to extend it to twenty minutes to give them time to get down to it.

The subtler but pervasive aspect of this whole sequence is how smartly Verhoeven nails down the tenor of adolescent fantasy as most essentially one of belonging, Verhoeven’s highly mobile camerawork and the careful weaving of the actors in choreography helping create the impression of group unity and high spirits as well as the kindling at last of good old-fashioned sexual energy. That appeal, to the need to belong, to be embraced by community, is key to both the consumption of much popular entertainment and also to political propaganda, and it’s a correlation Verhoeven strikes insistently. Ultimately arriving too early to catch the wave of new affection for hunky leading men, Van Dien nonetheless expertly conveyed the right spirit Verhoeven required here, playing Johnny in an old-fashioned manner, never less than the perfect budding Aryan superman in looks but still struggling to overcome character flaws before finally arriving as a leader figure filled with sardonic stoicism. Busey’s angular gregariousness as Ace, with his grin like the xenomorph queen in Aliens, provides a likeably eccentric counterpoint as Ace, ambitious at first but happy to simply serve after fouling up as squad leader on Klendathu.

When they’re next deployed on Planet ‘P’ the Roughnecks investigate an outpost that sent out a distress signal and find their fortified position has been overrun and everyone slaughtered except for a General (Marshall Bell) who escaped by hiding in a freezer, and raves about the insects getting inside people’s heads and forcing them to send the distress signal, a grotesque possibility that seems born out when the Roughnecks find corpses with punctured and emptied skulls. Rasczak realises they’ve been lured into a trap and the Roughnecks fight a desperate battle against an overwhelming arachnid attack. Both Rasczak and Dizzy are fatally wounded – Johnny has to shoot his commander and has a mangled and gore-spurting Dizzy die in his arms confessing her gratitude they were together at the end, leaving Johnny the Roughnecks’ commander after he and the scant other survivors are rescued by Carmen and Zander. The Roughnecks’ battle in the fort plainly references many a Western forebear as the bugs come swarming out and over the ramparts, unleashing a giddy massacre of severed heads, punctured bodies, roasted flesh, and blasted bug parts. After barely being rescued the team is then sent back to Planet P to locate the malignant intelligence that set up the ambush Carl believes is present there: a brain bug.

Not the least quality of Starship Troopers is the still amazing special effects work, with input from Industrial Light and Magic and former stop motion animation wizard Phil Tippet, offering a then-cutting-edge fusion of model work, digital effects, and puppetry. Over twenty years later a lot of this still looks incredibly good, better indeed than most of the digital sludge in blockbusters, and working equally well in the contrasting visions of space fleets and rampaging animals, the latter reaching an apogee when the Roughnecks behold a seeming sea of rampaging bugs charging the fort. The quality of the effects matches Verhoeven’s familiar shooting style with its bright palette and forcefully mobile camera, knitting a comic book-like graphic clarity throughout, at odds with the oncoming style of heavily edited action and visual gimmickry just coming into vogue thanks to directors like Michael Bay but certainly not antiquated-seeming. Verhoeven and his effects team offer startlingly great action scenes almost casually, like Johnny’s Ahab-like ride on the tanker bug’s back in trying to kill it, and the destruction of the Rodger Young amidst a fusillade of plasma spurts, slicing the great spaceship in half, a sequence that stands readily with anything seen in the Star Wars movies. The edge of blackly comic excess is never far away though, as Verhoeven has Deladier get crushed under a sliding bulkhead in another vignette of gory, heroic hyperbole, commander still bawling out orders in concern for her crew even as she’s cut in two.

The climax sees Carmen and Zander managing to escape the Rodger Young only to crash-land on P and find themselves at the mercy of the monstrous, many-eyed, vaguely penile brain bug and its horde of helpers, whilst Johnny, unknowingly given psychic nudges where to find them by Carl, leads Ace and fellow Roughneck Sugar Watkins (Seth Gilliam) to track them down. Here Starship Troopers notably collapses any sense of ironic distance between the travails of the individual characters and their function as members of a militarised society, a final dissolution made explicit by Zander as, just before he has his brains gruesomely imbibed by the brain bug. He declares, “Someday someone like me is going to kill you and your whole fucking race,” a line of bravado that signifies humans achieving the same negation of individual identity as the bugs. Carmen manages to hack off the brain bug’s brain-sucking organ and Johnny arrives to fend it off by threatening to let off a nuke blast before Watkins, fatally wounded, lets off the nuke in his last stand. Finally, in a final nod to the material’s B-movie roots, Zim is hailed as a hero having reduced himself to a Private’s rank to get in on the fighting and finally captures the brain bug as it tries to escape.

For all the heroic sturm-und-drang of this battle for pure survival, Verhoeven returns to sounding queasy absurdism. Carl swans in with his increasingly Nazi-like uniform and uses his psychic powers to diagnose the captured brain bug as finally having learned fear of the humans, and exultantly announces it to the cheering assembly of troops, a moment of pure fascist sentiment. Carmen, despite having a colossal bug claw in her body a few minutes earlier, cheerily embraces Johnny and Carl. Despite making the brain bug utterly horrendous in appearance and behaviour, Verhoeven nonetheless obliges a level of sympathy for it in allowing the special effects artists to make it register as much or more emotion as the humans in its quivering vulnerability once stripped of its fellow arachnids, with final glimpses of the cringing creature being mercilessly tortured by human scientists under the guise of research. In a return to the propaganda reel style of the opening, our heroes are finally glimpsed riding out to battle again, with the last titles announcing confidently, “They’ll Keep Fighting — And They’ll Win!” It’s certainly tempting to say that by this point Starship Troopers has become what it countenances. But that neglects what’s ultimately most pertinent about its form and function, trying to articulate something a more earnest take would miss: indeed, would be obliged to miss. The sliver of black diamond deep in its cold, evil heart knows well the narcotic appeal of such things, and refuses to let us off the hook.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Dirty Harry (1971)

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Director: Don Siegel
Screenwriters: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, Dean Riesner, Terrence Malick (uncredited), John Milius (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Fifty years since the film’s release, the opening moments of Dirty Harry still pack a wallop, a potent aesthetic unit promising cruel and jagged thrills. Director Don Siegel surveys the names of policemen killed in the line of duty carved on a memorial are scanned as church bells chime on the soundtrack with an insistently ethereal overtone, before fading to a shot of a rifle in a man’s grasp, barrel and silencer looming huge and deadly, death from above rendered intimate and literal. A lovely young woman (Diana Davidson) is glimpsed diving into a swimming pool on the roof of a San Francisco skyscraper to swim a few laps. The man with the gun is watching the girl, his telescopic sight zeroing in whilst the camera shot zooms back to confirm the woman’s oblivious link to the man’s bleak intent, space, distance, and height gripped and distorted by the camera lens and the homicidal purpose of the assassin. Composer Lalo Schifrin’s music, an unsettling blend of skittish, pulsing drum riffs, spacy drones and creepy female vocalisations, weave a paranoid and threatening mood.

The pull towards godlike judgement is irresistible, predestined: the killer pulls the trigger in obedience, his existence only gaining meaning through the erasure of what he’s looking at, the despoiling of what seems to live in the world’s heart. The vantage suddenly becomes more dreadfully intimate, bullet hole exploding in the girl’s back, her hollow, water-sucking breaths heard as she sinks into the brine and black blood spasms in blue water. The thrill of power worked at deistic remove crashes headlong into the immediacy of hideous brutality worked upon a hapless body, death rendered a palpable and awful thing to a degree even Siegel’s former protégé Sam Peckinpah had not yet quite countenanced in his spectacles of bloodshed.

The anointed agent of retribution is swift to appear: Siegel cuts immediately to the entrance of his hero, such as he is, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), called onto the rooftops to survey the carnage of this new foe. Clad in grey suit and sunglasses that look like they might deflect such high-velocity bullets, Harry has the quality of a specially bred tracking animal released from his cage the moment his particular talents are required. Schifrin’s jazz-funk theme tags Harry with a jittery but propulsive metre as he ascends into the neighbouring building and collects his foe’s spoor-like leavings: a discarded shell, a pinned note, items left behind specifically by the killer to announce his coming to the powers that be and tease his inevitable pursuer. Siegel’s long-evinced obsession with landscapes of soaring heights and sprawling flats and their connection to the straits of his characters is immediately in play here. The great sprawl of San Francisco is laid out below as the stadium for the oncoming corrida between cop and killer, the gaze of the camera conjoined with the will to countenance such extremes of moral drama.

The killer calls himself Scorpio, and his letter draws a single, totemic groan of “Jesus” as he reads it pinned to an aerial and comprehends that he’s not dealing with just any old nut. Cut to the city mayor (John Vernon) reading out the letter in his office, unable to read out the racial slur Scorpio uses in the letter as he declares “my next pleasure will be to kill a Catholic Priest or a nigger” if he’s not paid a $100,000 ransom. Scorpio’s declared motive is money but he is also, in modern parlance, a troll, one who delights in assaulting social norms and provoking consensus with acts of calculated despoiling, an iconoclast who seems to care less about being caught than about getting to play his game out to the end. Harry, called into a meeting with the Mayor, the Chief of Police (John Larch), and his superintendent Al Bressler (Harry Guardino), senses such motives instinctively and declares a conviction that playing along with Scorpio is asking for trouble. But the Mayor wants him mollified long enough to set up a surveillance net over the city and get the operation to catch him up and running. Harry’s suggestion, that he find a way to meet him, is dismissed out of hand, and his listless attempts to explain basic police work are cut off by Bressler, more experienced in this sort of thing in offering quick, clipped, impressive-sounding measures to mollify the sternly questioning Mayor.

On his way out the door, the Mayor tells Harry that he doesn’t want any more bad headline-making actions “like we had last year in the Fillmore district”, leading to Harry’s serious if wryly pitched retort that “when a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.” A promissory note for Harry’s way of dealing with clear and present danger. And yet in the next scene, when Harry sits down for a lunchtime hotdog at a downtown diner even as he’s noticed the distinct probability a bank robbery is being committed across the street, his first response is to get the cook to call in other cops and “wait for the cavalry to arrive.” But the peal of alarms tells him he has to go to work. He strides out into the street and barks at one of the emerging robbers to halt through a mouth full of chewed hotdog. Rather than desist of course the robber fires at Harry, who brings his signature weapon, a massive Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, to bear and takes out the thieves with a precision that isn’t quite surgical, given their getaway car crashes into fire hydrant and topples a florist stand. Only after the battle is over does Harry glance down and notice the shotgun pellet wounds riddling his leg. Seeing one robber (Albert Popwell) is only wounded and seems to be contemplating grabbing his gun, Harry advances on him and gives a well-polished speech of challenge just about every movie lover know by rote.

Harry Callahan is immediately inscribed as a near-mythical figure, armoured knight or western gunslinger transposed into the contemporary scene, his Magnum his Excalibur capable of extraordinary feats. Or is it less Excalibur and more Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer, the cursed sword of the equally antiheroic Elric, feeding on souls and entrapping its wielder ever more deeply the more he uses it for however righteous ends? What’s particularly interesting about this scene, aside from how it gives the audience true introduction to Harry’s prowess under fire and his ritualistic dominance of his felled opponents, is the way he’s also characterised as a working stiff, trying to avoid being pulled into a gunfight during his lunch, lacking any gung-ho drive to put himself in harm’s way but committing fully once obliged. Treated by a police surgeon Steve (Marc Hertsens) who sets about plucking the shot from his leg, Harry insists on removing his pricey trousers rather than let the doctor cut them off: “For $29.50, let it hurt.” This touch serves a nimble game in the way Harry is characterised, allowing him to be a reasonably well-dressed hero but also one for whom it comes with a hole in his bank balance. There’s also the first hint dropped regarding Harry’s loss of his wife, as Steve unthinkingly tells Harry to get his wife to check his wounds, before remembering and apologising.

Whilst taking over a mythic role in his social function and a movie part designed to transpose the cinematic persona he was carrying over from his roles for Sergio Leone, Eastwood-as-Harry himself stands at a remove from the stony titans of the wastes he played in those films, forced to operate in the real world. Harry soon finds himself presented with an encumbrance to his usual preferred way of working, when he’s assigned a Latino partner newly promoted, Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni). Dirty Harry has long been a loaded film to contemplate despite being a popular classic and a foundational work of modern Hollywood film style. The film didn’t invent the figure of the cop driven by his own peculiar motives to play a rough game by his own rules, which had precursors in movies like Beast of the City (1932) and The Big Heat (1953), and some of Siegel’s own earlier works, whilst of course also anatomising a couple of millennia’s worth of duellist dramas going back The Iliad. But Dirty Harry certainly drew up a fresh blueprint for use in infinite variations over the next few decades in movies and TV shows.

Siegel’s film can count movies as disparate as Death Wish (1974), Assault on Precinct 13, Taxi Driver (both 1976), Lethal Weapon, Robocop (both 1987), Die Hard (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Se7en (1996) amongst its errant and quarrelsome children. Michael Mann’s films owe a vast amount to Siegel’s imprint. Even the concept of Batman and The Joker offered in Batman (1989) and doubled-down on in The Dark Knight (2008) as glowering vigilante versus mocking anarchist owe everything to Harry and Scorpio: Andy Robinson’s clownish leer and crazed laugh already trend very Joker-like. Siegel expected a lashing from liberal critics and viewers and got it at a moment in a time when, amidst the wane of the Counterculture moment which he and Eastwood had parodied on their earlier collaboration Coogan’s Bluff (1968), a reactionary spasm was manifesting. Concerns over street crime and social breakdown and the possible necessity, even desirability of vigilante action were on the boil and questions about police ethics and limitations were being vigorously debated from all corners just as they are today. Dirty Harry is still often caricatured as a fascist-vigilante mission statement. Still, moviegoers embraced the film to such a degree Eastwood was finally, firmly established as a major Hollywood star, and he returned to the title role four times.

Whilst both films owed much to the success of Bullitt (1968), a movie that did for the modern detective what James Bond did for spies in crystallising the idea of a cool cop, Dirty Harry and its slightly more reputable and thus Oscar-garlanded companion The French Connection gave the cop drama a hard, grim, violent gloss and reinstalled it as a vehicle of gritty entertainment in pop culture. The film had immediate real-life roots in the mythos of the conspicuously uncaught Zodiac Killer’s reign of terror over San Francisco in the late 1960s (and like Bullitt drew on real-life detective Dave Toschi as a model), although analogue Scorpio has a rather different modus operandi, and a few other murder cases were drawn on too. The film’s complex development saw the script, initially penned by husband-and-wife screenwriting team Harold and Rita Fink and then given rewrites by a credited Dean Riesner, a very experienced writer for TV westerns (and former child actor), and uncredited young talents Terrence Malick and John Milius. Milius, as well as introducing the totemic sense of gun lore, took Akira Kurosawa’s crime movies like Stray Dog (1949) as a model in defining Harry as an isolated man and doppelganger to the killer he’s chasing, whilst Malick’s take was used as the basis for the first sequel, Magnum Force (1973). A battery of major stars turned down the role, and in the end it was Eastwood who took on the project with his own fledgling production company Malpaso.

Eastwood had since The Good The Bad and The Ugly (1966) been looking for the right vehicle to cement the stardom he gained in Spaghetti Westerns as legitimate in the Hollywood sense, and after a couple of straight Westerns including Siegel’s turn to the Italianate with Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970) and the ill-advised turn to musical comedy in Paint Your Wagon (1969). Dirty Harry finally presented him the ideal chance to graft his squinty, taciturn gunslinger act onto a contemporary scene, and the much-mimicked familiarity of the character’s various catchphrases – “You’ve got to ask yourself one question – ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya punk?”, later giving way to the pithier “Go ahead, make my day,” from Sudden Impact (1983) – depend on the near-symbiotic perception of Eastwood’s presence in the role and the role itself. And yet there’s an offbeat quality to Eastwood performance despite its seeming familiarity. Eastwood never plays Harry as particularly physically dominant or cocksure, often seeming a beat or two out of alignment with the world around him, as if tired and wired all at once. His clenched, oddly undulating drawl conveys hints of ennui and contempt as well as the struggle he has day in and day out keeping his behaviour and reactions on an even keel.

More crucially, Siegel, who began his career as a studio artisan prized for his montage work and had to fight to be given a shot at directing, Siegel, whose feature directing career had nearly ground to a halt in the mid-1960s like many other Old Hollywood talents, confirmed his comeback after auteurist-minded critics had kept candles burning for him with a movie that looked and sounding almost super-modern. Siegel had been wrestling with his ambivalent feelings about justice and policing since his debut feature The Verdict (1946). That film set in play many ideas and images repeated in Dirty Harry, from the opening bell chimes to the soaring vantages and the central figure of a policeman who commits to his own ideal of justice. Siegel returned to the theme later of a cop battling political pressure as well as some of the same imagery in Edge of Eternity (1959). Siegel’s temperamental drift towards film noir and thrillers saw him often offering criminals and ne’er-do-wells as protagonists as often as cops and traditional hero figures.

Siegel’s natural sympathy for outsiders fighting for their lives and identities could be applied to victimised innocents like the luckless humans of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the Native American foundling-turned-avenger of Flaming Star (1960), and the doomed proto-beatnik soldier of Hell Is For Heroes (1962), through to brutal and destructive and but existentially beleaguered criminals as in films like Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Private Hell 36 (1954), Baby Face Nelson (1957), The Lineup (1958), and The Killers (1964). Siegel’s immediate acolytes included Eastwood, Peckinpah, and Ida Lupino who co-wrote and starred in Private Hell 36, and just about everyone to take on a modern cop and urban action movie lies under his influence. Dirty Harry allowed Siegel to set up these two essential types of character in direct warfare and played at extremes, Scorpio’s truly anarchic spirit and Harry’s increasingly maniacal response operating as schismatic halves of the same personality, Siegel’s own. Siegel had displayed with Two Mules For Sister Sara readiness to draw on the Italian Western template, and Dirty Harry, like the same year’s Klute, suggests the influence of Italian giallo film also creeping into Hollywood, Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) in particular, what with Siegel’s emphasis on voyeurisitic points of view matched to Schifrin’s score which betrays evident similarities to Ennio Morricone’s for Argento with the eerie female vocals and outbreaks of dissonant jazz.

At the same time, Siegel’s own stylistics were cutting-edge for the time, working with his great cinematographer Bruce Surtees in utilising inventive and sweeping use of wide-angle lenses to distort space and invert relationships, particularly evident in the opening shots of Scorpio and his vantage, the use of much handheld camerawork, and allowing the usually hard-edged texture of Hollywood cinematography to dissolve into semi-abstraction in the use of ambient light and long zoom and telephoto lens shots. As he had already done in The Lineup, Siegel uses the very geography of San Francisco and its spaghetti sprawl of new highway passes and ramps to present the idea of landscape as a trap as well as a mimeograph for the psychic and moral exigencies of the battle. This is particularly crucial in the climax, where Harry exploits certain knowledge about how to ambush Scorpio, but also propels much of the narrative, including the long central sequence where Scorpio forces Harry to run all over town in his attempt to pay the ransom, in order to make sure he’s not being followed – not counting on Harry and Chico being cleverer in arranging for a radio link – and informs the more sociological dimension of the story. Harry and Chico’s nocturnal excursions become epic journeys through the intestines of a modern American city, encountering lovers, hookers, muggers, gays, and would-be suicides, small fry at swim amidst neon blooming like ocean coral all looking for their own personal oblivion, behaving in ways that would have been kept hidden away just a decade before. Only cops like Harry and Chico have to engage with such a world in a spirit of obligation.

The Mayor’s hope of buying “breathing space” by answering his demand for money with a personal column missive pleading “be patient” proves exactly the wrong move as the smirking Scorpio is seen properly for the first time, tearing up the newspaper page and unpacking his rifle for another killing, this time taking aim at a gay couple having a date in a park. Luckily one of the patrolling helicopters spots him before he can shoot, forcing him to flee. Harry and Chico, patrolling in their car, cruise the district as the sun goes down and Chico spots a man carrying a suitcase the same colour as what Scorpio was carrying: investigating Harry finds it’s not their man and gets beaten up by some neighbourhood brawlers who take him for a peeping tom: Chico intervenes but Harry insists on letting them go, taking it as an occupational hazard. Called in to intervene as a man (Bill Couch) threatens to leap from his death from a rooftop, Harry lifted on a fire hoist and instead of playing placatory with the man provoking him into lashing out so Harry can knock him and bring him back to the ground.

These vignettes flesh out both Harry’s approach to policing and the society around him, trying to portray policing as an unceasing stream of crises unnoticed when they’re resolved but all too loudly wailed about when they don’t, in a world filled with people caught in their own little algorithms of perverse behaviour. Harry’s bemused response to them. “These loonies, they oughta throw a net over the whole bunch of ‘em,” he quips to Chico. But he knows he’s just another one: being attacked as a peeping tom prefigures the later stakeout scene, where Harry finds himself fascinated by the human scenes, Rear Window-like (1954), he spies through windows. Scenes glimpsed include a wife chewing out her husband and a hooker stripping down to her birthday suit and meeting a swinger couple, obliging Harry to comment, “You owe it to yourself to live a little, Harry.” Harry’s isolation, signalled early on in his conversation with Steve, stems from the death of his wife in an accident caused by a drunk driver, a tragic turn Harry later explains with a note of intense world-weariness to Chico’s wife Norma (Lynn Edgington). Earlier in the film, Harry and his long-time colleague and pal Frank De Georgio (John Mitchum), as De Georgio responds to Chico’s question on why they call him ‘Dirty’ Harry by noting that Harry “hates everybody”, listing ethnic epithets for everyone, with Harry rounding out the rollcall with “especially spicks.”

Eastwood might well have been remembering this scene for his own Gran Torino (2008) decades later, with its meditations on how working class culture revolves around the giving and taking of insults as a sort of totem of authenticity and ironic fellowship. In context it serves more as a sort of sarcastic piece of trolling in its own right, mocking expectations of Harry’s (and by implications cops in general) as racist and reactionary assholes, whilst also sketching Harry’s outsider quality: his misanthropy is shtick but his real attitude to society is nebulous even to himself. The guy who “hates everybody” is also the guy who defends everybody on the social ramparts, and the mediating figure who ushers people representing outsider groups – Chico in this film, a female partner in The Enforcer (1976) – into his zone and ethos, and the ultimate fates of such figures underline Harry’s sense of his fate to remain alone. Harry’s relations with the Chief and Brenner, played by the marvellously hangdog Guardino, have their own conversant climate, neither man forced to play the hard-ass boss cliché with him, but rather portrayed as men who have experienced the same moral and psychic exhaustion as Harry but retained something he doesn’t have, for better and worse. “It’s disgusting that a police officer should know how yo use a weapon like that,” Brenner notes queasily as he watches Harry scotch tape a switchblade knife to his leg in case of a close encounter, but it’s a disgusting world.

In the morning after their night-time patrol Harry and Chico are called to the sight of what quickly proves to be another successful Scorpio killing, leaving a black teenager gruesomely killed. On the theory that Scorpio will return to the same building he was spotted on earlier, Harry and Chico set up an armed stakeout to ambush him, resulting in a shootout: Scorpio again manages to flee and kills a cop dashing to intervene. Siegel’s carbolic sense of humour manifests as the two men set up their station under a huge rotating sign spelling out “Jesus Saves” in big neon letters, whilst Scorpio himself is offered a juicy target in the form of a Catholic priest who, as Harry tells Chico, volunteered to be bait. The eruption of violence here, as Scorpio proves armed not with his precise and artful rifle but a machine gun, turns the gunfight into an episode of urban warfare. Scorpio’s next ploy is to kidnap a teenage girl, Ann Mary Deacon, and double his ransom demand for her life, claiming to have buried her alive with a depleting oxygen supply. He rings Harry from public payphones and forces him to crisscross the city becomes an agonising comedy of encounters that underline his journey through the city as an exploration of the night.

Harry is forced to fend off some muggers who attack him a dark tunnel by brandishing his ferocious firearm, is momentarily plunged into despair after some random old codger answers one of Scorpio’s calls before he can get to the phone and Scorpio hangs up, and contends with a young gay man (David Gilliam) he encounters in Mount Davidson Park who mistakenly thinks he’s cruising, a vignette that highlights Harry’s barbed sensibility as essentially acquiescent to such wings of human peculiarity (“If you’re Vice, I’ll kill myself.” “Well, do it at home.”). The park has a colossal, looming crucifix as a monument at its heart, where Harry is ordered to meet Scorpio at last: Scorpio has an appropriately vivid sense of moral irony in forcing Harry to seek out such a symbol as the moral crux of the world only to turn it into an arena of cruelty as Scorpio makes Harry toss aside his gun (“My,” Scorpio drawls, instantly making Freudian links, “That’s a big one.”) before beating him to a pulp whilst announcing he’s going to let the kidnapped girl die, and is only kept from executing Harry by Chico’s timely arrival. Chico is shot in the ensuing battle but Harry manages to stab Scorpio with the secreted switchblade, sending the killer scurrying off with a severe injury and without his ransom money.

The ferocity of this movement strays close to the surreal, with Siegel building to matching low and high angles, from high above on the cross as Scorpio closes in on Harry from behind, and a point-of-view shot from Harry himself looking up the cross’s height; all lit with an edge of garish brightness that transforms a public monument into a manifestation of mockingly unattainable divine grace. The steady whisper-scream build of tension reaching its peak as Siegel briefly cuts away to the near-forgotten Chico dashing to the rescue and the jagged, pain-inducing cut from Harry plunging the knife into Scorpio to the killer’s shrieking mouth yawing in the circle of his balaclava’s mouth hole. Despite the seemingly vast disparity in setting and story, there’s certainly anticipation in all this of Siegel’s deeper drop into the dreamlike and the fetidly neurotic in his previous film and perverse companion piece, The Beguiled. The visual intensity and edge of the surreal returns when Harry, now working with De Georgio, tracks Scorpio to Kezar Stadium because a clinic doctor who stitched up his leg recognised him: as Harry chases the assassin De Georgio turns on the lights that arrest Scorpio midfield, brilliant lights freezing the fugitive mid-field and reversing his and Harry’s role as Harry guns him down and starts jamming his shoe into his wound to extract the location of the kidnapped girl.

This scene is of course endlessly disturbing and frightening but also perhaps the height of Siegel’s career, the queasy close-ups of Harry’s obsessive fury and Scorpio’s pathetic attempts to ward him off, all the more enraging to the cop as the killer keeps on trying to maintain the game of obfuscation and deflection in demanding a lawyer and declaring his rights, giving way to an awesome aerial shot as Siegel’s camera, as if retreating in horror and also with a certain discretion, flies back and up into the night, leaving cop and killer stranded in hell on earth in a moment of gruelling squalor and pain whilst the arena of light about them dissolves into darkness. The raw sturm-und-drang of this vision gives way to its sorry immediate aftermath. Having extracted the girl’s location, Harry watches as her naked, bedraggled corpse is dragged out of a pit in a park overlooking Golden Gate Bridge, Harry silhouetted against the sickly dawn light and looking across the bridge in utter solitude, failed in his mission and debased as a man even if he still thinks he’s done the right thing. It’s one of the saddest and most poetic shots in cinema, with Schifrin’s eerie scoring fitting the imagery perfectly.

Harry’s mission to catch Scorpio is defined by the desperate attempt to define that sliver of difference between him and the killer: he might do terrible things but at least has a force majeure motive to claim. Harry works for a society and a motive he believes in but feels increasingly frustrated by its niceties; Scorpio wages war on the same society and uses those niceties against it with calculated will. The film’s sequels set out to shade and moderate some of Harry’s characteristics and build on his more positive and complex ones. Magnum Force set Harry in deadly conflict with a gang of genuine, organised vigilante cops. The Enforcer had him forging respect and amity with his new female partner and finding unusual common ground with a black revolutionary. Sudden Impact saw him romancing a woman engaged in a vendetta wiping out the men who raped her. The Dead Pool (1987), a goofy and very ‘80s retread, sported a vignette where he tried to find a non-violent and non-indulgent solution to a hooligan trying to play to television cameras. Such variations on a theme were worked whilst maintaining Harry’s badass quotient, and they helped make the Dirty Harry series oddly engaging on a human level although they never risked going as far as French Connection II (1974) in deconstructing their prickly cop lead, and the price paid for such shading was Harry changed from a proper antihero into something more safe and familiar. Unforgiven, the film often interpreted as Eastwood’s mea culpa for his violent movie past, really actually exists on a continuum of provocation and questioning in his career leading back to Dirty Harry.

Harry’s subsequent, bruising encounters with legal authority, represented by District Attorney Rothko (Josef Sommer), sees the detective gobsmacked by the DA’s harsh upbraiding and refusal to prosecute the case against Scorpio because Harry’s actions have tainted the evidence. This scene is the crux of the film in one regard as an angry portrait of legal bullshit getting in the road of putting away an obvious malefactor, and its most facetious, for a cop of Harry’s experience would certainly not be so surprised at Rothko’s points. That said, it’s not so bluntly one-eyed as it’s often painted, as both sides are at least allowed to sound with duelling notes of righteous anger: “What about Ann Mary Deacon, what about her?” Harry questions at maximum growl-slur, “Who speaks for her?” “The District Attorney’s office, if you’ll let us,” Rothko retorts. Of course, the film weights the apparent morality in its hero’s favour because the audience understands what a monster Scorpio is and is obliged to agree with Harry’s verdicts. But this identification is double-edged, as Harry does some despicable and dangerous things that go far beyond the pale but also implicate the viewer: if you were in the same situation and felt the same level of personal and professional responsibility, Siegel ultimately states, you’d act the same way.

Perhaps, for Siegel, it’s a quality lying at the innermost core of being human, the eternal tension between animalistic will and evolved conscience, and beneath the deep underlying root where the two fuse into a base instinct for violence that can provoke and be provoked, a problem the very concept of justice attempts to reconcile. Scorpio uses crime to make himself godlike, and forces Harry in turn to embrace the brutish. Harry’s battles with authority are his inner battles with his own superego, the side of him that knows well what’s right and proper but can’t avoid playing the game by Scorpio’s rules, even as the gamester villain changes the rules when it suits him. Meanwhile Harry, happy to have Chico carry on as his partner once he recovers from his wounds, instead has to deal with Chico’s admission that he intends to leave the force, a decision Harry tells Norma is the right one for them as the two have a moment of quiet reflection on their mutual torments, Harry telling the story of his wife’s death and Norma meditating bitterly on the stream of abuse turned on her husband for being a cop, and asking Harry why he puts up with it, his only comment is “I don’t know. I really don’t.”

The portion of Dirty Harry after Scorpio’s release relieves much of the film’s fixated tension and narrative flow, with Harry reduced to following Scorpio around town, even as the tension resets on a slow burn and the air of malignancy gains new substance. Scorpio thinks up a ploy to fend him off, and plan he takes to the extreme of hiring a Black tough guy (Raymond Johnson) to beat him to a bloody pulp so he can then claim Harry did it and make appeal to the protest crowd. Scorpio provokes the heavy with a racial insult to ensure the beating is particularly convincing, and gets more than he asked for, in a scene laced with grotesque undercurrents, including what seems Scorpio’s perverse delight in in ugly provocations and suffering. Scorpio is a peculiar villain in his lack of any specific identity, presented as a Charles Manson-esque figure in seeming like a renegade from the eternal underclass of human flotsam who has evolved his own crazed philosophy that seems to fit the cynical times. Like Manson, despite his hippie-ish affectations, he’s actually a virulent reactionary, racist, homophobic, and greedy, trying constantly to convert his willingness to give and receive violence into multiple forms of profit, with humiliating policemen like Harry (“Don’t you pass out of me yet, you rotten oinker!”) just as much money in the bank as any ransom cash.

The beating at least gets the result he was hoping for: after telling journalists Harry assaulted him, the cop is forcibly ordered by the Chief to stay well away from Scorpio although there isn’t enough evidence to discipline him, which Harry warns him is exactly what Scorpio wants. Harry is of course right, as Scorpio cleverly attains a gun by assaulting a liquor store owner known for defending his store with his pistol, and uses this to hijack a school bus full of kids on their way home along with their terrified driver (Ruth Kobart), and renews his ransom demand. The film’s maniacal edge resurges as Scorpio forces the trapped children to sing schoolyard songs with increasingly crazed and abusive fervour. Meanwhile Harry finally refuses to be involved in yet another attempt to buy the killer off when the Mayor offers him the task. This time instead, knowing Scorpio is heading for the airport, Harry waits on a railway bridge over the road and leaps upon the roof of the bus as it passes underneath.

Siegel builds to Scorpio’s first glimpse of Harry on the bridge, coming right after Scorpio has freaked out all the kids as the embodiment of a childhood nightmare, as an iconic moment of imminent comeuppance to be delivered by a resurgent and purposeful hero, echoing back to the first sighting of John Wayne in Stagecoach: however tarnished, Harry is finally restored as the heir to the gunslinger tradition, and a few shots later Siegel has Harry walk out of a cloud of swirling dust in reference this time to Eastwood’s famous appearance at the final duel in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Siegel is giving a miniature genre film lesson here as well drawing parallels. The subsequent battle is very restrained by modern action movie standards, as Harry tries to keep his purchase despite speed and Scorpio’s bullets, before he is hurled from the bus roof as the vehicle swerves and crashes to a halt before a rock quarry. Scorpio and Harry have a running gunfight around the quarry, a setting that again underlines the neo-Western feel whilst also encompassing Siegel’s penchant for industrial settings a la Edge of Eternity, before Scorpio snatches up a young boy fishing to use as a human shield.

This time, of course, Harry isn’t to be turned, knowing his foe’s tricks too well, seeming to drop his weapon only to lift it again and knock Scorpio on his ass with a well-aimed shot to the shoulder. That still isn’t the end, as Harry delivers the same challenge to test luck to Scorpio – “Did he fire six shots or only five?” – and Scorpio, being who he is, takes his chance. Which proves his last mistake. Harry’s concluding act of throwing away his Inspector’s star badge is still an ambiguous gesture, one probably inspired by Gary Cooper’s Will Kane doing the same at the end of High Noon (1952). Eastwood was afraid doing it here meant the audience would think Harry was quitting the police force, whilst Siegel argued it was simply a gesture meaning he was throwing away bureaucratic limitations, and Pauline Kael took that further to mean he was becoming a vigilante. Personally, I’ve always found it rhymes with the gesture in High Noon, where Kane, whilst still a dedicated believer in justice, signalled nonetheless in the brusquest manner possible he would no longer be the patsy of a community that did not support him. Harry’s gesture similarly signals the same meaning, only aimed at his superiors.

What is certain about this last shot, zooming out to an on-high remove again as the paltry plop of the star hitting the water is heard and Harry turns and heads back towards the bus with a stiff, grave march, with Schifrin’s gently mournful music on sound, is that the victory brings no particularly great satisfaction because many have died, even if the necessary act of shooting the mad dog is done. The great and perpetual problem is that however much we fantasise at being the upright avenger, the hero on the range, the duellist in the dust, such a solution only ever comes too late, after the crime. And Dirty Harry, whilst delivering on that primal and eternal duel, is ultimately most memorable because it keeps that sorry truth in mind.

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2020s

Confessions of a Film Freak 2020

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By Roderick Heath

Well. That was interesting.

This year those of us lucky to survive spent much time hunkered down in physical and psychological siege. For me, as for just about everyone else, the COVID-19 pandemic had a direct impact on how I watched the movies of this year. Mostly by curtailing my watching them at all. Movie theatres closed down and then reopened without major films to fill screens. The sudden, colossal public demand for internet bandwidth made streaming somewhat difficult for me through much of the year. So my best alternative for viewing new movies was, ironically, the DVD vending machine in my local supermarket. This year, perhaps for good, some barriers between cinema and TV collapsed, but the only thing that’s definitely true for now is that things are in a state of flux. The vigorous mix of trends and styles we usually get in the course of any given movie year was choked off, precious few expansive entertainments and movies of mature and well-honed expression making it under the boom, leaving us mostly with a mealy stream of dumped studio refuse, dour low- and mid-budget dramas, and callow indie movies. For a time I lost interest almost entirely. I wasn’t entirely unhappy with this, as I had an excuse to get off the treadmill of currency and dig into my DVD and blu-ray collection for an epic rewatch of classics and newer movies I hadn’t seen since first release. Good for my head, not so good for this annual Confession.

But my viewings still piled up, and so too did the number of interesting movies and quite a few films that would be great in any year. Given how relatively few of these I’ve written up in the course of the year I’ll be writing more on the films on my favourites list than usual.

Unhinged

2020 felt like debts accrued these past few years coming due, societies at large paying the price for the blindness and incompetence of chosen leaders. So it’s appropriate, if not at all consoling, that a lot of the films that came out this year tended to be grim, savage, punitive in outlook. Many dealt with sexism and racism on manifold levels, along with monstrous greed and malfeasance. Horror movies proliferated and often purveyed a bleak and nightmarish tone. Sadomasochistic psychedelia and surrealism bloomed in films like Possessor, She Dies Tomorrow, Capone, Color Out Of Space, The New Mutants, Tenet, and Shirley. Psychos like the loony avenger in Unhinged, the transparent husband of The Invisible Man, the unseen boss in The Assistant, and the plutocrat husband from hell in Tenet made lives hell for women who offended their egos. People fought for space to release expression and gain fellowship in movies like Night of the Kings, Birds of Prey, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga; A Rainy Day In New York, Mank, Lovers Rock, First Cow, The New Mutants, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Emma, Sonic the Hedgehog, On The Rocks, and Mulan. Others battled to simply claw their way out of deadly abysses and provide proof of their own existence, as in Underwater, Above Suspicion, Capone, Extraction, The Midnight Sky, Greyhound, Rogue, The Outpost, 12 Hour Shift, The Rhythm Section, Ava, Kajillionaire, Escape From Pretoria, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Bacurau, Palm Springs, Ammonite, I’m Your Woman, and VFW.

Greyhound

The time-slipping warriors of Tenet went to war with the future, with fate, itself. The young folk of The Vast of Night discovered how flimsy the substance of their stolid reality was and slipped through the cracks into realms unknown. Others faced the collapse of their personalities in the face of stronger ones or vortexes of confusion caused by destabilising reference points of body and mind, like the brainjacking antiheroine of Possessor, the constantly rebooted hero forced to re-experience his deepest trauma in Bloodshot, and the innocent abroad perverted out of shape in Shirley. Delroy Lindo’s shambolic ‘Nam vet in Da 5 Bloods seemed like the incarnation of the moment in his fervent, volatile, desperate need to express something chokingly inexpressible whilst feeling like spear-points levelled all around. Characters faced with endemic, even universal corruption and inequity in films like Da 5 Bloods, The Whistlers, Bad Hair, 12 Hour Shift, The Burnt Orange Heresy, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Wild Goose Lake reacted by endangering themselves and their identities for what they judged the worthwhile risk of slicing off a piece of the pie; antiheroes in the likes of Capone and Greed felt the same urge even in the lap of luxury as age and the world’s repudiation starts whittling them down. Tyrannical regimes ascended and demanded resistance and familiar systems crumbled into anarchy in films like Bacurau, New Order, Night of the Kings, Escape From Pretoria, and Tenet.

The Rhythm Section

In further irony the wing of cinema most usually ubiquitous was the one almost entirely muted for most of the year: Hollywood superhero blockbusters. One of the few to see release was Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, which proved a last gasp for the familiar X-Men franchise even though intended as a new beginning, doomed to sit on the shelf for a couple of years amidst the tumult of 20th Century Fox’s purchase by Disney and then be dumped by its new owner to drum up some streaming revenue with a sigh of expedience. The film took a refreshingly indirect path towards the familiar mutant spectacle in portraying a quintet of adolescents being held in a near-deserted and fancifully segregated gothic hospital, contending with Alice Braga’s manipulative therapist and the mysterious and frightening talents for conjuring terrors the latest inductee seems to wield. The film courted the YA crowd in hiring The Fault In Our Stars director Boone, who made sure to keep including clips from Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the rec room TV to let us know what his touchstone was, as well as nudging everything from The Breakfast Club to Girl, Interrupted. The film was largely trashed by both genre fans and critics, but it didn’t really deserve to be, sporting a lot of overlap with M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass but not nearly so affected. A solidly creepy, horror movie-lite tone was wedded to a straightforward take on the series’ driving urge to link teenage angst to superhuman traits with some decent performances, and sporting a refreshingly gentle queer romance at its centre.

Bloodshot

Derrick Borte’s Unhinged offered a merging of Duel and TV movie psycho stalker tale, as Caren Pisotorius’ listless divorcee was forced to fight for her life and the people she loves when she crosses paths in a heated moment on the road with Russell Crowe’s psychotic creep, who sets about avenging a minor infraction with a campaign of terrorism and murder. The result was a fun, tense throwback to an earlier age of down-to-earth, pulse-pumping thriller fare, but its ultimate impact was foiled by constant resorting to idiot logic as well as oddly wasting Crowe in a straightforward monster role, when the film could have tapped him for a stranger and more discomforting portrait of frustration and rage. David S.F. Wilson’s Bloodshot was a slick modern B-movie with a plotline that came across like a bit of a throwback to the days of weird grow-your-own-superhero flicks like Darkman, sporting Vin Diesel as a man brought back from the dead and imbued with incredible powers by nanotechnology and employed as a super assassin by the inevitably cast Guy Pearce. A good mid-film plot twist and some peculiarly lyrical visuals made the watching vaguely worthwhile, although the script was ultimately far too unambitious, and a strong cast, rounded out by Eiza Gonzalez and Sam Heughen, went almost sadistically wasted.

The Invisible Man

Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man picked at an interesting loose thread in blending the Wellsian concept of a scientific genius who makes himself invisible and uses it to evil ends, and the everyday psychological anxiety of spousal abuse and mental cruelty, the idea of the malevolent person close to you deconstructing your sense of reality. So Whannel’s inventor was also an abusive creep bent on using his invisibility device to torment and ultimately destroy his former partner, played by an inevitably cast Elisabeth Moss, in a slow-mounting campaign of harassment and victimisation. An interesting idea, one that ultimately wasn’t really developed much beyond the obvious, with Whannell just a little too eager to conflate his own showmanship with his villain’s. He relieved the psychological tension too soon, his story played out in an unconvincing milieu, and his plot kept offering huge holes in logic for a movie trying to offer relatively believable sci-fi excitement, particularly the superficially clever ending.

Possessor

David Cronenberg’s son Brandon made a bold gambit to anoint himself heir to his father’s unique cinematic kingdom with Possessor, exploring similar realms of body horror, conspiracy, and psychic disruption. Cronenberg the Younger cast the ever-valiant Andrea Riseborough as a fraying woman with unique aptitude for the latest realm in corporate warfare, having her consciousness plugged into the minds of luckless people chosen to commit assassinations, only to find herself trapped inside her latest mark and experiencing bizarre new zones of identity on the way to a bloody consummation. Cronenberg employed a fascinating premise and occasionally lighted upon a striking image in offering a surreal flux of style and story in portraying any sure sense of physical and mental reality dissolving. But as the film droned on it became a dull and oppressive chore punctuated by blunt, witless gore, the ideas lost amongst the overbearing style, and by the end the young pretender seemed practically interchangeable with any number of his father’s legions of imitators in film schools and music videos.

Bad Hair

Dear White People director Justin Simien seemed to develop good-humoured ambitions to get in on some of that sweet Jordan Peele money by making his own horror movie revolving around racial paranoia with Bad Hair. Set in 1989, Simien’s film portrayed a young woman, well-played by newcomer Elle Lorraine, beset by unruly hair, who chooses to get a radical new weave for the sake of making the leap from the production staff at a Black audience-aimed cable TV staff to on-camera star, only to find her lovely fake tresses have a vampiric life of her their own and will take over her mind entirely if she doesn’t fight it. With an eye to introducing an aspect of cultural anthropology rather than only nostalgic callbacks (but those too), Simien offered wittily exact recreations of the era’s music videos and would-be streetwise pop culture. Likewise he nailed the tone of a lot of low-budget horror cinema from the same era whilst giving the template a racially conscious makeover, and managed to make the most awkward of monstrous threats work. He also made great use of a cast full of old-school faces including Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood. Only towards the end did the film lose some control, letting the climax turn goofy and trying a little too hard to ram a message home.

Da 5 Bloods

Meanwhile Spike Lee, the now-venerable yet ever-restless dean of African-American cinema, returned with Da 5 Bloods, one of many films of late to offer homage-cum-variation on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This one focused on four aging survivors of a tight-knit gang of Black Vietnam War soldiers who return to the former warzone to retrieve a stolen horde of gold and the body of a lamented comrade, but find themselves fighting thieves and each-other with equal ferocity for the prize. Lee still hadn’t lost any of his ambition, trying to blend rich humanity, in depicting his shambolic heroes and the hapless people they draw into their madness, with fluorescent melodrama and agitprop signposting. Lee’s script, despite many nods to other movies (the Apocalypse Now-themed dance club in modern Ho Chi Minh City was some kind of evil genius), was another work along the lines of Get On The Bus (1996) and He Got Game (1999), in presenting a situational portrait of a gamut of Black experience and dealing with generational as well as racial and national incomprehension. Delroy Lindo, as the most reactionary and damaged of the team, gave a near-Olympian performance, and the late Chadwick Boseman had a salutary cameo as the fallen comrade who served as the team’s political conscience, feeling between the two of them like the psychic poles of Lee’s aesthetic sensibility. The film was ultimately hampered by Lee’s familiar failings in not knowing when and how to quit nor nail a cohesive tone (I counted down to the moment when a character would “shockingly” step on a landmine), eventually taking recourse in tired twists and an ungainly last act. To be honest, nothing in it threatened to displace Dead Presidents in portraying the Black Vietnam experience.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

August Wilson’s lauded play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was brought to screens by Tony-winning stage director George C. Wolfe, handing career-capping parts to Viola Davis as the legendary chanteuse and “mother of the blues” and Chadwick Boseman in his last role as her aggressively ambitious but psychologically fraying trumpeter who finds his sustaining fantasies fatally endangered, in a story charting a mounting sense of crisis in the course of a hot Chicago day in a recording studio. Wilson’s theatrical architecture and lacerating perspective on the two main characters’ attempts to gain, wield, and show power in a culture that ritualises denying it to you according were largely transferred intact and made voluble by the potent, if unabashedly large, performances from the whole cast. Wolfe’s direction was slick and showy, however, with an overly-stylised recreation of the period milieu that lacked the crackle of verisimilitude to properly offset the balletic force of the dialogue, to really communicate the mounting furore and fetid mood and give a space to the telling: everything, including the actors, felt buffed and shiny and well-arranged. Some moments, like the start of Boseman’s epic central monologue, seemed more like filmed theatre than film. Still, no movie that records such vital drama is negligible.

The King of Staten Island

Judd Apatow tried to do for Saturday Night Live player Pete Davidson what he did for a battery of rising comedy stars back in his ‘00s heyday, and forge him an iconic star vehicle with The King of Staten Island. This took the interesting route of presenting Davidson not in some hyped-up farce but in an autobiographical comedy-drama drawn from his own experience as the son of a firefighter who died on the job: Davidson’s shambolic alter ego Scott Carlin had struggled well into adulthood with mental health problems and a general habit of weed-huffing ennui. Apatow drew low-key humour and feels from the character’s plight as he’s forced to come to terms with the past and head into the world after his mother finally gets another boyfriend, also a firefighter. The film finished up foiling itself on several levels despite Apatow’s talent for enabling vibrant acting. The cliché story arc felt at odds with its attempt to explore the fallout of grief and dislocation whilst the everyone-talks-like-an-improv-star style of verbal humour leeched the realism. Apatow ruined the story’s argument that Scott had worthy talent for some cheap laughs, and Apatow’s tendency to ramble on was particularly pronounced to no greatly enriching end. Supporting performances, including Marisa Tomei as Davidson’s mother and Bill Burr as her new love, tended to overshadow Davidson’s modestly appealing but one-note characterisation.

Palm Springs

Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs took up Harold Ramis’ beloved Groundhog Day and gave it a contemporary spin, that is by grafting on a very lead character type to The King of Staten Island, casting Andy Samberg as a young man caught in a time loop that dooms him to repeat the same day in the title locale, thanks to a freaky geological-quantum physical event and so exists in a state of wilful, lackadaisical disconnection, only to be eventually joined by an angry coot (J.K. Simmons) and a young woman (Cristin Milioti). The former constantly kills him whilst he finds himself falling for the latter, demanding a true reckoning with their situation that involves both achieving a level of maturity and purpose alien to them so far. Barbakow tried to augment the core theme of Ramis’ film, the futility of life lived without love, by confronting the hero with his female foil and making them reckon with their failings in terms of other people. But ultimately the film tried and failed to blend absurdist humour and earnestness, without many great jokes, and failing to really develop their journey into anything particularly memorable, aiming for a note of emotional crescendo in the final confrontation with mortal risk but ultimately remaining jammed in a gear of hipster self-satisfaction.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Andrew Pattinson’s The Vast of Night was subtler and more truly disconcerting in presenting a destabilisation of reality that also encompassed a fledgling romantic relationship faced with the difficulty of escaping the stolid, whilst also harkening back to the glory days of science fiction fandom and a newly weird evocation of 1950s American society. Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog tried to wrangle a coherent plot out of the beloved vintage video game, presenting the title character as an interdimensional exile hunted by government agents led by the arrogant Dr Robotnik and protected by a small town cop. The movie was tolerable but also as numbingly bland and ambition-free as last year’s Pokemon movie. It did have a fun performance from Jim Carrey as Robotnik, particularly the extraneous yet delightful scene where he combined bad guy business and workout by dancing to “Evil Grows In the Dark,” the kind of moment that reminds how you how much a real comic actor can be worth amidst a sea of boring CGI.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

I hadn’t seen any work by Giuseppe Capotondi since his interesting The Double Hour back in 2011, so was intrigued to take a look at his The Burnt Orange Heresy, an adaptation of a well-received novel depicting a disgraced art critic and historian, who, just after commencing an affair with an enigmatic young woman, is handed a chance to revive his career when a tycoon (played by a wittily-cast Mick Jagger) offers to get him an interview with a reclusive and legendary artist if he’ll steal one of his unseen trove of artworks for his collection. What seemed set to be a posh thriller about skulduggery in well-decorated rooms proved eventually to instead be a rather noirish study in self-destructive characters and creative and moral bankruptcy. A clever subtext ironically dramatized the often inverted stereotype role of host and parasite in art and criticism, as well as the misogyny subsisting in the modern art world. The acting, particularly from Elizabeth Debicki as a doomed adventurer and Donald Sutherland as the artist with all his hard-won wisdom, helped impose cohesion on a plot that required to some forced-feeling twists to occur.

Above Suspicion

Similar in its ultimate focus and upshot, despite a radically different setting, was Philip Noyce’s true crime drama Above Suspicion, focusing on a notorious incident from the late 1980s involving the fallout of a clandestine affair between a go-getting FBI agent assigned to an Appalachian backwater and drift into an affair with the much-abused young woman who becomes his key informant in her desire to escape a den of lowlifes and drug abuse. Emilia Clarke’s surprisingly strong turn as the angry, wilful, infuriating antiheroine, seemingly cursed to a daisy-chain existence of succumbing to her own flaws as well as the weakness of the men in her life, gave the film enough juice to keep it watchable. But Noyce’s direction eventually lost its way, and delivered what should have been a grimly compelling last-act study in personal and institutional hypocrisy in a rushed and slipshod manner. Yi’nan Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake was another, specifically localised spin on genre movie clichés and with a similar structure in confronting a young woman repeatedly with the bloody debris of crime and justice, taking on a classic style of noir tale, the man being hunted by authorities, and using it to anatomise the social landscape of modern China.

Mulan

Amongst the deluge of girl-power narratives this year, Niki Caro’s live-action remake for Disney of their 1990s hit Mulan again recounted the popular Chinese myth of a young woman who defies norms and dresses as a man to go to war for the sake of the family name. This finished up one of the more perplexing if not worthless misfires of the year. Caro’s filming looked good in a chintzy fashion, but the flimsy script swapped out the original film’s celebration of its heroine’s cleverness and competence for a cod-Star Wars narrative depicting the title character as a wondrous phenomenon who needs to reclaim her femininity to achieve her potential, but playing awkward games in trying to reconcile the model’s celebration of eruptive individualism with respectful traditionalism for the sake of making inroads with the Chinese market. Humour and music were discarded, too, in favour of a string of expensive but half-hearted action scenes. Given the large number of authentic wu xia films with kick-ass female heroes and villains going back decades in films made with much more elan, Hollywood trying to sell its own confusion with such things back to the Chinese was definitely trying to teach grandma to suck eggs.

Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Another tale of a young woman weathering a world of criminals was Julia Hart’s slow-burn and realistic I’m Your Woman. Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn took a different tack, wielding a waggish sense of humour in presenting a gang of crime-fighting female frenemies as drawn from the DC Comics universe, led after a fashion by Margot Robbie’s semi-reformed gangster’s moll and general-purpose nutjob, in a would-be jaunty and colourful distaff edition of the Deadpool and Kick-Ass movies. Yan displayed an occasionally striking eye in sporadic neo-psychedelic visuals, but the film proved a teeth-gritting experience for the most part, incompetent in trying to reconcile the divergent projects of providing a Robbie star vehicle whilst also introducing the titular team, totally failing to unite them with any sense of chemistry. They didn’t even meet up until the movie was all but over, with a script that felt like a mishmash of strategies. Plus the fact that, well, its comedy wasn’t really that funny and the action sporadic and lumpen, a nasty and bullying streak failing to mesh with the frivolity. Only newcomer Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead gave flashes of the right stuff, whilst Ewan McGregor gave the worst performance of his career as the bad guy.

Ava

Reed Morano’s The Rhythm Section and Tate Taylor’s Ava both offered stories revolving around that much-fetishised modern archetype, the female assassin, the former charting the steady transformation of Blake Lively’s debased trauma victim into a cool and purposeful killer, the latter casting Jessica Chastain as one in the prime of her career but feeling the constant tug of old weaknesses and emotional ties. Of the two films The Rhythm Section was initially the more interesting, with Morano suggesting a feel for action and atmosphere as well as a patient touch for the essential character drama, the process of rebuilding a shattered self in dealing with an intriguingly (if ultimately excessively) closed-off and unsentimental protagonist: a lot of movies this year mistook blank unreadableness for stoic strength. The film eventually fell apart, the story trickling out in some terribly anticlimactic scenes. The reliably awful Taylor meanwhile applied clumsy, cheap-looking style to Ava, and Chastain, strong as ever on an acting level, never quite convinced as a balletic creature of lethal motion. The script tried to say something interesting about addiction and reckoning with damage left in its wake, at least, almost to the point of displacing the flimsy genre story, and the cast, particularly Colin Farrell as the villain, made it all feel more substantial than it really was.

Escape From Pretoria

Francis Anann’s Escape From Pretoria offered up a good old-fashioned, based-on-fact escape-from-prison tale, depicting the efforts by some white South African anti-apartheid campaigners (including one played by Daniel Radcliffe), railroaded for lengthy prisons stretches, who set about breaking free in taking advantage of the small but consequential security lapses of their arrogant but dim-witted guardians. Anann handled the suspense sequences and the minutiae of the escapees’ method with attentive skill, but the film never escaped prison movie canards or truly came to grips with its characters and their plight, and so it remained a modestly gripping diversion. Tom Hanks returned to a World War II milieu for Greyhound, based on a C.S. Forester novel, with Hanks playing the inexperienced but quick-study captain of a destroyer on his first convoy escort mission during the Battle of the Atlantic, battling a rapacious U-boat pack and heavy weather with a cool head and a sense of religious duty. Director Aaron Schneider handled the high seas action very well, with a palpable sense of the setting and maintaining a high-pressure mood throughout, really nailing the feeling of being locked in a duel with utterly remorseless enemies. But, again, the film’s nods towards human drama were barely sufficient, including a stiff and unconvincing prologue sporting Elizabeth Shue as Hanks’ girlfriend, and it would certainly have been better as a purely situational study.

The Outpost

Rod Lurie’s The Outpost was another warzone plunge, depicting the true story of a small US Marines garrison in a remote Afghani valley in 2009, a seemingly cursed locale that keeps losing COs. Eventually the outpost becomes the object of a large, committed Taliban assault in what became known as the Battle of Kamdesh, resulting in the first ever awarding of two Medals of Honor for a single action. Lurie tried to delve into the dynamics of the garrison and its personnel in a more restrained and realistic manner than a lot of recent War on Terror-age movies with less blustery machismo and some attention devoted to the uncomfortable tilts at outreach and community-building defining the soldiers’ relationships with their local hosts before everything goes to shit, trying to earn comparisons with precursors like Zulu and Pork Chop Hill. Scott Eastwood and Caleb Landry-Jones anchored the film effectively as the two rather different types of hero, but somehow the other soldiers remained not terribly well-delineated as a collective of personalities or even faces, and Lurie’s constantly moving camera was often aggravating and confusing rather than intensifying, badly hampering the intended sense of intimacy even if did convey toey entrapment.

Extraction

Extraction tried to install Chris Hemsworth in an action movie role worthy of an icon of the genre, casting him as a mercenary hired against his misgivings and the wind drag of background pain to rescue the kidnapped son of a drug mogul from his even nastier rival, finding himself trapped on the ground in an Indian city and forced to fight his way out with the lad. The film delivered the requisite dose of shooting, punching, running, and jumping in a year starved of such basic cinematic pleasures. It was also an uneasy attempt to blend a gritty, old-school style of action-thriller with slick, hyped-up, John Wick-derived gun-fu business, two modes which to me can’t really be reconciled, and the wall-to-wall fisticuffs and spasmodic plot crowded out interesting elements, like Golshifteh Farahani’s equally proficient and vengeful partner.

Rogue

M.J. Barrett’s Rogue offered a version of the same basic plot only done on the cheap and with some killer lions thrown into the mix. Barrett cast Megan Fox as the appointed rescuer with a team of fellow badasses sent in to save some kidnapped schoolgirls from a vicious extremist group in an unnamed African nation. The unconvincing CGI lions and air of low-budget waywardness almost foiled the film, and Fox, trying to get gritty and de-glammed, didn’t convince despite offering a decent performance. But the film was a weird mixture of the ungainly and the likeable, trying to offer all its characters moments to make them specific and empathetic, and sell itself as a message movie wrapped in a shoot-’em-up.

VFW

Joe Begos’ VFW was a similarly, self-consciously and happily trashy throwback B-movie, offering up a wonderful collection of aging but still potent genre movie faces including Stephen Lang, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, and William Sadler, as a gang of war veterans hanging around one of the titular watering holes who find themselves fighting off an army of brain-dead addicts and punk gangsters. The official style guide was early period John Carpenter with George Romero gore and some nods to Neil Marshall as well, the story a bare-faced if honest rip-off of Assault on Precinct 13. The cast interacted well, including young ringer Sierra McCormick as the truculent cause of the battle who proves every bit as ornery as the old coots, and the film provided some solid, grimy fun. The directing was jittery and clumsy when it came to action, however, and the script was sketchy, lacking the kind of casual wit and feel for character its models wielded, so it didn’t add up to anything more than a fun-sick diversion.

Underwater

William Eubank’s Underwater, released early in the year after sitting on the shelf for a while, blended disaster and monster movie and tried, like VFW and a score of recent movies, to sustain something like traditional dramatic values whilst also playing out a high-pressure situational thriller, shearing off the first act and cutting to the chase. Eubank started with everything going to hell and followed his emergent heroes as they try to survive an attack by a Lovecraftian monstrosity on their deep-sea drilling structure. The film also tried something interesting in making Kristen Stewart’s hardy protagonist, schooled well by grief in struggling through terror and darkness, provide the undertone of emotional evanescence investing the story. The result was, again, watchable and modestly entertaining, and yet failed to develop any aspect of itself enough to really count, never really scary or exciting or engaging sufficiently with its characters, even Stewart’s, to make the film truly thrilling or memorable. Plus the elaborate but murky special effects were trying.

Color Out Of Space

Veteran genre freak and pariah Richard Stanley finally returned to feature directing a quarter-century after his infamous sacking from The Island of Dr. Moreau, with another tilt at adapting a classic sci-fi/horror story. This was H.P. Lovecraft’s already twice-filmed Color Out Of Space, the story of a small New England farming family, here recast from Lovecraft’s weird yokels to very modern folk, unlucky enough to have an unnatural meteorite land on their farm and begin affecting flora, fauna, and themselves in increasingly disturbing fashion. Stanley made sure to present his story and sketch atmosphere with a thankfully old-fashioned approach as well as good-looking photography, whilst his reading of Lovecraft’s story tried to turn it into a barbed portrait of family identity and the cruelty of time and nature working upon it. His approach to the body horror aspect of the story was strongly indebted to John Carpenter’s The Thing, whilst trying for an appropriately disquieting new edge of intimacy. Despite real initial promise, however, Stanley lost control quite badly, the build-up to insanity breaking out spasmodic and unconvincing when it arrived, the horror derivative, and most frustratingly, the characterisations never cohered. Altogether the experience was largely depressing.

Tenet

Christopher Nolan tried and largely failed to revive the year’s cinema-going mojo when he decided to release his latest opus Tenet in theatres, and those who did see it were often mixed in their feelings. So of course I liked this crossbreed of action and sci-fi more than most of his films to date, appreciating his stabs at giving some urgency to his characters and their plights, in a tale of a secret organisation in the present day battling a mysterious cabal in the future who, per some of Nolan’s weapons-grade gobbledygook, send people and objects back in a reversed time flow with an ultimate aim to reverse-colonising the past. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson did fun work as the uneasily partnered heroes and Elizabeth Debicki was affecting as the wife of Kenneth Branagh’s vicious Russian arms dealer who has his own motives for aiding the future enemy. As usual for Nolan however the conceptual gymnastics displaced the personal drama and his ham-fisted visual style often foiled the thrills.

The Midnight Sky

George Clooney offered The Midnight Sky, casting himself as a brilliant but emotionally distant and deathly ill astronomer residing in an Arctic research station. His theory that a newly discovered Jovian moon has life-supporting potential has just been confirmed by an exploratory mission, including Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, and Kyle Chandler, now journeying back to Earth in their massive spaceship. But an unspecified apocalyptic event devastates the Earth, leaving polar regions temporarily untouched and the scientist marooned with a young girl who seems to have been accidentally left behind. The story counterpoints the two groups as the scientist and girl make a desperate journey across the Greenland wastes to a different base to use a larger satellite dish to warn off the spacefarers, who have their own problems. Clooney set up an initially interesting set of situations and tried to weave a rarefied mood of blasted but lingering humanism, whilst offering some of his most visually strong filmmaking to date, including an excellent spacewalk sequence and ensuing crisis. None of that stopped the film proving an embarrassingly hackneyed disaster, with climactic revelations that reduced the whole film to a painful gimmick enabled with absurd coincidence and themes illustrated with head-slapping obviousness. It’s the sort of movie that makes you hiss and shake your head for hours afterwards.

Emma

Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks and Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day In New York shared both a level of ardour for New York as a seat of wistful dreams and comforting alienation whilst confronting different stages in life, youthful floundering in the latter, middle-aged fear and aging regret in the former. Longtime music video director Autumn de Wilde made her feature debut by getting into the Jane Austen adaptation business with Emma because, well, apparently enough time had passed since the Gwyneth Paltrow version. 2020’s most employed new star Anya Taylor-Joy was cast as Austen’s self-satirising heroine, artful arranger of domestic bliss who must contend with her own perturbing love-life. De Wilde followed Whit Stillman’s example in adopting a highly affected style, complete with arch performances designed to mimic the crisply ordered flow of Austenian prose but instead locking into a frieze of affectation, a strategy I found initially very hard to take. The film began to work, that said, when it started to relax in its second half and allowed the characters and their reactions to deepen.

Ammonite

Francis Lee’s Ammonite was a radically different take on the period romance mode, and depicted an interesting and neglected female figure of history, in this case working class paleontological pioneer Mary Anning. Whilst many compared it to last year’s Portrait of a Woman on Fire really Ammonite was closer to faux-Mike Leigh, with Lee weaving a remarkably immediate sense of her windswept stomping grounds on the English coastline and the tight, tense world of regional life in the period. But without much if anything to say about the interest that was the driving obsession of Anning’s life, Lee decided to invent a lesbian romance for her on the thinnest pretext so as to sell it to a current audience for PC brownie points. Said romance, between Kate Winslet’s dour, impenetrable impersonation and Saoirse Ronan as the grieving young mother she’s saddled with by her distractible nerd husband, was modestly engaging and sported a pivotal sex scene that was at least more realistic and less diagrammatic than many such recent set-pieces of Sapphic lust. But the film still never penetrated Anning’s mind beyond the self-evident, indeed leaving her as mostly the same lugubrious bore it presented her as at the start, in the sort of narrative that wants to be celebratory and liberating but was actually subtly sexist.

Shirley

Josephine Decker’s Shirley united several aesthetic strands of the year’s cinema, blending biopic, semi-surrealist mind-bending, quasi-feminist cultural anthropology, and psychological narrative. The focal point was nominally acclaimed horror writer Shirley Jackson, incarnated by a tic-ridden Elisabeth Moss, contending the disparity between the writer’s bizarre and fecund artistic sensibility and her life as a housebound wife to a minor teaching star in the midst of stolid academia. The film divested the couple of their real-life children and invented a young couple, all the better to filch from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, invited to lodge with them only to be manipulated and finally subsumed into the creative process and the cult of personality. Decker’s style grew high-handed very quickly, offering scene after scene of Sapphic-tinged witchypoo nonsense between Jackson and her young female protégé/victim, filmed in excessive close-up, in a desperate attempt to create a weird and ambiguous mood, even if the narrative ultimately boiled down to some trite and vague statements about the relationship between life and creativity. Michael Stuhlbarg as Jackson’s alternately insufferable and understanding mate was, when all was said and done, the best reason to watch; Moss, despite working really hard, was oddly wasted.

Capone

Josh Trank’s Capone, pitched as his comeback after the evil fate that befell his Fantastic Four, took a similar approach to the basic chore of the biopic. Trank tried to capture the state of mind of the legendary gangster in his last year by reproducing the garbled, ghost-filled perceptions of a mind eaten out by syphilis, with Capone desperately trying to hold on to his sanity long enough to aid his family and fend off a still-dogging government. Capone seemed to have everything going for it, with a major star in Tom Hardy tackling an inherently interesting historical figure. But the film was a squalid disaster, completely failing to make any element of its plot or strained stabs at emotional catharsis mean anything and wasting an excellent cast. Trank instead offered indigestible wads of fake Lynchian strangeness and corny CGI visions, and with Hardy chewing the scenery, furniture, and fellow cast members with a flatly grotesque performance.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

By contrast Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 took a more traditional approach to recreating a historical persons, wielding slick theatricality in invoking the heady days of the 1960s antiwar movement and the facetious prosecution of protest leaders to make them shoulder the blame for the riots around the 1968 Democratic Convention. Sorkin’s script took many liberties with events and characterisations, and his ultimate intellectual project, despite all the invited likenesses between the Nixon and Trump regimes and period and current activism, was actually looking at internal style conflicts on the left and the tension between Sorkin’s preferred brand of institutional-minded reformer and the boogeyman of genuine social rebels, obliging Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman to become his duelling puppets in this. Sorkin’s still a rather basic director in many ways and his primly loquacious politicking was almost amusingly wrong for dealing with the wild and shambolic energy of the period, but his cross-cutting style helped keep things propulsive, with Frank Langella delivering a peach of a scary-funny performance the trial’s fossilised judge.

Incitement

Incitement saw Israeli director Yaron Zilberman dealing with a topic that must have taken some nerve to tackle, given the way it still echoes through Middle East politics: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a law student and fixated ultranationalist. The young killer’s journey to the fateful moment was charted with a rigorous sense of both psychological and political context, including the right-wing Rabbis who urged him on, and the political figures who benefited from the stoked, fervent deploring of Rabin’s peace moves. Zilberman’s intense, intimate handling and deft mixture of recreation and news footage helped make the time and place palpable, and the script was smart in contending with the tensions within the Israeli social make-up rarely noted by outsiders. Zilberman’s accusatory thesis set out to depict radicalisation as a process of intellectual seduction and mental colonisation from specialists in rhetoric who would like to create a certain outcome but not perform it themselves, relying on double-edged statements and seeking out amanuenses smart enough to join the dots and compelled by their own interior needs. This aspect gave Incitement relevance transcending the specifics of the story it tackles, even if perhaps its psychology was a bit too straightforward.

Mank

David Fincher returned for his first feature in six years with Mank, a biopic inevitably close to his heart, written as it was by his father Jack. Mank proposed to tell the story of screenwriter extraordinaire Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman. Fincher the elder’s script took the ever-controversial writing of Citizen Kane as a framing device but looked more to the acerbic and decent but also sadly alcoholic Mankiewicz’s immersion in the Hollywood of its day and his encounters with the plutocratic power of William Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, and others. The Finchers’ desire to “take the writer’s side,” as they had a character put it, had an honourable purpose in celebrating people often under the heel of old Hollywood’s hierarchy. But even putting aside the extremely debatable portrayal of Kane‘s development, I found the film was an intensely aggravating and ultimately dire experience for several reasons. The imitation of Kane‘s structure was scattershot, the script far too in love with approximations of Mankiewicz’s Algonquin wit deployed in drawn-out but not terribly illuminating sequences, and yet never quite managed to be genuinely funny or ironic, and was also littered with fudged facts and anachronisms. Fincher’s familiar tendency to foil his undoubted technical prowess with flat visuals, trying desperately to look retro-classy, was rendered particularly trying by Erik Messerschmidt’s occasionally well-composed but too often drab-looking, blow-out-happy black-and-white photography. Only Amanda Seyfried’s excellent Marion Davies was a good reason to watch.

The Gentlemen

For a rather more interesting and bloodcurling exploration of the connection between power and storytelling, Philippe Lacôte tried to explore the schismatic mind of post-colonial Africa in Night of the Kings through the fetid microcosm of a prison where ancient tribal rituals and strange social compacts reign, but the thrill of both individual and communal expression still has meaning. Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock tackled some similar ideas and images but in a more familiar context. Trying to earn back a little of his street cred after the cinematic autotune of Aladdin and the punishingly empty spectacle of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie returned again to his roots in the Cockney gangland flick with The Gentlemen. Matthew McConaughey was deftly cast as a transplanted ganja kingpin battling off both enemies and supposed friends long enough to sell his business, in a narrative that proved good as a black comedy-thriller and better as a free-form satire contending with Brexit-era Britain as a prospective haven for all kinds of scamps, ruled by a venal press, a waned and cashless aristocracy, and a shaken Pax Americana, spiced up with a deal of meta play. Neat performances, particularly from Michelle Dockery as McConaughey’s stiletto-clad, derringer wielding “Cockney Cleopatra,” helped a lot. As with all of Ritchie’s films the result was patchy in its levels of invention and wit but purveyed all at the same volume, but it had a droll and flavourful texture overall and sufficient jolts of seriousness when required.

She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow saw writer-director Amy Seimetz trying to dramatise a rarefied and difficult subject, the feeling of dread and despair in confronting mortality, in portraying a metastasising epidemic amongst a group of acquaintances who all become convinced, through some enigmatic influence, that they’re going to die the following day. The theme is certainly always worth tackling and indeed for some effectively represented the experience of 2020 in specific, but Seimitz’s chosen method was impenetrably pretentious and pseudo-experimental. Michel Franco’s New Order confronted straits just as nightmarish but with a far more immediate method, portraying a klepto-fascist regime taking control of Mexico using an underclass revolt as a pretext, with conclusions that were difficult to stomach but certainly valid in invoking pockets of recent world history. Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Bacurau played an inverse game in depicting determined resistance to fascistic thuggery in a Latin American context, this time Brazil, via a loopy semi-futuristic parable. Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers was an equally eccentric but likewise dug into the problem of retaining your autonomy and humanity, and indeed your life, in a country where corruption and political malfeasance are a way of life and even decent people can be forced to countenance dangerous acts.

Kajillionaire

Reigning queen of American indie oddball Miranda July presented Kajillionaire, an initially intriguing, bizarre tale depicting a drop-out couple and their androgynous, clever, but socially maladroit daughter, dedicated to living off the grid in the concrete forest of LA and subsisting through petty crimes and scams, or what the father calls “skimming.” Their tight-knit unit began disintegrating once another young woman comes into their orbit, slowly drawing the daughter towards something resembling normality. Parts of this were ingenious, like a central sequence where the gang invaded a dying old man’s house and found themselves pressganged into recreating familial sounds to help him pass on, fulfilling his need for the illusion of domesticity even as they parody it according to their distaste for such things. July’s point, the difficulty for children of nonconformist families to orientate themselves in the world at large, came through in the deliberate exaggeration, and the excellence of the cast, with Wood giving a witty, physical, quietly pathos-ridden performance and Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger both amusing and excruciating, did a lot to keep the movie going. Still, July’s eccentric flourishes felt contrived and artificial as often as they worked, and the characters never felt real enough for their plights, and affections, to convince.

The Nest

Sean Durkin’s The Nest played as a tonal and situational inversion of Kajillionaire and yet was preoccupied by the same ideas: the perversity of family and the illusory nature of prosperity versus the necessity of rooting in the world. Durkin cast Jude Law and Carrie Coon (both quite excellent) as a couple with two kids who from the US back to the husband’s homeland in England so he can take a job in a share trading firm he used to work in, in the 1980s. The family soon face a slow-tightening gyre of anxiety and anger as the husband, driven by personal demons, tries to push big deals that won’t come to fund his fantasy lifestyle victory, including renting a huge, creepy country house, whilst the rest become increasingly aware of their tenuous position. As with his Martha Marcy May Marlene but with less justification, Durkin blended what was ultimately a story preoccupied by material (and materialist) truths with stylistic flourishes borrowed from horror movies to build tension and dread, constantly suggesting a haunted house with miscuing visual flourishes only to reveal – gasp! – the only ghosts are in the characters’ heads. Such devices, as well as the more literal one involving a dead horse, got in the way of a drama that, whilst straining at points to indict aspirational entitlement and entrepreneurial smokescreens, had substance and needling accuracy in depicting mounting familial crisis, and the last shot captured exhausted catharsis and ceded power like the release of a breath held for nearly two hours.

First Cow

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, despite its very different setting and style, told a not-so-dissimilar story in depicting characters taking too many risks to cut themselves off a slice of the capitalist dream. Reichardt told the story of two outsiders in a stretch of frontier forest somewhere in the American northwest in the early 1800s, who become friends and partners in commerce and find themselves a hit when one man’s talent for baking earns them the custom of people desperate for real cooking, only with the caveat that their successful wares depend upon milk taken at night from the one cow in the district, belonging to Toby Jones’ local bigwig. Reichardt avoided repeating ideas from Meek’s Cut-Off, her previous blend of deflated Western mythology and ultrarealist moodiness, and her calm, determinedly unhurried style drank in time and place, the visual exposition clean, some real elegance to the evocation of a constant edge of the absurd to life in such a place. The lead characters however remained flat and dull (despite Orion Lee’s class as one of the men, a well-travelled Chinese sailor), and the film took two hours to reach a predestined point, the upshot far too obvious. Reichardt is almost certainly the most talented of the ‘mumblecore’ filmmakers and yet she’s now butting against the limits of such a recessive, exterior style. Casting René Auberjonois in one of his last roles acknowledged the debt to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but the comparison with Altman’s jostling, fecund, detailed take on similar material wasn’t that flattering.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Kitty Green’s The Assistant and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always both dealt with very young women traversing the isolating climes of New York and contending with the dismaying spectre of systematic domination, the former depicting an aspiring producer working as a mogul’s tirelessly labouring factotum who begins to suspect her boss is exploiting women who come into his orbit, the latter tracking a teenage girl who sets out on an interstate odyssey to obtain an abortion in secret with her cousin’s aid. Green’s film was fascinatingly cryptic, totally submerging the viewer in a state of existence almost totally severed from any world beyond and where gravity bends to unseen masses. Hittman’s film was a more classical brand of indie-realist drama, detailing her characters’ travails with a painfully precise feel for the minutiae of such a venture. The film was strong as both a caustic portrait of a social issue and a vision of people who are barely adults trying to weather a waking nightmare. The characterisations were a bit sparse, however, hinting at mysteries and distresses motivating the central character left undeveloped, and the film’s urge to keep the screws on felt a bit forced.

Greed

Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela explored the grief and anger of a woman at the opposite end of life, coming to Portugal to confront her husband decades after he left her behind, and becoming ensconced in a community of fellow immigrants trapped in a zone on the fringes of society. Michael Winterbottom and Steven Coogan finally got back to work after several The Trip series to make Greed, a film that pointedly sports an act of bloody revolt by a young female employee against her creep boss, climaxing an occasionally biting (that’s a pun) satire. Coogan was customarily good as a fashion tycoon Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie on the build-up to his orgiastic 60th birthday party, with David Mitchell playing his official biographer who soon begins comprehending how much his business success is based on conartistry and exploitation. Greed was deliberately heavy-handed in mixing consciousness-raising fable and black comedy, but it settled for skimming the surface for the most part, despite nods to Barry Lyndon and Lindsay Anderson as points of inspiration, with the comedy not quite strong enough to compensate. Some great supporting performances from Isla Fisher as McCreadie’s symbiotic ex-wife and Shirley Henderson as his ancient but still-pithy Irish mother helped keep things bouncy.

Eurovison Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

David Dobkin’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga was a comedy with rather less on its mind, perhaps to its ultimate credit. Will Ferrell played another of his signature boy-man roles, this time a middle-aged loser from a small Icelandic town whose singular obsession with winning the eponymous music competition, forged after a transformative childhood glimpse of ABBA, distracts him from everything else, including the love of his talented performing partner, played by Rachel McAdams at her most ridiculously winning. When seemingly absurd fate allows them to actually make the contest, the duo are tested by temptation and their own seemingly endless capacity for self-sabotage. The storyline, even as a pretext for silliness, hit beats and covered ground Ferrell had already worn ragged. And yet Dobkin and the cast, also including Dan Stevens as a campy Russian star and Pierce Brosnan as Ferrell’s disappointed dad, put it across with enough conviction to make it work. The general high spirits and good-natured sensibility, where even the nominal villains were ultimately likeable, were a balm in a year filled with so many glum, mean movies. The lampoons of Eurovision fare also managed to be both affectionate and craftily dead-on.

12 Hour Shift

Brea Grant’s black comedy/thriller 12 Hour Shift offered another hellish workplace with indie horror star Angela Bettis smartly cast as Mandy, a life-battered, drug-addicted hospital nurse involved in a scam purloining organs from the recently deceased and sometimes gives the dying a little push along to make the process run more smoothly. Her night on a double shift is made intolerably complicated when her dimwit living-Barbie in-law Regina (Chloe Farnworth), acting as her courier, loses the latest harvested kidney, and is pushed by their gangster connection to get a replacement on the pain of donating one herself. This sets in motion mounting chaos on the wards, with both women pushed to acts far beyond the pale. What made the film interesting was the way it charted a gyring sense of random and lethal abnormality with segues into both outright farce and straight genre film, whilst working coherently as a metaphor for the cynical headspace of its wired, overworked, grief-stunned antiheroine. Ultimately the film would have been better – even great – if it had been a bit more disciplined in terms of how far it pushed its cruelly absurd edge and stylistic quirks, as the script kept threatening to lose its grounding, particularly once Regina turned into an absurdly stupid killer. But the actors forced their characters to work, and as the film gained momentum it delivered some delightfully sick twists.

Performances Of Note

Rachel Brosnahan, I’m Your Woman
Emilia Clarke, Above Suspicion
Steve Coogan, Greed
Carrie Coon, The Nest
Gail Cronauer, The Vast of Night
Elizabeth Debicki, The Burnt Orange Heresy ; Tenet
Frankie Faison, I’m Your Woman
Chloe Farnworth, 12 Hour Shift
Sidney Flanagan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Julia Garner, The Assistant
Shirley Henderson, Greed
Rashida Jones, On The Rocks
Udo Kier, Bacurau
Frank Langella, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Jude Law, The Nest
Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
Elle Lorraine, Bad Hair
Rachel McAdams, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Matthew MacFadyen, The Assistant
Sierra McCormick, The Vast of Night ; VFW
Bill Murray, On The Rocks
Naian González Norvind, New Order
Donald Sutherland, The Burnt Orange Heresy
Marisa Tomei, The King of Staten Island
Vitalina Varela, Vitalina Varela
Ensemble: The Gentlemen
Ensemble: Lovers Rock
Ensemble: Night of the Kings
Ensemble: A Rainy Day In New York
Ensemble: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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Favourite Films of 2020

The Assistant (Kitty Green)

In abstract this film threatened to be a dubious exercise in tabloid exploitation or a tinny talking-point drama a la last year’s crummy Bombshell: a tale of workplace abuse inspired by Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. The Weinstein figure was rendered here as an unnamed, unseen movie company executive whose shows of wrath and prerogative register through emails and phone calls like the tremors of the tyrannosaurus’ footfall in Jurassic Park. The situation was explored through the viewpoint of his young, still relatively green, hardworking assistant Jane, who in trying to pay her dues on the way to becoming a documentary producer, has the job of literally cleaning up the mess left by his casting couch adventures amongst myriad other duties beginning before dawn and ending at night. But Green’s feature debut did something very smart in tackling such subject matter. Green put the minutiae of Jane’s day front and centre with a sense of workaday routine perhaps derived from Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, unfolding in an office space where the sombre, intense atmosphere and the constant work has an embracing, almost homey mystique, one easy to imagine could sustain Jane through the gruelling and alienating entry-level days in the industry.

Except this was revealed with pitiless concision to conceal the constant knife-edge of threatened disruption lest the boss’s evil temper register, the parade of young lovelies waiting to go into the office perhaps just potential talent or willing supplicants or meal for a hungry ogre, whilst Jane’s submergence in her work at once makes her privy to signs of sleaziness but also allows her to retain an envelope of plausible deniability to let herself keep her job. The most frightening scene in any movie of the year came when Jane did finally work up the nerve to approach the company’s HR boss, beautifully played at maximum sucker-punch smarm by Matthew MacFadyen, only to have him fend off her concerns with expert soft bullying and then find everyone already knows about her foray when she returns to the office. The film relied on the audience to connect portrayed events with what we know about the Weinstein case, but what made it really worthwhile was the way that to a certain extent all that was rendered ambiguous, even supernal, to the exploration of the crushing weight of factotum solitude and powerlessness experienced by its heroine as only a slightly more urgent version of that experienced day in and day out by others like her.

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Bacurau (Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonca Filho)

Evoking the traditions of Latin American magic realism and its fascination with peculiar communities and fluxes of time and identity, as well as the Western movie genre, Bacurau can also be described a cleverly nasty inversion of familiar horror movie tropes. You know, those movies where hapless tourists stumble into malignant locales full of people, often in sleazy, degraded backwaters, and have to fight for survival. Here Dornelles and Filho define the people of a small, far-flung town out in the Brazilian boondocks as a collective defined by mutual trust and identity, a proud sense of both tradition and openness to the world in a movie set in the very near future. The droll early scenes depict the locals reacting to the death of a matriarch and the communal rejection of a patronising politician, tapping elements like the politician’s rolling campaign show for slyly deceptive comedy, came with sidelong hints of what’s coming as coffins are left scattered all over the road to town, empty at this point, and a teacher schooling local children is bemused when the town seems to vanish from online maps. Talk about cancel culture.

Those very communal strengths play a part in why they’re earmarked for eradication for reasons connected to local power structures whilst also equipping them to resist it. The actual agents of suppression are sourced, in a twist of sublime if incredibly harsh wit, through another potential future industry: murder tourism, bloodlusting internationals come to indulge lethal fantasies. The swerve towards ugly violence after the gentle absurdism of the first half serves a definite purpose as the racism and entitlement of the invaders is contrasted with the ordinariness of the locals, save the scattered criminals used to making their own impotent tilts at the world but who find their special talents needed to help the town fight back, the weirdness and wildness suddenly becoming weapons. It helped that the directors didn’t abandon their profoundly weird sense of humour even as war erupts, including an elderly couple whose choice of nakedness fools their opponents and also seems to contain some primal sensibility. Udo Kier, bringing the film cred in linking it to that horror movie tradition, was cunningly cast as the tour guide/assassin boss whose air of flinty command doesn’t quite conceal a bloodthirsty mania that gains the most fitting, and frightening, of comeuppances.

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I’m Your Woman (Julia Hart)

Last year Julia Hart’s Fast Color intrigued me with its blend of fantasy, fable, and dry realism, a weird and interesting mixture that suggested where the superhero genre might find some artistic growth, foiled only by a rather too stringent budget and a poky tone. Hart’s return with I’m Your Woman wielded a similar interest in characters exiled both in the world and within themselves, and proved one of the year’s quietest successes in trying to present a feminist twist on the well-trod routes of the retro gangland drama. Rachel Brosnahan gave a terrific lead performance as Jean, the trophy wife to a gangster forced to go on the run with their mysteriously acquired adopted son for reasons she has no real understanding of, only slowly learning the truth whilst meanwhile forced to witness and do terrible things in the name of survival. Hart had to negotiate a dramatic difficulty in the central character’s blindsided passivity through much of the film – the gangster genre’s been beset by too many blankly reactive viewpoint characters in recent years.

Hart turned this into a dramatic strength in the space of bewilderment and hermetic detachment woven about Jean, her feelings of being at once deserted and besieged exacerbating her already confused and detached perspective on her existence, presented at the outset as a domestic fantasy, life in constant showroom readiness, wrapped in breathless plastic. Soon she’s on the road as the uneasy charge of one of her husband’s colleagues, a black man who barely knows more than her and proves to have a ruthless side despite seeming decent, and finds herself taken under the wing of his family, where she has to contend with the secrets compelling their assistance as well as try to find a way out of limbo. The mixture of character drama and tension had rigour, and if the film’s slight over-length did make me wonder what some 1940s noir-style on the story might have looked like, perhaps with a less naïve heroine and a pithier telling, ultimately Hart’s firm control and purpose paid off with several riveting suspense sequences. Most of these scenes were unusual, too, in dealing with characters who tend to stumble upon the results of others’ actions or get caught up in the furore. Jean’s breakdown in a Laundromat, swathed in sodden disco finery, was a marvellous vision of total pathos, precursor to the inevitable pivot as she matured into someone capable of protecting not only herself but others.

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Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

Part of a five-episode string of thematically related movies detailing black British life from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s, grouped under the heading Small Axe, Lovers Rock saw Steve McQueen doing something, on the surface at least, rather different to what he’s done to date in cinema, in choosing to depict joy and celebration. Stepping back from the kind of explicit portraits of psychological and social torment he purveyed in fare like Hunger, Shame, and 12 Year a Slave, and recovering from the sluggish disappointment of his commercial foray Widows, McQueen set about recreating, with a precise sense of both personal nostalgia and anthropological import, the sights and sounds of a house party in a black London neighbourhood circa 1979, from early scenes noting the DJs setting up and cooks preparing and young women choosing their battle dress, to giddy dance moves executed to “Kung Fu Fighting.” McQueen avoided inserting any traditional comic antics or big dramatic gestures to mythologise the event, or even nodding to any larger socio-political context beyond what he can grazingly suggest. Instead, he kept to his brief of simply watching people at a moment in time celebrating within the embrace of their fellows, a hermetic cultural experience at once in reaction to and ignorance of racism and incomprehension without.

In its way as maniacally focused and radical a piece of formalism as Hunger, Lovers Rock obliged the viewer to shift into a slightly different headspace to enjoy it. Some flashes of complication were introduced. A jolt of racist harassment from some white louts. A near-sexual assault by a pushy dandy, and the show of female solidarity that fends it off. One woman leaves in fear of intimacy, one tests out glimmerings of same-sex attraction, one seems to find the love of her life and rides off with him into the sunrise and beyond. But McQueen, to the point of risking patience at points, keeps his focus on the communal experience of dancing to music that invokes group identity, building to a rhapsodic eruption from the dance floor-lording young men, laced with political meaning as well as the insensate quality of authentic shared ecstasy, as the DJs play The Revolutionries’ “Kunta Kinte Dub,” suburban party suddenly become ancient rite of belonging and defiance, achieving the kind of mesmeric frenzy of body and mind so often sought and so rarely, truly gained. The coming of daylight brings the familiar flow of little, stinging insults and defeats but also the burgeoning of new hopes. Plus; given 2020’s feeling of isolation and besiegement, the film provided something close to a virtual reality simulator for the socially deprived.

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New Order (Michel Franco)

The bleak and unflinching flipside to Bacurau‘s prophecy of resisting exploitative power and oppression in a Latin American context, New Order ruthlessly charts its own socio-political thesis, proposing that very often the threat of class warfare usually finishes up benefiting reactionaries and opportunists far more than the masses, and illustrates it in truly effective ways. Disorientating flashes of revolt and totems of political transformation give way to a skittishly realistic portrait of economic disparity, as a former employee of a very rich family comes to ask to borrow money to help his sickly wife during a wedding party. The alternations of patronisation, outright rudeness, and actual charity from the good-nature bride amidst a show of dynastic ziplocking are pointed but believable, until purely by evil chance a revolution breaks out, people from the bottom of society climbing over fences and activating agents within.

Swiftian parable takes over: the military called into the streets to put down the revolt soon become agents of their own and their bosses’ enrichment, the rich are kidnapped and ransomed back to their families and the poor made to look responsible. Franco’s vision was by the end hard to take, but moved towards that end with remorseless energy and a vision of mounting horror brilliantly executed with a thriller’s tension, with its cruelly victimised heroine used in every way possible despite (and because) her being the most conscientious and likeable figure in the film, who finishes up in the deepest shit imaginable whilst setting out to do a good deed – not that staying within the castle walls would have spared her. Ghastly visions like a mass pansexual rape of the prisoners were mixed with a sourly detailed depiction of the nuts and bolts of repression under the guise of security, choking off easy communication and enabling disorientation, and concluding with brutish taciturnity with shots of the hangman’s ropes. Amidst all the phantoms of paranoia and appropriate anxiety thriving in 2020’s politics, New Order provided a cold reminder of what real tyranny looks like, provoking any sensible person to ask just what holds it off.

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Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte)

Ivory Coast director Lacôte set his Night of the Kings in that country’s huge, forest-girded MACA prison, a community nominally controlled by the agents of the state but actually ruled over by an anointed kingpin whose command over the prison, in a pointed echo of old tribal law, depends on retaining his virility: when he gets too old or too sick he must die. Trying to fend off fate for one more day as he’s stricken by illness, the chieftain uses one technicality in his arsenal, appointing a young and naïve hoodlum just arrived in the prison to become the Roman or storyteller, tasked with telling the inmates a story through a long night with the Scheherazadian twist that if he finishes before dawn he’ll be put to death. The storyteller’s vigil becomes a communal theatrical event as the inmates invent dances and physically mimic the events he speaks of, whilst the storyteller himself tries desperately to synthesise his scanty and pathetic experiences as the lieutenant of a minor gang lord into a Homeric epic of national identity and magic-realist history.

Lacôte’s vision managed, in the course of a curt running time – it might well have been the only film of 2020 that could stand to be longer – to evoke both the specific cultural and historical experience of the Ivory Coast and the entire human experience of art as a communal event, people rearranging their minds and bodies to make sense of existence and the craving for narrative, for heroes, for psychic landscapes that knit the one into the whole, the spasms of interpretive dance and role-play the audience apply to the story giving it shared life and vitality. Tabloid violence and ancient myth bleed into each-other, the Roman connecting the contemporary folk hero with a suitably legendary backstory, so that the grimy and oppressive present gains the lustre of something deep-rooted. The young Roman’s night of testing is also an event with specific political purpose, an attempt to buy more time for a teetering regime, as lurking factions wait to invade the stage, including the watching, fraying eye of the armed yet besieged guards, one of whom finally shoots down into the arena to deliver random death, fending off, at least for another night, the moment where the jailed become masters.

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A Rainy Day in New York (Woody Allen) / On The Rocks (Sofia Coppola)

I’m counting these two together as connected evocations of a melancholically romantic New York, and whilst flawed they balanced each-other in gesture and impulse. Allen’s film loitered in fantasies of being young, rich, and free in his native city, at both his most off-hand and his most crisply directed and scripted in a long time. Coppola’s was a martini-dry deconstruction of fantasies both cinematic and personal, turning the tension between its relentlessly limited purview, in dealing with niggling psychic anxiety and uncertainty and the song of issues that seem long suppressed and yet need resolution, and the seemingly necessary largesse of cinematic expression, into its driving concern.

I didn’t expect Allen to deliver a film as blithely charming as A Rainy Day In New York at this point in his career, especially given that I’ve never been a fan, but it was the kind of sublime doodle late careers sometime offer, sporting ingenious comic performances from Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning as a mismatched young couple whose adventures in Manhattan provoke maturation and self-understanding, whilst contending with an array of farce trope characters and mood-piece havens. It’s the sort of movie an artist might only make when they’ve allowed themselves to relax on some fundamental level, simply existing within a way of seeing and feeling.

Coppola by contrast seemed to be in conflict with her own career to date, pulling apart the elements of her early signature success Lost In Translation and refashioning them in a more self-conscious and probing thesis, casting Bill Murray as an aging roué whose transgressions and failings are charted with a more precise sense of what they cost his daughter, played by Rashida Jones, even as his approach to life, laced in movie-fit postures, seems irresistible. If the key tension in artistically ambitious recent indie American cinema of late has been being sticking to a realm of low-key and hyper-realist authenticity at the expense of sacrificing bigger dreams and styles like weaning itself off a sugar rush, Coppola seemed to be trying to make this her very theme.

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The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)

An inventively crafted tribute to bygone dreams mediated by more modern insights and paranoias, The Vast of Night offered itself as a purported episode of some Twilight Zone-ish TV show from the black-and-white era, only to shift into full-colour, long-take, steadicam-enabled contemporary style. Two ordinary young people, the gabby, nerdy telephone operator Fay (Sierra McCormack) and the wannabe cool cat DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz), connect over a tape recorder test whilst walking through the streets of their small, flat, close-knit home town in the Texas boondocks, a certain arc of fledgling attraction manifesting in their shared status as people with minds flung out far beyond the city limits even as she spills her enthusiasms and he plays aloof hipster. They soon find themselves draw together more urgently as strange phenomena begin manifesting, weird signals on the wires, lights in the sky, and callers testifying to universe-reshaping events. Patterson underlined his fascination, bordering on fetishism, for backdated technology and the accompanying mystique of past entertainment – the fertile, deftly minimalist palette of radio drama and the threadbare expressionist sketches of early television, the savoured fervour stoked in a time when expressions of nerdy obsession had to await the mailman bringing a magazine packed full of mind-expanding concepts and thrilling wonder stories.

Patterson’s more blatant cinematic gimmicks, his long, flowing takes and roving camerawork, doesn’t simply seek to offer impressive technique but actively work to maintain the same sense of dramatic intensity and unity that such models wielded. Patterson’s eye and ear for the place and time was genuinely admirable, his actors precise in nailing period mannerisms and speech patterns. Patterson alternated shows of camera dynamism, including an astounding travelling shot that seems to travel from one side of town to the other, with passages of deadpan minimalism, so neither felt strained. The key influence here was ultimately less Rod Serling or George Pal or even Steven Spielberg than David Lynch, quoting his estranged depictions of ‘50s small town environs with a destabilising event forcing the two protagonists to face hidden truths social, as one caller explores the racist use of African-Americans in cleaning up an apparent UFO crash, and historical, as an aged recluse recounts to them tales of such events going back to the Old West with an enigmatic influence at work. Amongst the many Lynch acolytes emerging this year, Patterson was the best because he used the influence most subtly. Only in his climax did he spurn his theatre-of-the-mind aesthetic and offer a glimpse of something straining for the startling and awesome but not quite landing it. Nonetheless his final shots reverted to a haunting tone and suggested the price for getting out of Nowheresville can be steep.

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Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

Given how many movies are made these days by directors who scarcely seem to have any concept of framing and staging, it’s a bit of a shock to watch a movie that consists of nothing less than perfectly crafted pictures, composed in depth and with care in lighting that turns a nominally gritty location and subject and location into the stuff of Renaissance art. The latest film from sporadic Portuguese director Pedro Costa unfolds in a dreamlike key, shot in a Portuguese shanty town filled with immigrants in a manner that makes it look like warren of menace out of a Val Lewton or Marcel Carne film, but the only ghosts and crimes are banal in scope, if never feeling so to those who have suffered them. The title character, played in neorealist fashion by a non-actor woman of the same name, arrives in Portugal from her home in Cape Verde to confront her dying husband, the man who abandoned her decades earlier, only to find he’s passed just before her arrival. Vitalina is left alone in his crumbling, sloppily-built house, eddying in a space of grief commingled with rage.

Costa’s films are known for their severe façades and themes of an unquiet past, mixed with empathy for the underclass. The film’s political undertow, meditating on the false quest for prosperity for immigrants, a siren song strong enough to sunder the most idyllic unions, meshes in a particularly lucid but unforced way with Vitalina’s experience, her own recollections of constructive partnership from the early days of her marriage contrasted with evidence of phthisic will and shrivelled personal passion, a contrast illustrated by two different houses. Costa richly humanises and endows palpable, even epic eminence to his outsider protagonist, Vitalina granted the blazing-eyed stature of a Greek tragic heroine whose ancient wounds hurt no less for their age. She’s also tormented not simply for being left behind but because she’s fed herself on her aggrieved hurt, her nursed grievance a source of strength and still-stinging bewilderment, frustrated that she cannot gain the confrontation and catharsis she deserved. Meanwhile she comes into contact with an aged, haggard priest consumed by his own lode of guilt and evil memory. Costa truly nails down the experience of grief, the aimless desire to wrestle with phantoms, the long nights of grinding, inchoate feeling, as well as the slow coming of healing, a process Vitalina forces along with customary rituals even when they seem utterly false. Some of Costa’s images, like Vitalina trying to seal up her roof during a storm, had a visual power barely seen in cinema since the heyday of expressionism.

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The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Corneliu Porumboiu is generally known for his dark, tough, stringent dramas about the ramshackle state of modern Romania. The Whistlers was a sharp change of pace for him, insofar that it’s a dark, tough, weird, often funny post-genre film about the ramshackle state of modern Romania. The plot had a uniquely clever point of departure, as Cristi, a corrupt policeman, is sent to the Canary Islands to learn from the locals their time-honoured art of communicating through whistling, so that he and his accomplices in a drug-dealing operation can communicate in a manner incomprehensible to surveillance. Along the way he’s thrown into the company of a beautiful femme fatale aptly named Gilda, forced to negotiate for their lives with clashing factions and dodge plots involving his confederates and even his own opportunist boss. Poromboiu had the gall to sell a bent cop enmeshed with some real scumbags as a protagonist on the understanding that in a bottomlessly corrupt society all bets are off.

Cristi is the hangdog embodiment of moral and mental exhaustion, the son of a former Communist party official who never benefited from his father’s honesty but everyone assumes he did anyway, left excruciatingly exposed when his mother finds his stash of illegal cash and gives it to the church. Porumboiu taps the constant experience of surveillance and intrusion for both dark humour and tension, in a film that walked the line between satire and straight-faced, sharp-edged crime drama, with evident political dimensions: his gang of dangerous and diversely motivated criminals becomes stand-ins for a dissident element. The early encounter between Cristi and Catrinel Marlon’s smoky beauty Gilda, which sees them forced to have sex to satisfy hidden cameras, is a quietly hilarious game of deception and misdirection through sexual illusion Brian De Palma might have been proud of, whilst the sarcastic nods to Western films throughout leads to a shoot-out in a movie set and a curtailed gunslinging match between the two major female characters. Eventually all the hero is left with is his new, peculiar language, but that proves to be the key to a happy ending where his one good deed gains a just reward.

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The Wild Goose Lake (Yi’nan Diao)

Like The Whistlers, The Wild Goose Lake used film noir conventions to anatomise a society in a moment of painful and dislocating transformation, in this case the grim and gritty zones of China’s developing but iniquitous cityscapes – Wuhan, no less – where money is the only motive that keeps its value but evanescent connections keep people tethered to each-other for a host of needling reasons. The Wild Goose Lake certainly fits in with a plethora of excellent recent Chinese films with similar preoccupations. Director Yi’nan Diao’s vision was certainly its own, particular thing, however, utilising the traditional noir theme of a manhunt, following a strong but dim gangster from an outfit specialising in stealing motor scooters, who kills a cop after a battle with rivals in his own gang. When a large reward is put out for his capture by the barely competent local police force and seeing no real way out, he tries to remain free long enough to contrive a way of making sure the reward money can go to the wife he abandoned years earlier. He finds himself thrust into the company of a deadpan and enigmatic young prostitute, who describes herself as his wife’s friend and emissary.

Diao’s woozy, fluid style avoided some of the more outright surreal touches offered by the likes of Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan in their ventures down this mean street, and yet he painted the story with flashes of electric strangeness, from the hooker washing off the antihero’s jism from her hand in lake water, to a young woman providing a sideshow attraction as a disembodied head in a box, and a gang of policemen converging on a felled gangster whilst all wearing fluorescent shoes glowing hallucinatory in the night. Such sights not only gave the movie its punch-drunk texture but also effectively described Diao’s thesis about modern China as a place filled with human rubble and where life and death have a perverse, almost acausal rhythm. Moments of bleak and gnawing irony, like a union meeting voting to see who gets sacked from a factory that mimics the conclave of hoods assigning turf from earlier in the film, rubbed against episodes of black comedy and vivid physical action John Woo might have been proud of, including one astonishing moment involving a creatively used umbrella. Underlying all this was an authentically noir sense of blasted solitude and tenuous human connection, building to a final revelation about the prostitute’s motives that finally drew the film’s serpentine emotional landscape as well as plot together. Vied with Vitalina Varela as the best-shot film of the year, too.

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Added to 2020 Favourites List after 1/1/2021

To be announced

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Honourable Mention

12 Hour Shift (Brea Grant)
Incitement (Yaron Zilberman)
The Nest (Sean Durkin)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

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Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Bad Hair (Justin Simien)
The Burnt Orange Heresy (Giuseppe Capotondi)
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (David Dobkin)
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
Greed (Michael Winterbottom)
Kajillionaire (Miranda July)
The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins)

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Disappointing and/or Overrated

Ammonite (Francis Lee)
Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Cathy Yan)
The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell)
The King of Staten Island (Judd Apatow)
Mank (David Fincher)
Palm Springs (Max Barbakow)
Tenet (Christopher Nolan)
Shirley (Josephine Decker)

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Crap

Capone (Josh Trank)
The Midnight Sky (George Clooney)
Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)

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Unseen

∙ Another Round ∙ Bad Boys 4 Life ∙ Beanpole ∙ Bill and Ted Face the Music ∙ Black Bear ∙ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm ∙ Butt Boy ∙ Cuties ∙ Deerskin ∙ Driveways ∙ The Father ∙ The Forty-Year-Old Version ∙ Fourteen ∙ Hillbilly Elegy ∙ The Hunt ∙ I Was at Home, But… ∙ I’m Thinking of Ending Things ∙ Let Them All Talk ∙ The Lodge ∙ Mangrove ∙ Martin Eden ∙ Minari ∙ Miss Juneteenth ∙ News of the World ∙ Nomadland ∙ The Old Guard ∙ The Personal History of David Copperfield ∙ Promising Young Woman ∙ Relic ∙ Saint Maud ∙ Soul ∙ Sound of Metal ∙ Swallow ∙ Tesla ∙ The Trip to Greece ∙ Tommaso ∙ True History of the Kelly Gang ∙ The Twentieth Century ∙ The Wolf House ∙ Wolfwalkers ∙

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The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2020

Deluge (Felix E. Feist)
I Married A Witch (Rene Clair)
On The Town (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
Phase IV (Saul Bass)
Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini)

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In Memoriam

∙ Orson Bean ∙ Honor Blackman ∙ Chadwick Boseman ∙ Wilfred Brimley ∙ Tim Brooke-Taylor ∙ Earl Cameron ∙ Sean Connery ∙ Gene Corman ∙ Linda Cristal ∙ Abby Dalton ∙ Sonia Darrin ∙ Olivia de Havilland ∙ Brian Dennehy ∙ Kirk Douglas ∙ Mort Drucker ∙ Rhonda Fleming ∙ Derek Fowlds ∙ Stuart Gordon ∙ Buck Henry ∙ Ian Holm ∙ Terry Jones ∙ Hugh Keays-Byrne ∙ Shirley Knight ∙ John Le Carre ∙ Michael Lonsdale ∙ Vera Lynn ∙ Ennio Morricone ∙ Daria Nicolodi ∙ Geoffrey Palmer ∙ David Prowse ∙ Helen Reddy ∙ Carl Reiner ∙ Little Richard ∙ Diana Rigg ∙ Kenny Rogers ∙ John Saxon ∙ Joel Schumacher ∙ John Shrapnel ∙ Jerry Stiller ∙ Max von Sydow ∙ Stuart Whitman ∙ Fred Willard ∙ Barbara Windsor ∙

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2020s, Auteurs, Comedy, Drama

On The Rocks (2020)

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Director / Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…well, sort of

Sofia Coppola’s latest film obviously harkens back to her breakthrough success with Lost in Translation (2003) in reuniting her with Bill Murray and casting him again as the well-lived father figure to a woman experiencing a tailspin of life purpose. But On The Rocks is far from just a sequel-cum-revision or an attempt to recapture old magic. Coppola’s seventh feature is an oddity. On one level I felt like it was another of the films she’s made in the past decade that hasn’t lived up to her potential and seems at first glance conspicuously unambitious; and yet at the same time it’s another that works some kind of extra-dimensional emotional kung fu on the attentive viewer. This simultaneous feeling, that Coppola is at once an underachiever and a remarkable film artist on a finite level, has kept me both wary of and engaged in her cinema. The spry, elegant, cultural tourist mode she explored in Lost in Translation and the post-modern historical pageant of Marie Antoinette (2006), still my favourites of her films, has nonetheless given way appropriately to attempts to ask more questions of scenarios involving characters on the losing end of situations defined by an excess of options and indulgences for others, and how they rebel.

On The Rocks is also the second film by a major director this year, after Woody Allen’s A Rain Day in New York, to chase what could be described as the cinematic equivalent of a Chet Baker vocal performance, jazzy in a dry, minimalist way, loping in intonation and self-deprecatingly melancholy: Coppola even opens the film with Baker singing “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” On The Rocks revolves around Laura (Rashida Jones), who at the outset is seen having just married Dean (Marlon Wayans), two good-looking young people on the cusp of great undertakings who duck out from their own reception and sneak through the halls of a palatial hotel. Finding a swimming pool fringed by brass statues and clinging ivy, Laura jumps in still wearing her veil to join Dean in the water, leaving a trail of her stripped bridal finery behind her. A lush and witty little vignette that nods to the high life fantasias of Coppola’s early films and her intrigued delight in the accoutrement of female sensuality, as well as offering a thumbnail for Laura and Dean’s early relationship, depicting an Edenic state they must inevitably fall from.

Cut to several years later: Laura is a writer with two kids, glimpsed after the title is flashed treading her way gingerly cross a floor littered with rubbish and picking it up with parental diligence. Dean is an entrepreneur, whose blurrily defined business is beginning to grow very successful and chew up more of his time, obliging him to jet off to locales like London and Mexico for “big deal” conferences and meetings. Laura, stuck in the domestic role despite having her own career purely by dint of being the one working from home, is stricken with writer’s block as she’s trying to work on a book she’s sold but not written, sitting at her computer but mostly staring out the window of their spacious Manhattan apartment. When Dean returns from a business trip to London, he finds her in bed and kisses her, only to retreat, seemingly surprised or disorientated by some aspect of the reunion. Disturbed, Laura begins to theorise that in his jetlagged state he thought she was someone else, someone he’s been having an affair with.

On The Rocks sees Coppola shifting from the Hollywood scenester mirth of Lost in Translation, Somewhere (2010), and The Bling Ring (2013), to the tonier climes of New York, a move that ironically threatens to rob her work of its specificity, great as she has been at describing the absurdities of celebrity culture whilst constantly noting something more ambivalent and pathos-charged behind it – the rich and famous are people too, you know. Whereas here Coppola incidentally moves into a stratum of American cinema that’s been growing of late set amidst the haute bourgeoisie of New York as practised by directors including Noah Baumbach, Tamara Jenkins, and Azazel Jacobs, directors laying claim to being Allen’s heirs as observational artists hovering in that specific milieu of the creative and pretentious and making movies blending drama and comedy. Unlike most of that breed Coppola doesn’t have a penchant for theatrically loquacious characters and has too elegant a filmic touch for the mumblecore crowd. Laura’s status as a generic, well-educated, arty-lefty type who could readily fit into such movies is part of the point here: she knows what a cliché she’s threatening to become, and moreover she has to be the stuck-in-the-mud counterpoint to Murray’s bon vivant.

Coppola’s deftly observational and satirical eye and ear are still fine-tuned enough to let her spin a movie out of a minimum of dramatic elements. Coppola wryly indicts Laura as the type who’s married to a swashbuckling black capitalist and has stickers for Bernie Sanders and Stacey Abrams on her apartment door. Early scenes depict Laura moving through a roundelay of big city mothers’ play groups and schools, and efficiently paint a phase of life as inevitable for most people as it is alternatively a joy and a chore, when one’s own wont is submerged in the business of corralling kids. In a recurring role reminiscent of Anna Faris and Leslie Mann’s hilarious character turns for Coppola, Jones’ former costar in the sitcom Parks and Recreation Jenny Slate appears as Laura’s acquaintance from such settings, Vanessa, who insists on narrating her dating life to Laura in such situations as cueing in school corridors: the whole arc of her latest, absurd relationship is charted in fragments. The crucial early scene of Dean’s suspiciously alien kiss is given a strong charge by the way Coppola films it, capturing the mood of somnolent and spacy intimacy, and then the lack of it: the key point of uncertainty that dogs Laura after this is whether Dean through he was kissing someone else or rather that he realised he wasn’t kissing the same person in Laura herself, that she is growing into someone she isn’t entirely sure she recognises.

Laura’s simmering anxieties are raised a few degrees when she lunches with her grandmother (Barbara Bain), her mother (Alva Chinn), and her sister (Juliana Canfield), who ask pointed questions about Dean travelling with his “new assistant”, actually his account manager, the posh and glamorous Fiona (Jessica Henwick). This potential liaison seems to gain some credibility when Laura finds a bag of Fiona’s stuff in his suitcase, which he claims she asked him to carry because her luggage was full. Later Laura attends a birthday party thrown for Dean at his workplace where she registers the discomfort of some of the women who work with him in meeting her, whilst Fiona presents Dean with his birthday cake. Laura rings her father, Felix (Murray), an art dealer by profession, gadfly and roué by habit, to ask him for his opinion: he unreservedly agrees with her suspicion, and dashes to New York to offer emotional support and investigate at the absolute faintest sign of interest, arriving outside her building in a town car with his stoic chauffeur Musto (Musto Pelinkovicci) behind the wheel.

Laura’s struggle with the fate of being inserted into the domestic realm echoes the theme of young women cocooned from the flow of life in The Virgin Suicides (1999) for whom self-destruction is ultimately their only gesture of self-actualisation. On The Rocks avoids such melodramatic gestures, preferring to posit itself as a tribute to jauntier old movies like George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient (1964), Blake Edwards’ farces, her own father’s You’re A Big Boy Now (1967), and the gadabout chic of ‘60s Italian cinema, in unleashing its dynamic father and daughter duo in a comedic romp around New York and, later, Mexico, trying to prove Dean’s perfidy. But On The Rocks ultimately isn’t that kind of movie: indeed it can be described as a movie about people who want to live in that kind of movie. Felix’s choice of roadster, a vintage red Ferrari, underlines the lineage, and for a few brief moments when Felix hits the accelerator and gives chase to Dean and Fiona in a taxi through the streets of Manhattan the fantasy becomes enveloping. Ultimately On The Rocks’ palette is more ironic and realistic. Felix is rich and cunning enough in handling people to live out such fantasies to an extent, but even he finds himself subject to consequences. That exhilarating cross-city chase ends abruptly when Felix is pulled over for speeding.

The film’s first dialogue, heard in voiceover over the black screen, presents Felix as laying perpetual claim to his daughter even as she’s about to marry. Two watches given as presents signify Laura’s dual fealties to father and husband. The elephant in the room when it comes to On The Rocks of course is the temptation to take it as a self-analytic struggle with being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and perhaps also her relationships with some famous beaux like Spike Jonze and Quentin Tarantino, high-powered male artists all. Sofia had dealt with the feeling of living in the shadow of a father whose very presence shifts the gravity of the world around him more allusively in earlier films but here directly contends with the theme of trying to forge a separate identity from a man who’s a genius at charming and dealing, whose ethos is extraordinarily hard to reject because it’s so blithely attractive on many levels. Coppola doesn’t however designate Felix as an artist, but rather a merchant of culture, so his adventures are immediately rendered less epic, despite his plain sense of pride and achievement as he recalls selling his first major artwork. Felix’s method of talking his way out of a speeding ticket, cleverly creating a sense of familiarity and intimacy between him and one of the cops through pretending to have known his father, depends on a certain roguish confidence that he can wriggle his way out of many a situation lesser mortals will be consumed by. “It must be very nice to be you,” Laura comments with sour amusement.

Laura’s conversations with Felix are regularly punctuated by his flirtations with waitresses and strongly charged encounters with some of his female buying clients as well as one of Laura’s fellow moms despite his advancing age. Laura is irked as she perceives how adroitly he weaves webs of contacts that allow him to sell artworks even whilst helping her out. Felix is a show that doesn’t stop, leading to the perhaps inevitable moment where Murray-as-Felix sings, regaling a crowd of tourists with a rendition of “Mexicali Rose” that walks along the edge of absurdity and yet keeps its footing. Of course, Coppola is also satiating the audience’s presumed desire to hang about with Murray, relaxing within the electron field of his dryly witty, pseudo-blasé persona whilst also harnessing it to make a deeper point about Laura’s journey. Felix’s skill with keeping people and children entertained is repeatedly evinced, including one shot where Coppola captures him sprawled like an Orientalist painting’s harem girl on the floor of Laura and Dean’s apartment with their kids in trying to teach them to play cards, completely relaxed in his personal bubble. Meanwhile he regales Laura with his opinions on the impossibility of sexual monogamy for men with facetious bravura: “That’s hardwiring. Keeping the species alive. The woman passes through an emotional filter. Man doesn’t pass through the emotional part. It goes directly from the eyes to the ass.”

Of course, as the film unfolds the self-serving edge to Felix’s rhetoric is gradually unwound, more about justifying his own appetites and lapses than arriving at some deep truth about human sense and sexuality. He likes reciting the kinds of scientific theories about sex and evolution Sunday newspaper editors love (“When we finally stood up two legs, it was the women with the rounded breasts that mirrored the haunches that were most exciting to the males.”) His advice on how to avoid losing a man to Laura is to retain her own sense of sexual worth and charisma, advice that Laura of course is having a small crisis in not being able to follow. In Lost in Translation Coppola’s avatar was similarly suffering through worrying about her husband’s fidelity and the problems of being subsumed into a marriage, but where there Murray provided a liquid-state all-purpose celebrity pal /father figure/boyfriend here Felix is a more specific dramatic creation, one reminiscent of the role Jim Jarmusch gave him as the aging lothario in Broken Flowers (2005). Laura’s decision to contact Felix after being weirded out by Dean proves more consequential than she suspects as he, actually rather lonely and bored, is all too happy to jet in from Paris to the rescue to energise and upset his daughter’s life, but what’s really in play is a story where father and daughter slowly work their way towards a reckoning that’s been a long time coming.

On The Rocks tries to deal with some states of mind and being that are by and large difficult to make movies about, something Coppola has managed before, achieved in such striking and sinuous contrast to her father’s grandiose visions of society and history as achieved in epics like The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now (1979), but not so far from some of Francis’ personal films like The Rain People (1969) or One From The Heart (1981). Sofia rejects even the stylistic grandeur of such movies: Coppola chases singular, crystalline portraits of emotional and psychological straits. More exasperatingly, On The Rocks faces a particular problem in that its core theme doesn’t feel fresh: in fact, it lies well over the border in a realm of the hoary. Tales about the offended offspring of carelessly priapic papas have been a dime a dozen from Gen X writers and directors, constantly avenging the allure of the missed sexual revolution with their latchkey kid angsts. What makes the film work, and partly if not entirely escape the scent of mould, is the way Coppola goes about telling it. Setting up the investigation theme almost inevitably proves to actually be a chance for father and daughter to come to terms with each-other and to reach a moment of catharsis, both characters projecting their neurotic impulses onto Dean who proceeds oblivious to the whole enterprise, and indeed emerges from the whole exercise smelling like a rose.

On The Rocks is a difficult film to pin down in giving an overall verdict because I both liked what it managed to pull off, whilst also wishing Coppola had developed it more. Laura’s emotional journey doesn’t compel as much as it might because it ultimately affirms her choices to an almost hermetic degree. On the other hand, it does manage to chart the mood of frazzled emotional tension and mental exhaustion that’s pretty accurate to the moment. It’s a movie that manages at once to be a break of escapism and one of piercing pragmatism. As a work of emotional autobiography the film feels at once like an addendum to her woozy remake of The Beguiled (2017), a film which didn’t work for me overall but certainly conveyed Coppola’s choice to leave behind the perma-adolescence that afflicted many of her earlier characters and contend, through the viewpoint of Kirsten Dunst’s repressed spinster losing the bloom of youth aroused and then terribly spurned by the fox in the henhouse, with the pains of getting older and losing what gave you hope without yet having gained what you need. On The Rocks pursues a similar evocation of questioned sexual self-worth whilst also wrestling with Laura’s sense of poisoned expectations of marriage.

Such expectations ultimately stem from Felix’s infidelity and break-up with her mother, and their conversations throughout the film zero in on this topic with increasingly revealing and truthful layers. Murray’s restrained but still potent showmanship dominates, but it’s Jones who has to stitch the film’s human drama together. Part of what hampers On The Rocks is that Laura isn’t a particularly entertaining or vital character: she’s a writer but her profession feels a bit too much like one of those jobs sitcom characters have, and too often Coppola uses her as the sounding board for Murray-as-Felix’s monologues. To be fair, that’s part of the point: I’ve known some wilted progeny of high-powered, egocentric personalities. Jones’ excellence, stuck with playing the potentially thankless role, forces it into focus. Jones expertly counters Murray in their game of acting chess with subtle body language, as in the way she stiffens and takes on a languid air of indulgence when Felix first starts off on one of his sexual theorems, and registering Laura’s air of forlorn panic as when Felix informs her that his sources have told him Dean bought something from Cartier’s, the sensation of her borderline irrational fantasies suddenly becoming more tangible and her face stretching out ever so finely as if all the blood in her body just fled down to her feet and nearly dragged her expression with it.

Laura registers Felix’s past actions as specific crimes against her sense of familial security whereas Felix describes them as the result of a simple parting of the ways between himself and her mother in terms of where their lives were heading, before noting with finite heartbreak that the woman he left her mother for, his former assistant and an artist, died earlier in the year, and becomes clear that Felix has reconnected with Laura because he desperately needs someone around to help ease his own sense of panic in mortality. It’s this steady, refined, almost imperceptible accumulation of personal and emotional detail that makes On The Rocks work. Coppola winnows the film’s emotional texture down to one astounding shot of one of Laura’s tears falling into her martini in languorous slow motion whilst Baker’s version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” murmurs on sound. This is close to Coppola’s finest, most exactingly crafted bit of directing to date.

The air of forlornly romantic desolation connects with the general adoration of New York as a physical and psychological space, shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd as a great bauble of glass and metal and colour, hovering always in promise and also alienation, much as Coppola filmed Tokyo and Versailles. Eventually Laura and Felix follow Dean to a Mexican seaside resort where they hope to catch him with Fiona, a place where Felix seems in his element regaling tourists with songs, casually arranging potential big sales, and calling greetings to new friends from the hot tub, whilst Laura sits locked in a Hopper composition in her bedroom, stewing in disquiet and detachment from the phony conviviality. The actual climax of father and daughter’s quest is gained in comedic diminuendo as Laura receives a cell phone call from Dean, who’s had to dash back to New York, just as she and Felix sneak up on his booked room where they’ve glimpsed Fiona swanning about. The film comes close to another major cliché in this sort of thing insofar as the film doesn’t quite reveal Fiona to be a lesbian, although she introduces Laura and Felix to her “friend” in equivocal manner.

But again Coppola rescues things by delivering a sly punch. The sting of humiliating self-revelation here proves perhaps worse than uncovering infidelity, as it shows Laura that her own neurosis and Felix’s glib propulsion have brought her to such an end. Laura soon unloads on Felix for taking things over and encouraging her worst impulses, and dresses him down for his many failings. “You can say it to my face now,” Felix says, in a brilliant little bit of acting from Murray, twitching ever so slightly as you see Felix forcing himself to turn off any temptation to retort or defend himself and withstand Laura’s upbraiding. “What happened to you?” Felix eventually does comment with a sad, isolated gaze: “You used to be fun.” Which might indeed be Coppola’s way of defusing that question of her own artistry: growing up is always a prickly, often joyless process. This sequence is also superbly shot by Le Sourd, capturing the strobing of lightning out to sea and the sparks of beachfront bonfires, wind-twisted curtains and jutting agave plants, touristy affectations of the picturesque accumulating genuine dreamlike beauty. Laura finally falls asleep on the waterfront and awakens in the bleary morning, forced to accept herself for company. The script doesn’t finally paint Felix as any sort of villain; quite the contrary, his confessions throughout eventually indicate that his rhetoric is a way of shielding himself from still-bewildering cruxes of behaviour where the real pain lies in the way he can’t quite see how they couldn’t have happened, even if he’s not exactly let off the hook. Ultimately, frankly, his pathos ultimately feels more substantial and intriguing than Laura’s.

The ultimate frustration of On The Rocks is that in spite of its quality and honesty you’re still left with the feeling Coppola could and perhaps should have done more with the themes and actors she has in play: too much of the film left me with the feeling of Murray and Jones caged when they should have been unleashed, the nods to exploiting their talents as farceurs left as just that, nods. Some of On The Rocks’ concluding shorthand gestures feel a bit obvious and vestigial, too. We know when Laura complains that she can’t whistle since giving birth she will be whistling very well by film’s end and it never stops feeling like a device. The symbolism of the swapping of watches, Felix’s vintage gift boxed away in favour of Dean’s flashy Cartier present, reminded me of the rather clunky opening of Somewhere that showed its hero literally going in circles: for a subtle artist Coppola can try a too hard. It could also be said that Dean ultimately never feels like a particularly convincing character. Wayans plays him well enough, broadcasting on a low-wattage frequency of affection for Laura that makes it difficult to take seriously the idea he’s really having an affair, but he’s still something akin to Schrodinger’s Husband. Dean could be revealed to be loyal or adulterous and either way it wouldn’t give him much defining characteristic and Laura is ultimately willing to think he’s unfaithful because otherwise he’s a bit too good to be true. The note of romantic mystery sounded at the outset, the arc of bewilderment and seeking sounded in that fateful kiss between husband and wife that opens up gulfs of identity to be explored, suggests possibilities that the film ultimately swerves around. Perhaps that’s a field of exploration for Coppola’s next film.

Standard
2000s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Scifi

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

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Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: David Koepp

By Roderick Heath

Orson Welles never completed the film adaptation of Don Quixote he embarked upon in the late 1950s, but he long harboured the perfect ending for it. Confronting Cervantes’ trio of eternal symbolic heroes with the terrors of the modern world, he intended to show them walking out of an atomic bomb blast unharmed. Faced with the prospect of updating their beloved adventurer Dr Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones Jr into the 1950s and ushering him through the same gate of apocalyptic potential, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had to face down the same looming threat of impersonal and indiscriminate power utterly alien to the essence of their mock-cavalier hero, even with his greater proximity to the nightmares of the mid-twentieth century, and came up with the same solution. Nineteen years after their third Indiana Jones film, Spielberg and Lucas brought their beloved hero back to movie screens for another dance around the world.

The new film came about after a lengthy, torturous development including multiple scripts by the likes of Jeb Stuart, Frank Darabont, and Jeff Nathanson, sported a leading man in his sixties with the former wunderkind filmmakers not far behind. Lucas, coming off his hugely successful but divisive Star Wars prequel trilogy, already knew the dangers in revisiting such totemic works, whilst Spielberg had largely resisted the temptation to rake over old ground. Hollywood had changed greatly in the intervening years. The rollercoaster-paced, vividly entertaining ideal for a certain kind of immensely popular genre cinema, a style Spielberg and Lucas essentially invented, had since colonised the Dream Factory and taken it over. Stakes had been raised, popular mythologies had supposedly evolved, and the kind of old-fashioned, epic-scaled, physically arduous production style Spielberg and Lucas had once been so adept at had given way to an era of CGI shortcuts and plasticised action enforced by more punitive censorship regimes. Where Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) had brazenly summarised several decades of pulp cinema and serial shenanigans, for many young viewers it was itself the archetype of that style. The new film was a big hit, but again received by many as a failure, even a disgrace, despite Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s emulation of a familiar approach as opposed to the attempt to create a more rarefied style for the Star Wars prequels.

The failure of the new Star Wars and Indiana Jones films to gain much favour with so many aficionados who had grown up with the sturdy early models perhaps pointed to the problems of trying to recapture the spark of youth. This is, ironically, a major theme of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a rare entry in the action-adventure genre, in that it contemplates the notion of the adventurer getting older, and finding himself an almost accidental paterfamilias where once he was the devil-may-care buck, in one of the most keenly personal and resonant variations on that common theme of Spielberg’s. When I first saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I liked whilst finding it awkward in certain aspects. The unwieldy title signals something of the long development and a piling up of ideas and elements reflected in the storyline left over from all those drafts. The movie also seemed to struggle with the strong temptation to revisit the material in a manner akin to a greatest hits collection in regards to the previous entries’ established formula, a temptation which, love them or hate them, the Star Wars prequels had for the most part avoided.

Since that first viewing however I’ve kept returning to and thinking about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and now it looks increasingly like not just the key film of Spielberg’s late oeuvre, but close to profound as a work of popular, blockbuster filmmaking. Fittingly, the first act of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is something of an act of archaeology in itself, both for its hero and the filmmakers. The eventual script was written by David Koepp, who had written Jurassic Park (1992) and War of the Worlds (2005) for Spielberg. The opening sequences immediately propose how personal the film will be as it presents the heady confluence of the original film’s pulp forebears with the youth culture burgeoning when Spielberg and Lucas were themselves children. Where Indy and the Boy Scout troop in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) slowly traversed the Fordian American landscape on horseback, the fastest thing around was the train. Next, a horse. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s opening moments offer a ’50s hotrod ripping across the dusty west at high speed, scored to Elvis Presley blaring ‘Hound Dog.’ Post-war youth culture has arrived, speed with it, things moving faster than sense.

The opening credit gag-fade that turned the Paramount logo into a real mountain in Raiders of the Lost Ark here is recapitulated as self-satire as the mountain this time becomes a gopher mound, small cute critters who respond to speeding vehicles much as the humans respond to atomic bombs and alien spaceships. Signs that the nuclear age has arrived already haunt the landscape: a rusting neon sign reading Atomic Café, which provided the title for an Oscar-winning, disturbing retrospective of the era in 1982, stands a blackly humorous shibboleth overlooking the desert. A Russian soldier pretending to be an American soldier driving the lead car of the convoy gives in gleefully to the temptation of racing the teenaged hotrodders, signalling the eventual anticlimactic breakdown of this geopolitical schism already even as it’s reconstructed. The undercover Soviets soon reach a remote air force base, revealed to be the ever-mythologised Area 51, where they kill the guards. Spielberg has the Russians best their Yankee imperialist running dog foes through a framing joke, gun-wielding Commies lined up behind their commandant Dovchenko (Igor Jijikine) and stepping out into view to shoot, like a cold mockery of the lined-up dancers at the start of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

The Russians break open a colossal hanger that anyone who’s seen Raiders of the Lost Ark immediately recognises as the same abode of redacted secrets the Ark of the Covenant was hidden away in at the end of that film. The lore of the Indiana Jones series is invoked but also teased in a manner that confirms a shift in focus: when the Ark is glimpsed peeking out of its broken box it’s left behind as just another relic, as the dramatic horizon has moved on from the awesomely atavistic to the awesomely futuristic. The wrath of Jehovah unleashed in Raiders of the Lost Ark now finds its human-hand analogue in the boiling fire of atomic bomb. One of Indy’s first lines of dialogue, in contemplating how he’s going to escape from a seemingly impossible jam, points up the crucial disparity immediately: when his friend and fellow former wartime spy George ‘Mac’ Michale (Ray Winstone), taken captive along with him whilst digging for relics in Mexico, notes in surveying the Russian soldiers bearing machine guns all around him that an escape won’t be easy, Indy admits, “Not as easy as it used to be.”

Of course, such an admission is immediately dispelled by a display of prowess from this most accomplished of survivors. Captured at the behest of psychic researcher and the late Josef Stalin’s “fair-haired girl” Col. Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), Indy is forced to locate nothing so arcane as the Ark but a casket containing the sealed remains of what seems to be an alien. Indy is one of the few people who knows anything substantial about the contents of the casket because he was one of the experts called upon to inspect it after the Roswell crash in 1947. Indy, with characteristic smarts and sly method, at once seems to serve his captors in tracking down the highly magnetic casket whilst also literally disarming them by convincing them to use their gunpowder to seek it out, plucking out just enough of their teeth to give him a fighting chance to escape. Indy is shocked when Mac proves to be in league with the Soviets and foils his gambit, protesting that “I’m a capitalist, and they pay.” Indy manages to flee anyway, making for what appears to be a nearby town, but instead proves to be a fake suburb built for an atomic bomb test about to go off.

The first half of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is deliberate in ticking off reference points rooted in the era of pop culture it engages as well as its own series lore. The series always subtextually linked its own surveys of and steals from a panoply of old movies and novels with Indy’s search for buried treasure, and Raiders of the Lost Ark had spun its alloy out of commenting on the young Movie Brats’ quests in tricking money out of monolithic and decaying old studios, outsiders becoming adept at playing insider games. Over the years however Indy slowly grew from a cheeky fantasy projection of masculine self-confidence and independence from some rather less than rugged young nerds to a character who has become Spielberg’s essential autobiographical figure, contending in his four adventures with the difficulties of being a son and a father, gaining a social conscience, battling fascism, and celebrating cultural inheritance. Each entry in the series gave something new to Indy: an adopted son in Temple of Doom, an estranged father in The Last Crusade, and finally in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a wife and a son of his loins. Initially in this film Indy is presented as a bit of a relic who’s recently lost his father and his former boss and best friend Marcus Brody in the last two years, and faces the betrayal of his other loyal pal Mac, whose actions not only sour the memories of his wartime heroism but put his patriotism under question as he’s grilled by a pair of obnoxious FBI agents (Joel Stoffer and Neil Flynn).

Indy’s battle to escape the Soviets sees him and Dovchenko fight in the first of repeat clashes throughout the film, only to both find themselves launched out into the desert night aboard a sled propelled by an experimental jet engine. The nuclear test village takes the film’s conflation of cliffhanger thrills and ironic self-assessment to a logical and almost cruelly sardonic extreme. Indy stumbles into a simulacrum of the suburban world Spielberg, Lucas, and much of the rest of their generation grew up in, and to which they pitched their movies, without ever quite fitting in. Indy finds himself in an illusory netherworld of friendly postmen and beaming housewives and Howdy Doody on the TV, confronted by the ideal nuclear family on a couch before the TV only to realise they’re mannequins, a Potemkin Village of post-war prosperity built to be incinerated. The homey perfection is plastic and insubstantial, erected in the desert, Spielberg’s ironically personalised and genre-revised take on the same joke in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), the American Dream realised just in time to be mightily wiped clean by the wrath of the god plutonium. It’s also a bogus version of a world that mocks Indy, an outsider in this settled, forcibly becalmed, conformist zone, a survivor from ye olde swashbuckling days, Greatest Generation hero forced to confront a world he’s missed sliding into, for better and for worse, even as the bite of some of his life choices is starting to sting. The bomb blows it all to smithereens, Indy saved only by packing himself into a refrigerator in another sly gag nodding to common urban scaremongering about lead-lined fridges and children getting themselves locked in them: death-trap hiding in plain sight becomes vessel of survival. The fridge is hurled clear across the desert even as the hellfire swallows up some of the Soviets who fled leaving him behind.

This sequence proved a focal point for fan complaint afterwards, accusing it of betraying the series’ relatively believable mould. Whilst indeed the series had offered glimpses of supernatural power and might burning through the substance of coarse reality, these displays were portrayed as something distinct from what the mere humans do, in a series that resisted the colossal spectacle of Lucas’ Star Wars films and instead wrung its thrills out of stuntmen hanging off vintage trucks. On the other hand, the series had also exhibited a rather post-modern edge to its understanding of the interaction between audience and disbelief, most famously the witty elision of the question as to just how Indy manages to hitch a ride on the U-Boat in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as the deep influence of silent movie stars who mixed slapstick with action like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Indy’s hilarious survival is offered as an episode of high slapstick comedy with an underside of absurdist meaning, more reminiscent in method of Richard Lester or Jerry Lewis. No, Indy should not survive an atomic blast, especially not in a fridge. Nevertheless. Spielberg acknowledges at once Indy’s smallness in the atomic age but also his persistence even in the face of such awful power: the world-spirit he represents and incarnates still lurches forth. Indy crawls out of the fridge relatively intact only to be confronted with the mushroom cloud billowing up into the sky, the power of suns now wielded by politicians, bureaucrats, and military men. This image finds its echo at the climax of the film in an example of Lucas’ “rhyming” ideal for mythic storytelling, as the image of technology as death gives way to the image of renewed awe, mystery, and hope.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull demanded Spielberg return to the kind of the filmmaker he had been in the ‘80s, not that anyone doubted he had lost his knack for it. But Spielberg was just coming off the most generally dark and fretful run of his career: Saving Private Ryan (1998), AI: Artificial Intelligence (2000), Minority Report (2002), War of the Worlds, and Munich (2006) all wrestled with the angst of protecting and losing children in social contexts variably fascistic and anarchic, only partly relieved by the politically slanted screwball comedy of The Terminal (2003) and the superficially fun but actually deeply anxious Catch Me If You Can (2002). The latter allowed a sidelong self-portrait of Spielberg in its young, wandering genius-shyster hero, who finishes up gazing in on an excluding mockery of his own home-restoring ideals, much as Indy encounters something similar in the nuclear village, whilst Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) takes on the mantle of confused young man trying to forge himself an identity. Spielberg tellingly uses Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to telescope the concerns of those movies and set something of a seal on his long-running theme of a family either found on the run or reforged through adversity. Likewise the film signals Spielberg’s shift to studies in post-war history and contemplation of Cold War-age vicissitudes in Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017), as well as the more historically remote but just as inquisitive Lincoln (2012), with their contemplation of different kinds of civic duty and the problems of how to avoid in resisting monsters becoming them.

The version of Indy presented here is at once instantly recognisable, his signature hat appearing on screen before he does, but also quite different to the iteration first glimpsed in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The sly, readily violent young rogue who somehow inhabited both bespectacled teacher and rugged soldier-of-fortune without cognitive dissonance, a man called a mercenary and a grave robber, has been supplanted by a wiser elder affirmed in his patriotic credentials, an Ike-liking war hero who now seems much less strange amidst the climes of Ivy League academia, but whose killer and professorial instincts can kick in at odd and apposite moments. Time mellows us all, apparently, but this all also signals that Indy’s life has certainly added up, that he has become something at the expense of losing other things. Stanforth notes with gravity, whilst Indy glances at photos of Brody and his father, that they seem to have “reached the age when life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” Naturally, the rest of the film dedicates itself to disputing that proposal.

Most intriguingly, Indy’s maturation has made him more aware and open to transcendental experience than he ever was when young: where Indy did not dare to look at the open Ark and risk Jevohah’s judgement, he keeps his eyes and his mind wide open for the grand and transformative here. Acknowledgement of shifted geopolitics is casually tossed in, as now Indy considers going to teach in Leipzig after he’s fired for political reasons in the good old USA. Indy’s success in escaping his Commie captors to alert the government nonetheless sees him become the object of suspicion in a Reds-under-the-bed age, with even the intervention of General Scott (Alan Dale), a former commander, insufficient to ward off the spectre of blacklisting. Indy finds himself suspended from teaching and only retaining pay thanks to the valiant self-sacrifice of Brody’s successor as Dean of Indy’s workplace Marshall College, Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent), who admits to resigning to swing it. Before Indy can leave on a train, he’s chased down by Mutt, a greaser riding a motorcycle, introduced in a shot carefully patterned after Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). Another pop culture archetype in the mix, this one the devolved but still potent echo in the post-war rebel of the old frontier dream.

Mutt wants Indy to help him find his missing mother Mary and her friend Harold “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt), a former pal and colleague of Indy’s: Mary went missing seeking Ox, but managed to send Mutt a letter filled with incomprehensible scrawlings and quotations connected with Ox’s supposed discovery of a crystal skull resembling other Pre-Columbian artefacts. Soon enough Indy realises they’re being shadowed by KGB agents who chase them through the campus, but fail to stop them flying south and following Ox’s garbled instructions. These lead them to an ancient cemetery above the Nazca Desert where Indy unearths the crystal skull, buried with the remains of the fabled conquistador Francisco de Orellana, whose obsession with gold led him to search for a lost city called Akator: the skull seems to have been brought with de Oellano and his men from the city. But locating and retrieving the skull proves only to be what Spalko had hoped for, as Mac and Dovchenko take Indy and Mutt prisoner and spirit them to Spalko’s encampment in the Amazon jungle. There they find Ox captive in an apparently lunatic state, along with Mutt’s mother who, not too surprisingly, turns out to be Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s old flame.

The Indiana Jones series stands as both an exemplar of popular movie entertainment but also one that suffered to a degree in being scared of itself. Whilst Raiders of the Lost Ark is the more perfect movie, with its lean, mean, virtuosic sense of narrative motive joined to thrill-mongering, the series surely reached its height in the second half of Temple of Doom with its total, fervent, almost lunatic embrace of tapping childhood ideals and fears in relation to a parental image. Indy veers from subordinated villain to messianic hero, as his dark side is ritually cleansed in a manner that also resembles a child’s bewilderment when they perceive a parent’s dark side for the first time, before the action unleashed becomes a compulsive battle of good and evil. This was played out in an Arabian Nights fantasia built from an unstable blend of imperialist adventure tropes, Hammer horror imagery, and old Hollywood B-movie chic, all bashed into a coherent shape by Spielberg’s all-pervading sense of cinematic spectacle. There was also the first glimmerings of his interest in social conscience and subjugation-liberation themes, which would lead on to movies like Schindler’s List (1993) and Amistad (1997), and Indy’s journey in the film also reflects the maturation from a seeker of “fortune and glory” to a man with a potent sense of righteous anger. Some complaints, that it revived racist clichés and offered too frightening a stew for a young audience, had a valid aspect, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that in denying the film’s dangerous, antisocial edge Spielberg and Lucas were denying a vital streak in their creativity for the sake of remaining acceptable.

When Raiders of the Lost Ark plundered hoary old stories and movies the filmmakers felt confident their audience would take such backdated tropes as camp, but ironically such recognition grew less sure over time. The complaints unleashed obliged Spielberg and Lucas to file down the franchise’s teeth for The Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: the latter, the filmmakers readily admitted, patterns itself more after the The Last Crusade than the first two films. But Kingdom of the Crystal Skull finally accrues a tone closer to a Jules Vernian adventure along the lines of Captain Grant’s Children than to the serial movie mould that initially defined the series as a tale of globetrotting and reunion, and film versions of Verne like Henry Levin’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), which is directly quoted at the end. Douglas Slocombe, who had filmed the first three films for Spielberg with a signature look balancing almost expressionistic effects with shadow and light with rich colour palettes, had retired, so Spielberg’s favoured new cinematographic collaborator Janusz Kaminski, whose shooting style usually quelled and mediated colour effects, offered his own, lushly textured variation. The animated camerawork nonetheless also often keeps its distance from events and actors, with Spielberg working through a fascination for master shots containing multiple planes of arrangement for actors, carefully setting the scene for when action erupts along horizontal lines of pursuit.

Whilst it has problems in terms of pacing its plot, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is on a deeper level a master class in how to directorially pace more fundamental business, to pack a movie with curlicues of humour and context-enriching flourishes. The film is close to relaxed in places, suborning action-adventure thrills to letting its heroes and villains work through their various obsessions, and yet there’s scarcely a second wasted in making some sort of point about them as well as the genre and historical setting they inhabit. The scene of Mutt’s development of something like rapport with Indy plays out in a diner adjoining the college where young collegians and greasers, is abound with deft bits of business as Mutt’s forced shows of attitude and condescension as an avatar of a cocky new generation contends with Indy’s sanguine cool and sense of paternalistic propriety. Spielberg quotes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as Mutt tries to steal a beer surreptitiously from a waitress only for Indy to replace it, even as their conversation on other matters unfolds. Mutt keeps his obsessively maintained pompadour rigid by dipping his comb in some luckless student’s Coke.

The attempt by KGB agents to take them prisoner obliges some quick thinking, as Indy gets Mutt to thump a “Joe College” and spark a brawl between collegians and greasers to give them a chance at a getaway. The idea of staging an action sequence around the environs of Indy’s workplace is so great it’s a wonder the series never found a way of working one in before, with Indy and Mutt riding his motorcycle, battling and outrunning the pursuing goons and finishing up sliding across the floor of the college library to the consternation of students. This scene is again flecked with an astounding number of throwaway yet substantial touches. Mutt’s punch sparks a schism between the two camps of youth culture, squares and rebels, which allows another struggle, with all its geopolitical and culture war overtones, to unfold unhindered. The chasers careen through an anti-Communist demonstration, a last gasp of cultural centrism on campus before the oppositional tilt kicking in in the 1960s. One of the chasing KGB teams finishes up foiled by the decapitated head from a statue of Brody, and the sequence finishes in a comic-heroic diminuendo with Indy advising preferred historical models to one of his students before advising him to get out of the library even as he and Mutt ride the motorcycle out the door.

The journey to Chile in following Ox’s clues sees Indy and Mutt generating a tentative working partnership, Indy bewildered by Mutt’s worshipful treatment of his motorcycle, Mutt slowly working up a level of respect for the guy he first calls “old man” as Indy recounts adventures with Pancho Villa as a youth (allowing one priceless bit of character business as Indy remembers to spit on the ground after mentioning the name of Victoriano Huerta). Their arrival at the ancient cemetery sees them set upon by mask-wearing, martial arts-adept natives who try killing them with poisoned darts, leading Indy to surprise one by blowing the dart back up his pipe into the assassin’s mouth. Indy and Mutt’s penetration of the tomb sees Indy dealing expertly with problems familiar to him that still terrify Mutt. But Mutt displays his own edge of diligence as he successfully shames Indy for purloining a knife from one of the dead conquistadors in a manner quite reminiscent of old, cavalier approach to such things. When the duo finally do find de Orellana and his men, buried in preserving grave wrappings in a Mayan style, they also find the crystal skull Ox hid away, a confounding object impossible to manufacture and possessed of bewildering magnetic properties towards all metals. Indy deduces that Ox discovered the tomb and the skull, and returned the skull in a desperate attempt to mollify its powerful but inchoate, to him at least, psychic demands.

The elastic snap between frivolity and melodrama, character byplay and plot service throughout much of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might well represent that closest Spielberg has come since Jaws (1975) to truly honouring his cinema’s precursors in Ford and Howard Hawks, particularly those filmmakers’ loosely-structured, Shakespearean Pastoral-like late films like Hatari! (1962), Donovan’s Reef (1963), and El Dorado (1966). Indeed, whilst auteurist critics eventually rescued those films from the dustbin of regard and recognised their richness, they too were largely dismissed initially as shabby throwaways by titans slipping towards senescence. Such movies follow their characters in exploring a contest of personalities at once fractious but also fused together by bonds of camaraderie and codes of honour, driven out to contend in the wilderness but in search of a homecoming. El Dorado most crucially dealt similarly with aging heroes who find themselves commanding a ragged band of young surrogates and new partners. The major difference between Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and such models is that Spielberg tries to mate their ambling, barely narrative form with the rolling set-piece structure the Indiana Jones films took from classic serials, not the easiest styles to blend.

This might partly explain the relative awkwardness of the film’s middle act, which keeps seeming to build to new eruptions of action, as Indy and Mutt delve into de Orellana’s grave and attempt escape from the Soviet jungle camp, but both situations end with frustration, the latter devolving into farce as Indy and Marion stray into a quicksand pit and the deranged Ox, sent for help, fetches the Russians. The major difference between Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its forebear Raiders of the Lost Ark lies in precisely this disparity. Where once Spielberg and Lucas had their hero crawl under a truck specifically because it was a cool thing to do, and Indy was invented entirely to be a figure who did such things, the action scenes in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull instead serve largely the opposite purpose, deployed to draw out the characters, to dramatize and visualise their essence as people and links with each-other. The chase through Marshall and the later pursuit through the jungle are rolling acts of meeting and reconciliation, maturation and discovery. The quicksand scene becomes a moment of crucial revelation as Marion tells Indy Mutt is his son (“Why didn’t you make him stay in school?” Indy demands immediately, after telling Mutt dropping out was fine if it suited him), blended with less momentous but equally felicitous shading as Indy speaks like both a teacher and a man of experience as he contemplates the actual threat level of the sand, and is forced to temper his old phobia as Mutt tries to save his life by using a python as a rope.

The actual storyline is a giddy mishmash of ideas, particularly the ancient astronaut theory mooted by Erich von Daaniken in his 1969 book Chariots of the Gods?, a book that helped kick off a burgeoning fascination with new-age esoterica in subsequent decades. Such notions always had a troublingly racist scepticism over technological and architectural achievements by “primitive” civilisations, but also captured imaginations by suggesting deeper, more fantastical influences and forces at work in history. This is mixed with authentic pieces of modern folklore like Stalin’s interest in psychic research, and contentious artefacts like probably faked crystal skulls “discovered” by various archaeologists including Anna and F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. All this entails a shift away from the vital thread of the earlier films in the series, where religious and mythical truth subsisted like a secret river of wonder. That river flowed under the apparent solidity of Indy’s mythologised 1930s world, hovering as it did between the classical and the properly modern, where Judeo-Christian and Hindu mysticism were place on a level footing and genuine historical quests and enigmas were used as linchpins for the stories. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull nonetheless still invokes the same pattern, taking on the myth-crusted history of de Orellana, who gave the Amazon its name, and his search for cities of gold, the search for raw satiation of greed and the hunt for transcendental wonder not easy to separate. The eventual revelation of an alien influence connects easily with Spielberg’s exploration of divine seeking through the prism of UFO mythology in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spalko theorises that the smaller, less advanced aliens retrieved from the Roswell crash are relatives of the beings who built Akator, and the crystal skull itself contains some remnant of intelligence that retains incredible potency, reducing Ox to apparent lunacy and, when Spalko forcibly exposes Indy to its influence, commanding him to take it to Akator.

Marion’s reappearance in Indy’s life immediately stirs their oldest reflexes of attraction and aggression as their first encounter in decades before a crowd of onlooking Soviet soldiers becomes an instant verbal battle laced with screwball comedy postures, Marion’s fierce declarations that she’s had a “damn good, really good life” charged with protest-too-much electricity. A core pleasure in the film is seeing Allen’s undimmed smile as she feels the old Indy charm again. Substituting Indy’s familiar Nazi enemies for Soviets was a pretty obvious direction to go in, although they just don’t have the same crackle of instant enmity. It’s hinted that Spalko represents a kind of holdout faction of fanatical Stalinists, their commander representing intellectual avarice detached from any kind of social accountability even as she sees herself as a warrior for her political faith, whilst Dovchenko is a straightforward thug who gives Indy plenty of motivation to resist him by casually shooting American soldiers (“I’m sorry – drop dead, Comrade”). That Spielberg can’t quite take his Commies as seriously as villains is still plain as he offers the soldiers dancing the kazatchok around their jungle campfire, perhaps fitting in a movie that’s less about pure evil and more about clashing forces of imperial arrogance and cultural domain in an age defined by moral ambiguity.

Some don’t like her, but to me Spalko presents Indy with his fittest antagonist since Belloq, a strident blend of cerebral and physical honing, a haughty egotist (“Be careful, you might get exactly what you want.” “I usually do.”) supposedly representing egalitarianism whose first insult to Indy is casually kicking aside a handful of relics he and Mac dug up out in the desert: not even Belloq was that barbarian. Spalko seeks out atavistic knowledge purely in the interests of gaining control over the future, spelling out a delightful bullet point of potential uses for harnessing the apparent psychic force of the aliens to “place our thoughts into the minds of your leaders, make your teachers teach the true version of history,” loaning substance to decades of the most deeply paranoid fantasies about Communist infiltration. Spalko resembles Garbo’s Ninotchka reborn as a post-gender dominatrix who hands Mutt his ass on a plate but proves to have her own limits when even she is rendered queasy and terrified by a horde of erupting soldier ants. Blanchett’s elegant, witty performance expertly captures the cartoonish aspect of the character but also fully inhabits her too, equipped as she is with a Louise Brooks-as-Lulu hairdo and a sword on her hip that stands to attention like a mock erection when she gets too close to the alien remains she so eagerly seeks. The edge of vaguely sexual tension between her and Indy is also new, good touch, with Spalko’s sense of imperiousness extending into that realm too as she keeps trying to penetrate his mind with her psychic talents, only to keep meeting his mused disdain. “You’re a hard man to read, Doctor Jones,” she comments whilst giving his face a patronising pat, and later places her hands seductively on his thighs as she again tries to mind-rape him. This moment plays out as something of a sarcastic inversion of Marion’s scenes contending with Belloq’s overtures whilst his prisoner in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Broadbent, Winstone, and Hurt extend Spielberg’s penchant for great British character actors brought in to augment the team, although the actors’ roles don’t really require such talents. Regardless, Hurt is a delight as the crazed Ox, whose communing with the skull has left him a cosmic conduit with the switch stuck on, hands writing complex messages whilst his mouth pours forth babble. It’s fun seeing Winstone in a different kind of part compared to the bruisers he usually plays, as the inherently likeable yet deeply shifty Mac. The character does serve a solid purpose in representing the temptation to surrender to the inherent ambiguity of the age that Indy must resist. But the film trips repeatedly over the problem of what to do with him, his confession to being an undercover CIA agent infiltrating Spalko’s team later proving to be another fraud: “What are you, some kind of triple agent?” “Nah, I just lied about being a double.” Winstone at least plays him cleverly enough so that no matter how duplicitous he gets he still seems more a jovial rogue than a real villain, and when he finally gets his punishment, sucked into a vortex of interdimensional oblivion, there’s the feeling that his last, confident pronouncement that “I’m gonna be all right,” might still turn out true, somewhere, somewhen.

Mutt’s choice of nom-de-guerre is a clever touch in itself, suggesting both sarcastic pride in playing the outlaw bad boy even though he’s actually a private school reject, whilst also nodding to the way Indy preferred his family dog’s name to his own (and its real source in Lucas’ pet dog). Both father and son struggle through realising new dimensions to their identity. LaBeouf had earned a deal of general enmity for his overbearing performances as the whiny shit somehow anointed as galactic hero in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, and it’s fair to say he never makes a convincing inheritor for Ford (who could be?). But LaBeouf is nonetheless actually very good as Mutt, leaving behind junior Woody Allen neuroticism for a deft portrayal of a wannabe rugged type who’s not quite there yet, humiliated occasionally in his efforts to seem up to the task but also making sterling shows of intelligence and gumption whilst also trying to hold character, as when he takes a moment, when Spalko threatens to torture him to make Indy give up information, to make sure his hair is perfect again before inviting her to do her worst. Mutt also has flashes of real concern and pity for Ox, who has served as something of a surrogate father figure for him, that reveal the deeper, maturing man within. Indy’s own, more fractious relationship with Ox is summarised as he tries to get through to him: “You were born in Leeds, England. You and I went to school together at the University of Chicago and you were never this interesting.”

As for Ford himself, his career and reputation had been waning although he was still a top leading man in the late 1990s and early 2000s, from frowning his way through too many lacklustre vehicles. Returning to playing Dr Jones, whilst not entirely free of moments where he strains to hit the same old cocky charm, nonetheless did much to revive him, and the quality of his performances in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Blade Runner 2046 (2017) owe much to the way he connected his aging self to his younger here. The sight of a sixty-something rumbling has its silly side and yet fits the character to a certain extent. Indy was always defined by both his durability but also his undeniable physical realism, a man who most definitely felt the pains of his exertions afterwards, whilst here he seems more energised, more angrily potent, the more knocks he tales: grant me an old man’s frenzy indeed. The performance works ultimately because the film allows Indy’s funny side to come to the fore, as Ford is particularly good when Indy struggles through his new family troubles with an amusing blend of outrage and pathos. The worms finally turn as Indy, Mutt, and Marion ride in a Soviet truck as Spalko’s team follow the clues Indy deciphers from Ox’s ravings towards Akator, a road-clearing engine leading a convoy through the depths of the Amazon.

A family argument rages as the trio accost one-another for betrayals and absences, Mutt’s own discovery that Indy is his father comes with its own edge of shock, forced to reconfigure his view of himself as emulating the wild and doomed pattern of his stepfather, a fighter pilot who died during the war, rather than “some teacher.” When the annoyed Dovchenko moves to silence Marion, Indy and Mutt, squabbling tooth and nail a second before, work in perfect concert to knock Dovchenko out and free themselves from their bonds. Indy’s totemic confession to Marion about the other women in his life – “They all had the same problem, they weren’t you, honey” – proves the elusive key to both healing the rift and powering them all up for a battle with the Soviets, Indy blowing up the road engine with a rocket launcher and sparking a frenetic chase through the jungle and down the river to the fringes of Akator. This sequence is one of my favourite action interludes in any movie: god knows how many times I’ve thought of it whilst wading through others with their variably shapeless roundelays of punching and shooting and gibberish editing or lack of any invention in the way the action unfolds.

Whereas here, again, Spielberg offers a master class in how to do this sort of thing, with beautifully coherent lines of action matched to flowing, dashing camera work, the customary fisticuffs packed with humour and flashes of absurdism. Far too much, many carped, but there’s also a madcap ferocity apparent in touches like Spalko firing off a heavy machine she clings to in a desperately messy attempt to take out Marion behind the wheel as they careen through the bush. The two factions try desperately to capture the skull, Indy and Marion using speed and manoeuvring and the jungle cover to foil their enemies’ firepower. Mutt’s mooted talent for fencing is brought to bear as he and Spalko face off standing on the backs of speeding jeeps, turning the fight into a rite of passage for the next generation. Indy grins in fatherly approval; Marion instructs his fencing like a stage mom. Mutt does well but is teased by Spalko for fighting “like a young man – eager to begin, quick to finish,” and gets more literally blue-balled as he keeps getting whacked in the crotch by stems beneath, before Spalko wallops him properly with some expert judo.

Mutt gets his own back swinging through the trees Tarzan-style with a horde of mimicking monkeys, and manages to snatch away the skull, whilst Indy gets into a tooth-and-nail brawl with Dovchenko who finishes up being dragged into a nest of colossal ants after Indy finally knocks him on his ass amongst them. Marion gets her own crazy brainwave and drives the amphibious vehicle she’s commandeered with all her charges off a cliff into a huge tree’s bowers, letting it deliver them gently into the river, only to then plunge over a triple waterfall. Spielberg punctuates with dramatic dolly shots onto Spalko’s face as she realises a fired-up Jones is going to be one hell of a crimp in her plans, matched later as she draws her rapier to do battle with full, murderous commitment to the swashbuckling. John Williams’ scoring is particularly strong in capturing just the right tone in this scene, his familiar heroic strains momentarily interrupted by a lapse into Slavic reels as a nudge in the ribs alert to not just the not-so-secret edge of the pantomime to all this but also the dance-like orchestration of movement. Much complaint was also made about the amount of CGI used to augment aspects of this sequence, which has a valid edge again. But then, the series had never been shy of special effects, nor had its precursors and influences, and the visual texture resembles the matte paintings utilised in earlier films imbued with mobility.

The horde of monstrous ants that torment the heroes and villains alike suggests homage to Byron Haskin’s The Naked Jungle (1953). Whilst Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does play a pretty clean game in terms of gore, compared to the delightfully infamous excesses of the first two films, at least the image of Dovchenko being swallowed up by the critters, like the blowback dart earlier in the film and Spalko’s death by brain fry later in the film, offer a tasty reminder of the Indy’s, and his films’, willingness to play a bit dirty and flirt with horror visuals. The absurdism hits a new height as the heroic team plunge over the waterfalls in a Keatonesque sequence that concludes with the sight of Marion still clinging to the steering wheel of the amphibious vehicle after washing up ashore. After surviving the journey the adventurers enter the surrounds of Akator, where they have to brave the fearsome native trustees who guard it and penetrate its deepest vaults, entering the central pyramid via a gateway opened through releasing sand from underneath a monolith.

It’s only here that I find the film starts to develop a real problem, not because it slows down but rather because it perhaps ought to. Koepp’s script keeps letting his heroes use the skull to unlock barriers, including parting the guarding army of natives, rather than finding new and clever ways through each challenge. The final movement of The Last Crusade retains tremendous affection from its fans for the way it entwines clear and urgent character stakes whilst shifting from swashbuckling to something more subtle, as the quest engages Indy’s learning and mental prowess as well as physical bravery. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is more straightforward, lacking surprise and cleverness, except for when Indy works out how to penetrate the pyramid in a touch that again tips its hat to a model, this time to Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955). Otherwise what we get on the approach to what Lucas’ inspiration Joseph Campbell called the innermost cave feels a little too much like one of the series’ video game imitators like Tomb Raider.

When the heroes and villains both penetrate the inner chamber where the collective of alien skeletons still reside and reform into a gestalt projection, Spalko and Mac meet their comeuppances, both foiled by their divergent brands of greed, and the aspect of the series influenced moralistic fairy tale returns. Spalko has her brain burned out by the relentless flow of knowledge the alien collective exudes, a fate wittily mediated by Spalko’s almost erotic revelry as streams of psychic energy pierce her being but eventually, literally blow her mind, her mantra “I want to know!” finally gaining orgasmic climax as flames sprout from her eyes. The parochial quality to the film’s ultimate moral – “Knowledge was their treasure,” Indy declares after realising the aliens were archaeologist like him in collecting artefacts – is at once corny but also fits its surrounds like a glove: the aliens ultimately vindicate Indy’s faith in his metier. And if the immediate scenes preceding lack the feeling of real novelty, Spielberg nonetheless makes up for it and then some, with his crescendo image of the alien craft buried under Akator rising out of the ground. The pyramid and city disintegrate as a churning whirlwind grows, a colossal, silver flying saucer rising amidst flying stony debris before vanishing. Debris falls back to earth when free of the gravity flux in a thunderous rain of stone and the Amazon River is unleashed in a deluge through punctured gaps in fringing hills, slamming down upon the ruins and drowning them.

This is certainly Spielberg’s most direct emulation of one his eternal filmic touchstones, the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956). It’s also the counterpoint to the sight of the atomic bomb, with Indy again framed as dwarfed yet determinedly witnessing as the rules of reality are again rewritten, this time opening vast new horizons of experience rather than merely threatening doomsday: the eternal trade-off of modernity encapsulated in one great arc of vision. This shot also resolves the film’s visual language, the recourse to fluid master shots throughout finally gaining ultimate context as Spielberg presents this image of wonder in one, fixated, brilliantly executed shot that binds the cosmic and the human, locating the essence of cinematic spectacle in the direct gaze. The coda resorts to a wryly campy but also fulsome portrayal of homecoming and restoration. Indy is made Associate Dean and marries Marion before approving guests including Mutt, Ox, and Stanforth, Marion kissing her husband with merry lustfulness that startles the old roué. Mutt picks up Indy’s wind-toppled hat from the church floor only for Indy to pluck it from his grasp on his way out. Not quite yet, son. The deep-veined richness of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fact that it really only uses genre thrills to hang its delight with life’s wayward adventure upon, perhaps indicates why it aggravated people seeking more monotone pleasures, but also stands as reason why, like its hero, its best days still wait before it.

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1980s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Horror/Eerie, Thriller

Dressed To Kill (1980)

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Director/Screenwriter: Brian De Palma

By Roderick Heath

Brian De Palma was the first of the so-called “movie brats” to emerge, a young technical wizard who won a prize at a science fair whilst still in high school for a project titled “An Analog Computer to Solve Differential Equations.” Whilst studying physics at college he fell under the spell of cinema and soon changed his major. Collaborating with drama teacher Wilfred Leach and producer Cynthia Monroe, De Palma pieced together his first feature, The Wedding Party, at 23 years of age, employing two young, then-unknown actors, his friend Robert De Niro and Jill Clayburgh. The film wouldn’t see release for six years, so in the meantime De Palma developed his craft with documentaries, particularly The Responsive Eye (1965), about an art exhibition, and Dionysus in 69 (1969), an account of a radical theatre group staging Euripides. His return to feature cinema, Greetings (1968), became a cult object in recording the weird and woolly environs of Greenwich Village bohemia, whilst Murder a la Mod (1968) exhibited the first glimmerings of De Palma’s love for making horror films and violent thrillers, if still within the official brackets of an arthouse-experimental sensibility.

De Palma soon began climbing the slippery pole towards mainstream stature with Sisters (1973), a darkly funny remix of Hitchcockian motifs that signalled De Palma’s unique and sly way of balancing his ironically parsed theorems of cinema with a capacity to serve the genre film market. His gaudy, would-be breakout film Phantom of the Paradise (1974) failed at the box office only to once again gain cult status, and it wasn’t until his film of Stephen King’s novel Carrie (1976) that De Palma arrived as a commercial force. Dressed To Kill, one of De Palma’s biggest hits from the height of his career and possibly his greatest film purely from a formal viewpoint, is also one of his most layered and illusive works in an oeuvre littered with densely composed exercises in cinema aesthetics. Part film fetishist tribute-cum-assimilation of Hitchcock and the Italian giallo subgenre and its notables like Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, and Giuliano Carnimeo, it’s also a darkly humorous piece of sociological and sexual satire, and a particularly twisted piece of autobiographical meditation on De Palma’s part, a hall-of-mirrors gag that dares the viewer to separate fantasy from reality, art from artist.

The opening scene, like much of De Palma’s cinema, works like a musician’s variation on a theme, referencing both the legendary shower murder of Psycho (1960) and De Palma’s opening for Carrie, which trod with faux-sentimental/exploitative sensuality through the burgeoning dreamworld of a high school girls’ changing room only to violate the image with a handful of red menstrual blood, the shock of sexuality registering in its most primal fashion disturbing both the evoked prurience of ‘70s cinema culture and the strictures of the title character’s religious background. Dressed To Kill kicks off with busting other taboos, presenting frustrated upper-middle-class housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) showering with languorous sensuality, fixing on her husband whilst he shaves, and begins masturbating in a swirl of soap and steam and erogenous delight. De Palma mocks the grammar of soft-core porn and erotic showmanship, Dickinson gazing at her husband who doesn’t notice/audience who can’t help but watch, with Pino Donaggio’s score pouring romantic syrup on the images filmed in estranging slow-motion, busting the basic niceties of mainstream cinema in going for unavoidable shots of Miller’s hand caressing her crotch. The fantasy is cruelly severed as a dark, masculine figure surges out of the steam and grips her in a violent, seemingly murderous embrace.

This shock gives way to Kate emerging from sleep to find her husband Mike (Fred Weber) on top of her in the marital bed, giving her what Kate later describes to her therapist as one of his “wham-bang specials,” a bout of uninspired humping concluded with a patronising pat on the cheek. Fantasy sexuality collides with its reality, the onerousness of brute masculinity clasping Kate in her dream and dragging her back into banal fact, whilst also presaging her imminent intersection with a murderer. Kate contends with another disappointment as her teenage son Peter (Keith Gordon) is preoccupied with a computer he’s building on his school vacation, and wriggles out of coming with her on a trip they’d planned to the Metropolitan Art Museum. Kate leaves him to it after extracting a promise to not work all night, and heads off to an appointment with her therapist, Dr Robert Elliott (Michael Caine). Kate confesses her frustrations and resentments to the smooth, solicitous Elliott, who readily admits to finding Kate attractive when she prods him on the issue.

Obsessive tunnel-vision is of course one of the constant threads of De Palma’s cinema, usually manifesting in terms of desire – characters, usually male, too preoccupied with women, although here reversed both in Kate and her hunt to get off, and Peter, whose laser-focused geekiness distracts him from the business that preoccupies everyone else to a greater or lesser degree. “I moaned with pleasure at his touch, isn’t that what every man wants?” Kate says to Elliott, speaking of Mike, to Elliott’s advice that she stop dissembling and properly own her sexuality and her anger. Kate’s visit to the Met Gallery presents an opportunity to do just that she realises a good-looking stranger wearing sunglasses, whose name is cursorily given later as Warren Lockman (Ken Baker), is trying to pick her up. This sparks a lengthy game of flirtatious hide and seek as she oscillates between responding and shying away from this potential adventure, he initially driven off when she accidentally exposes her wedding ring, she momentarily freaked out when he plays a joke on her with a glove she dropped and he retrieved. The tryst finds fruition when, after thinking he’s left, Kate spots him in a taxi cab outside the museum waggling the glove at her. Moving to retrieve it, Kate is instead pulled into a sexual encounter on the taxi’s back seat.

The starting point for this epic sequence, which unfolds almost entirely without dialogue and achieves a pure play of visual exposition and associative storytelling, is Madeleine’s visits to the art museum in Vertigo (1958), much as her arc in the film mimics Marion’s in Psycho, and also sideswipes Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) in making a knowing connection between the rectilinear framings of artworks and the space and form perturbing content of modern art and the director’s manipulation of the cinematic frame. The focus is however inverted in one vital aspect, the lonely lost woman no longer a remote love object but a being seeking out satisfaction, groping her way through to actualisation in that regard, whilst the motif of following and finding is given its own, ironic, post-sexual liberation-era remix. In an interview later De Palma would irritably deny this sequence was based on Hitchcock, stating it was rather rooted in his own adolescent days trying to pick up girls in art galleries. De Palma, I think, was being half-truthful here. What the sequence instead depicts is something I’m sure every young creative person has done: moving through their private reality whilst reconfiguring it mentally in the mould of favourite art, whilst also giving it newly ironic context.

Kate’s movements are necessarily the camera’s hunt, supplanting the usual tactic of the giallo and slasher movie styles where the camera viewpoint becomes rather that of the killer. The audience is presumed to be aware that we’re watching a thriller but the hunt here has no obvious sense of suspense beyond the depiction of Kate’s blend of anxiety and excitement in seeking out a lover. The act of picking up/being picked up is transformed into a thriller experience in itself, the surging tides of contradictory emotion becoming the essence of the sequence rather than the appeal to displaced eroticism attached to the killer’s desire to tear the beautiful illusion to pieces that drives the more standard slasher movie. De Palma weaves in visual gags, some overt – Kate’s immediate position before a painting of a woman staring back sceptically at the beholder as if challenging to action, neighbouring a painting of a reclining gorilla aping her current opinion of her husband and which reminds her to write in her shopping list “nuts.” Others slyer, like positioning Kate in a frame with the bottom half of a female nude, keeping in mind both her sexual need and De Palma’s smirking satire on the disparity of painting’s sanctioned comfort for nudity and the penalisation of filmmakers who offer the same.

Kate’s dropped glove both grazes standard romantic fiction lore, the lost personal item that presents the opportunity for a gallant gesture, and giallo movie protocol, where gloves are totems of a killer’s presence. The pick-up artist touches Kate’s shoulder whilst wearing the glove, trying to make the first association work but instead provoking the second. Meanwhile photographer Ralf D. Bode’s camera tracks and moves with sinuous care around the museum corridors, illustrating Kate’s roving through a system of gates and passages, stops and permissions, at once sexual and algorithmic, echoing Peter’s computer with its capacity to both hold and carry binary numbers, whilst also recalling the jokes about computer dating in Greetings. The gestures that finally resolve the tension of the sequence as well as signalling something else in the works again involves Kate’s gloves: Lockman waves one to her from the waiting taxi window whilst the other one, the camera panning from Kate’s fce over to the captured object: only to the repeat and attentive viewer does a vital detail emerge, the sight of a long-haired woman wearing sunglasses and a black raincoat in the midst of this shot, on the pavement between steps and car. Kate has already thrown down her other glove in vexation. As Kate is drawn into the taxi by Lockman, her expression of affected gratitude smothered in a violent kiss, the dropped glove is retrieved by an unseen person.

This whole sequence might well be counted as De Palma’s single greatest achievement, a multivalent piece of filmmaking that piles up meanings as plot-enabling suspense sequence, character study, extended sex joke, essay on cinemagoing and art appreciation, and lecture on film grammar and history. In the taxi, the movement resolves with a transgressive act as Kate’s world is rocked by Lockman’s deftly seductive touch which nonetheless has a resemblance to a crime – the sudden silencing, being dragged into the cab and molested, Kate’s moans of excitement. Meanwhile De Palma weaves in the first of several nods to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), a film De Palma was initially slated to direct, as the cab driver ogles the spectacle unfolding on his backseat, part of the texture of a film that gleefully perpetuates the mythology of New York in its bad old days as a place where all kinds of human perversity spilt into the streets. “There’s plenty of ways to get killed in this city if you’re lookin’ for it,” Dennis Franz’s quintessential Noo Yawk cop Detective Marino states a couple of reels later, and Kate’s search for Eros is also naturally stalked by Thanatos.

Kate is ushered into Lockman’s apartment building – a near-subliminal, enigmatic vignette sees Kate momentarily distracted by the doorman overseeing a furniture delivery, containing no apparent meaning except as a flash of the ordinary highlighted with special meaning for Kate as well as possibly suggesting how her stalker gets into the building after. Post-coital languor is Kate’s reward but this movement of the film isn’t yet over, as she rouses herself from Lockman’s bed, dresses, and leaves. Further items of clothing now supplant the gloves as totems that provoke fretting and backtracking: Kate remembers her panties being stripped off in the cab, now lost to fate, but it’s her wedding ring, left on the bedside stand, that foils her clean getaway. Kate dies not for a moral transgression, but because she does not commit to her liberation. Kate has already had all romantic illusions coarsely dashed as she has paused to write a note offering a farewell missive to Lockman, only to catch a glimpse of a letter from the NY Department of Health warning him he has a venereal disease. To a great extent Kate’s brutal murder a few minutes later simply dramatizes the world-ending fear the sight of the letter provokes, of her transgression, her few minutes of adventurous bliss, potentially having consequences that will shatter the structure and stability of her life.

Kate flees Lockman’s apartment and gets into the elevator, whereupon De Palma finally urges the audience’s direct attention on a detail hiding in plain sight, tracking down the corridor towards the fire escape door where the stalker hides. Kate seems to be keeping ahead of her pursuer, but stopping the elevator to return for her ring delivers her directly to the stalker, waving a colossal straight razor in her face and cornering her in the lift. Kate’s murder is a Grand Guignol spectacle of the highest order, her attacker slicing her with precisely punitive blows. Again, of course, De Palma is offering his own twist on certain models – Psycho’s shower scene, a similar elevator assault in Carnimeo’s What Are these Strange Drops of Blood Doing On Jennifer’s Body? (1972) – whilst doing so in quotation marks. De Palma’s murder is exactingly aestheticized, blood spattering on the lit numbers of the elevator controls, clean gashes not releasing torrents of arterial spray by elegantly daubed crimson despoiling her chic white outfit, her attacker, vaguely feminine yet held out of focal range beyond the all-too-immediate razor blade, carefully and teasingly withheld from the camera’s knowing.

Kate’s death demands the narrative focal point change, and a new heroine is immediately nominated in the form of Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), a professional escort accompanying her latest john to an apartment only for the elevator doors to open upon the sight of Kate sprawled and lifting a hand in a pleading gesture. The john dashes off whilst Liz reaches out to grasp Kate’s hand, only for the flash of light on metal to lead her eye to a mirror that reveals the killer is still in the elevator, hiding behind the door and ready to slash Liz’s hand. This shot is the pivot of the entire movie in linking the two major narrative movements and heroines in a moment where latent threat has become actual, and yet the appearance of revelation is also another sleight of hand that conceals. The killer drops the weapon and Liz retrieves it before the elevator continues its journey, only for a maid to see the bloody razor in her hand and scream in terror, hiding from Liz as she frantically tries to explain. Liz flees in serach of a cop whilst Kate’s arm is glimpsed jutting from the elevator in the lobby, the doors foiled in trying to close, lending a ghoulish simulacra of life to the very dead woman’s body.

Liz contrasts Kate in obvious ways whilst supplanting her as official damsel in distress and seeking heroine, younger and accustomed to using her sexuality for profit, tapping her clients for stock tips and cheerfully bullshitting her escort service in pretending to need cash for her mother’s operation when really planning to invest it in a hot tip. Just about every gesture regarding sex and gender in the film is, in its way, conscious of its performance. The game of role-playing and false appearances is given its wryest variation as Liz plys prim and coy with Marino, the detective assigned to investigate Kate’s killing, only for the purposefully coarse and aggressive detective to abandon the game and brand her: “Let’s face it, you’re a whore. Oh, a Park Avenue whore, but you’re still a whore.” Marino’s office and the police station around it becomes a narrative plaza where the players in the whodunnit meet, Elliott encountering Peter and Liz, although Marino ain’t no Poirot, the detective’s brash cynicism used to provoke displays of resistance and forms of cooperation the subjects might not recognise as such. Elliott’s smooth, apparently perfect professional rectitude and concern for his patients seems to be confirmed as he expertly rebuffs Marino’s attempts to extract information on his patients, as Marino seems to think Kate might have attracted the attention of one of Elliott’s other, crazier clients.

Meanwhile Peter, officially stranded as a grief-stricken relative and hapless collateral damage, reveals his own streak of perverse invention as he uses a homemade listening device to eavesdrop on Marino and Elliott talking. This display of ingenuity and determination has its own masochistic dimension as the seemingly callow and unworldly Peter forces himself to listen to the detective’s crude and reductive but relevant attempts to understand his dead mother’s behaviour. The transfer of narrative focus onto Liz and Peter sees the film become in part a satirical update on old-school young adult detective tales, Liz as a very grown up Nancy Drew and Peter a nerdy Hardy Boy, mixed with a wistful edge of mutual longing for what the other has, Peter trying to become a man in seeking out his mother’s killer whilst Liz snatches at an opportunity to play the innocent again as she’s repeatedly confronted by visions of bloodshed and terror. De Palma stages a jovial nod to old-school mystery tales as Liz draws another cab driver (Bill Randolph) into her attempt to lose a mysterious pursuer in a chase through Manhattan’s streets. Liz doesn’t learn until the end of the film that Marino has assigned a policewoman, Betty Luce (Susannah Clemm), to keep tabs on her, and Luce in overcoat and sunglasses is almost indistinguishable from the killer. Meanwhile Elliott visits a fellow psychiatrist, Dr Levy (David Margulies), and warns him about his potentially murderous client, only for Levy to strike unusually guarded and uncertain postures in dealing with him.

Dressed To Kill’s almost algorithmic structuring with its four, distinct, extended movements involving mini-reboots and variations that finally circle back to the beginning, presents also a series of structural traps that the character are varyingly aware of, some of them environmental, others social, biological, mental. The film’s driving plot conceit is of course another nod to Psycho, but it also glances off the rest of the film’s simultaneously sarcastic and earnest explorations of contemporary mores a la 1980, a moment locked between the insouciance and gamy adventurousness of the ‘70s zeitgeist and ‘80s with its reactionaries and reality TV inquiry/homogenisation: not for nothing does a significant portion of the film revolve around an episode of Phil Donahue’s trendsetting confessional talk show. A vignette from Donahue’s show in which the interviewer talks with a trans woman, who merrily explains her life of compensating macho endeavour and confesses to being “a devout heterosexual,” offers both a clue to the unfolding mystery whilst also disowning its darker inferences. Elliott and Liz are offered in split screen as the clip unfolds, itself a joke about divided identity and gender. Meanwhile Elliott keeps getting phone call from a disturbed patient who calls herself Bobbi, who claims to be “a woman trapped in this man’s body,” and confesses to killing Kate with Elliott’s stolen razor. Soon after, Liz thinks she is being tailed by “Bobbi,” and tries to elude her first by getting a taxi driver to outrun a pursuer, and then descending into the subway.

Dressed To Kill relishes the tabloid flavour of its concerns even as it converts them into deliriously artistic cinematic effects. Indeed, it created a stir in its day from several quarters, who were nonetheless tone-deaf to the way it mines it all for extreme metaphors and crazy comedy based in games with cultural coding. De Palma’s native celebration of Manhattan at a time when it had a reputation for being an open sore of the city sees both its grit and its glamour, alternating the leafy brownstone climes of Elliott’s office with the steam-wreathed, neon-gilded sleaze of the downtown where Liz is tracked by the killer. It is, in its own oddball way, just as amusingly romantic a vision of the city as Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), just as the film as a whole is as much of a riff on sex and dating in the modern, urban world as Greetings. De Palma evokes a common kind of white anxiety of the day only to use it for puckish comedy, as a gang of fly-dressed black dudes think Liz is teasing them when she crowds close to a subway platform when she’s being pursued by “Bobbi,”; they get annoyed and start harassing her in turn. Liz runs to a policeman on a stopping train, instantly inverting the cliché as the cop is also black, bemused and annoyed when the assailants elude his line of side. Once the cop gets off the train the dudes start tracking Liz again, only to then be scared off by the sight of “Bobbi” attacking Liz, performed manhood found wanting in the face of genuine violent demonstration.

“Bobbi”’s attack on Liz is another ingeniously visualised scene but in a manner completely different to the more operatic effects elsewhere in the film – Liz’s flight through the train takes her through linking vestibules only to find herself caught in one with “Bobbi”, razor the only thing catching the light in the dark. The attack is foiled by the sudden intervention of Peter, appearing from the next carriage: teenage nerd fends off the ferocious murderer with a spurt of homemade mace. The action here is coherent but also successfully achieves a spasm of frantic movement, playing a foregrounded game with witnessing and its limitations, and also doubling again as a sort of sly sex joke, as young Peter blows his wad for the first time to good effect. De Palma offers Peter as a version of himself at that age, using him as a springboard to weave in autobiographical details and recurring obsessions. The film as a whole can be described as a fantastical enlarging up on a vignette from his youth where his mother supposedly had him use his homemade surveillance equipment to see if his father was having an affair. This is conflated with metafictional meanings: Gordon tells Elliott, as the good doctor tries to counsel him in the police station waiting room, that Ted is not actually his father, his real one having been killed in the Vietnam War, and so positing Peter as a generational inheritor to the angst of De Palma’s early protagonists in Greetings and Hi, Mom! (1971).

Gordon, who would eventually become a director with more than few De Palma-esque traits, deftly plays Peter as both grief-stricken kid and newly determined young man, the tight tilt of his jaw after he chases off “Bobbi” confirming his quick growth in a fearless fighter of evil even as he’s still the kind of guy who will entirely innocently ask a hooker to come to his home if she’s feeling nervous. Liz, by contrast, inhabits entirely adult realms, a young but very worldly woman who knows with scientific precision how to get a rise out of men in several senses of the phrase. De Palma’s shooting throughout utilises the expanse of the widescreen frame with sense of instability and dialectic even when not using overt tricks like split frame, often using dioptre shots to keep multiple plains of action in equal relevance. This is most obvious in serving an expository purpose when Peter times patients entering and leaving Elliott’s office so he can set up camera surveillance, or when Liz takes care to part the curtains of Elliott’s office so the watching Peter can see in whilst keeping Elliott mesmerised with her erotically-charged anecdotes, but continues throughout with a charge of ambiguity, as in shots of Peter listening in to Marino and Elliott’s conversation about his mother, different portions and layers of the frame containing their own distinct dramatic registers.

This unstable sense of space shifts when “Bobbi” attacks Kate, whereupon a game of focal planes begins, the looming razor in focus and the wielder beyond and behind out of focus. Dressed To Kill certainly takes up the challenge of Hitchcock’s great triptych of films about voyeurism and unstable appearance, Rear Window (1954), Vertigo, and Psycho, as well as the formal games of perception and details seen but not observed Argento played in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Deep Red (1975). But De Palma also works to transmute them. De Palma’s use of slow motion and split screen effect, for instance, entirely contradict those celluloid heroes’ fastidious method and faith in the edit of the heart of cinematic viewing. De Palma uses such devices to prolong and expand, to linger, to fetishistically celebrate rather than merely deploy the crucial image. Most particularly, the incapacity of De Palma’s heroes to quite understand what they’re seeing, and through them the audience, is part of the film’s deeper texture, just as it had been in some of De Palma’s early work.

This is particularly obvious in the finale where Peter contends with the visage of the lurking killer that seems to appear in two different places at once, manifesting out of thin air in the distant blur of Elliott’s office and also right next to him as a looming, immediate presence: for a few brief, dizzying moment reality loses all structure and life takes on dream logic, logic which then becomes the entire texture of the film’s very last movement. As such Dressed To Kill contrasts something like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which sublimates the same strong giallo influence into a Hollywood cinematic tradition but to very different ends, creating a zone where the audience is obliged at the outset to share the killer’s viewpoint and buy into his mystique. Both represent formal games with what the director wants the audience to know, of course; the presumed end-game of the classical horror-thriller is to unmask the killer for maximum shock effect, but for some time that end had become increasingly supernal. That signature trope of giallo, the black-gloved hands of an enigmatic presence, presents the undeniable fact of the killer but conceals gender and stature. Halloween presents the horror movie killer as achieving mythic blankness, at one with the audience in conspiring to erase the object of its gaze, where De Palma heads in the opposite direction, fragmenting his sources of evil, confronting his heroes with the limitations of seeing and knowing.

Of course, the upshot of all this is that Elliott himself is “Bobbi”, his trans identity rendered paranoid and murderous by schizoid traits, the ineffably decent and helpful psychiatrist supplanted by his maniacal alter ego who desperately wants to suppress his masculine side. De Palma apparently originally sought Sean Connery to play Elliott: undoubtedly having James Bond himself play “Bobbi” would have taken the gender satire to an even more extreme place, although then the nominal formal game would have been even harder to play. Caine was ultimately a smart piece of casting, bringing a light touch to the role of the seemingly solicitous and conscientious doctor constantly teased and upbraided by his own mirror, whilst also playing off an ironic aspect of his star persona. Caine the 1960s heartthrob who had risen to fame as the womanizing Alfie (1966) had nonetheless often in his early stage acting days found his career limited by a perception he looked camp, and so playing Elliott allowed Caine to play games with this schismatic performative life. “Bobbi” herself is a constructed being: the voice heard on the telephone provided by De Palma’s constant early collaborator William Finley, whilst the physical being alternates between Caine and Clemm.

The climax sees Liz, pushed by Marino’s threats to arrest her for Kate’s murder, conspiring with Peter to enter Elliott’s office by pretending to seek his help, so she can pilfer his appointment book and locate the supposed killer client. Liz’s spiel to Elliott starts as an acting exercise as she recounts disturbing and dirty dreams (“And I know dirty – believe me, this was dirty.”) shading into seduction as Liz strips off her overcoat to reveal all too undeniable feminine charms swathed in black lingerie, like a burlesque on a porn film’s take on the ritual Hollywood audition. Meanwhile Peter watches from outside in the rain with binoculars, incidentally turned into a voyeur, forced to strip off his glasses and wipe them down in frustration mid-gawk. What seems to be a smirking acceptance of basic desire as Elliott smiles at himself in the mirror before starting to remove his clothes at Liz’s challenge instead proves the cue for “Bobbi” to emerge and try to kill again. The mysteriously bilocating killer confuses Peter’s gaze in the strobing lightning and rain before he’s grabbed by a lurking figure; inside the office the real killer lurks in wait for Liz, who beholds Peter thumping on the window in warning whilst the figure, actually Luce, tries to restrain him. Luce saves the day by shooting Elliott through his office window.

The rush of action here gives way to another of De Palma’s multivalent directorial gestures, offering a lampoon of the tabloid god’s eye view camera movement in surveying post-battle carnage Scorsese used at the end of Taxi Driver, by way of a glance at Liz standing glaring in shock at the red blood on her hands whilst still of course swathed in black lingerie, a fetishist image that also calls to mind the title of Bava’s foundational giallo film Blood And Black Lace (1963). The shot resolves on Elliott lying sprawled on the carpet and weeping, solving the mystery at last and converting cinematic pizzazz finally into a space of unexpected pathos. The shot’s dreamy slowness and the surge of Donaggio’s music, the spectacle of Liz’s shock at the blood on her hands and Elliott’s weeping pain more in being exposed and forced to confront his sundered identity more than in being shot, all refuse to offer a sense of relief or winding down, but instead present an arrested spectacle of damage and pathos, the wreckage left even as the plot seems to be resolved in one binding and clarifying gesture.

But De Palma still isn’t finished, passing through two wry scenes where the story is “explained,” Levy giving specious diagnoses and Marino explaining sheepishly if not apologetically as to the confusion Luce’s presence caused and his miscalculation in trying to manipulate Liz into doing his job for him. Liz then expostulates to Peter as they meet in a restaurant the details of a sex change operation with the mounting glee of provocateur as some old biddy listens in with expressions of mortification. The film resolves in what proves to be an extended dream sequence in which Liz conjures up the threat of Elliott, imprisoned in the bowels of Bellevue, strangling a nurse and dressing in her clothes to escape, tracking Liz to Peter’s house and hovering beyond at the threshold of the bathroom in wait as Liz, in the shower, realises she’s trapped and tries to retrieve Ted’s razor for defence. De Palma expands here on the famous dream sequence at the end of Carrie but in a far more elaborate and spectacular manner. De Palma clearly signals we’re watching a fantasy even before he gives the game away as Elliott, after strangling the nurse, strips off her uniform to reveal white lingerie, the mirror-image of what Liz wore in his office, unwrapped with delight whilst fellow inmates, a collective of thronging geeks and gibbering weirdoes, watch in delight from high vantages as if we’ve stumbled into some Ken Russell version of Poe’s The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Feather.

Cut to a signature De Palma point-of-view shot, the unseen killer lurking in the bushes outside Peter’s house, before finding Liz in the shower. Liz catches sight of the nurse shoes sticking out into view beyond the bathroom door, and begins a quiet, wary attempt to leave the shower and grab Ted’s razor from the medicine cabinet. Only for the killer to suddenly, somehow vacate the shoes, and appear behind Liz to cut her throat. Liz awakens, screaming, reacting in fear as Peter charges in to check on her. Dressed To Kill’s circuit closes just where it started, Liz in Kate’s bed, dreaming of sex and murder in the shower. This sequence at once allows De Palma to fully engage his most baroque impulses, particularly the long, soaring overhead crane shot of Elliott stripping the nurse whilst his audience – the film viewers – watch in delight from above, and the spasm of random, oneiric action at the very end. Here Dressed To Kill surrenders to perfectly enter into a state of dream logic, particularly in the killer’s final defiance of space, the sense of threat invading Liz’s mind and firing her fight-flight reflexes even whilst now seemingly safely cocooned within suburban normality, a place De Palma plainly has no trust in to deliver us from evil. Dressed To Kill saw De Palma branded and pilloried for his perceived sins and also hailed as a great cinematic voice, but most usefully it also propelled him on to other career heights through the 1980s, whilst its success helped inspire a particular Hollywood variety of giallo film distinct from the slasher movie craze, including movies like Richard Marquand’s Jagged Edge (1985), Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again (1991), and Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).

Standard
1930s, Horror/Eerie

White Zombie (1932)

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Director: Victor Halperin
Screenwriter: Garnett Weston

By Roderick Heath

Victor Halperin’s White Zombie holds status as one of the true oddities of classic Hollywood Horror cinema. The Chicago-born Halperin and his brother Edward, who often served as his producer, were entrepreneurial Hollywood players: Victor broke into moviemaking penning the screenplay of 1922’s The Danger Point, debuted as a director on Greater Than Marriage (1924), and served as writer, producer, and director on the Agnes Ayres vehicle When A Girl Loves (1924). Like many other Hollywood talents the Halperins had difficulty negotiating the transition to sound, but when the enormous popularity of Béla Lugosi’s star-making vehicle Dracula (1931) unleashed a craze for Horror films, the brothers mounted what was then a relative rarity, an independently produced film, filmed on a budget of $50,000, making canny used of Universal Studios’ infrastructure and staff and managing to land Lugosi for one week’s work a few hundred dollars. Today Halperin is best remembered by far for White Zombie. The film’s profitability and popularity gained Halperin a fresh studio contract with Paramount, although his two horror follow-ups, Supernatural (1933) and Revolt of the Zombies (1936), were interesting but sketchy disappointments, and the director himself reportedly disliked working in the genre despite his affinity with it. Later Halperin worked at the Poverty Row studio PRC, managing the occasional oddity like the Jack London adaptation Torture Ship (1938), before retiring from directing at 47: he would live for another 41 years.

White Zombie also owes some of its stature to being the first zombie movie, albeit one with few links to the subgenre as we recognise it today. The infamously hard-living journalist and travel writer William Seabrook had grabbed international attention with his report on Haitian voodoo practises in his 1929 book The Magic Island, popularising the word “zombie.” A play by Kenneth Webb took the word as its title and gave inspiration to Halperin, but legal tussles obliged Halperin to amend his own title. The film’s early vignettes, including Haitians burying bodies in the middle of the road to prevent them being resurrected, are drawn directly from Seabrook’s book. One famous episode recounted in the book was the story of a young bride who realises she’s attending a wedding party where all the guests are dead: Halperin references this with his own benighted wedding but inverts the situation so it’s the bride who joins the undead ranks. But White Zombie is really more a classical fairy tale, with its central villain, the notorious dark sorcerer “Murder” Legendre (Lugosi) offered as a figure akin to Koschei the Dread from Slavic myth or Atlantes from Orlando Furioso, a figure of vast and evil power ensconced in a fortress, snatching away the decorous maiden and suborning all to his will.

Like Karl Freund’s The Mummy from the same year, White Zombie’s minatory charge stems from the way it hovers stylistically in a grey zone between silent and sound cinema, between generic Horror cinema and something more primal and poetic. The film’s opening credits unfold over the burial in the road, the ritual singing of the funeral party offering a stark and throbbing rhythm on sound. Upon this scene intrudes a horse-drawn coach carrying the young about-to-be-marrieds Madeleine Short and Neil Parker (Madge Bellamy and John Harron). Neil and Madeleine have come to Haiti to be married after accepting the hospitality and patronage of Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer), a local plantation owner they met on a cruise, with the promise of a job for Neil as Beaumont’s agent in New York. “A cheerful introduction for you to our West Indies,” Neil comments to Madeleine after rolling over the fresh grave. Halperin follows this immediate with the first and most notable example of his peculiar imagistic imagination, cutting to a shot of the carriage rolling along the lonely, shadowy country road with a pair of huge, glowing eyes appearing as a spectral presence tracking the vehicle’s passage, before revealing a tall figure standing by the road waiting for the carriage.

The huge eyes become smaller and zero in on the figure’s head, telling the viewer this figure is an uncanny, threatening, very interested presence with supernatural power. The driver (Clarence Muse) halts to ask the figure for directions, and we gain our first proper glimpse of Lugosi as Legendre, a Satanic figure with blazing, mesmeric eyes, widow’s peak sharp as a scalpel, flaring eyebrows and inward-crooking beard forks. Legendre approaches the carriage and clasps Madeleine’s trailing white silk scarf even as he holds her and Neil rapt with his powerful gaze. Against the night horizon, upon a slope above the road, a procession of slowly moving, disquieting figures, men the coach driver recognises instinctively: “Zombies!” The driver whips up the horses and charges away, leaving Legendre with the scarf in hand, much to his satisfaction. When the carriage finally arrives at the Beaumont house, a place of lush splendour and genteel pretence, Madeleine and Neil listen to the driver’s credulous explanation that the people they saw were the living dead, and the driver points to the line of figures moving down a slope silhouetted against the sky in fear, declaring these to be the zombies.

A mysterious man approaching through the shadowy garden of the Beaumont estate proves to be Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), a missionary and theologian who’s been invited by Beaumont to officiate at the couple’s wedding and a hearty, reassuring figure. He dispels the eerie atmosphere, but only to a degree, as even he admits that Haiti is a place filled with such mysteries that would “turn your hair grey.” Bruner becomes uncomfortable as he listens to Neil and Madeleine’s explanation of why they’re here and what Beaumont has promised them, noting that Beaumont never struck him as such an altruistic romantic. Halperin illustrates how right Bruner is, as Beaumont (Robert Frazer) is seen instructing his manservant Silver (Brandon Hurst), asking if he’s heard anything from “that gentleman” and quickly enough revealing that his actual motivation for inviting the young couple is because he’s in love with Madeleine and wants to find some way to cleave them apart. Even as he greets the couple warmly and declares himself ready to help them along, Beaumont is planning to head out and visit Legendre, a dark sorcerer and voodoo master, who promises he can render Madeleine Beaumont’s passive and obedient slave.

Beaumont’s visit to the sugar mill Legendre owns is one of the more delicately strange and important sequences in Horror cinema. Legendre’s zombie slaves toil in shuffling, dead-eyed ranks to feed cane into a huge grinding machine, itself driven by zombies turning the gears, machinery still working obliviously as one of the zombies trips and falls into the feed chute to be chewed up along with the cane. Halperin betrays unique awareness of how sound cinema could operate in the genre here, allowing the unnerving creak and grind of the machinery and the unnatural silence of the zombies to forge the uncanny atmosphere as well as draw out the fascinating thematic undercurrents of what we’re seeing. Later, he uses the ambient croaks of frogs and insects, and the bloodcurdling shriek of a vulture to equally odd and unnerving effect. Seeds for the ominous sound design of David Lynch in this, conjuring oneiric and psychological dimensions beyond what visuals can gain on their own. Indeed, White Zombie, described by Phil Hardy as “one of the underground classics of horror,” feels like a root leading as much to Lynch, Kenneth Anger, and other icons of underground and experimental cinema and surrealist music videos, as it does to George Romero’s Dead movies and his manifold imitators.

White Zombie certainly birthed a subgenre followed by zombie movies with highly varying levels of ethnographic validity and dramatic tension, like Roy William Neill’s Black Moon (1934), Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Edward L. Cahn’s Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), and on to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979) and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987). But the film’s more vital influence feels more rarefied, writing cheques more exalted filmmakers like Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman, and Lynch would cash. Something about White Zombie seems to sit outside the normal boundaries of the liminal. Some of this air of the alien is due to the archaic, shoestring production, like the wheezing, tinny classical music on the soundtrack: the glaze of oldness as an aesthetic unto itself has a taunting appeal, the awareness of the limitations of past technology operating in its own way as a force of black magic itself, sustaining the ghostly presence of people long dead. But it also connects to the otherworldly charge of Halperin’s carefully composed visuals, which by contrast to the primitive sound still retain vibrant lustre. The early shot of the huge, spectral eyes that shrink and find their place in Legendre’s head is a marvellous jolt of visual invention, whilst the column of gnarled and mindless zombies tracking Legendre around the dark Universal backlot standing in for Haiti are a memorable, eerie sight, bolstering the idea of the land beyond the wrought iron boundaries of the plantation as ruled over by primal and unnatural forces which know no easy quieting, where the dead walk and the irrational still rules.

Legendre’s sugar mill offers a wealth of hallucinatory space around the dark grinding machines and hobbling black bodies. The stout but carefully crafted gates that separate Legendre’s managerial space evoke the pretences of Old World civility erected as a barrier to separate from the ruler from the ruled, whilst also allowing Halperin to work through his recurring fascination with images captured spying through barriers and loopholes. Beaumont’s visit to Legendre sees the self-deluding and desperate planter begging Legendre to facilitate his desire to make Madeleine fall in love with him – “If she were to disappear for a month!” – but Legendre tells him with detached thoughtfulness that she is too deeply in love with Neil and implies his only option for obtaining her is to make her into a zombie. Legendre hands him a vial of the powder he uses for the zombie-making ritual and tells him a pinprick will suffice on some object, but Beaumont initially announces his refusal to take this option. Legendre hovers outside Beaumont’s house whilst the wedding proceeds within, Beaumont making desperate entreaty to Madeleine to her love-struck disinterest.

This finally provokes Beaumont to a desperate, fateful gesture that directly engages a folkloric feel as he hands Madeleine a rose impregnated with the zombifying powder. This causes her to pitch over and collapse, apparently dead, at the wedding banquet. The visuals in this sequence are particularly memorable in the sharp alternations of romantic and sepulchral imagery. The impending wedding amidst the splendour of Beaumont’s mansion with its gilt fixtures and candelabra and flowers has some of the teeming lushness of Josef von Sternberg. Legendre without exists in a hoary netherworld as he presents the equally folkloric figure of death intruding upon a wedding, standing before an ornate gateway as the master of life and death, the dark antithesis to the settled, ordered pretence and ritual sustained within the house. Legendre, watched over the harshly shrieking vulture that seems to be his familiar, clutches Madeleine’s white scarf as he takes a candle from a carriage lamp and carves it into a voodoo doll so he can work his influence over the hapless bride.

Another seminal 1932 Horror film White Zombie bears a striking similarity to is Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, a resemblance particularly keen when comparing Dreyer’s tour of a mysterious abode where the shadows of dancers play on walls with Halperin’s take on the same idea, finding a way of acknowledging the world beyond the primal drama consuming the protagonist without dispelling the mood of oneiric isolation. Neil is glimpsed in a tavern drinking away his sorrow after Madeleine’s burial, the revelry around him casting shadows on the wall, amidst which he sees Madeleine’s spectral, pleading visage. Neil, close to madness with grief and drink, stumbles up the path to the cemetery to visit Madeleine’s mausoleum, only for Halperin to fade out as his scream echoes from within in finding Madeleine’s body gone. The fairy tale qualities of the film, focusing on objects like the cursed rose given at the wedding and the climactic images of the possessed princess in the dark tower under the sorcerer’s spell, connect with a nascent surrealist sensibility. Neil’s desperate liebestod comes touched with a morbidly hysterical, almost necrophiliac edge as he goes to join Madeleine in the grave, intercut with the sight of Legendre and Beaumont supervising as the zombies remove Maadeleine’s coffin from its place and open, revealing her doll-like form, nominally dead now the perfect, passive feminine love object. Years later Buñuel would approximate aspects of Halperin’s vision in Abismos de Pasion (1953), whilst Halperin’s insidious feel for animal life infesting his conjured world is also Buñuel-like.

Halperin and his screenwriter Garnett Weston deliberately tried to lessen the reliance on dialogue, to make the production easier and expecting beforehand that on a stringent budget they weren’t likely to land particularly good actors. It’s commonly noted that the two romantic leads, Bellamy and Harron, are insipid, and Frazer, with his shock of dark hair and sensual lips, has a Byronic quality that’s good for his part even as he often walks the edges of the overripe. All the more space for Lugosi to dominate. Lugosi’s star wattage was at its zenith when he made White Zombie, which makes it all the more interesting that he was willing to appear in a low-budget independent film, particularly after he had so recently turned down the role of the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), in doing so handing over an opportunity to the man about to be his great, even eclipsing rival as a horror star, Boris Karloff. The attraction of the role is obvious, however, offering Lugosi, Dracula notwithstanding, his greatest genre role. Legendre is a perfectly iconic villain with his unmistakeable appearance and costume, a figure of dread and sepulchral stature supllying an intelligent brand of evil, relishing the power he wields with an edge of vengeful purpose.

Weston’s dialogue registers on a more subtly sinister key than Lugosi’s better-known Dracula lines, allowing Lugosi to turn his much-mimicked but still unique intonations to drawing out an undercurrent of sardonic and self-satisfied menace, most pointedly in his comment to Beaumont as the planter slips ever deeply under his power after once snubbing him, gripping the sorcerer’s hand in a bleakly useless appeal to his humanity: “You refused to shake hands with me once, I remember…Well, well. We understand each-other better – now.” Legendre watches Beaumont succumbing with a quiet, almost indulgent sense of entertainment whilst he whittles another candle down to a voodoo doll of the planter. White Zombie exploits the image that had been built around Lugosi even well before he started playing Dracula on stage, as a man imbued with preternatural stature and mesmeric eyes often highlighted with pencil spotlights. In Dracula this was part of his role as the ultimate dark seducer-destroyer, a bringer of sexual evil, whereas Legendre is in that regard a more ambiguous creature.

It’s signalled that Legendre is driven on by resentment and a cruel sense of poetic justice, as he points out the members of his favoured zombie cabal, consisting of people who tried to control or sit in judgment on him, including his former mentor in sorcery, a minister of the government, and the state executioner “who might have executed me!” Beaumont immediately and unthinkingly gets on Legendre’s wrong side when he neglects to accept the sorcerer’s proffered hand at their first meeting. Legendre’s delight in controlling people has the inevitable dimension of claiming the virginal young beauty as he zombifies Madeleine but also gains a homoerotic edge as he does the same to Beaumont, taunting him in his bleakly transforming state with the dread knowledge, “You are the first man to know what is happening,” and regretting that Beaumont can no longer speak to describe the experience. The sight of Beaumont, twisting up, slowly losing control of his limbs and faculties as a malignant force takes him over, speaks eloquently nonetheless of a state that actually seems to live up to the old cliché of a fate worse than death.

Where the vampire becomes in death a wielder of mysterious power and therefore has long served as a metaphor for potency ranging from the political to the erotic, the zombie is the opposite, driven on purely by either the will of a master or the remnant of a life instinct. Zombie movies have long since become detached from the zombie figure’s roots in the black magic esoterica attached to voodoo religious tradition. That’s largely for understandable reasons: dealing with voodoo obliges storytellers to anchor their stories in a specific cultural and historical dimension, often with an edge of racist assumption even despite the best intentions of the filmmakers. But the figure of the mindlessly shuffling walking dead nonetheless retains a potency that can be applied to a variety of paradigms. Despite its pointed metaphors and mindful aspects White Zombie doesn’t entirely avoid such discomfort, sporting one actor in blackface playing ancient witch doctor Pierre (Dan Crimmins), who Bruner visits to learn more about Legendre, whilst Muse’s performances manages to imbue his part with an edge of baleful awareness and solicitous purpose even as it also treads the edges of bug-eyed, timorous stereotype.

The very title of White Zombie invokes games of racial coding – a white zombie is something else again from a black zombie, apparently. But Halperin’s film also predicts the later detachment of concept from root in the scene at Legendre’s mill, the zombie immediately and plainly rendered a vessel of potent metaphorical malleability. Legendre is also a classical figure of devolved European culture, with his great gothic castle grafted onto a new world shore like some cancerous offshoot. The vision of Legendre’s sugar mill zeroes in on the ghostly echo of slavery sustained in zombie folklore with Legendre as a Baron Samedi figure, whilst also linking it to a more general, mordant portrayal of exploitative labour that must have echoed with excruciating clarity for a Depression-era audience: “They work faithfully,” Legendre tells Beaumont as he encourages the planter to take them up for his own workforce, “They are not worried about long hours.” The perfect state of capitalist endeavour.

It’s also tempting to view Legendre as an analogue for the rising tide of totalitarianism in Europe, a prototypical fascist dictator suborning people to his will, as well as embodying the dark side of western colonialism and exploitation. The zombie cadre that follows Legendre consists of defeated and enslaved enemies from the ranks of the local law and politics, as well as rivals and his former mentor in magic “whose secrets I tortured out of him,” rivals in power suborned in a fashion comparable to fascist takeover of the mechanisms of civic democracy, although at the same time he also exhibits a mischievously subversive attitude towards state power. In this regard he also rather strongly resembles the type of gangster-outlaw hero so popular in films around the same time, subverting the machinery of justice and morality to service his own will. His enthralled servants wear the symbols of defeated creeds – one has an iron cross slung around his neck, whilst his former mentor still wears a robe inscribed with cabalistic signs. Halperin would reiterate this shade of political commentary, however clumsily, in Revolt of the Zombies, where the story revolves around trying to bury the potential zombie threat stemming out of a misbegotten attempt to use them as soldiers during World War I.

The theme of domination also resonates on a more interpersonal level. White Zombie offers a dark lampoon the concept of the trophy wife, the beauty suborned to plutocratic ego as both Legendre and Beaumont in their way attempt to impose their will on Madeleine. Beaumont’s desperate passion shades into a sense of entitled prerogative that drives him, despite his scruples, to impose on his beloved a most terrible fate, only to then cringe in remorse as he beholds her, a dead-eyed, blank-minded automaton playing piano in Legendre’s castle, a prettified object. Beaumont is remorseful as he perceives the ultimate logic of his choices, only to quickly pay the price. For Legendre, such perfect annihilation of personality and agency seems on the other hand the most relished edge of his power, steadily consuming every being that comes into range, happy to force the mindless Madeleine to slay Neil when he comes to rescue her, and having his zombie cadre carry the screaming Silver out to the castle battlements and drop him into the whirlpool churning below.

After finding Madeleine’s body missing, Neil visits Bruner, who speaks sceptically about the supernatural even as he readies for a contest of magic, showing Neil statutes in Haitian law against poisoning in a form that reproduces the appearance of zombiehood. Bruner has no pretences to being a sorcerer but explains in his position as a preacher he’s picked up lore from all sorts of sources. Bruner and Neil set out across country and approach the territory where Legendre dominates, a veritable fiefdom of death where he rules unchallenged, and camp on the wave-tossed beach beneath Legendre’s citadel, Neil stricken with fever. Legendre’s keep, based around a central set redressed from Dracula, is a marvellously incongruous outpost of gothic architecture and outsized aristocratic pretence, a space entrapping Legendre’s dark fantasies and egotisms as well as his human pets, with an interior replete with odd and inchoate dimensions, including a flooded dungeon and a whirlpool below for easy disposal of unwanted guests. Halperin returns to liebestod imagery as he splits his frame between the mindless Madeleine hovering on a high balcony in the keep whilst Neil, visionary in his feverish state, senses her presence and the bond of their love achieves its own, delirious spiritual force, and the young husband begins a stumbling journey towards the castle.

White Zombie occasionally signals the relative freedom of the pre-code independent filmmakers as Halperin offers glimpses of Madeleine before her nuptials in her underwear, and gore, as when Neil shoots a zombie only behold the bloodless hole it leaves in its chest, tame of course by later standards but provocative enough for the time, particularly the latter touch, at a time when Lugosi’s Dracula wasn’t even shown biting anyone or being staked. Moreover such touches simply feed rather than disrupt the weird atmosphere, marking out the corporeal stakes of the magical drama. Halperin’s unusual, oblique, reality-destabilising grammar approach is maintained even as the film nears its ending. Legendre mesmerically directs Madeleine to stab the collapsed Neil after he manages to penetrate the house, stirring the white-clad captive from her bed and drawing her through the cavernous twists of the castle for the deed, filming her through a loophole in a balustrade in a frame charged with a sense of onerous constriction. As she moves to stab Neil, a hand reaches into the frame and grips her wrist, staying the killing blow, the unseen figure’s black cape also visible.

This helps identify that it’s actually Bruner who stops her blow, having followed Neil into the house and dressed in the cape in literally assuming the mantle of opposing white magician, but Halperin transforms the gesture into something rather more abstract, almost like the hand of fate, or the author, intervening to break the chains of Legendre’s control. As the zombies shuffle in to aid their master in the final battle, Halperin shows their ragged, stalky shadows cast on a wall, incarnations of the darkness scuttling out of its burrow to meet the white of Madeleine’s nightgown and Neil’s suit. As Madeleine takes up Legendre’s dagger the sorcerer’s command from the table where he was talking at Beaumont, the latter attempts in his last throes of transformation to prevent her, with no success. The climax comes as sudden, hysterical blur of action as Neil finds himself surrounded by the zombies, Bruner offering an amusingly curt answer to Legendre’s vast necromantic power by sneaking up behind him and knocking him out with a blow to the head, before ordering the zombies to leap over the battlements into the surging surf.

The recovering Legendre smashes a vial of his zombifying powder on the masonry when Bruner and Neil try to charge him, and holds them at bay with his will, only for Beaumont, advancing with the last of his human strength and purpose, to ambush and grab the sorcerer, and drive them both over the precipice to their deaths, whereupon Madeleine returns to life. The film’s simple yet rich narrative closes a tragic circle as Beaumont undoes the evil he set in motion and even provides a proof that his passion was as authentic for Madeleine as Neil’s, as he uses his last breath to save her and the man she loves as well as avenging himself. Halperin signs off with a leave-‘em-laughing touch of Bruner interrupting the couple’s reuniting kiss to ask for a light for his pipe, but it actually comes as a welcome release from the atmosphere Halperin has sustained despite all limitations for the previous seventy minutes, that suffocating netherworld where the dead walk and romance has poisoned thorns under the pretty petals.

Standard
1960s, Auteurs, Horror/Eerie, Swedish cinema

Hour of the Wolf (1968)

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Vargtimmen

Director/Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman

In memoriam: Max von Sydow 1929-2020

By Roderick Heath

The hour between night and dawn…when most people die, sleep is deepest, nightmares are most real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their worst anguish, when ghosts and demons are most powerful. The hour of the wolf is also the hour when most babies are born. – note in the screenplay of Hour of the Wolf

As a filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman synthesised two vital artistic modes, the psychological realism of Scandinavian theatre, and the essential faith of Modernism, that understanding of the world depended on perception and therefore art had to find ways to replicate modes of perception, groping towards a rational understanding of the irrational impulse. And yet Bergman’s fascination, even obsession with pathological behaviour and with the dark and tangled roots of the modern psyche and civilisation repeatedly drew him towards the fantastical, the hallucinatory, and the oneiric, conveyed through cinema that often reached back to the supple blend of naturalism and expressionistic stylisation achieved in early masters of Scandinavian cinema like Carl Dreyer, Benjamin Christensen, and Victor Sjöström. So, much as it might once have infuriated some of his high-minded worshippers in his heyday to say so, Bergman’s films very often grazed the outskirts of Horror cinema, and sometimes went the full distance. The anxious, unstable, beleaguered tenor of Bergman’s mature work often employed imagery sourced from the same wellsprings as Horror’s lexicon of preoccupations and metaphors.

The Seventh Seal (1957), the film that made Bergman an international star of the art form, revisited the traditions of medieval folk tales and images of Death personified and triumphant, inhabiting a world of wind-thrashed coastlines and cavernous castles. The Magician (1958) was a queasy lampoon of gothic horror imagery and the mystique of the carnival sorcerer. Through A Glass Darkly (1961) featured a young psychotic who envisions God as a giant spider resting in the centre of a web. Persona (1966) annexed imagery redolent of both Horror and Sci-Fi in its exploration of mental collapse and psychic merging, mental landscapes, climaxing with its two heroines’ faces blended into a monstrous visage fit for a B-monster movie. Bergman in turn had a deep influence on the genre. The Seventh Seal heavily informed the revival of Gothic Horror in the late 1950s, including Mario Bava and Roger Corman’s Poe films, particularly The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Most famously, The Virgin Spring (1960), with its folklore-inspired tale of a medieval patriarch who avenges his saintly daughter’s despoiling and murder by some brigands, provided the springboard for Wes Craven’s notorious Last House On The Left (1972), and through it a vast number of films revolving around rape and vigilante violence.

1968’s Hour of the Wolf and 1978’s The Serpent’s Egg represent perhaps the closest Bergman came to making proper Horror movies. The latter, the result of Bergman’s brief exile from his native Sweden over a tax dispute, is a bleak and miasmic portrait of the waning Weimar era in Germany where proto-Nazidom is engaged in voyeurism and grotesque experimentation. Hour of the Wolf belongs amidst a string of films Bergman produced in the 1960s preoccupied with the flailing of the artist before the interminable pressures of the modern world and the impossibility of entirely escaping it, and the accompanying morbid psychology resulting from the tension between inner and outer worlds. The film in context mediates the portrayal of an artist retreating from reality in Persona and the depiction of being plunged back into its brute immediacy in Shame (1968). Hour of the Wolf also reflects Bergman’s adoption of the island of Fårö as a base for working, a place of untrammelled creative freedom where he built a film studio and retreated to make movies each year after expounding his other great artistic pursuit, directing theatre. Hour of the Wolf has been described as the first film of a distinct Fårö trilogy, followed by Shame and The Passion of Anna (1969), in offering the island not just as a shooting location and artistic retreat but a muse in itself.

The movies Bergman made around this time might be said by a sceptical soul to explore the ground between exploiting the freedom to meditate and know one’s inner world and licence to navel gaze mercilessly. But Hour of the Wolf drags something rare and transfixing out of such depths, at once a patently autobiographical movie for Bergman, who was experiencing insomnia and anxiety during its making, and a fantasy that inverts the usual struggle to rationalise in his work. Bergman might have essentially invented the title concept though it has some echoes in folklore, to explain the long and harrowing nocturnal vigils he was experiencing, and later claimed to have successfully exorcised once the film was made, filled in with remembered childhood nightmares and conjurations. Bergman’s notoriously unstable private life, already with a string of marriages and mistresses behind him, was experiencing one of its periodic moments of calm, as he was in the middle of a five-year affair with Ullmann, who was pregnant during the film’s shoot. Not surprisingly, then, the film is also a portrayal of sexual guilt and self-recrimination. Earlier Horror cinema is also stitched into its texture, the imprint of Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921) in style and theme, dealing as it did with a self-destructive husband claimed by dark forces, and Bergman’s love in his teenage years for Hollywood Horror movies, particularly Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), affection and inspiration paid heed to in the casting of Georg Rydeberg, who bears distinct resemblance to Lugosi.

Hour of the Wolf stands as probably Bergman’s most surreal and visually imaginative work, a highpoint in his collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, carefully removing the usual props for certainty in cinematic narrative without entirely dissolving into incoherence. Hour of the Wolf commences with an opening title sequence sporting credits unspooling in stark white letters upon black, with the sounds of a film crew working to prepare the set and beginning the shoot on the soundtrack. Bergman originally intended for this metafictional touch to be more overt in a manner close to what he had offered in Persona, where the texture of film itself stands in for the psychic reality of his protagonists, but eventually abandoned it, leaving this supernal aspect perhaps to underline the draft-like nature of the drama here, his refusal to elucidate in the manner of his more realistic dramas driven by a need to engage with a portrayal of the irrational as its own consuming zone. An expository scrawl, offered as a direct statement from Bergman or rather from an authorial stand-in, tells of how he interviewed Alma Borg (Ullmann), the wife of famed painter Johan Borg, who had mysteriously vanished on the Frisian island of Baltrum where the couple were living. Very pregnant Alma is then presented as speaking directly to the camera, not exactly as if appearing in a documentary but rather speaking to the audience as an immediate and personal presence. Alma, calm and melancholy, declares as her first line, “I have nothing more to say.”

Alma tells her interviewer that she’s handed over Johan’s diary and that she’s expecting to give birth in a month: she was found to be with child by a doctor shortly before she and Johan came back to the island. She comments that they came there for quiet, and that Johan liked her because she was quiet, and reiterates her intention to remain in the house they shared for seven years. Cut to the arrival of the couple back on Baltrum, with Johan played by Bergman’s favoured acting alter ego Max Von Sydow. The arrival, as if being carried across the Styx on a motor boat, gives way to a deadpan long shot of them tramping their way up a rocky shore, Johan pushing a wheelbarrow that squeaks interminably during their ascent. Already we’ve made a free-fall out of any kind of modern world or any sense of safely cocooning society, back into a zone not really that different from the medieval world Bergman explored in The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring. Alma’s comments at the opening suggest she and Johan were a very mutually supportive couple early on, back when he was struggling, occasionally taking work to help keep them going. Now Johan has become successful and lauded, but the couple still maintain the same Spartan, retreating lifestyle: when Alma asks Johan for money to take care of a budgeting shortfall he hands over a wad of cash, only for her to complain because she takes pride in her bookkeeping and wants to explain how rigorous she’s been.

Alma and Johan’s sanctuary is evidently supposed to contain an idyllic bohemian lifestyle, spurning distractions and living sufficiently together in splendid isolation. But the dark side of such a life quickly begins to manifest when Johan returns from a painting jaunt looking distracted and coldly rebuffing Alma’s show of affection. A note of unspoken strain persists between them as Johan begins staying awake all night to the dawn, and eventually he suddenly presents Alma with his sketchbook and begins showing her characters he claims to have recently met out on the island. His record of perverse, demonic presences includes a woman who always threatens to take off her hat (“Her face comes off with it, you see.”), various spider-like and insectoid hominids, and “the worst of all,” a bird-man Johan claims is related to Papageno from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but seems far more threatening than that character. These strange visions and weird people Alma at first takes for artistic fancies welling from Johan’s ambiguously troubled mind, until she is visited whilst doing laundry by an elderly woman (Naima Wifstrand), dressed all in white including a broad hat in a rather antique style, mentioning she’s 216 years old (“What am I saying? I mean 76.”). She seems to know not only about Johan’s sketches but tells Alma she should prevent Johan destroying them as he intends, and also that he keeps his diary with them in a satchel. After the woman leaves, Alma digs out the satchel and begins reading the diary.

Johan’s entries recount a string with encounters with some of the people he’s sketched, who all seem in flashback to be ordinary if sometimes odd folk from the island’s smattering of social elite. Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson) drives up to Johan whilst he paints and invites him and Alma to his house for a dinner party. A frantic fellow in a beret in glasses calling himself Heerbrand (Ulf Johansson) pursues Johan as he trudges home and explains he’s a school counsellor, his job to “probe souls and turn them inside out.” Johan, aggravated beyond all reason by the man possibly because he’s the one Johan has previously mentioned to Alma as possibly homosexual, suddenly struck him and demanded he shut up. He also records an encounter with a beautiful blonde woman (Ingrid Thulin), who stalks up to him on the beach and immediately falls into an intimate rapport with the distressed artist: later it’s revealed this woman is Johan’s former lover Veronica Vogel, with whom he carried on a long affair that overlapped with his marriage to Alma before it was exposed to the world.

Veronica reads to Johan a disturbing letter she received full of veiled threats: “Dreams can be exposed. The wells will run dry, and other liquids will moisten your white loins.” When the Borgs attend the dinner party, they meet Von Merkens’ wife Corinne (Gertrud Fridh), brother Ernst (Bertil Anderberg), mother (Gudrun Brost), friend and archivist Lindhost (Rydeberg), as well as Heerbrand, who calmly remarks that “we’ve met before” as he shakes Johan’s hand. During dinner and after, the couple are regaled with their hosts’ discomforting knowledge of their private lives as well as public fame. Corinne keeps Johan’s portrait of Veronica in her bedroom as a combination idol and fetish, and shows off bruises left by her lover. Heerbrand needles Johan by recounting their meeting and his assault to the party, not mentioning his name but still with the apparent intent of provoking him.

Bergman’s theatrical side and his cinematic imagination grew in tandem and indeed drew from each-other: whilst his creative palette remained almost strictly interpersonal, often indeed interiorised, he had by this stage in his career grown into a genuine cinema master. Hour of the Wolf exemplifies Bergman’s ability to, with a few quick, deft cuts and camera set-ups, create effects with an almost physical impact on his audience in describing the emotional and psychological world of his characters. The hazy blend of fantasy and veracity that permeates Hour of the Wolf is bolstered by perturbing film grammar. Johan’s encounter with Heerbrand is a prime example, starting with a close shot of Johan marching up a slope, in motion with the sounds his feet crunching grass in forced long strides as he glances behind him, before cutting next to the pursuing Heerbrand also in a close shot, the sense of motion, exertion, and tension made manifest before the retreat to a long tracking shot as Heerbrand catches up with his quarry, now imbued with an edge of cruel comedy. Elsewhere his static framing constantly seeks a sense of trapped energy. Johan embracing Alma tenderly before turning from her coldly is framed with flapping laundry entering the frame, somehow describing both their forlorn domestic space and the frantic movement of their mutually locked minds. Both Alma and Veronica are filmed from over Johan’s shoulder as they make desperate appeals, electric in emotional intensity and yet not quite able to take whole and proper form beyond the range of the man they share.

Alma holding her hands around a guttering candle during on the night vigils becomes a veritable emblem for Bergmanesque drama, replete with religious connotations and a feeling for the mental and physical strain of lasting out long, assailed nights in a cold country. The beginning of the dinner party at the Von Merkens’ house begins with a point-of-view shot that may be for Johan or Alma or both as they’re introduced to the family and other guests, looming faces caught in Nykvist’s lens, before a hard cut to the diners taking their chairs at the dinner table, the camera circling at speed and the arc broken up by edits, creating a sense of both sociable excitement and an unpleasant edge of the frenetic amidst the tony splendour and fake conviviality of the aristocratic entertainment. The overheard talk is discontinuous and confused, littered with totemic phrases. The Borgs become increasingly uneasy as strangely barbed pieces of conversation flit by, like Von Merkens noting that he once bought a painting and invited the artist and other around to get a good laugh because the picture was hung upside down deliberately: “What do you say, Mister Artist? Wasn’t that a good joke?” whilst Corinne boasts of travelling the world to lose weight. “It’s supposed to be pleasurable to be humiliated,” another guest notes, which seems to be the name of the game.

Lindhost entertains the crowd by putting on a performance with the Von Merkens’ puppet theatre, a record playing a passage of The Magic Flute as he manipulates the figure on the tiny stage: in one of Bergman’s weirdest, almost subliminal flourishes, the figure on stage proves to be not merely a puppet but an actual human figure, going through the motions of singing. After the performance Lindhost talks through the splendours of Mozart’s music, particularly the passage where the chorus sings the name of the heroine Pamina in fractured syllables, turning it into a ritual chant to bring the dead back to life. Seeds here, obviously, Bergman’s filming of The Magic Flute in 1975, but his use of the opera here brims with a emblematical sense of its music and staging, conjuring a state between the liminal and subliminal, sane and insane, even life and death, which does not otherwise exist; the artistic creation itself forges a dream-life that henceforth retains its own peculiar reality sustained in the minds of those who encounter and truly enter into it. Johan’s celebration of his carnal lust for Veronica was transmuted into artistic achievement, but the legend of its making is now inseparable from the creation, and so both the Borgs are forced to cringe their way through the exposition of the deeply private and personal furrowed into art and then reflected back through the audience. “I have in any case,” Corinne tells Alma, “Bought a considerable piece of your husband.”

Hour of the Wolf knits a daisy-chain of images strip-mined directly from Bergman’s subconscious, as he admitted to incorporating many dreams into it, some dating back to his childhood, linking them together less with story and character than the pervasive mood of disturbed meditation that eventually dissolves into an approximation of madness. Hour of the Wolf nonetheless has a certain narrative similarity to Jean Ray’s novel Malpertuis, later filmed by Harry Kuemel in 1972, in the theme of a grand house crammed with beings with seemingly banal, harried exteriors resembling housebound gentry, and true natures of frightening import, as well as many a haunted house tale where a crumbling manse provides the shell for haggard old leftovers and proper phantoms, like Corman’s House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960) and Operazione Paura (1966), or Antonio Margheriti’s Danza Macabra (1964). As a project from Bergman, it also resembles a particularly toxic and self-exposing riposte to Federico Fellini’s (1963), taking up the same basic idea of an artist lost amongst his memories and contending with his inability to rest comfortably in a marriage but turning the intense and hermetic atmosphere created in Fellini’s dream and fantasy sequences into a sustained mood.

Whilst presenting ambiguous and threatening emblems of Johan’s ills, the Von Merkens and their circle are also sardonic caricatures of devolved nobles and hangers-on from a frustrated intelligentsia who certainly feel like accurately observed types: Hour of the Wolf suggests Bergman had spent many such an uncomfortable evening amidst such crowds, sensitive to the adulation of celebrity rather than true artistic rapport and to backhanded compliments of people resolved to steal some fire from the gods by proving a level of intellectual superiority to art and artist. This fear is underlined in the film when the guests applaud Johan for making a speech spurning any sense of personal greatness and claiming to have finally proved immune to megalomania. They also resemble the kinds of large, genteel clans that often flock around Bergman’s characters in his contemporary dramas with their urbane uncles and ancient grandmothers, and particularly twisted, diseased mirrors of the pleasure seekers of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), by-products of repression and perversion turned cannibalistic.

Bergman often wove personal experiences and autobiographical touches into his films, eventually dedicating the last handful of films he would direct and write to entirely anecdotal portrayals of his family. Hour of the Wolf depicts one tale that would recur in other films, of being imprisoned in a cupboard with the promise that a small troll will emerge in the dark and eat his fingers and toes. Johan explains this memory to Alma during one of their night vigils and its consequences, as he calmly accepted punishment by beating from his parents rather the face the terror conjured by his own mind. The title card for the film is repeated half-way through, just before Johan tells Alma what it is. Earlier in the film, in a suffocatingly intense vignette, he sits with a watch and, proving his thesis that “a minute really is an immense amount of time,” counting the seconds as Alma is held transfixed and apprehensive. The rule of cinematic time, which usually has no relation to physical time, is thrown out here and the audience is forced to experience the mortifying tick away of the minute with Bergman’s characters, the sensation of claustrophobia enforced by the unfolding of the scene in one, long, rigorously framed shot. Alma, answering Johan’s request for her to speak about anything, mentions an observation that old couples eventually seem to resemble each-other in face and mind, moulded to each-other’s shape by time and familiarity: Alma even confesses that she hopes one day they’ll be two old, shrivelled, virtually indistinguishable beings.

Such an end seems rather to feel Johan with revulsion, having praised Alma for seeming complete in herself, liking that “God made me in one piece, that I had whole thoughts and feelings,” a complete and self-sufficient being who would be a companion and not a mystical addendum who might invade and disrupt his creative world. The Von Merkens’ circle embody much that Johan loathes and fears, a bleak survey of beings trapped together beyond natural limits, husband and wife with appetite but not love, authority and learning without purpose, dilettante appreciation without real creation. Another, vital aspect of Hour of the Wolf’s sickly texture is anxiety over the child Alma is carrying. A pivotal scene late in the film sees Johan confessing to her a dreadful deed: fishing on the rocks one day during a break from painting, he realised he was being watched by a boy of about 10, dressed in swimming trunks. As the boy came closer and crowded him before then lying on the rocks nearby in a vaguely suggestive manner, he and Johan finished up in a tussle, the boy biting him and Johan ramming him against the outcrops. Finally Johan clubbed him in a fury to death with a rock and dumped his body in the sea. Bergman and Nykvist shoot this scene as a silent movie-like sequence like they did the dream sequence in Wild Strawberries (1957), but with a new edge of the alien, lightly overexposed film making everything overbright and scorched and grainy, only atonal music heard on sound, amplifying the savagery apparent in the struggle and killing.

The vision of the dead boy suspended in the dark water bobbing to the surface briefly before sinking into the murk, reminiscent of the images of the submerged murder victim in Night of the Hunter (1955), presents a languorous blend of horror and beauty, filmed from directly overhead, white skin, dark water, black blood all afloat like an abstract painting trying to regain form before losing it altogether. Johan’s confession to this crime nonetheless remains uncertain in terms of veracity. He seems more likely to be trying to communicate to Alma some dread dream or vision regarding his fear of their child interfering with his work, as well as calling to mind the homophobic panic inherent in his reactions to Heerbrand in the boy’s provocative, sylph-like recline, everything around him charged with intimations of cloying sexuality. Meanwhile Alma’s body is growing bigger with the seed he planted in it. The allure of Veronica as a temptress contrasts the way Bergman often shoots Ullmann in close-up without make-up, snub nose and freckles the image of a raw, peasant-like form of beauty out of a Dürer or Holbein painting. Alma and Johan initially seem to be happy in the regulation form of genius male artist and adoring muse, as Johan interrupts a moment of sublime leisure where they sit embracing on their doorstep and makes Alma pose for him.

The rest of the time Alma pursues her domestic role without complaint, even satisfaction; she succeeds perfectly in her part as wife up to and beyond the point of losing Johan to his demons, and carries on as if now embodying them both, which might indeed be the ultimate meaning of Johan’s comment about her wholeness. Alma stands at a telling remove from Bergman’s celebrated run of complex and reactive female characters, although she is simple rather than crude, dedicated to her own ideal of life: she is the all too sane counterbalance to her neurotic husband, wedded to earthy things, a fort to guard against the sea swell. Nonetheless the exploration of people whose identities become inextricably joined, merged into ungainly chimera, begun in Persona recurs here, as Alma eventually confesses that she has no idea whether the Von Merkens and their circle and the demons of Johan’s visions were actually real or hallucinations she felt bound to share, compelled to enter into his reality rather than keeping him compassed in hers. At the end she even questions if the intense sensitivity of her love for Johan ultimately helped destroy him precisely because she could not provide that alternate, rock-fast beacon.

Alma’s perfection in such regard is indeed what Johan seems to find so hard to take, even as he clearly cares for her deeply, witnessed in one moment of sidelong affection as he wraps a scarf about her neck with a comforting gesture amidst the dinner party, or kisses her in trying to maintain something like mutually protective intimacy between them as the ordeal goes on. Such gestures highlight the brilliance of Von Sydow and Ullmann, caught at their height as Bergman’s ideal screen actors, with their easy chemistry and intuitive mutual awareness. Where Von Sydow was so often cast as villains and menaces and plummy oddballs in his international acting career, here Bergman depends on him absolutely to play a character threatening and pitiable all at once, a bundle of nerves who seems to set the entire, passive island landscape to vibrating. Few actors in cinema have ever managed to depict incipient instability as skilfully as Von Sydow does here, eyes lit as much by sadness as erotic compulsion and mania when he finally invades the Von Merkens castle in search of his tempting succubus, and the final wounds to his mind and heart registering as bottomless pain and absurdity upon which been pecked and gnawed to death by hovering demons is mere injury piled upon insult.

Ullmann manages to inhabit the opposite role, limpid and preternaturally sensitive to warning signs and gestures, often held as the transfixing focus of shots, particularly in her final monologue delivered in close up direct to the camera, as if Bergman wants to turn her into the human equivalent of that candle flame, a pool of brilliance in a dark universe. The tumult of Johan’s relationship with Veronica entirely contrasts his one with Alma, full of mess and fury, an addictive form of love, and Johan is driven deeper into a recessive and obsessive place as the carefully placed harpoons in his thoughts draw him back to Veronica. Von Merken eventually reveals she is now his lover, but feels obliged to surrender her to a night with Johan. Heerbrand visits the couple and invites them to another party, this one with Veronica in attendance, and also gifts Johan a small pistol to protect himself for “small game,” but which Johan quickly turns on Alma, shooting at her three times and thinking her killed. Bergman punctuates the gunshots not with familiar sound effects but with blasts of discordant music.

Johan advances towards his date with Veronica and enters the Von Merkens’ house, now a labyrinthine space, stark and largely barren, corridors stripped of all furnishing and décor and flooded with madly flapping pigeons. Amongst Bergman’s touchstones here Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) might stand up with its similar sense of unmoored geography and irrational space, strange manifestations and ghostly parties. Johan glimpses increasingly bizarre and impossible sights as he wanders the castle, like the jealous Von Merkens driven literally up the wall by his imminent cuckolding, dancing on the ceiling whilst begging Johan not to look at him. Lindhorst sprouts wings and seems to transform into a bird just after telling the hapless artist, “You see what you want to see.” The wizened old lady really does takes off her hat and her face with it, Johan struck by utter horror as he glimpses the void revealed, fake eyeball dropped into glasses of wine with the mask-face resting beside it. This image right out of nightmare succeeds in illustrating the deep-set anxiety running through most of Bergman’s films, the stripped façade of civilisation as symbolised by an icon of bygone courtliness, leaving a grotesque shell, not even a skull, but a plasticine simulacrum pocked by black holes.

The ritual of humiliation gains momentum and sting as Johan has to abase himself and perform erotic delights for the old Countess, and Lindhorst insists on preparing Johan for his lover’s role, pressing him into an antique and fanciful dressing gown and painting his face in rouge and lipstick, his macho disquiet given a mocking makeover into a drag parody that plainly identifies him as the whore in the scenario. When he finally gains the chamber where Veronica lies waiting for him, laid out stark naked upon a shroud-draped bier like a corpse delivered up for autopsy: Johan caresses her bare form worshipfully and moves to kiss her, only for Veronica to begin laughing with boisterous and sadistic delight. The sound of other laughing turning Johan’s attention aside to see the rest of the household watching on with leering, mocking pleasure at the spectacle of his utter reduction. Johan can do nothing more than thank them for “finally crossing the line – the mirror has been shattered, but what do the shards reflect?”

The fracturing of Johan’s ego and sensuous side is also, it seems, the breaking of the whole man. If the circle are vampires they’re a kind who gain sustenance from a different kind of drawn blood; if they’re Furies avenging Johan’s sins real or imagined, trolls from out of the cupboard come to punish his wild passions, they’re avengers he’s carved out of his own flesh. The last vision of Johan comes through Alma’s eyes, as the film returns to her as narrator to explain how, only lightly wounded and playing possum after John’s shooting, she ventured out after him, tracking him into a swamp where she seemed to find him slumped over a log, battered but alive. But this Johan transformed suddenly into a grimly victorious-looking Von Merkens. Johan himself is glimpsed deeper in the swamp, surrounded by the cabal, who strike at him, drawing blood: Lindhorst transforms into a black raven who delivers a savage peck whilst Johan suffers their blows without cries or attempts to flee, as if resigned to accepting whatever fate they have for him, before he finally seems to vanish into the black swamp water, the demons disappearing too, leaving Alma alone in the dark and tangled mire.

The coda returns to Alma speaking direct to camera, still unsure if what she witnessed was real or the product of a mutual psychosis, beginning her own watch in the hour of the wolf with new life waiting within her. Hour of the Wolf ultimately makes a virtue out of a central premise that might seem to limit it, that the kinds of anxieties that keep artists awake at night, kept in a constant churn by creative process, have a value in themselves, speaking to the part of us that is most human and the part most monstrous. Hour of the Wolf was long underrated amidst Bergman’s films, but today it seems like of his greatest achievements, a by-product of artistic angst that finds a brilliant and disturbing form for it. Where many of Bergman’s films spoke with uncanny precision to like minds of his moment, Hour of the Wolf retains a special edge precisely because it is at once more vague and more allusive in tracing the edges of the psyche’s recesses. It’s also one that’s had its own, peculiar influence on films at the nexus of metafiction and genre film: it’s difficult to imagine works as disparate as The Shining (1980) or Mulholland Drive (2001) without it.

Standard
1970s, 1980s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie

Grizzly (1976) / Alligator (1980)

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Directors: William Girdler / Lewis Teague
Screenwriters: Harvey Flaxman, David Sheldon / John Sayles

By Roderick Heath

The colossal success of Jaws (1975) immediately provoked exploitation filmmakers the world over to imitate Steven Spielberg’s foundational blockbuster just before a great sea-change in the way B-moves were sold took hold in the changeover from grindhouses and drive-ins to home video. Italy’s exploitation industry took up the challenge with particular gusto, churning out movies like Tentacles (1977), Orca (1977), and The Last Shark (1980), with other entries coming from locales as diverse as Mexico, with Tintorea (1978), and Australia, in the form of Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback (1984). But the best Jaws riffs generally came from closer to the source. Up-and-comer Joe Dante whipped together Piranha (1976) for Roger Corman, with a script by earnest young novelist turned film player John Sayles, who would return to the theme four years later with Alligator. William Girdler, another enterprising young director staking a space for himself in the exploitation movie zone through the early 1970s, offered his take with Grizzly. All three films wielded their own particular spin on the Jaws template, pleasing crowds by happily indulging levels of gore beyond what Spielberg’s relatively clean-cut film offered, but also in weaving their own creative enquiries and elaborations on the big hit’s subtexts.

The two hemispheres of Jaws’ storyline managed without underlining to describe the situation of the United States in 1975, still smarting over Watergate and Vietnam. The basic narrative tension in Jaws revolved in its first half around the spectacle of conscientious and practical response to a blank, near-existential threat being stymied by competing interests that demand the illusion of stability and control, in the form of the Amity Island town grandees who foil the police chief’s reaction to a string of shark attacks for fear of scaring off tourists. This was balanced in the second half by another kind of transfixed compulsion, in the shark fisherman Quint’s obsession with expiating his terror of the animal and proving his dominance, pathological, war-damaged machismo duelling with a cunning enemy and hijacking the hunt to his own, increasingly deranged ends, before finally all narrative and social complications are stripped away, leaving a raw tale of Jungian terror. The film had mostly tossed out the subplots involving local government ties to racketeering in Peter Benchley’s source novel and kept the potential Vietnam allegory on a low simmer.

To a great extent those choices helped Jaws – the portrait of political ostrich-playing, for instance, has retained a relevance all too apparent at the moment through its very lack of too much melodramatic inflation and concentrating instead on the banality of corruption. But it certainly left other filmmakers with plenty of room to move within the strictures of a fool-proof blueprint. The post-Vietnam blues, still waiting for an official, high-class catharsis that would arrive, at least in cinema, with The Deer Hunter, Coming Home (both 1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979), nonetheless first found full expression in Piranha and Grizzly, with Piranha offering up its titular critters as weapons of war accidentally unleashed upon the petty tyrants and tin-pot entrepreneurs of America-on-the-make, whilst Grizzly offers one of its central triptych of heroes as a former chopper pilot who readily compares his latest adventure with his wartime experience. Rather than repeat the motif for a film released on the cusp of the Reagan era, Sayles’ script for Alligator instead offers up panoramic social satire and wish-fulfilment poetic justice in amplifying the theme of venality and blowback for the body politic. Grizzly commences with a deadly hairy beast attacking and slaying two young female campers amidst the lush and dappled forest of a popular state forest.

Contending with an unusually large post-season influx of visitors raiding the souvenir stands, enriching the restaurant and lodge owners, and tramping the trails, the chief park ranger, Kelly (Christopher George), has been deploying his thin-stretched team of rangers to try and keep an eye on all the campers. Soon they find the two mutilated bodies, one of them buried in a shallow pit, consistent with a bear stashing away food for later. Soon the huge and voracious bear kills two of Kelly’s rangers, Gail (Vicki Johnson) and her boyfriend Tom (Tom Arcuragi), several more campers, and a mother (Susan Orpin) who lives adjacent the park, also mutilating her young son. The park’s resident naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel) quickly discerns from the evidence on hand that the bear is not only a male grizzly, long thought to have been wiped out in the area, but a species thought to be extinct, a huge prehistoric holdover that’s been hiding in some primal forest abode until now. Grizzly repeats the motif of the dedicated public servant struggling with malfeasant and obfuscating authority, in this case the park manager Charley Kittridge (Joe Dorsey), who insists on keeping the park open and invites in a horde of hunters to deal with the bear, an action that only provokes more carnage.

Grizzly was produced independently and despite its hazily north-western setting filmed in rural Georgia, during an early golden era for such movies in the Horror genre. The budget was about $750,000, and yet Grizzly tries its utmost to look and sound like a blockbuster, sporting opening credits offered over shots of Don flying his helicopter patterned after the opening of The Towering Inferno (1974), and with composer Robert O. Ragland alternating a lush pastiche of John Williams with a more folky, wistfully evocative sound. Co-producer Harvey Flaxman got the idea for the movie after encountering a bear on a family camping trip and immediately seeing how a killer bear movie could cash in on Jaws. Flaxman wrote the script with fellow producer David Sheldon, and they interested Girdler, who was on the rise in Hollywood thanks to his success in the Blaxploitation field, with The Exorcist knock-off Abby (1973) and the action-thrillers The Zebra Killer (1973) and Sheba, Baby (1974). The film paid off big time, making nearly $40 million at the box office and setting a record for an independent film success until Halloween two years later. Girdler would quickly follow Grizzly’s success with another killer animal movie, Day of the Animals (1977), and then a relatively classy bestseller adaptation, the dizzyingly ridiculous and entertaining The Manitou (1977), before dying tragically in a helicopter accident whilst scouting locations aged just 30.

Girdler’s small body of films is nonetheless marked out by their cheery energy, a remarkable capacity to convey genre canards and long storytelling bows with a straight face, and firm sense of narrative thrust. Grizzly comes at the viewer much like the title beast, wild, shaggy, and surprisingly fast on its feet. Part of the film’s charm from today’s perspective lies in its very mid-1970s look and sound and incidental sociology, complete with scoring that manages to be melancholy and jaunty all at once, lots of good-looking young extras in denim and flannel on the trails, and many slow zoom shots in and out from burning sunsets over dark woods with that feel for the outdoors only movies from that period seem to wield. Grizzly obeys basic slasher movie principles in having most of the bear’s victims be attractive young women. The various bear attacks are staged with a deft blend of suggestion and gore, like the opening that sees one of the female campers raising a hand in fear as the bear looms over her, only for its great swiping paw to send her severed arm flying off into the bushes. The second girl hides from the monster in a ranger’s hut only for the bear to break in and rip half her face off with a great blow. Girdler can’t entirely paper over the disparity between the huge, mighty, but rather well-groomed Kodiak bear used in some shots and the man in a bear costume used in others.

In the film’s most snort-inducingly gratuitous scene, Gail decides to strip down to her underwear and bathe under a waterfall when it seems that the bear is not in the vicinity, only to be nastily surprised when the animal turns out to be hiding behind the torrent. Another victim is snatched out of her tent as she prepares to bunk down with her husband. Tom, heartbroken, resents Kelly for leaving him out of the hunt, but the bear comes to him and topples the tower to get at him. Finally Kelly, Scott, and a helicopter pilot often employed by the park, Don Stober (Andrew Prine), set out to track the monster down. George, Prine, and Jaeckel were all well-weathered actors with much experience in Westerns; George’s best-known role was as the rival gunslinger who provides John Wayne’s slyly smiling, surprisingly honourable foe in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado (1966), a role that suggested star potential that largely remained unfulfilled. But here he’s a very enjoyable lead as Kelly is offered as a bit of an eccentric, teasing his girlfriend with his shifting accounts of what led him to be a forest ranger, as well as a sensible and much-liked authority figure who can build up a righteous head of steam when provoked, as Kittridge repeatedly insists on doing. Kelly is also defined by his efforts to be direct and honest with people about their viability in dangerous situations as a marker of his skill as a leader, assigning Tom against his objections and desire to be in on the ground hunt to man a watchtower in knowing Tom lacks sufficient bushcraft, and risking offending his girlfriend when refusing to let her accompany him.

Said girlfriend, Allison Corwin (Joan McCall), is a photographer and the daughter of the park’s restaurant owner, who finds herself getting rather more deeply immersed in the action than she’d like when she trips over the buried corpse of one of the early victims and finds herself covered in dark, dank blood. The film’s snapshot of the mid-1970s milieu grazes not just the post-‘Nam zeitgeist but also feminism as a new wrinkle in the eternal landscape of both the forest and male-female relations. On The Manitou Girdler would embrace a feminist twist enthusiastically as the seemingly victimised heroine suddenly becomes an all-powerful conduit of the cosmic feminine, but Grizzly is cruder and more confusedly macho, if with some nuance. Kelly digs Allison’s strength of character and independence, and there’s a good scene where Allison helps council Kelly talk through a bout of self-recrimination after Gail’s death: “There’s something I’m not doing,” Kelly declares in his frustration to Allison’s reply: “Sure, you’re not killing the bear.” But when she announces her intention of joining him on the hunt he eventually feels obliged to lay down the law in refusing to take her, contending with her increasingly irate protests at first with honesty (“You couldn’t handle it…okay, maybe I couldn’t handle it.”) and then a final, breezy facetiousness that makes it clear he’s not going to be emotionally blackmailed into cowing (“Dammit, Kelly!” “I’m glad you see it my way.”).

The central trio of Kelly, Scott, and Stober have their own issues and spiky ways of relating. The drawling, limpid-eyed, wryly cynical Stober constantly teases Scott for his excessive confidence in his ability to track the bear without becoming lunch, whilst Scott sees the bear as just another example of the wildlife he seems rather more fond of than people. Scott is introduced barking in frustration when his beeping radio scares off a deer he’s trying to photograph; later, as Stober flies Kelly over the forests in search of the bear they think they spot it only for this to prove to be Kelly using a bearskin for camouflage as he tracks it. The film pauses for a creepy monologue delivered by Stober, recounting a local Native American legend about a tribe that suffered from a feverish illness and fell prey to a pack of grizzlies who gained a taste for human flesh. This scene, patterned after Quint’s Indianapolis monologue in Jaws, hints Stober himself might have Indian heritage and so feels a special paranoid connection to the bear not simply drawn from his ‘Nam days but as the incarnation of a primeval, even mystical threat lying in wait in the forest.

Later, Stober offers a meditation on his service experience as he and Kelly load up to go to war again, including packing a surplus hand-held bazooka: “Y’know, in ‘Nam I zapped about a hundred – maybe two hundred gooks. People. Called ‘em gooks so it wouldn’t get personal. But it did get personal, anyway, so I stopped countin’ and tried to stop caring. Y’know, now I don’t kill nothin’ no more, not even flies.” Not so much The Deer Hunter as The Bear Hunter. Meanwhile Kelly keeps butting heads with Kittridge until the attack on the mother and son makes it plain the professionals need to take over and the fight must be taken to the beast on its own ground. Despite the blatant, almost beat-for-beat appropriation of Jaws’ structure, the relaxed sense of the characters and their interaction that permeates the film and elevates it along with Girdler’s handling. Even the yahoo hunters, who might easily have been caricatured, are given a certain amount of humanisation as one group capture a bear cub and try to use it as bait for the bigger monster, and then acquiesce agreeably to Kelly’s leadership after they ask to join the hunt.

Girdler generates the right phobic feel for the forest once the heroes venture into it, often keeping his camera close on his actors so the sense of threat seems to close in tight from every direction, building to a sublimely odd moment as Kelly, seated by the campfire on watch whilst Stober sleeps, stares into the shadows beyond the campfire, nerves tingling from the sense of being watched right back from the blackness. Girdler has rather too much fun with his horror scenes in toying with audience expectations, and one quality it shares with Alligator is a certain delight in the freedom of a B-movie to leap in where a classy movie like Jaws only skirts. Tom seems safer than his colleagues in his tower only for the grizzly to topple it with a few determined shoves. One strong suspense sequence depicts one of the weekend warrior hunters (David Holt), tramping alone through the woods only to encounter the bear and realise he has no chance of bringing it down. He flees the pursuing monster with increasing desperation and frantic gymnastics. Luckily, he manages to plunge into a river and be washed away to safety.

The bear’s assault on the young boy resolves with a startling glimpse of the lad left legless while the bear consumes his mother. Late in the film, trying to track the bear on horseback, Scott is ambushed by the monster which decapitates the horse he’s riding, and mauls Scott before burying him. Scott, tattered but still alive, awakens and crawls his way out of his own grave, only for him to be immediately confronted again by the returning monster, which kills him properly this time. Scott’s death jolts Kelly and Stober, and the film, into a rather more sombre mood in time for the finale, where the duo chase the bear down in Stober’s helicopter, only for the beast to attack and damage the machine as it lands, forcing them to battle it out on the ground. Stober makes a heroic stand, shooting at the bear to distract it from the trapped Kelly, only for the bear to wheel about and crush Stober in a terrible, very literal bear-hug. Kelly, unable to turn the bear even as he fires bullet after bullet into it, takes up the bazooka and blows the animal to fiery fragments.

The last shot, a slow zoom out that surveys the battleground, offers no sense of triumph but rather a note of melancholy as Kelly ignores the burning carcass of the bear and walks over to Stober’s body, Ragland’s harmonica score playing plaintively as the end credits role. The film keeps in mind that Kelly has lost many of his friends and colleagues by this point, claimed by the bad bush somehow in the seemingly tranquil embrace of the American landscape itself. How very ‘70s of even a likeably absurd movie about a killer bear to finally prove a downbeat and nuanced meditation on the cost of war. Grizzly kicked off its own subgenre of killer bear movies, followed by the weirder, near-hallucinatory Claws (1977), which amplified the invocation of Native American folklore by making its monster bear also possibly a manifestation of a demon god, John Frankenheimer’s blend of environmental drama and straight-up monster movie Prophecy (1979), where the beast is a mutated travesty caused by mercury pollution, and later entries like Into the Grizzly Maze (2015) and Backcountry (2014).

Alligator follows some of the same beats as Grizzly, whilst being a much more sophisticated movie. Hero David Madison (Robert Forster) is like Stober dogged by survivor guilt, although his trauma is linked instead to being a policeman, with the memory of a partner’s murder thanks in part to his own rookie fearfulness, compounded when he loses a young colleague, Jim Kelly (Perry Lang), consumed by a freakishly large alligator that attacks them as the two policemen search the sewers of Chicago. Alligator is built around director Lewis Teague and screenwriter John Sayles’ appropriation and relocation of an old but beloved urban myth, one that held blind albino alligators, former pets flushed down to grow in the sewers of New York when they became too large. Sayles’ script immediately and cheekily rhymes the origin story of the title critter with the eruption of political violence in the Chicago streets. A news radio report on the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots can be overheard whilst an irate suburban father (Robert Doyle), furious with the pet baby alligator his reptile-crazy daughter Marisa (Leslie Brown) has brought back from a trip to see gator wrestling for leaving tiny turds all about their home, unceremoniously flushes the tiny animal down the toilet. Thus the alligator is immediately implied to be a misbegotten creation that literally becomes an underground agent, a toothsome beast chewing at the underside of the city until it bursts into view.

To underline the connection between the metaphorical monster and the lingering socio-political fallout, Alligator casts Forster, star of Medium Cool (1969), which portrayed the riots in such fervent and alarming immediacy, as the world-weary detective who becomes the beast’s singular foe. Madison and Kelly descend into the sewers whilst investigating a string of apparent mutilation murders that see body parts collecting at the sewer treatment works, connected in some unexpected way to the discovery of the carcass of a dog that seemed to have grown to a bizarrely large size between disappearance and death. Madison has encountered a pet store owner, Luke Gutchel (Sidney Lassick), who has a lucrative if vexing sideline snatching stray dogs and selling them to a rich and powerful pharmaceutical company headed by Slade (Dean Jagger), whose prospective son-in-law and chief researcher Arthur Helm (James Ingersoll) is developing a growth drug. Consuming the remains of these test animals, which Gutchel dumped regularly in the sewer, has helped the alligator not only survive but grow to a fantastic size and develop an insatiable appetite to boot.

Alligator takes a snap at many an annoying social phenomenon in American life circa 1980, mocking the tabloid press in the form of prototypical trash journalist Thomas Kemp (Bart Braverman), portraying the Chicago Mayor Ledoux (Jack Carter) as a boob hopelessly enslaved to his own political interests and dedicated to brownnosing Slade, targeting the unethical practices of the big business types, and indicting the police as enthralled to power despite their best intentions. The structure of Sayles’ script, which connects the sewer and the street to corporate and political offices in a chain of corruption, malfeasance, incompetence, and potential lunch meat, incidentally presents a rough sketch for the screenwriter-turned director’s later panoramic societal studies like City of Hope (1993), Lone Star (1996), and Silver City (2004), whilst more immediately laying out the aspects of urban satire, sociological sting, and genre riffing that would inform Sayles’ early cult hit Brother From Another Planet (1984). Teague, for his part, had started his directing career on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in the mid-1960s, but followed a meandering career route until he started working for Corman, making his name on the gangster film The Lady In Red (1979).

Alligator, despite only doing mildly good business compared to Grizzly, proved a calling card that would thrust Teague towards a spell as a major director, handling the Stephen King adaptations Firestarter (1984) and Cat’s Eye (1985) as well as The Jewel of the Nile (1986), a sequel to Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone (1984), although his career would just as quickly lose momentum after the Reaganite action thriller Navy SEALS (1987) bombed. Teague’s direction rockets long, nimbly countering the often very funny and textured character business with the necessary genre thrills, offering a flavourful sense of the urban landscape (amusingly, despite the Chicago setting the film was shot largely in Los Angeles and Missouri). Alligator gleefully describes a fetid zone in the sewers where rats and mouldering carcasses are littered, dank alleys are piled up with garbage, where dirty corporate secrets are forged by golden boys, tossed away by schlubby underlings, and the shrubbery around mansions hide very rude surprises. The film looks a lot like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and other low-budget but well-made genre films of the period and shares with them a specifically gritty lustre, with Joseph Mangine’s cinematography short on colour texture but high on vivid contrast, bright sunlight and deeply pooled blacks.

One of Teague’s best directorial gestures confirms the presence of the alligator stalking Madison and Kelly in a chilling yet easy-to-miss manner, as the gator’s jaws are momentarily caught in flashlight glare in the dark of the back of the frame behind the oblivious cops. A later sequence in a dark and menacing ghetto alley is shot like a scene from a ‘50s noir film. Alligator constantly nudges film buff awareness of the material’s roots: whilst it certainly exists as another Jaws cash-in, Alligator makes a point of emulating 1950s sci-fi creature features as a more piquant reference point, in particular borrowing the plot of Jack Arnold’s Tarantula (1955) with the same concept of a dangerous animal made huge by experimental drugs, and visually referencing the sewer battle with the giAnts in Gordon Douglas’s Them! (1954) and the great saurian monster stomping down the city streets in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Alligator at least has Madison as the eye for its particular storm. Madison is one of the great movie heroes, quickly but lovingly characterised by Teague, Sayles, and Forster as a sort of intellectual émigré turned institutional hangover, depressed and touchy about his thinning hair, ensconced in an apartment littered with old magazines and records and books on New Age esoterica, festooned with poster for the trippy fantasy artist Ramón Santiago. “You were wrong weren’t you,” Marisa comments after he confesses he took her at first for a “real tight-ass,” “When I first met you I thought you were a man whose apartment would look just like this.”

Just as Alligator plays as a kind of absurdist spiritual sequel to Medium Cool, Quentin Tarantino would make his Jackie Brown (1997) such to Alligator in directly basing Forster’s character Max Cherry on Madison, down to a line about him taking action in regards to his hair problem. Early in the film Madison and Kelly expertly take down a livewire nut who turns up at their precinct station claiming responsibility for the murder and with what looks like a bomb strapped to his body, with Madison launching into a delightfully jaded rant to distract him: “I used to be a left-hander, they made me into a right-hander. I wanted to be a priest, they made me into a cop. You wanna blow the joint up? I don’t care what you do, I stopped wanting to be a cop about last week.” Kelly springs on the man and holds him prone whilst Madison checks out the bomb and finds it’s just a clock radio. This proves not just a great character vignette but also, naturally, introduces a story device, as Madison will later adapt the fake bomb into a real one to take on his toothy foe.

Madison finds himself disbelieved when he reports the monster in the sewers after Kelly’s death, even by Marisa, who’s grown up into a respected herpetologist (played as an adult by Robin Riker) when Madison’s boss, Police Chief Clark (Michael V. Gazzo), takes Madison to consult with her. Madison finds himself the object of suspicion particularly after Kemp publishes a lurid article on the incident, but Kemp himself falls victim to the alligator when he gets wind of Madison’s story and goes into the sewer. Kemp’s death is another cleverly shot vignette, as the reporter’s camera keeps taking photos as he’s consumed by the monster, strobing flashes illuminating the terrible struggle in friezes of desperation. The camera is recovered and the photos seem to prove Madison’s story, so he and Clark get down to directing a joint effort by cops and National Guards to flush the alligator into a trap. The operation fails as the alligator breaks out through the pavement in an inner city area and begins marauding, ripping the legs off sundry cops. The Mayor brings in a professional hunter to track and kill the beast, Colonel Brock (Henry Silva), but the alligator proves adept at eluding its trackers, hiding in various bodies of water like a park lake and backyard swimming pools. Madison forges an alliance with Marisa to locate the alligator their own way, tracking down its nest in the sewer.

Whereas most of the other Jaws rip-offs settled for reproducing its social theme as a kind of rhythmic necessity, Alligator has its own brand of fun with the conceit, offering the beast as both the diseased offspring of a diseased society and its deus-ex-machina punishment, whilst Madison tries ever so shaggily to do his job as a keeper of cop lore. One is eager to see Helm get chewed up right away thanks to his habit of experimenting on puppies and his habit of cutting their larynxes to keep down the noise in the lab, even before it becomes clear he’s responsible for the whole affair. Madison is sacked by Clark when he digs too deep and establishes the connection between the Slade experiments and the alligator. The theme of blowback for cronyism and corruption climaxes in a mirthfully gruesome set-piece where the alligator invades a spectacle of ruling class arrogance, entering the Slade mansion grounds during the wedding of the tycoon’s daughter to Helm. The animal quickly turns the wedding into a scene of bloody chaos, snacking on maids, slamming its tail into sundry guests, launching them and dining tables around like confetti, before chewing up Helm and the Mayor, who Slade locks out of his limousine in his panic, only for the great lizard to then furiously crush the car and the mogul within.

Teague has a funny poke at the kinds of make-work business often thrust upon movie extras when Clark is seen talking over his car’s CB radio whilst some uniformed cops literally beat the bushes in the back of shot, only for Clark to turn around and bawl out, “Dammit, he’s not hiding in the bushes!” The film reaches some sort of sick apogee in a scene where some kids costumed as pirates at a dress-up party drag one of their number out to make him walk the plank into the backyard pool, only to obliviously hurl him right into the maw of the gator, red red blood boiling in the pool, whereupon his accidental executioners go running back to mom. Cops chasing after the beast in speed boats finish up crashing into him, boat spilling men into the water, one particularly luckless chap dragged into another boat minus his legs. Alligator is boosted not just by the excellent writing and strong direction but a surprisingly great cast crammed with underutilised character actors, beginning most evidently with Forster but also including Lassick as the affable but seedy Gutchel and Gazzo as the hard-pressed Clark. Even Jagger, who looks like he was about a million years old by this time, gets in a few good lines as the elder Slade, and Mike Mazurski appears in a cameo as the Slade Mansion’s gatekeeper.

Thanks to both Sayles’ writing and Silva’s acting, Brock provides a truly hilarious lampoon of he-man posturing and the great white hunter mystique. His hunt for the monster is punctuated with plenty of canny media performance, flirting shamelessly with a TV reporter (Sue Lyon, in her last screen role before quitting acting) by mimicking an alligator mating call, patronising Marisa (“Well now you can get back to your books.”), and reporting the beast must be “a big mutha” when he finds a huge pile of dung in an alley. His deathless credo: “If I couldn’t get myself killed chasing it, what fun would it be?” Brock pays some local black teens to be his native bearers and guides and teases them for not wanting to follow him down a dark lane (“No backbone? Must be the environment.”), only for the alligator to ambush him and consume him whole whilst one of his aides snatches up his rifle and speeds off. Alligator continues to balance such mischiefs whilst maintaining its unusually rich and nuanced take on basic heroic characterisation, with Madison’s kindled romance with Marisa well-played by Forster and Riker, their relationship evolving in a series of spasmodic gestures. Madison is initially irked by Marisa’s coolly professional disbelief of his accounts, and Marisa later disconcerted when Madison, who’s used to subsisting within a space of private grief, spurns her attempts to counsel him after Brock’s death (“Don’t understand me so quick.”). To make up with her, Madison visits her at home the next day and encounters her garrulous mother Madeline (Patti Jerome), a woman so talkative Marisa suggests letting her loose on the alligator.

Great little vignettes are stitched in throughout the film, like Madison awakening from a looping, red-soaked nightmare reliving of Kelly’s death to see his dog with its head in a carton of Chinese food and of the plastic-bedecked lizards used as dinosaurs in Irwin Allen’s The Lost World (1960) on his TV. “Freud said the police are to punish society for their own illicit desires,” Marisa notes, to Madison’s riposte that “This guy never worked the kamikaze shift in east St. Louis.” When the gator breaks out of the sewer, he interrupts a game of street baseball played by some neighbourhood kids, one of whom dashes back to his flat and steals away one of his mother’s bread knives to go do battle with the creature whilst his mother protests in vain whilst refusing to hang up the telephone. Where Grizzly stuck the possibility in the too-hard basket, Alligator has no compunction in offering Marisa as a smart and canny woman aiding Madison in his mission who blooms herself from uptight-looking lab rat to adventurer with Farrah Fawcett hair, although ultimately Madison must venture into the sewer alone with his improvised bomb, anointed as a shabby urban Beowulf.

The climax sees Teague whipping up suspense with some hoary but entirely effective devices as Madison races to set the bomb and elude the gator in the midst of a cloud of methane and climbs up to a manhole cover only to find it won’t move, because a little old lady waiting for a garbage truck to move is parked above, Marisa desperately tries to convince her to back up, the countdown of the bomb’s LED display intercut with Madison’s efforts to scramble free of the manhole, before the explosion rips apart the alligator and sends plumes of flame up into the street. “We got him,” Madison and Marisa concur as the gaze down into the smoky pit, only for Teague’s camera to descend into the sewer and sound a note of karmic reboot as another baby alligator is flushed into the sewer, under a scrawled piece of graffiti that declares, “Harry Lime Lives!,” both a great film buff gag and also one that pays heed to The Third Man’s (1949) high-and-low panorama of moral rot, but played in reverse, the spawn of the age’s iniquity born in the dark of the sewer and ready break out. Of the two films, Alligator is ultimately highly superior to Grizzly and indeed one of my favourite films of its kind. But both movies ultimately retain the charm of a bygone era when it came to disreputable entertainment flecked with flashes of intelligence and humour, and remain great fun.

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