1910s, Action-Adventure, Epic, Historical, Italian cinema, Silent

Cabiria (1914)

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Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Screenwriter: Gabriele D’Annunzio

By Roderick Heath

This essay is presented as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival, an annual blogathon created by James Uhler to celebrate the late, learned cineaste Allan Fish, and showcase writing about films freely available online.

What impact it must have had in some muddy Apennine town where the twentieth century had barely arrived, to file into a jostling, steamy town hall and fight for a seat to watch Cabiria as the days ticked down to the start of the Great War. An experience that would link such hardy viewers with the residents of the White House half a world away, when Cabiria became the first film screened there, albeit out on the lawn. Cinema on the grandest scale, a point of gravity so much of the still-fledgling art form would orbit, taking on a form that undeniably laid to rest any notion film was just another carnival novelty. Giovanni Pastrone’s film, with storyline and titles written by the writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, expanded the scope of what cinematic narrative could encompass and how. Although it wasn’t the first film to run over two hours or to offer grand imagery and sophisticated directorial techniques, it was one of the new art’s great synthesising moments. On some levels, the weight of such historical importance can seem misaligned, as Cabiria is, in essence, a rip-roaring adventure story, replete with straightforward archetypes and heady melodrama. It stands as far more entertaining than any movie over a century old has the right to be. But it’s also a relic from a time when the new power of cinema was remaking our ways of seeing the world, even in ways that provoke misgiving in retrospect.
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Compared to The Birth of a Nation (1915), its chief rival as a landmark in feature film development, Cabiria seems much more comfortable to a modern audience with its historically remote setting, outsized, almost science fiction-like recreation of that past, and broad portrait of decency versus depravity as embodied by long-vanished civilisations. And yet aspects of its ultimate meaning and context are just as thorny. Pastrone, who also worked under the professional alias Piero Fosco, had been a precocious kid who made his own musical instruments, developing a talent for finely observed form and function that would serve him well as he turned to filmmaking. He made his directing debut with La glu (1908), and set up the production company Itala in 1909. The same year, he began his string of historical epics with Julius Caesar (1909), following it with The Fall of Troy (1911) and then Cabiria. Pastrone’s directing career ran out of steam in the mid-1920s and he decisively put the business behind him long before his death in 1959. Cabiria meanwhile has a title attributing its vision more loudly to D’Annunzio, who was paid a fat sum to loan his prestige and following to the film. D’Annunzio was greatly acclaimed at the time as a writer and whose life and career say much about the bizarre and worrying twists of Italian social and political life at the time.
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Pastrone’s most famous work was heavily indebted to Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô, emulating its setting in ancient Carthage and figure of a royal femme fatale, mixed in with lesser historical novels and Livy’s historical accounts of the Punic Wars. Flaubert’s novel was laced with obsessive eroticism whilst contemplating the fractured political state of his era’s France through the lens of historical dreaming. Pastrone and D’Annunzio’s narrative, by contrast, was rooted in the traditional Roman view of Carthage as an embodiment of antipathetic corruption and perfidy, and they mixed in a familiar, sentimental Victorian narrative of lost foundlings and breathless rescues. The story commences in Sicily, just before the outbreak of the second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Title character Cabiria is the infant daughter of rich Roman Batto (Émile Vardannes), whose villa sits near the foot of Mt Etna – Cabiria’s name is based in the rites of an esoteric cult. When the volcano shows signs of life Batto and his household quickly make propitious offerings that seem to quell the mountain. But during the night the eruption starts up again, earthquakes shaking the villa until it collapses. Whilst Batto, his wife, and the rest of the family flee the building, the servants, including Cabiria and her nurse Croessa (Gina Marangoni) run down a secret passage unsealed by the collapse.
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There the servants discover Batto’s secret treasure horde, and flee for the coastline after looting it. But the thieves are surprised by a band of Phoenician pirates who take them all captive, including Croessa and Cabiria. The Phoenicians sell their captives in Carthage, and Cabiria is singled out for a terrible purpose, as one of the child sacrifices served up to the evil deity Moloch by high priest Karthalo (Dante Testa). After Cabiria is ripped out of her arms, Croessa searches in desperation for anyone who might help save the girl. Quicker than you can “improbable coincidence,” Croessa encounters just the right two men for the job: Fulvius Axilla (Umberto Mozzato), a Roman patrician spying in Carthage, and his slave Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano). Croessa recognises Fulvius and begs him to help, and gives him a ring she took from Batto’s hoard, which she says is blessed by the gods with propitious powers. Fulvius and Maciste enter the Temple of Moloch pretending to be worshippers and manage to snatch away Cabiria just before she’s sacrificed. They flee and hide in the Inn of the Striped Monkey, threatening its keeper Bodastoret (Raffaele di Napoli) into fending off search parties. Cabiria however can never be entirely safe until she’s away from Carthage’s influence, for until she is sacrificed, the ritual goes on incomplete, and Carthage risks the wrath of its gods.
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Cabiria engages history but mixes in hype and propaganda, starting with the portrayal of the Carthaginians as bloodthirsty and rabidly superstitious compared to the noble, upright Romans. The film’s basic melodramatic propulsion derives from such libel, however, as Fulvius and Maciste are obliged to save Cabiria, a flower of Roman youth, from the billowing fires inside the colossal statue of Moloch housed in the Temple. This sequence evinces Pastrone’s vision at its height with the “Invocation to Moloch.” Dazzling framings of ranked priests in chiaroscuro lighting, proto-fascist vision of hands raised in salute amidst darkness next to flickering candles, and Karthalo hovering over billowing votive flames performing ritualised moves, come with titles declaring the phrases of the invocation, ablaze with overripe poesy. This is cinema both depicting and becoming an arcane ritual of blood and fire. Pastrone’s long shots of the temple interior with the monstrous idol still easily provoke the awe at the scale and boldness of staging that so struck 1914’s audiences in beholding Pastrone’s momentous set design. Most striking however is the unrestrained vision of sacrificial violence. The priests muster together ranks of children, screaming, wiggling, naked youngsters carried up and placed upon a hatch that dumps them into the idol’s blazing interior, great billows of fire spurting from the idol’s mouth as they’re consumed.
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It’s hard to imagine any contemporary filmmaker daring such a sequence now: only the relative distance of D’Annunzio’s camera is sparing. D’Annunzio’s storyline justifies Rome’s aggression towards Carthage in the face of its alleged brutality (there is some evidence to suggest that propaganda had basis in reality, although on nothing like what Cabiria portrays). Fulvius and Maciste sneak in disguise through the crowd, and finally launching their rescue, Maciste socking the priest gripping Cabiria and tearing her from his arms, Fulvius fending off others. They climb up onto the top of the temple, battling Carthaginian pursuers all the way, and scurry down its vertiginous exterior sculptural forms. When they return to the Inn of the Striped Monkey, Bodastoret sneaks out and brings city guards back with him, forcing Fulvius and Maciste to flee, and soon they’re separated. Fulvius eludes his pursuers by making a dive off a cliff into the ocean. Maciste strays into the gardens of Hasdrubal, brother of Hannibal, and encounters his daughter Sophonisba (Italia Almirante-Manzini), who is being courted by Masinissa (Vitale Di Stefano), the King of Numidia. Fulvius’ escape from Carthage proves to coincide with a fateful moment in history, as Hannibal (Vardannes again) leads his troops over the Alps to attack Rome, signalling resumption of the great contest between the two city-states.
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Pastrone here reveals a finer touch for effectively varying tone through alternations of imagery, as he cuts between hard-charging action as Fulvius, Maciste, and Cabiria flee soldiers, and dreamy, mystical romanticism as Sophonisba makes her invocations to Tanit. Matched with D’Annunzio’s purple intertitles, the effect pushes at the boundaries of mere adventure moviemaking and tries rather to grasp at the essence of a time and vision of society where the immediate and metaphysical worlds had a much more urgent proximity. Moreover it shows Pastrone was keen to the uses of cross-cutting for more than just generating excitement well before Griffith got around to his ride of the Klan. The first glimpse of Sophonisba sees her stroking a pet leopard, marking her instantly as a figure of lethal sensuality and remarkable power in an image many a director making their own decadent historical epic would copy. Sophonisba conflates roles as princess and priestess, elevated far above the gruesome fray of Karthalo’s religious duties but bound just as intimately to her nation’s fate as embodiment of its aspiring self but also its potential amorality. Small wonder D’Annunzio had been associated with the radical “Decadent” movement in art and literature in the 1890s, which was particularly fond of such imagery of supine, bodingly sensual female antiheroes. Sophonisba goes out to meet her Numidian suitor in a moonlit garden just as Macisete steals into the garden in eluding the searching guards. Maciste successfully pleads with Sophonisba to protect Cabiria before he’s captured, brutally tortured, and chained to drive a millstone for the rest of his days.
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The tremendous sway Cabiria would work on so much cinema that followed, directly and indirectly, is impossible to miss. D.W. Griffith saw it and immediately set out to match it: the interpolation of a central melodrama with historical vignettes predicts the structure of The Birth of a Nation and the vistas of cyclopean walls and colossal elephant statues plainly gave Intolerance (1916) its imaginative landscape. Fritz Lang plundered it for Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1926), with the latter’s vision of the city machinery as a fiery-mawed, man-eating Moloch a special tip of the hat. German Expressionism in general would take licence from the stylised shadow play and totemic visuals of the Invocation to Moloch scene. Cecil B. DeMille built his entire historical epic style around the impression Cabiria made, an influence perhaps most obvious in the Temple of Dagon and the chaining of Samson in Samson and Delilah (1949). Sergei Eisenstein would suggest some lingering memory of it in his Ivan the Terrible films (1946-58), as well as the portrayal of the Teutonic Knights feeding captive children to the fire in Alexander Nevsky (1938). Federico Fellini would pay homage to it as the epitome of the bygone matinee ethos whilst sarcastically referencing its storyline for his tale of a wandering prostitute in Nights of Cabiria (1958), as well as channelling its imagery for his idiosyncratic tribute to the Italian epic tradition, Fellini Satyricon (1969).
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Through such mediators, generations of historical dramas and action spectacles owe it something, up to and including the lair of the Thugees in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Conan being chained to the wheel and battling with malign cultists in Conan the Barbarian (1982). Moreover, Cabiria gifted Italian cinema with one of its perennial hero figures in Maciste, who would still be Hercules’ rival as a mainstay of the peplum or sword-and-sandal genre in the 1960s (Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans might remember the host comedians mispronouncing his name as “Cheesesteak” when they covered Goliath and the Headhunters, 1962). D’Annunzio named the character after one of Hercules’ surnames reflecting his birthplace. Pagano would return to the role several more times, helping lodge the character firmly in the mind of audiences, in movies that sometimes resituated the character in different locales and periods. Pastrone himself directed several of these, including Maciste Alpino (1916). The character bears some resemblance to Ursus, the embodiment of muscular Christianity in Henryk Sienkiwicz’s Quo Vadis?, a touchstone for many of these early epics.
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Maciste is the model for the peplum hero, as a being of great physical strength matched to an unswerving willingness to fight for the bullied and distressed and take on tyrants, traits fully displayed here as he saves young Cabiria and wrenches apart prison bars so he can take a poke at Karthalo. When Bodastoret torments him in bondage, Maciste calmly waits for the right moment to send him flying with a kick. This is made all the more interesting given the fact that the original Maciste is a dark-skinned African, making perhaps cinema’s first black action hero, with the inevitable corollary that he’s played by a white man in body paint, and as Maciste gained independent popularity he quickly became a general-purpose white strongman. In Cabiria he’s also, at least nominally, a servile character, albeit one who shares bonds of amity and respect with Fulvius: they’re very much like the Batman and Robin of the ancient world. Maciste’s ultimate resilience is illustrated as he spends a decade chained to the grindstone but, so overjoyed he is when Fulvius comes to rescue him, he quickly tears loose his chains and returns to the fray.
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During the years of the war Fulvius becomes a commander of the Roman fleet besieging Syracuse, and he’s shipwrecked when Archimedes (Enrico Gemelli) uses his famous, if probably apocryphal, ploy of starting a blaze amidst the fleet with a reflective dish. Although fighting for the Carthaginian cause, Archimedes is presented as a nobly ruminative mind. The chaos of the fleet’s destruction is well-illustrated with some simple but effective special effects, much like the early eruption of Etna, mixing foregrounded live-action elements and model work. Fulvius is washed ashore and taken to Batto’s villa, where Batto recognises the ring Fulvius is wearing, and the connection is soon made. Fulvius promises to rescue Cabiria from Carthage if he gets a chance to. Joining the army of Scipio (Luigi Chellini) in North Africa, Fulvius is granted his chance, as Scipio assigns him to enter Carthage and spy out its defences. In another of the film’s famous images, used like the Moloch sequence on some posters, ranks of Roman legionnaires form a human pyramid for Fulvius to climb the huge stone walls of the city: the human becomes the architectural and geometric, anticipating Lang’s obsessive engagement with such visual design. Once he’s fulfilled his military mission, Fulvius resumes his personal one, tracking down and scaring Bodastoret into helping him find Maciste. Once Maciste is freed and Fulvius brings him back to the Inn of the Striped Monkey, Bodastoret is so frightened of Maciste’s wrath he drops dead of a heart attack.
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The grown Cabiria (Lidia Quaranta) is now the handmaiden of Sophonisba, known as Elissa. Sophonisba has married to Syphax (Alessandro Bernard), the King of Cirta, who deposed her former fiancé Masinissa and fights with Carthage, whilst exiled Masinissa has allied with the Romans. After escaping from Carthage, Fulvius and Maciste wander in the desert and almost die before they’re captured by some of Syphax’s raiders and taken into Cirta, where they’re imprisoned. Elissa’s innate decency is illustrated as she serves water to the prisoners, but fate catches up with her as Sophonisba has an auspicious dream telling her of Moloch’s wrath over Cabiria’s escape. When she reveals the dream and the truth about her handmaiden to Karthalo, who’s also in Cirta as an envoy, Karthalo demands Cabiria be handed over to him, with lascivious intent. As Masinissa lays siege to Cirta, Maciste breaks himself and Fulvius out of jail with raw, vengeful strength and Maciste kills Karthalo as he tries to rape Cabiria, but he and Fulvius are driven into the city keep by guards, where they command a great larder and are protected against assault. Meanwhile Masinissa, having captured Syphax outside Cirta, now gains entry to Cirta and lays claims to Sophonisba, but she tries to use her wiles on him to break his alliance with the Romans.
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Although for the most part largely interchangeable with any number of exotic adventure stories written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cabiria and others films like it rode a wave of Italian nationalist confidence following the country’s occupation of Libya in the 1912-14 war with Turkey, part of an attempt to build colonial might. Cabiria readily presents a popular metaphorical lens for that victory. Within a few months of the film’s release World War I broke out. D’Annunzio, who saw himself as a Nietzschean superman, would go on to become a successful fighter pilot and then leader of an aggressive populist movement that saw him briefly rule the city of Fiume and surrounds as “Duce of Carnaro.” During that brief rule he formulated customs and paraphernalia, as well as methods of brutal repression of dissent, which would be annexed and amplified by Mussolini into the trappings of the Fascist movement, although D’Annunzio would remain aloof from Mussolini’s version. D’Annunzio’s fascination with such systems of symbolism and obeisance is plain in Cabiria, most notably in the Invocation to Moloch sequence, which details the usage of such imagery and ceremony to unify an audience and dramatize collective identity. Cabiria itself has even been called the key moment in formulating the Fascist aesthetic. But the interesting disparity here is that Cabiria attributes such pomp and ritual to its villains, with a dark and ominous portrayal of communal hypnotism and performed allegiance in conjunction with acts of mass sacrifice. Perhaps this says something about how the interim of war and political upheaval in Italy altered D’Annunzio’s sense of such devices as well as that of his nation.
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Such ramifications don’t seem to have greatly preoccupied Pastrone, who found his singular moment of directorial stature putting over a story of such grand scope and immediate, personal travail for his characters. His faith feels more invested in Maciste’s righteous strength and Sophonisba’s suborning charisma. Some of the spectacle is straightforward and would already have been pretty familiar to an audience of the time, like the shots of a hirsute and igneous-looking Hannibal overseeing hordes of extras spilling over the snowy Alpine peaks. But an interlude like the human pyramid scene, with Pastrone’s squared-off perspective, entwine action with design, style with function. The ideal of the humans, with their dedication to making themselves a perfect engine of unified action and resilience, connects to Pastrone’s aesthetic, one that suggests the imagery of the geometric preoccupation of burgeoning, modernist art movements like cubism and futurism beginning a colonisation of cinema. Having invented an early form of camera dolly before embarking on the shoot, Pastrone employed a degree of camera movement scarcely seen in movies before on Cabiria, which he uses mostly to escape the old strictures of the rigid, stage-like shot that had defined much early film.
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The depictions of the siege of Cirta present yet more of the film’s influential visions as the warriors battle on and around massive stone walls, with men swinging on siege cranes and dripping boiling oil on their enemies. This sort of sequence, which still sparks a vague sense of awe in the scale of production and filmmaking chutzpah, explains why many found Cabiria in its day to be the first film to offer a vision of the past that felt not only convincing but palpable, and their influence on Intolerance’s Babylonian battle scenes is patent. Eugenio Bava, father of the great horror director Mario Bava, served as one of the cinematographers and worked on the special effects. Pastrone’s gliding camera still feels surprisingly modern in refusing to let the misé-en-scène become static, and he sometimes uses it for real effect, shifting zones in various sets and spaces to reconfigure attention and offer some dramatic punctuation, as when late in the film Masinissa is led away by some Roman soldiers and Pastrone zeroes in on a frightened serving girl peeking out from a curtain. Pastrone is hardly afraid of editing, with some sophisticated cutting throughout, but the effect of his moving camera feels like the beginning of a way of looking at cinema as an immersive experience, rather than just as a string of visual exposition. And yet the close-up remains alien to Pastrone’s visual grammar, where Griffith would forcefully embrace the dance of distance to create visual music and sharp emotional connections: Pastrone still mostly, merely describes where Griffith would dramatize.
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Fulvius and Maciste’s imprisonment in the Cirta keep sees them trapped in a world of plenty as they’re stuck with great stores of food and wine. Pastrone uses his moving camera here to strike a note of droll character analysis and even a faint edge of self-satire in regards to the historical epic’s idealising tendencies. Pastrone shifts from Maciste ferretting for food to Fulvius idling away time by drawing an elaborate chalk mural portraying an amphora-sporting goddess with a man perched worshipfully at her feet. This feels like the sort of joke Richard Lester or Frank Tashlin might have employed decades later, the improbably good creator of artworks for the ages. Pastrone makes more of it, however, defining Fulvius as a frustrated romantic in search of love and Maciste as a bacchanalian: Maciste offers an improvement by drawing a stream of booze pouring from the amphora. The difference between the two characters also says something about the schismatic impact the film would have on movie culture for Italy and the world. Maciste is a hero for the oncoming age of the everyman, a fond representative of the vast bulk of the audience, where Fulvius belongs to a hierarchy still indulgent as long as it thinks it rules. Sophonisba’s dream, with hovering eyes, reaching hands, and the face of Moloch with Cabiria in its jaws, presents a jolt of oneiric weirdness that also seems exactly half-way, in terms of cinematic style, between the theatrical evocations of George Méliès and the dynamic effects of the oncoming moment of cinema’s expressionists and surrealists.
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Sophonisba emerges as the most complex and interesting figure in Cabiria, where most of the others are simple extensions of their story function. She stands as a genuine antiheroine, standing as the opposite of the eternal innocent Cabiria and representing a radically different value system. Her difference is hinted at as she makes invocations to different gods to her countrymen, and becomes more urgent as she obeys Karthalo’s demand to hand over Cabiria as her dream tells her the fate of her nation depends upon it. Sophonisba is a crafty arbiter of statecraft who knows how to manipulate men and situations and a walking icon of seductive intent, to the point where she manages to convince Masinissa not to let her be paraded as captured Roman chattel. Whilst Sophonisba initially seems sympathetic in her readiness to take in Cabiria, she proves willing to countenance her sacrifice if it means safeguarding her nation. But Scipio’s arrival and determination to see Sophonisba paraded forces Masinissa to fool Fulvius and Maciste into delivering to the princess a means of killing herself to avoid the humiliation. The dying Sophonisba tells Fulvius that Cabiria is still alive, being held in a dungeon for sacrifice: Sophonisba has her released as a show of mercy in exchange for being allowed her own death, and also perhaps because Sophonisba herself takes her place as a state-sanctioned victim, and the two women embrace tearily before Sophonisba expires. Pastrone’s last shot is both absurd and a great example of his art, as Fulvius and Cabiria, now married, ride on a galley’s prow for home with Maciste, a flight of sprites circling in the air about them in celebration of their union. Like many films from the decade of cinema’s adolescence, Cabiria often reminds the modern viewer just how long ago that was. But at its best, Cabiria can still arrest to the point where the interval vanishes.

Cabiria can be viewed here on YouTube.

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1970s, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Night Moves (1975)

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Director: Arthur Penn
Screenwriter: Alan Sharp

By Roderick Heath

When Bonnie & Clyde (1967) proved a hit, Arthur Penn became the first real hero of New Wave Hollywood. Penn’s sad, savage, ambivalent portrait of outcasts and authority at war during a rare moment of desperation for the American outlook took critics and studios equally by surprise. But it hit the mood of an elusive, generally young audience with a cultural bullseye, and provided a rough roadmap for an oncoming wave of talent. Penn’s early film works after graduating from television, The Left-Handed Gun (1958) and The Miracle Worker (1962), marked him as a forceful dramatist who, like generational fellows John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet, brought the aura of stark, sober seriousness found in the cross-pollinating zones of ‘50s stage and television drama to bigger screens. But Penn’s Mickey One (1965) saw him moving beyond the brittle demarcations of that style, attempting to mate trends coming out of European art film with the argot of Hollywood. The Chase (1966) confirmed his fascination with outsiders and the dark side of the national communal mind, and whilst the result was largely dismissed as a failed exercise in prestigious muckraking, it clearly signalled Penn was trying to get at something. With Bonnie & Clyde Penn opened the door for a great raft of subsequent talent, and yet Penn’s career was doomed to register as a disappointment in many ways, trailing off with a couple of straightforward if well-made genre films and a long twilight.
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Penn’s first follow-up to Bonnie & Clyde was Alice’s Restaurant (1969), a brilliant seriocomic examination of the counterculture in the light of history’s sprawl of yearning and horror. This aspect of Penn’s cinema, a search for truth and spirit in the American project, connected his wayward career until it ran out of the fuel in the ‘80s, coupled with a broad project of revising basic film genres according to his peculiar internal compass. Little Big Man (1970) and The Missouri Breaks (1976) were distortions of the western just as Bonnie & Clyde had played about with the familiar imperatives of the gangster thriller. Night Moves, penned by Scottish novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp, was an assimilation of the private eye flick that is as much sardonic, metafiction-tinged commentary on that subgenre as it is classical tale of mystery and danger. Today Night Moves stands as both an apotheosis of Penn’s filmography, and a quintessential product of its time. Night Moves crucially reunited Penn with Gene Hackman, who had first gained real attention in Bonnie & Clyde and since hit the big time with The French Connection (1971). Hackman had become the prototypical ‘70s star. An earthy-looking, world-weary, balding guy over forty, Hackman nonetheless was gifted at projecting livid aggression and a physically potent presence to a degree that could make just about anyone else on screen with him look pallid, with an edge of unexpected intelligence to boot.
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Hackman was clearly fascinated by characters undercut by their own blind spots and the shifts of a world they don’t entirely comprehend, often playing cops and other authority figures who find themselves out of their depth. Hackman stretched this type when he starred as the alienated romantic and lone wolf professional at the centre of Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). In Night Moves, he plays Harry Moseby, a former professional footballer who has taken up private investigating as a profession. Other characters, like Harry’s wife Ellen (Susan Clark) and casual lover Paula (Jennifer Warren), mock him repeatedly for his obsession for solving mysteries in a time where there’s a near-omnipresent mood of disregard, and awareness that facts aren’t quite the same thing as truth. His attraction to this line of work seems in part through a quixotic attachment to allure of the job, its aura of self-sufficient, swashbuckling individualism, and also out of a direct, personal motive. The skills he’s acquired in the job helped him to track down his father, who abandoned him when he was a small child. This aspect of Harry’s character suggests the irresistible allure of the material for Penn and Hackman as well as a personal touch on Sharp’s behalf: he had been adopted as a boy by a religious dockworker and his wife, and had fantasised that “Humphrey Bogart was me dad and Katherine Hepburn me mum.”
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Night Moves is in part a work of sarcastic cinephilia where the mystical fathers of genres past, like the private eyes flicks where Bogart turned his collar up to the rain and got on with a dangerous job, are both fetishized and pulled to pieces. And yet as a film it completely resists any air of pastiche. Night Moves’ settings include the affluent hinterland of California where Harry is losing his bearings along with his wife to the cult of upmarket sensitivity and Me Generation permissiveness, the storied rapacity of Hollywood given new, arch licence, and the free-and-easy loucheness of beachcombing dropouts. Like Phil Marlowe and Lew Archer, Moseby hovers around the edges of LA’s freaky scenes and film industry, and then takes a swerve down the waterfront world of Travis McGee, where the beachfront lifestyle seems initially healthier but proves to have just as much iniquity and heartache lurking in the shadows. As a homage-cum-deconstruction of the private eye mythos, Night Moves followed Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) into release, dimming some of its lustre. Being dumped by an uninterested studio didn’t help. Penn’s film had been shot in 1973, its release delayed by two years as Penn worked around cast member Melanie Griffith’s age, and its release proved an afterthought.
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Harry’s friend and professional rival Nick (Kenneth Mars) wants Harry to join his larger PI agency, and sometimes farms out spare cases to him. The latest of these sees Harry engaged by a former, minor Hollywood starlet, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), whose 16-year-old daughter Delly Grastner (Griffith) has gone missing. The oft-married Arlene had Delly with her studio magnate first husband and lives off the income paid out by his estate. Delly went off with her mechanic wiz boyfriend Quentin (James Woods) to a movie set in New Mexico where he was employed to maintain the vehicles used in the filming. She stayed just long enough to have it off with the film’s chief stuntman, Marv Ellman (Anthony Costello), a former lover of her mother’s, who beat up Quentin in a jealous brawl; Harry meets Marv and through him the film’s stunt coordinator, Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns). Harry, working on the theory Delly has a plan to seduce all of her mother’s lovers, heads down the gulf coast to see her second husband, Tom Iverson (John Crawford), who runs a charter boat along with girlfriend Paula; just as he hoped, Delly is staying with them. On a night swimming excursion, Delly is horrified when she comes across a wrecked plane with a man’s corpse still in the pilot’s seat, unrecognisable from being lunched on by fish. Harry spirits Delly back to Los Angeles but she dies soon after, killed whilst appearing as an extra on the film in a car crash with Joey, who survives.
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Night Moves’ peculiar mystique is generated by the permeating feeling that it isn’t about what it seems to be about. Despite the genre games, it’s also like most of Penn’s films a work of reportage recording the psychic tenor of the moment, contemplating people who find themselves at once exemplifying their times whilst also being trapped outside of them. It’s easy to characterise Night Moves as one of the key Watergate-era films, a winding trip up a path to oblivion by way of conspiracy, disillusionment, and corrupt authority figures. One line from the film is often taken as a pure epigram of the period zeitgeist, when Ellen asks Harry who’s winning the football game he’s watching on TV, he replies, “Nobody is – one side’s just losing slower than the other.” But it’s really more a work of sociological rather than political pensiveness, as Harry finds himself confronted by new religions where everybody’s acting on their unruly appetites and trying to work out who the hell they are when familiar demarcations are in flux. Harry’s no former radical or dropout, but he does maintain a version of independence that bespeaks his desire to retain a certain retro ideal of American masculinity, an ideal other men he encounters also try to maintain in varying ways.
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Harry’s also a married man facing a personal crisis. Glimpsed early on in a playfully randy attitude with his wife, who deals in antiques, Harry goes to pick her up from a movie she’s seeing with her gay employee Charles (Ben Archibek) only to see her driving off with another man, Marty Heller (Harris Yulin), and kissing him. Harry avoids confronting Ellen immediately, and instead visits Heller, an artfully wounded intellectual who knows all about his rival because Ellen’s told him all about her husband: “I was trying to describe you to myself,” Ellen tells Harry in fumbling explanation. Harry and Ellen are both intelligent, sophisticated people, but Ellen is nonetheless frustrated with Harry’s determination to maintain a passé self-image and resistance to change when everyone has given themselves up to a protean tide, signalled both by his shying away from working for Nick and also by his refusal to live up to his intelligence. Harry’s penchant for playing and studying chess betrays his cerebral side. The film’s title is a pun based in the game, as Harry demonstrates for her an infamous chess match one player lost when he might have won with three moves of a knight. The theme of marital discord is set up through a cineaste’s joke, as Harry declines to go see Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969) with Ellen with the much-quoted jibe, “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.”
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This refusal turns out to be one Ellen was counting on, and one that signifies her frustration with Harry, who’s no fool or philistine but simply wants to fancy himself as precisely the kind of guy who’d blow off seeing a French movie about relationships. The more allusive twist becomes clear as Harry soon finds himself plunged into a strange netherworld where minute cues of behaviour and motivation rhymed to politics of desire prove equivocal and misleading much as they do for many of Rohmer’s bourgeois miscreants: Harry’s distaste for ambiguity in art leaves him unable to deal with it in life. This quip also pays heed to Penn’s career efforts to unify the storytelling verve and immediacy of American film with the more open-ended, personally observant tenor of European cinema, a goal common to many New Hollywood talents. Night Moves is one of the tautest and most intelligent products of that aspiration, delivering a film that obeys all basic genre precepts whilst also making brutal sport of them whilst covertly offering a character study. Penn had landed the job of making Bonnie & Clyde where its writers originally hoped Jean-Luc Godard might direct it, but he proved to have exactly the right kind of touch the material required, wielding a quietly stylised blend of bleary nostalgia with a raw, utterly present-tense portrayal of physical action, pitting two modes of experience as well as cinema against each-other.
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Penn’s preoccupation with outsiders had been plain from The Left-Handed Gun, a preoccupation accompanied by a grim sense of reckoning about what happens when people lash out against the world and the world lashes back. Alice’s Restaurant took on the then-topical question of the counterculture’s viability whilst also considering it as one manifestation of an ancient urge towards new mental and spiritual landscapes, whilst Little Big Man set its hero loose upon the expanse of history to finish up as stranger amongst and repository of memory for two warring communities. Harry Moseby doesn’t seem, on the surface, to be much of a rebel or social exile, but he is an abandoned native son like so many of Penn’s protagonists. Raised by relatives after being forsaken by his parents, Harry has tried to settle into an identity that suits him, only to run into a zeitgeist where looking for one is all the rage. Harry’s visit to Heller’s seaside apartment sees the PI confused and angered when Heller proves to know all about him, to learn that he’s an enigma his wife and her lover have been trying to puzzle out the same way he works cases. Heller seems at first glance like Harry’s opposite, the man Ellen wishes he was – an intellectual who carries a cane because of a limp, a guy with lots of books and art rather than sports memorabilia on his walls – but quickly seems more like another version of him, one that walked down a different road.
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Harry’s initial avoidance of outright confrontation with Ellen, trying to get the measure of things by talking with her lover instead, sees him applying his professional method to his own life, much as, it’s revealed, he did with another aspect of his essential identity, when he tracked down his father. Harry again comes to Heller’s house after returning from an excursion to surprise him and Ellen in bed, straining to be polite and good-humoured but letting the simmering aggressions show here and there, particularly when Heller speaks about him in the third person – “Harry thinks if you call him Harry again he’s gonna make you eat that cat.” Harry and Ellen’s problems exist in counterpoint to the main drama but eventually also become bound in with it, as Harry spends the night with Paula during his brief surrender to the illusion of escape. Meanwhile Harry’s hunt for Delly sees him encounter the gangly, insolent Quentin, the arrogant cock Marv, the saucy but wounded Arlene, the world-weary Joey, the wary Paula, and the sleazy Iverson, all of whom prove connected in both professional and personal ways and who have things the others want, usually between their legs. Above all Delly, the beautiful jailbait sylph slipping through the Caribbean brine. “If everyone gets as liberated as her there’ll be fighting in the streets,” Paula quips to Harry.
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Penn creates a deliberate linkage with Alice’s Restaurant, which had prophesised the decay of the hippie movement through being exploited by people acting in sybaritic self-interest. Crawford as Ivarsson echoes James Broderick’s performance as Ray in that film, spluttering awkwardly as he admits to having sex with young Delly: “I mean there ought to be a law,” he declares, to Harry’s hard reply: “There is.” Harry’s arrival at Iverson’s feels jaunty – Michael Small’s jazzy score, cool and atmospheric for the most part, turns sarcastically like a TV ad for a Caribbean cruise at this juncture – and an appealing lifestyle seems laid out before him, one of sea and salt wind and easy sex, as he gets to flirt with Paula and play the noble adult for Delly. Even this life, however, has intimations of something hard-won, as Paula tells Harry about her apparently fancy-free but actually cheerless, gruelling past. The happy-go-lucky skipper is a paedophile. The whole thing is a front for a smuggling racket. Harry, and Penn, recognise Delly not as a rogue but rather an innocent whose wantonness disguises a desperate search for the same thing Harry himself looked for: a father. Harry becomes something like one for Delly as he counsels her after her gruesome discovery of the crashed pilot.
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Harry’s journeys skirt various idylls of lifestyle – Arlene in her Hollywood house, with her glistening pool, Iverson’s beachfront bungalow and glass-bottom boat – that are also small empires of the egocentric. The people in them often act monstrously but have their aspects of pathos and foolishness, as Harry discovers when he tries to deliver a righteous harangue at Arlene for failing Delly, only for her to recall her own youth as a mistreated teen starlet and order him out. Almost every life Harry encounters is a ledger of corruption received or paid out, usually both. Penn often depicted exploitation and appropriation, often of the young by the old, but also tended to see it as an inevitable by-product of the way too many people feel cheated of what they need, whether by something natural like age or a social imposition. Harry proves himself heroic by the general standard about him by cheating with the worldly Paula rather than Delly. Paula hovers at just at the end of Harry’s reach, cool, knowing, with a backbeat of wounded pathos, someone who’s glad to have the safe harbour she has whilst grasping full well what compromises it demands like everything else in life. Her memory of her first erotic encounter with a schoolkid beau – “The nipple stayed hard for nearly half an hour afterwards. Don’t you think that’s sad?” – sees Paula casting herself as another sad seeker in a world full of them. But she’s also, like the film around her, a clever method actor, blending craft and experience to present the version required to hook Harry. Meanwhile Harry comforts the nightmare-plagued Delly and gives her a salutary jolt of the sort of wisdom no-one else around her is honest enough to offer: “I know it doesn’t make much sense when you’re sixteen…but don’t worry…when you get to be forty, it isn’t any better.”
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Harry the professional has his day as he delivers Delly back to her mother, only to get an earful of Quentin’s haranguing him for dumping her back in a situation he doesn’t understand, quickly escalating into a full-on domestic quarrel he turns his back on and drives away. Part of Harry’s urge to reengage with the case when he’s discharged such responsibilities well from a reflex of parental outrage after Delly’s death, especially when he suspects that he had a positive effect on her. The returned Delly was a more mature and collected person. Delly defends herself from Harry ironically when he first reveals his purpose in tracking her down by telling a waterfront heavy that “this old creep keeps flashing on me,” playing on the same dichotomy of protective urge and lust she tends to stir, sparking a brawl Harry wins quickly and efficiently, proving he’s certainly tough enough for his job. If only that was all it took negotiate such labyrinthine ways as Harry begins charting. An obsession with antiques, totems not just of value but of a suggestively prostituted promise of legacy and identity that everyone seems to crave, connects Harry through Ellen to the mystery he stumbles upon. The McGuffin at the plot’s heart when revealed eventually, a huge, arcane Aztec sculpture smuggled from Yucatan piece by piece, seems to embody the deeper concerns of the story. Looking like some kind of sacrificial altar, it’s carved in the form of a lizard with a huge phallus lying on its back, a sign that the young have been dying to restore the potency of their elders and communities since time immemorial.
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Penn and Sharp’s self-referential play is enriched as the film Joey, Quentin, Marv, and Delly are involved in making is a retro cops-and-robbers drama resembling Bonnie & Clyde, and the shoot is the nexus of a criminal enterprise; a most ‘70s version of crime, where everyone’s trying to bolster their lifestyle. Tellingly, those characters are all to grunts in the great project, those who put their bodies on the line to make it happen and nuts-and-bolts people tasked to make the engine run smoothly, and like Bonnie & Clyde or Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Night Moves regards a landscape of would-be escapees from society who find crime the only likely way to leverage such an escape. Arlene, survivor of a slightly earlier era in corrupt debauchery, her looks insufficient to win over the movie world but enough to carve off a slice of the pie in return for glorified prostitution: “When I was her age,” she boozily retorts when Harry accuses her of ruining her daughter, “I was down on my knees to half the men in this town. I’m sorry the poor little bitch is dead.” Penn makes fun of himself and his business and indicts its more obnoxious precincts in manner more subtle than, but not really so different to, that of Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), perceiving everyone as living in a movie in their own head to some extent and trying in whatever way they can manage to write an acceptable end for it. Human transactions in such a setting can too easily become based in degrees of self-delusion in service to rapacious self-interest. Joey, the closest thing to a mover-and-shaker in the film, is at once its most patently empathetic figure and its secret villain.
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Fake crash becomes very real tragedy. Perhaps the most piercingly sad moment in Night Moves comes when Harry forces himself to watch a documentary crew’s record of the crash that left Delly a blood-smeared mess, whilst Joey, who was driving the car, retreats in shame from the screen room. Harry’s adoption of a heroic role in his own life as movie likewise finds itself beholden to the proliferating mess of existence. The one time he tries to get in on the general roundelay of gratification sees him fall victim to a performance – Paula seduces him to distract him whilst Iverson heads out to cover up the crash. When he and Ellen reunite and recover their sexual and emotional accord, they find a new zone of intimacy. Harry can finally confess the real climax to his search for his father, where he didn’t speak to the shambling old wreck he saw in a park. His life quest proved to be a long journey to an answer not worth learning; it was rather the quest that proved who Harry was, and the quest is still ongoing. Harry is right to insist that his job means something as bad things really are happening and a young girl really has been murdered. In this regard he maintains integrity lost to the other characters in the film, but also prefigures his ultimate destruction, because to care means to risk something.
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Night Moves is one of the best-shot films of the 1970s, if not in a showy way, and not just in terms of attractive pictures, although it has plenty of them. As Altman and Polanski had done, Penn and his director of photography Bruce Surtees worked against the traditional style of film noir by shooting much of the drama in the clear Californian daylight and with naturalistic intimacy. But Penn had demonstrated on Bonnie & Clyde a talent for infecting general authenticity and immediacy with patches of the elegiac, even the surreal. Here he aimed for a seemingly clear-eyed yet ever so slightly cryptic evocation that proved subtly influential, and helped the evolving neo-noir mode gain definition. The cool colour palette and use of environment to create a hazy sense of reference, verging at times on abstraction, anticipate Michael Mann’s systematisation of such a style; likewise Mann would take up the film’s incidental fascination with flashy, chitinous machinery as yardsticks of modernity matched to eruptions of primal violence. The crisp, metallic hues and linear confines of the urban zones Harry bestrides, a world cut into cubes by the hard angles of modern architecture, contrast the glittering shoals of the seaside and the lucid glimpse into corrupt depths upon discovery of the wrecked plane, building to the incredible vistas of the sunstruck, blood-caked finale.
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Penn’s images play constant games with how Harry sees, through reflections in mirrors, through flyscreen, through water and celluloid, a dance of things he’s not supposed to see and the things he fails to, culminating in the final, vital revelation of the finale, where Harry is reduced to audience of suffering even as he solves the case. Not for nothing is Iverson’s boat is called Point of View, its glass bottom the portal for terrible discoveries and revelations. Eventually some of the haze of mystery burns off, albeit only once Harry decides to close down his agency and move on: clarity only comes to those not so busy looking. Delly’s death and Quentin’s flight from Harry’s questions makes him realise that none of the coincidences he’s grazed have been coincidences. Iverson and Paula were engaged in smuggling. Quentin and Marv were in on it. Marv is the corpse in the ocean. Delly knew and had to be silenced. Only one player hides in plain sight. Quentin flees Harry’s questions only to turn up dead at Iverson’s. Harry battles Iverson whilst Paula berates them for their absurdity in playing their roles to the bitter end. Harry wins the brawl and Paula takes him out to witness the raising of the great Aztec relic.
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But a seaplane comes flying over, its pilot wielding an Uzi that puts a hole in Harry’s leg. The pilot lands and tries to run down Paula as she swims back to the boat, an easy chance to tie off a loose end. Her scuba tank explodes as the float hits her, driving the plane against the floating statue, causing the plane to crash and sink under the boat. Dede Allen’s editing here rises to the most extraordinary pitch in organising cause and effect to the finest millisecond whilst still conveying the beggaring quality to the rush of action. Everything goes right until it suddenly doesn’t, and then everything goes to hell. It’s the film’s entire thesis inscribed in pure visual effect. The mysterious pilot is Joey, identified by the plaster cast from the car crash on his arm. Harry watches him as he tries to escape the sinking plane, screaming in silence. Even revealed as killer and mastermind of a criminal conspiracy, Joey still comes across like the same hapless, life-battered, football-loving schlub Harry liked, pathetically consumed by his own master plan. Harry tries to get the boat started, but his injury is too painful, leaving him sprawled in despair as the boat chugs in a sorry circle, as Surtees’ camera retreats into the clouds, the scene of violence and its players dissolving in the gleaming sea. Penn and Sharp pull off their last, nimblest desecration, at once solving the mystery and capping the tale with perfect economy, but leaving their hero to a vague fate. Such refusal to deliver an answer would drive Harry mad if he were watching it, but it delivers him a strange grace when he’s the victim of it.

Standard
1940s, War

The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944)

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Director: Cecil B. DeMille

By Roderick Heath

Cecil B. DeMille’s films are synonymous with a specific kind of cinema, a realm of grandiose subjects realised with an even more grandiose style. DeMille had trouble attuning himself to audience tastes in the early sound era with present-day stories like Dynamite (1929), Madame Satan (1930), and Four Frightened People (1934), whilst his splashy, Roman-age martyr romance Sign of the Cross (1932) was a hit. Hollywood in the Depression-defined 1930s was trending towards more present-tense, down-to-earth subjects and economical productions, compared to the inflated fancies of the late silent era. DeMille had exemplified that era as he became reputed for acts of elephantine showmanship like The Ten Commandments (1923) and King of Kings (1926), but his essential stock-in-trade was still the sexy but moralistic melodrama. Seeing an audience still hungry for larger-than-life thrills even in an officially more sober and straitened age, DeMille decided to redefine himself more properly as a maker of historical adventures, romances, and religious dramas, for which he’s remembered largely today beyond his place as one of the key progenitors of Hollywood’s first half-century. The Story of Dr. Wassell is something of an aberration in DeMille’s later career, as probably the most obscure film he made in that phase. Along with The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), it’s his only return to a present-day topic, and even his later Oscar-winner is only nominally contemporary, whereas The Story of Dr. Wassell engaged then-current geopolitics as DeMille’s lone contribution to the era of morale-boosting dramas made about and during World War II.
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DeMille and two of his most regular screenwriting collaborators, Alan Le May and Charles Bennett, took on the life and adventures of Dr. Corydon M. Wassell, whose efforts during the evacuation of Java in the first weeks of the war with Japan earned him special praise from Franklin Roosevelt. Needless to say, DeMille may have been taking on hot-off-the-wires news but his approach was hardly the stuff of stony authenticity. He adapted Lost Horizon and Goodbye Mr Chips author James Hilton’s book about Wassell. The doctor was a man pushing sixty at the time of his exploits, whereas DeMille cast Gary Cooper as a romantic hero cast in mould both Hilton and DeMille were both fond of in their highly diverse ways – a searcher seeking new spiritual and humanistic horizons. DeMille kicks off in a manner swiftly becoming customary for him since he had first dared put his own voice on the soundtrack of North West Mounted Police (1940), with his spoken prologue paying tribute to a noble tradition. Or, in this case, two noble traditions. First he offers a hymn to the humble country doctor, the hardy creed to which Wassell belonged until he was drawn overseas to work in China’s missions, illustrated with a small bronze statue of a doctor in his horse-drawn buggy set before abstracted backdrops and assailed by snowflakes. DeMille had dealt with the war in sidelong fashion prior to this, trying to foster better relations between the USA and the British Empire on North West Mounted Police, and commenting on the then-raging Battle of the Atlantic through the historical likeness of wrecking and piracy in Reap the Wild Wind (1942).
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DeMille’s glossy, entertainment-at-all-costs template might have seemed out of place in context of the all too real, all too palpable war, which was giving birth to a new mode of cinema embracing a blend of traditional filmmaking and documentary techniques, resulting in the birth of neorealism in Italy and variations in Britain and France, and even starting to influence Hollywood. And yet what better filmmaker than the man used to evoking the wraths of gods and rise and fall of nations to portray something close to an apocalyptic moment for so much of the world? The onset of war for America saw moviemakers rush to deal with the bruising and deadly events of the Pacific war’s first few months, for the most part a period of unstinting calamity for the US and other Allies. Rather than tiptoe around such ignominy, Hollywood’s newborn propagandists saw the value in downbeat tales like Wake Island (1942) and Bataan (1943), casting them as neo-Alamos to inspire the next wave of warriors. The Story of Dr. Wassell stands aloof from such movies in a surprising way, sporting very little actual, military action and instead concentrating on non-combatants attempting to escape the eye of an oncoming storm. Even a climactic assault by the Japanese on a last Dutch redoubt in Java is depicted chiefly via a radio broadcast.
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The story proper starts in the immediate wake of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese advance into South East Asia. DeMille’s voiceover next celebrates the fame of the USS Marblehead, a cruiser severely damaged during the Battle of the Makassar Strait. The battered, burning ship is seen on screen, her innards a trap of flooding water and boiling fire and limping her way into a port on Java in Indonesia, or the Dutch East Indies as it was called at the time. One of DeMille’s trademark panoramic introduction scenes follows, one that sees multiple characters meeting and interacting in the midst of a staging area for great events. Badly injured men are unloaded under Wassell’s supervision, as he’s now a navy surgeon commanding a hospital train sent to fetch the wounded and take them to a hospital. Wassell here meets the men from the Marblehead whose future will soon be bound up fatefully with his own, and also encounters two old friends from his missionary days: mission nurse Madeleine (Laraine Day), and his former research assistant Ping (Philip Ahn). All have been flung together in the desperate migration pushed ahead of the Japanese advance.
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Wassell and his team of steadfast nurses patch up the injured with the aid of a terse Chinese doctor (Richard Loo) on the train, and the wounded are installed in a hospital in central Java. But after the Japanese capture Singapore and invade Java, the hospital is bombed, killing Ping. Wassell is ordered to only evacuate walking wounded on transport ships, and leave behind the worst cases to be captured. Wassell decides to ignore the order and try to send stretcher cases out to a transport ship with the other wounded, but they’re spotted in the process by an officer who chides Wassell but also agrees to his request to have his orders amended to stay with the men left behind. After travelling back to their hospital to find it in ruins, Wassell encounters a convoy of British soldiers retreating before the Japanese, planning to reach another port and meet up with more transport ships, and the British CO (Richard Aherne) readily agrees to ferry Wassell and his charges along with them. But this proves to be merely the start of an arduous odyssey as it seems like all of heaven and earth are conspiring to destroy Wassell’s ragged band.
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To appreciate the best aspects of The Story of Dr. Wassell, as with many DeMille films, is to wade through some pure cornball and ungainly, runtime-hogging comedy that feels better suited to a serviceman comedy or a lesser MASH episode than a tale of such catastrophic urgency, before the film gets on a roll. So lumpy is The Story of Dr. Wassell because of some of this that some have called it DeMille’s worst movie. But I find it better than that, and once the film does really get moving, the second half proves a lesson from a master in big, vivid, suspenseful staging. Most of the levity comes from Johnny Leeweather (Renny McEvoy), a walking wounded case from New York so obsessed with romancing he fills out his hospital bunk with an improvised dummy and finally misses his chance to leave because he’s been too busy canoodling with the Javanese ladies. The director, who always knew how to sex up even the most unlikely material, shoehorns in one of his patented dancing girl scenes, in this case half-European, half-Javanese nurse Tremartini (Carol Thurston), who invents a blend of jazz-baby hoochie-coochie and folk dance that sets the hot-blooded patients amok during an improvised festivity. Some of DeMille’s worst dramatic tendencies are enabled by the film’s attempts to bolster wartime alliance-building, as he has Wassell say, “There’ll be a special place in heaven for the Dutch,” before depicting a heroic Dutch soldier dying in a hail of bullets muttering, “God save the Queen!” in the kind of cornball vignette satirists have made a meal of ever since. DeMille once quipped that critics’ appreciation of the audience’s intelligence sank every time he released a movie.
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Yet DeMille’s style was wrought in a fashion designed to be readily, easily accessible by a mass audience, and put across this openness with his open, pictographic visual style that betrays levels of intricacy in the way his camera shifts from vignette to vignette, knitting all together in a format that can only be likened to a mobile fresco. DeMille’s fondness for framings as carefully composed and lit as neoclassical paintings is much in evidence, although sacrificed to a more imperative pace of cutting than he usually wielded. His method of trying to please a panorama of tastes in that audience with flourishes from multiple genres was undoubtedly part of his success, but today you have to go to the Chinese and Indian film industries to see the same approach, especially compared to the increasingly monomaniacal stylistic approach to contemporary Hollywood franchise cinema. DeMille’s feat as a director who could speak to such a vast audience still doesn’t gain much appreciation, and yet which fascinates me deeply, an argot as stylised as anything in cinema and yet not perceived as such. Moreover, once it gets going, The Story of Dr. Wassell, along with his next film and one that has a claim to being his best, Unconquered (1947), belongs to a brief phase of relative toughness and grittiness for the director, before he’d turn back to a more self-consciously artificial, totally stylised approach for Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), with The Greatest Show on Earth in between as a commentary on his own belief in moviemaking as salving act of communion between artists and audience.
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The Story of Dr. Wassell is also interestingly complicated by DeMille’s adoption of a flashback structure possibly influenced by In Which We Serve (1942), exploring defining episodes in Wassell’s life amidst the onward rush of the main drama. Ping begins to explain to the sailors Wassell’s past in the midst of a bombing raid after one of the wounded, the grumbling Murdock (Paul Kelly), rants fearfully about hearing a rumour Wassell fled China rather than face the Japanese there. Ping tries to correct this rumour by explaining how Wassell left his home in Arkansas after getting one too many pigs as payment from his poor rural patients, and falling in love with Madeleine’s picture, used as the image of the exemplary missionary worker in a flyer Wassell got in the mail. Wassell himself takes up narrating his experiences after Ping is killed, recounting his dedication to discovering a microbe causing virulent and deadly fevers in the Chinese interior which he believed to be carried by a species of rare snail. He formed a close bond with Madeleine as they worked with Ping, and was thrown into both professional and romantic rivalry with Dr Ralph Wayne (Lester Matthews). Wassell was split from Madeleine after being assigned to a remote station with Ping, but there he was able to isolate the microbe. Believing himself a success at last, Wassell intended to ask Madeleine to marry him, but then found Wayne beat him to the discovery. In defeat, Wassell instead encouraged her to take up Wayne’s marriage offer instead, before leaving the missionary service and joining the navy.
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DeMille’s decision to tell his story in this fashion risked breaking up the pace of his drama, but it introduces a contrapuntal quality to the tale, the memory of labouring for years in dedication both altruistic and personal ambitions and the evanescent emotions of peacetime recalled in both its sublime and painful pettiness before the great trial arrives. For a director so often associated with adamantine moral values freely mixed with sensuous hype, DeMille had a telling penchant for badly flawed heroes. Often skilled as bringers of violence and accomplished in the hardier arts of life, DeMille’s protagonists are eventually obliged to writhe their way pathetically towards transcendence, heroes fit for a more rambunctious world trying desperately to become its better self. That description is true of figures like Fredric March’s love-struck tribune in The Sign of the Cross, Henry Wilcoxon’s Richard the Lionheart in The Crusades (1935), Cooper’s Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman (1936), and Victor Mature’s Samson. Wassell, by contrast, is established as a constantly frustrated protagonist whose nobility stems in large part precisely from his well-exercised gifts for self-effacement and coping with crushing twists of fate. As a character Wassell accords with Cooper’s preference for playing strong yet slightly offbeat, pensively modest characters, a natural succession from his Oscar-winning role as Alvin York as another man who manages to be heroic with sensibility that’s notably at odds with the age of mass slaughter. DeMille gives shading and dramatic tension to the portrait by having characters raise the spectre of Wassell’s past failures and rumours that he ran out on his responsibilities in China, charges Ping determinedly puts down.
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The film’s better comedy interludes come from Cooper, giving a quiet master class in playing physical awkwardness, including a brilliant little dance of actions with Ahn as Ping tries to help Wassell dress for a date with Madeleine, and near the end, when Wassell hears Roosevelt’s voice speak his name on the radio, arresting him as he starts to sit and making him holt upright to rigid attention again. Wassell embodies many qualities DeMille found worthy, particular the hero who’s a prisoner of honour, holding his tongue and refusing to make others beholden or to make excuses for himself. He’s also something of a rough draft for DeMille’s concept of Moses, a man who arrives at the level of maturity required to lead an exodus after trials of identity and moral and emotional reflex, encountering multiple references of culture and history. Most of the other characters around Wassell are open books, the sailors all avatars for a certain lively, clean-cut, scrappily life-hungry ideal of American youth, identified closely with home states and all the totemic meaning of nicknames and fond associations. Cmdr Bill Goggins (Stanley Ridges) is a strong and strict voice of leadership who is good friends with Wassell, but is frustrated by his injuries that keep him rigidly dressed and bedbound. Badly-burned Benjamin ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins (Dennis O’Keefe) becomes attached to the whimsically named Tremartini after she donates blood to him. Mangled romantic ‘Andy’ Anderson (Elliott Reid) quickly develops a crush on Dutch nurse Bettina (Signe Hasso).
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Bettina already has an interested beau, gutsy Dutch soldier Lt Dirk Van Daal (Carl Esmond), and the stage seems set for one of DeMille’s familiar romantic triangles. Except that, recognising Andy’s crush, Dirk calmly tells the American that, given the utter chaos of their lives, neither has a right to claim Bettina, so they make a pact to both look after her until war’s end and then contest the issue. If Wassell is a contemporary Moses, Hoppy is a Samson who must face his own battle against an army single-handed, armed with Tommy gun rather than the jaw-bone of an ass. Tremartini is another familiar DeMille figuration, the simple and innocent girl who falls for a man, tethered to him on a perfect, sublime level but also doomed by the purity of that ardour: she feels they’re connected permanently after she’s given him her blood. The story of all these characters allowed DeMille an honourable way to engage with the war and portray the sorts of qualities he admired without celebrating bloodthirstiness, through a focal figure whose business is not feats of warfare but saving lives. The sailors for the most part can no longer fight, but get to display other forms of bravery and gallantry, as when they band together to distract a young boy from his mother’s death in machine gun fire hailing all about them.
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The pivotal sequence involves Wassell’s charges being denied their place on a ship home, hard military facts butting up against earnest humanitarian urges as Wasell makes a forlorn but hopeless appeal to a higher ranking officer to look the other way and give a break to men desperate for escape and deserving of it. Later it’s revealed that this tortuous moment actually saves the men’s lives, as the ship they were supposed to board was sunk. When Wassell learns this he thinks Madeleine, who was on that ship, died too. The Story of Dr. Wassell was DeMille’s third film in colour, with Victor Milner and William E. Snyder his cinematographers. It’s some measure of DeMille’s clout that he was able to make such a big-scale production in colour right in the middle of the war. But where colour was primarily a decorative device for DeMille on his first two efforts, here was the first occasion in which he evinced the overtly spiritual use of it he would exercise more completely in Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments, decorating corners of his tale of cosmic violence with promises of redemptive beauty. A flashback to Wassell and Madeleine seated by a pond in an old temple sees them amidst a riot of blooms of flowers, the multihued skins of exotic fish, crumbling statuary, and overgrown foliage.
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This sequence is rhymed by a later, nocturnal scene where Wassell, poised on the edge of fatalistic despair, leaves the hospital and makes his way through the night to investigate the sound of moving traffic. He encounters a statue of Buddha outside another such ruined temple, a grand, vine, tangled form in the background under pale moonlight, the statue looming with silent, boding promise. Wassell finds himself making desperate appeal to Buddha, and is met immediately by a seeming miracle as he recognises the singing coming from the passing convoy of trucks as that of British soldiers. It’s hard to imagine film artists more different to DeMille, than Sam Fuller and Francis Coppola (on some levels at least: none of them was averse to big thinking and broad statements), and yet this scene opens a door to both Fuller’s China Gate (1957) and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), both of which similarly depict the psychic shock of rock-ribbed faiths of western certainty gazing in trepidation at the stark, carved imagery of the east’s mirroring faiths and opaque history, in the context of wars that send different creeds, nations, and ways of understanding into violent collision. The chief difference is that DeMille’s vision is determinedly positive, embracing the possibility of faith taking on manifold faces. This idea recalls the cumulative message of The Crusades where Richard and Saladin made peace on the back of mutual love Berengaria’s question as to what it really mattered what path one took to find enlightenment.
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Although DeMille’s faiths secular and spiritual are eventually affirmed throughout the film, nonetheless he’s also obliged to depict a dreadful moment in history, the forces of western influence in Asia being chased out by a ruthless broom. One quality of DeMille’s efforts that still distinguishes them effectively from so many films labelled as epic was precisely his assurance that such grandiose themes could only be articulated through dramas staged on the largest possible scale. For DeMille, questions of religious conscience or humanitarian obligation weren’t ideas to be explored on the level of Ingmar Bergman’s tortured neurotics but in direct engagement with grand narratives. DeMille’s vision grew increasingly familiar with the apocalyptic, first evinced here in the midst of wartime and growing more urgent as the immense popularity of his biblical epics seemed rooted in their ability to comprehend the atomic age’s landscape in trepidation. But DeMille’s most revealing choice here is to leave the enemy almost entirely unseen, except for a brief, vague glimpse of a soldier crawling through underbrush. The wartime foe is rendered an abstract power of wrath and destruction, anticipating the formless force of annihilation that arrives in the Pesach sequence of The Ten Commandments. Bombs fall and shake the earth, smashing homes and sanctuaries and great works, a divine wrath tormenting his mere humans but also driving them towards new states of being.
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The central set-piece sequence sees the British convoy trying to run across a huge bridge under heavy enemy shelling. A truck blows up in front of the lorry Wassell drives, forcing him onto a wild, careening ride off the road and through the yards of hapless villager as his load of injured men are tossed about. Hoppy and Tremartini, riding in a jeep behind, are blown off the road. Their vehicle tumbles to the foot of a steep embankment, their driver killed, and Hoppy is crippled with a broken leg. Wassell tries to return to get them, only to see the bridge crumble under the impact of a bomb, cutting him off. The mighty structure disintegrates with all the epic, terrible stature of the statue of Dagon in Samson and Delilah, another idol of human pretence laid flat. Tremartini refuses to leave Hoppy, so the duo make ready to fight off advancing Japanese soldiers with a Tommy gun: DeMille fades out as Hoppy releases his first, furious bursts in a battle that can only end one way, fading into the existential void of the screen dissolve. Even when Wassell and his charges finally manage to get aboard a passenger liner, the Janssen, crammed to the gunwales with refugees, with Wassell distracting her captain as the wounded men are sneaked aboard at the stern. Even then their ordeal isn’t over, as the ship has sneak out of harbour and elude Japanese patrols, saved by a fog that obscures their progress for a time but soon disperses and leaves the ship naked before attacking planes. DeMille was always a consummate technician, with a gift not simply for building big sets and staging good special effects, but for manipulating his actors and human elements in a way that made all that infrastructure almost animate.
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The crash of Hoppy and Tremartini is a particularly clever bit of staging that manages a seamless illusion in the way DeMille has the actors secreted around the set, the jeep tumbling down the slope and slamming to a halt, O’Keefe sliding into view and Thurston seeming to emerge from the wreck. The bridge sequence and ship attack involve special effects and come on with tremendous force and precisely deployed detail, superlatively cut together by Anne Bauchens. DeMille had originally hoped to cast Alan Ladd as Hoppy, casting O’Keefe instead, normally an RKO contract player who appeared the previous year in the Val Lewton-produced The Leopard Man, whilst another Lewton player, Edith Barrett, is glimpsed briefly as the mother of the small boy, dying in a thunderous peal of bullets. The film’s supporting cast is replete with character actors and stars on their way up or down, with faces like Yvonne De Carlo (originally slated to play Tremartini), Louis Jean Heydt, Victor Borge, former silent movie Tarzan Elmo Lincoln, Milton Kibbee, George Macready, Miles Mander, and Doodles Weaver all tucked in there somewhere. It shows the degree to which a DeMille production was a sort of tide pool for an entire industry, much in the same way that the events he depicts operates the same way for a whole society. If the film lacks something that DeMille’s best work always has, it’s a potent central romance with a strong female character at the axis of the drama to galvanise the larger canvas with intimate emotions. Hoppy and Tremartini’s doomed love is too naïve for this, and Madeleine and Bettina remain essentially marginal figures.
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The personal drama likewise resolves cutely as Wassell encounters Dr Wayne on the Janssen and meets his wife (Catherine Craig), realising that Madeleine never did marry him; meanwhile Madeleine has been rescued from the wreckage of the sunken ship by a PBY, and hears Roosevelt talking about Wassell on the radio. DeMille nonetheless sustains the sense of running besiegement with all his practiced showmanship until almost the very end of the film. Wassell and colleagues keep on trying to save lives whilst everyone else is trying for one reason or another to end them, as attacking airplanes riddle the ship’s decks and sundry refugees with bullets. The tension between the wartime propagandist facet of the drama and the humane-pacifist streak is hardly resolved, but The Story of Dr. Wassell does add up to a tacit statement that the two can’t always be separated, that a fundamental irony of war is that it’s the scene of extraordinary struggle to save life as well as exterminate it. The final scenes, unfolding once the refugees have reached the safe harbour of Fremantle in Western Australia, see Wassell so used to getting the short end of the stick he expects to be court-martialled an punished for his loose approach to his orders, but he instead finds himself feted as a hero at last. It’s easy to imagine people living through the war laughing and sneering at the screen at this when it was released. But, of course, they still went to see it in droves, precisely because they knew they could rely on DeMille to process life into legend.

Standard
1990s, 2000s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

The Matrix (1999) / The Matrix Reloaded (2003) / The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

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Directors/Screenwriters: The Wachowskis

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay or listen to the podcast

Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, many filmmakers chased a strange new grail of pop culture: to make the first true blockbuster rooted in the new styles in life and fiction provoked by the arrival of computers as part of everyday existence. As the number of computer users grew and gave birth to happily nerdy ranks as well as the shadowy adherents of hacker culture in the real world, an imaginary refraction arrived in the literary cyberpunk genre, initiated by William Gibson. Eventually it became clear that as a potential audience conversant in new concepts grew larger and the innovation they fostered became generally familiar, a whole new movie audience waited in the wings. Soon filmmakers were offering up the likes of Tron (1982) and War Games (1983). The former, an attempt to build a fantasy-adventure film out of novel notions like virtual reality and computer simulation, bombed at the box office, whilst the latter, a straight-laced thriller with a hacking aspect, was a big hit, but neither approach really led anywhere for the time being.
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In the 1990s the possibility of virtual reality immersions and artificial intelligence seemed imminent, exploited in trashy fare like The Lawnmower Man (1992), Disclosure (1994), and Virtuosity (1995), whilst the arrival of the World Wide Web resulted in updates of the ‘70s paranoid thriller like The Net (1995) and Enemy of the State (1999), as well as bouncy, digitally enhanced heist movies like Sneakers (1992) and Hackers (1995). The more serious, engaged, imaginative literary takes on a seemingly imminent future union of the human and the machine, the real and the simulated, struggled to gain ground when anyone tried to translate them into cinema, in part because of the failure of films like Tron and cyberpunk’s cinematic style guide, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Scott’s film increasingly proved a touchstone for ambitious young directors however, and dark, perverse, gothic-technocratic visions of the near-future proliferated in the mid-‘90s. The likes of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) failed to attract viewers for being too weird and spiky in their approach. ‘90s It-Boy Keanu Reeves saw potential in the cyberpunk style, but his first attempt at riding it for a pop hit, with 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic, proved an embarrassing debacle despite being written by Gibson himself.
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Meanwhile sibling filmmakers Larry and Andy Wachowski had become a hot property in Hollywood with their script for Assassins (1995) and their debut feature, Bound (1996). Infamously, rising star Will Smith turned down the lead role for The Matrix, a project based in the Wachowski’s general obsession with not just computer gaming and cyberpunk fiction but also Japanese manga and anime and postmodernist philosophy, a heady stew Reeves proved more attuned to. To keep down the costs of making the film, which would require some groundbreaking special effects, the production was shifted to Sydney, where it was filmed almost simultaneously with a very similar-sounding project, Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998). Much like George Lucas a half-century earlier, the Wachowskis staked everything on a hugely ambitious leap from down-to-earth fare to epic science fiction filmmaking. The brothers were rewarded as 1999 rolled around, and The Matrix suddenly became the eye of the blockbuster zeitgeist, not outdoing the return of the Star Wars franchise that year in revenue but certainly stealing all its cool-kid thunder. Why did The Matrix score a bullseye where so many others missed?
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Series protagonist Thomas A. Anderson (Reeves), whose hacker alias Neo eventually becomes his preferred name, is offered as a wage slave functionary in some general purpose corporation office block. He spends his nights locked in his apartment, trying desperately to penetrate the veil of estrangement and falsity he senses around him, and trying to contact legendary hackers glimpsed speeding through the networks. Before we meet Neo, we see one of those legends, Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), battling policemen and mysterious government agents in a seedy downtown area. Trinity is a swashbuckling dissident with superhuman powers, powers the agents also wield; Trinity races to a phone booth as one agent runs her down with a truck, and seems to vanish from the pulverised rubble. Neo gets an email offering him answers to his inchoate searching, and meets Trinity in a nightclub. She soon introduces him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who gives him a choice between maintaining the existence he knows and awakening to a daunting new truth. Neo is arrested and interrogated by the leader of the agents, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who terrifies Neo by somehow sealing up his mouth and implanting him with an electronic bug that becomes a biomechanoid parasite.
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After Trinity removes the bug, Morpheus brings Neo out of the reality he knows, which is actually the Matrix, a computer simulation of the late 20th century. Robotic intelligences, created by mankind but grown too smart to control, long ago won a cataclysmic war for control of the Earth. Faced with a decimated and perpetually clouded world, the central AI unit, called the Source, started exploiting a blend of fusion power and tapped human bioenergy, requiring billions of humans to live swaddled in amniotic chambers, kept lulled by the Matrix. Morpheus believes Neo is “The One,” a prophesised saviour figure with the power to subvert and subordinate the Matrix, and has sought him to fight on the behalf of the one free human outpost left, the subterranean city of Zion. Neo is brought aboard Morpheus’ hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar, which travels via ancient underground tunnel and sewer networks. He meets the ship’s crew, including Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), and is schooled in how to bend the rules of the Matrix and battle within the digital world. Eventually Morpheus takes him to meet the Oracle (Gloria Foster), a mysterious entity in the Matrix who told Morpheus he would find the One and Trinity that she would fall in love with him. But the Oracle tells Neo that he isn’t the Messiah, just a naughty boy.
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The Wachowskis had signalled with Bound, a tale of lesbian lovers trying to outwit one woman’s gangster boyfriend for survival and profit, that their ardour for film noir tropes and new-age mores was more than skin-deep. Where the Star Wars films had purveyed their inspirations like Joseph Campbell as intellectual background radiation, The Matrix films flaunted their conceptual literacy and awareness, down to touches like having its hero grab a copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, one of the heady tomes the Wachowskis gave their cast to explain their notions, and a storyline that referenced philosophical ideas from the likes of Plato and Descartes. Great wads of all three films, particularly in the heroes’ exchanges with the various sentient entities floating around the Matrix like the Oracle, are devoted to dialogue affecting dissemination of abstract philosophical ideas around choice and perception, most of which are cardboard. The film’s most famous metaphorical confrontation comes when Morpheus presents Neo with a simple choice between returning to the life he knows by taking a blue pill or confronting the underlying reality with a red pill, a notion that cunningly repurposes the old Counterculture notion of drugs as gateways to new perceptions.
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But where other filmmakers tackling similar material kept their thinking relatively intimate, the Wachowskis dreamt up a dystopian mythology and used it chiefly as a pretext for spectacular action scenes. The Wachowskis were freely harvesting tropes, of course, particularly from manga and anime. Echoes of Ghost in the Shell (1995), Galaxy Express 999 (1979), Akira (1986), and many more are detectable in the concern with unholy fusions of the organic and mechanical and detachment of spirit from flesh. The notion of do-or-die conflict played out in an unreal world had precursors too, in stuff like The Undead (1957), Dreamscape (1983) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), although those films’ basis in the plasticity of the psyche was rejected. The Doctor Who fan in me long knew a suspicious recollection of that show’s classic episode “The Deadly Assassin” from 1976, where the Doctor linked his mind with his home world Gallifrey’s mainframe computer, called, yes, the Matrix, to do battle with an evil foe in a surreal netherworld. Hiring master Hong Kong fight choreographer and director Yuen Woo-Ping to arrange the fight scenes gave a patina of honest connection with wu xia films. The mark of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels is likewise detectable, particularly in the theme of a nascent superbeing who may or may not represent a liberating force of renewal, and twists of story like Neo being blinded only to discover another way of seeing, whilst Zion resembles Herbert’s concept of the Fremen civilisation.
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Most importantly, the Wachowskis offered style. The look of The Matrix became its instantly identifiable signature, taking ‘90s alt-culture affectations to a refined limit, with its heroes wrapped in black leather and long spaghetti western overcoats, and eyes hidden behind gleaming sunglasses. Trinity is the intensely fetishized emblem of all, somewhere between a teenage boy’s idea of a lesbian motorcyclist and a rave club dominatrix, delivering crane kicks in zero-gravity and giving displays of the now much-mocked “superhero landing” pose. The look imposed by Dick Pope’s cinematography was as dark and chitinous as a beetle’s back, with cinematography washed in green filters to signify the Matrix environs and pale blues for the real world. This aspect was enhanced by the Oscar-winning visual and sound effects. Some of these were deployed on relatively familiar sci-fi vistas, like the dramatic revelation of the human pod farms, the Nebuchadnezzar negotiating ruined labyrinths, and the squirming, squid-like ‘Sentinel’ robots the Source employs to police and chase enemies. But the effects that instantly became cliché devices in the contemporary directorial arsenal included ‘ramping’ effects that shift camera speeds in mid-shot and move around characters gyrating in slow motion, used to portray the Matrix warriors’ ability to distort perception of time to the point where they can dodge bullets.
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Despite all the hullabaloo, though, I’ve never felt more than lukewarm towards The Matrix and its sequels, and often much less. For films that inspired such obsessive generational loyalty and oodles of po-faced commentary, they’re often incredibly dumb, and staunchly refuse to mine their theoretically infinite malleability, with their basis in a simulated reality, for anything but the most obvious tweaks on action movie clichés. Time has ironically invested The Matrix films with a more interesting subtext than those they so urgently tried to force upon the viewer back when. Larry and Andy Wachowski are today Lana and Lilly, and the films’ obsessive portraiture of an exterior reality that refuses to match up with inner identity now seems immediately inspired by the siblings’ struggle with gender identity. Indeed, they found a uniquely dramatic way of turning that struggle into an experience a vast audience could relate to. Even the near-doppelganger pairing of Reeves and Moss seems to channel this quality, fractured pieces of a whole who border on the asexual. The visions of human bodies riddled with steely portals and subsisting within pods of goo weaponised the body horror of David Cronenberg, so strongly fixed as it was in the anxieties stirred up the changed sexual mores of the 1960s and ‘70s. The Wachowskis wanted to base their drama in a distinctively paranoid, anti-authoritian worldview where the bad guys, with their suits and earpieces, look like Secret Service agents and stand as emblems of malfeasant power. The narrative promised nerdy boys the world over they too could have a hot sporty queer-coded girlfriend if they only learned to code well enough.
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But to me The Matrix films were foiled rather than empowered by their desperate desire to hang with the cool kids and deny their nerdy roots. There is no sense of normality to subvert in the first film. At the outset we get some shots of Neo ensconced as an office cubicle, only to be quickly driven out of it. We only get pop signifiers of social drudgery and reality breakdown rather than engaging it for any sense of personal angst or mounting disquiet. Neo’s briefly-glimpsed freak friends are all cool, kinky party types – basically the same types he breaks out of The Matrix to hang with. The Wachowskis attempt to blindside the audience with Neo’s surreal experience with Smith and the bug, but the mystery isn’t teased for very long, and the sequence where Trinity and others extract the bug from him sees them using a stupid-looking gadget that looks like it came out of some other, lost steampunk movie. Once he does escape the Matrix and begins his evolution into superhero, Neo doesn’t have to master any real abilities or struggle with his identity. The Wachowskis have to invent an entirely unnecessary wrinkle by having the Oracle deny his being The One, to provide the vaguest tension. By the end of the trilogy Neo is still as flat, bland, and numbingly “cool” a hero as he was at the start, an avatar for level-up warriors the world over. Also, I wish some of the slow-motion kung-fu fights didn’t remind me so much of Clouseau fighting Cato in the Pink Panther films.
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Whilst the Wachowskis seemed genuine in their progressive credentials, the world they created had a rather fascistic aesthetic and pivoted on adolescent paeans to those turned on and turned off from reality, the shallow, self-congratulatory aspect of their allegories has been thoroughly demonstrated by the way everyone from the far left to the far right has subsumed its red pill/blue pill schism. Anyone has the right, The Matrix ultimately told too many people, to reject the world one shares with other people and substitute one’s preferred way of seeing. Relics of genuine head cinema like The Trip (1967), The Last Movie (1971), or Alejandro Jodorowski’s films were wild portraits of fractured personalities trying to understand their own perverse and destructive selves as well as the crudity of the world about them. By contrast The Matrix offers a profoundly reassuring message: it’s all those people’s fault. The propelling basis in Countercultural outlook is sapped of colour, fun, and imaginative purview, with shiny technocracy, broad paranoia, and chic violence in their place. The notion of a bunch of dissident swashbucklers battling wicked, assimilating forces in a flying ship has an odd similarity to Yellow Submarine (1968), but this was more like Basic Black Submarine. The films were built around some of the more annoyingly shallow aspects of the ‘90s alternative zeitgeist, particularly the kind of collegiate nihilism that had been a dominant mood since Kurt Cobain’s suicide, to which the films can only really respond in terribly weak fashion at the end when Smith asks why Neo puts up with so much pain and hopelessness and he replies, “Because I choose to.”
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The Wachowskis worked hard to keep the Matrix contained by some relatively hard and fast rules. The Source only has a limited ability to interfere with the flow of action in the simulated space, which is a bit hard to swallow but necessary to justify the entire proposition. In one of the trilogy’s more memorable lines, it’s revealed that the Matrix was made to resemble the ordinary human world of 1999 because the first version, a becalmed utopia, was rejected by the humans sharing it. Fractiousness, violence, and discord are part of human nature, demanding the concession of forms of pressure relief like The One and Zion. There’s some irony here given that the Wachowskis were determined to create a fantasy universe that sates such desires: rather than gift their heroes any abilities to have surreal fun with the Matrix, to undercut the fascist chic with absurdism, the Wachowskis keep them caged by generic conventions, and send them into battle instead with guns and other conventional weapons. An essential aspect of the classic martial arts drama is the theme of a character mastering spiritual strength in accord with achieving physical prowess, but the Wachowskis undercut this by making such prowess a mere download away. “I know kung fu,” Neo gasps, one of Reeve’s better line readings as he captures Neo’s ability to process new realities at speed as well as a certain delight in such a gift. And yet, despite the films’ affectations of thoughtfulness, there’s never any real interest in questioning what such warlike arts achieve. The focus and stylisation dismisses most of the other human consciousnesses in the Matrix, and it’s stated outright that they’re all to be considered enemies because the Agents can suborn them at will, which raises some interesting ethical questions that are generally ignored. Bring on the guns, lots of guns.
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Undoubtedly, the Wachowskis tried and succeeded in tapping into the sense of eddying entrapment a lot of young outsiders felt in that superficially calm but deeply anxious lull between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Whilst The Matrix decries dull conformism and illusory consumerism, nonetheless the Wachowskis’ method is purveyed in a manner that cuts across the grain of their message, by making their heroes utterly conformist in affect, in settings that are stiflingly brand-aware. Moreover, the Wachowskis suggested in the early reels of The Matrix they lacked the patience to properly build a gallery of characters and worldviews, failings demonstrated all too painfully in the sequels as they tried to expand their universe and ask us to care about Zion and its inhabitants in spite of only introducing them in the most cursory and clumsy manner. Most of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar look like escapees from Burning Man in the real world and Krautrock stars when in the Matrix, and are instantly forgettable. When Cypher turns traitor and kills most of them by disconnecting their Matrix jacks when they’re immersed, it’s impossible to really care. The best non-technical aspect of the first film is Pantoliano, unsurprising as the Wachowskis had already worked with him on Bound and knew he could give a juicy villainous performance on tap. Where the other actors tackle their deep and meaningful dialogue like wading through treacle in heavy boots, Pantoliano offers what might be the only actual fillip of genuinely engaging acting in the trilogy as Smith courts him to turn traitor in a fancy restaurant: he meditates with deft humour on how the steak he’s eating isn’t real but he doesn’t care because it’s so preferable to the slop they eat on the Nebuchadnezzar.
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In a similar fashion, the movies are much more engaging inside the Matrix than without because there the Wachowskis are free to purvey their love of shiny decadence and reality-contorting imagery, but once the game’s given away it’s hard to care that much about what’s going on inside a giant video game, in large part because there’s no interest in the stakes such battles have for the oblivious unfortunates stuck in it. Foster’s intelligent, measured performance as the Oracle almost helped the character overcome its basis in magical negro cliché. Mary Alice had to take over for the last film as Foster died between shoots, but she acquits herself well too, ably suggesting an entity that stands as the weary but soulful repository of all faith. Weaving’s Smith was another strength, if a fairly broad one, his blandly drawling Yankee accent wielded to sinuous effect as he diagnoses the human condition as being the same as a disease. This presages the character’s ironic evolution by the second two films into just such an entity, a perfect engine of ego remaking everything in his image. Weaving brings just enough smug and irksome evil to his role to invest climactic sequences with some rousing need to see him brought down, as he tortures the captured Morpheus only to invite Neo and Trinity’s wrath. As the Sentinels zero in on the Nebuchadnezzar and Neo is shot by Smith in the Matrix, all seems lost, but Trinity’s kiss in the real world revives Neo in the false, and he finally taps his powers as The One, able to tear Smith to shreds from the inside and escape in time so the ship’s crew can halt the Sentinels with the blast of an electromagnetic pulse. The very last image reveals Neo, after vowing to the Source to bring the pain, flying like Superman across the Matrix skyline: at last the naked, boyish power fantasy has hatched.
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Despite his films’ much more naïf and playful approach, it was telling that George Lucas was beginning to dismantle the Chosen One template with a purpose, to increasing howls of protest, at the exact same time the Wachowskis were greeted as heroes by remaking it for a digitised generation. Whilst the follow-up would do some interesting things with the concept, it never is explained just how being The One works, especially as Neo eventually finds he has powers in the physical as well as simulated worlds. The archaic names littered throughout the series feel less like nods to mythical archetypes than mythopoeic bingo, and the series, for all its intellectual affectations, keeps eventually falling back on stale bromides like “belief” and “hope.” The hardest-headed character in the trilogy, Lock (Harry Lennix), who commands Zion’s armies, is offered as an odiously inflexible figure for failing to see the value in all these. Bound still stands as the Wachowskis’ best film in very large part because it’s their most intimate: there the little myth of self-discovery and the fight for agency had a genuinely convincing scale and sense of urgeny. The failure of their later films to cohere, resulting in the ragged if fascinating mess they co-directed with Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas (2012), and displays of empty showmanship in Speed Racer (2008) and Jupiter Ascending (2015), confirmed the siblings had become entrapped by their most famous creation, forced to subsist in a style of moviemaking against the grain of their subtler but preferable talents. The miniature tribute in Cloud Atlas to their signal hit stands as superior for being briefer, punchier, and more to the point.
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Regardless, The Matrix proved so big and unexpected a hit that the Wachowskis were swiftly encouraged to expand their one-off tale into an ambitious trilogy, and two sequels were released within months of each-other in 2003, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. The Matrix Reloaded surprised me at the time, as it revealed the Wachowskis as willing to take chances with their property and expand their scope rather than simply continue their original, straightforward dynamic. The Wachowskis this time were confronted by a challenge that often awaits fashioners of cool dystopias, in trying to step out from behind that shield and try to come up with a vision of the opposite. This time they got to portray Zion, envisioned as a gritty, crowded, tenuous space for human life that nonetheless has a utopian aspect, sustainable, harmonious, free of racism and sexism, and led by genuinely wise elders, including Hamann (Anthony Zerbe) and West (Cornel West). The episode’s most divisive scene sees the Wachowskis intercutting between a communal happening where the Zion folk party down with increasingly orgiastic overtones, and Neo and Trinity having sex in their home; physical exultation, communal joy, and weird sexuality are given a uniquely uninhibited place in a Hollywood blockbuster.
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Unsurprisingly, however, the Wachowskis immediately put all that aside and get back on message. The Wachoswkis introduced one impressive-looking new hero, Jada Pinkett’s Niobe, Morpheus’ former flame and a brilliant pilot. The former Agent Smith is now a liberated force, invested with some of Neo’s power and free to set about subsuming every other entity in the Matrix. He even manages to implant his consciousness into a living human, Bane (Ian Bliss), who carries out acts of sabotage in the real world. Perhaps the biggest chance the Wachowskis took, and their most inspired, came at the climax, where Neo encounters the Matrix’s designer program, called the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), who represents cynical power and corruption by looking like the tycoon on the Monopoly board game box. The Architect informs him that the concept of The One was an invention designed to deal with a cyclical system flaw based in the tendency of humans to rebel sooner or later. So he and the Oracle, another master program, solved the tendency by giving the humans a saviour figure and allowing a certain number to set up rebel enclaves to keep this tendency within controllable limits, eventually wiping them out when they get too large and dangerous and starting the process over. The original’s power fantasy of liberation and subversion is then actually revealed to be a calculated concession that only reinforces the Matrix’s hegemony, and Neo is eventually expected to choose between saving Trinity’s life or working with the Architect to secure the next foundation of Zion with a small number of humans to ensure the human race doesn’t die out.
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The plot of The Matrix Reloaded was pretty thin by comparison with the incident-heavy instalments on either side, depicting the attempts of the heroes to track down The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), a program who can get them into a locked building where the Oracle tells them they can find valuable knowledge, which proves to be the abode of the Architect. Meanwhile Zion prepares for an attack by a colossal armada of Sentinels. The film exists mostly to string together show-stopping action set-pieces. The episode’s failings as narrative only become clear with the third instalment, wasting whole reels with more pseudo-philosophising and feckless character interaction. Most tiresome is the crew’s encounter with two more Matrix entities, the sleazy potentate the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his concubine Persephone (Monica Bellucci), who hold the Keymaster captive. It’s hinted this pair were predecessors of Neo and Trinity as a corrupted One and his mate. Their general function is to tread water between fight scenes with games of mind and libido, as the pompous Merovingian extemporises on the illusion of control, illustrated as he feeds a woman a digital aphrodisiac, and Persephone blackmails Neo into giving her a taste of the sugar he gives Trinity, much to Trinity’s smouldering irritation.
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All this is painfully silly, and wastes running time that could be used better detailing some of the characters it wants us to accept as new and additional heroes. These include Niobe, Lock, Morpheus’ new computer wiz Link (Harold Perrineau), Link’s wife Zee (Nona Gaye), and Kid (Clayton Watson), a young lad Neo brought out of the Matrix who wants to help in the city defence. None of these characters registers as much more than a faint echo, despite the fact that the third part leans on all of them to sustain its drama. But what Reloaded does right is worth cataloguing. In addition to giving the template new dimensions, it offers the series’ most visually ingenious and sustained action scenes. An early fight between Neo and the multiplying Smiths stretched the digital effects to the limit in playing like a cyberpunk kung fu take on the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scene from Fantasia (1940). A battle between Neo and the Merovingian’s goons in a mansion expands on the original’s zero-gravity tussles with better effects and a more fluent sense of staging and motion.
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The highpoint of the movie, and the trilogy in fact, is a chase scene on a city freeway as Trinity and Morpheus steal the Keymaker away from the Merovingian, trying to outfight and outrun his dreadlock-haired, white-skinned twin henchmen (Neil and Adrian Rayment) and an Agent whilst careening down the busy roadway. Here the Wachowskis finally give Fishburne some properly badass stuff to do, from slashing a car to pieces with a samurai sword to kickboxing an agent on the roof of a semitrailer. Cunningly, the Wachowskis keep Neo out of this until he manages to swoop in and save Morpheus and the Keymaker from the midst of a slow-motion crash. Whilst this sequence serves no real narrative function, it’s as intricately orchestrated and cleverly visualised as special effects action scenes get, and moreover represents the best example of the series’ driving idea: the apparently stable and familiar universe suddenly and casually perverted. Finally Neo saves Trinity rather than choose work with the Architect, and proves his powers as the One include the capacity to pluck a digital bullet from her gut and restore her to life. Once returned to the real world and forced to flee Sentinel robots consuming their ship, Neo discovers his power over the machines has crossed over, and he destroys several Sentinels with pure willpower, at the cost of almost killing himself.
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The second film leaves the story on a cliffhanger as Neo lies in a coma next to the Smith-possessed body of Bane. The Matrix Revolutions sees Morpheus talking Hamann into letting him take a ship to rescue Neo from the digital netherworld he’s stuck in, over the objections of Lock, who marshals Zion’s scant military strength to hold off the Sentinel horde. After Morpheus, Trinity, and the Oracle’s bodyguard Seraph (Collin Chou) manage to force the Merovingian to release Neo, Neo meets with the Oracle, who assures him she represents the part of the Matrix that wants to find a new solution to the schism of human and machine. Neo senses where his path now leads: to find a way to oblige the Source into calling a truce. As Zion’s warriors, including Zee and Kid, fight off the attack, Morpheus and Niobe dash to bring the last remaining EMP bomb on their ship, and manage to knock out the first wave of robots, at the price of leaving the city barely defensible against the rest. Meanwhile Neo and Trinity continue alone to the heart of the robot city. Neo is blinded when the revived Bane-Smith makes his play to kill him, but Neo discovers he has a psychic link to the Source which means he can see electrical patterns, and he defeats the possessed man. Trinity is killed when their ship crashes into the city, leaving Neo to confront the Source alone. Neo strikes a bargain to save the Source from being completely subsumed by the infection that is Smith if the Source will call off the onslaught on Zion and accept coexistence.
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Revolutions tries damn hard to give the trilogy an epic-sized ending, as the battle that began in the Matrix’s simulacrum finds its climax in mighty clashes of grimy, clanging hardware, and human blood, sweat, and tears. But the most interesting flourish in this instalment comes early as Neo hovers in a vision of limbo that looks like a subway station, a visually effective use of the banal to signify the metaphysical. The mission his friends launch to get him out of there sees the directors ply yet another gravity-defying shoot-out and a hyperbolic display of Tarantino-esque gun-pointing to get the Merovingian to ensure his release. This all makes painfully clear how quickly the Wachowskis were running out of ideas. The conclusion is hurt beyond redemption by the Wachowskis’ incapacity to orchestrate human drama with the same dexterity they bring to the visual and the conceptual. Rather than portray Zion’s fight as an adjunct to the adventures of our familiar heroes, the Wachowskis instead fill the bulk of the episode with the efforts of a bunch of barely introduced and entirely uninteresting characters as they wage war at deafening volume. As FX spectacle it’s well-done, but it’s thumpingly witless and uninventive in execution. The Wachowskis extend their penchant for Japanese sci-fi concepts as the defenders mount mecha war machines, but their defences seem excruciatingly poorly-planned and ineffectual given the nature of an entirely predictable attack. Neo and Trinity are sidelined for great tracts of running time, and Morpheus is literally reduced to a passenger, watching Niobe as she steers with great intensity. Pinkett’s embodiment of tight-jawed determination is impressive, but she’s barely characterised or given a line of dialogue beyond the odd random platitude.
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The Wachowskis were still taking some chances, however. In sending Neo and Trinity out to try and pull off a coup outside of the Matrix where they’re so accomplished and powerful, the filmmakers avoid leaning on their established dynamic, particularly as Neo tries to end the war by making peace and finding common ground rather than simply destroying his foe. But it also becomes clear the Wachowskis were retreating from trying to come up with a truly clever way of resolving their drama. The climax sees Neo and Smith fighting yet again, this time watched by an army of Smith’s doppelgangers and seeing the pair punch it out in the rainy sky. The visuals are spectacular but the sequence represents a total dissolution into empty-headed bombast, which, on top of the already overlong and empty Zion battle, mostly has the effect of boring the hell out of me. Even the aspect of tragedy aimed for here as Trinity and Neo die for their cause doesn’t register with any punch because, despite Reeves and Moss trying their hardest to invest their characters with a certain tremulous, stoic intensity, they’re barely more substantial than they were six hours of cinema earlier. We’re told they love each-other, and that’s about it. And therein lies the ultimate irony of The Matrix films. For all their attempts to grapple with what makes us human, they too often make it feel like the machines won long ago.

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1990s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay here or listen to it on the Film Freedonia podcast

…and then there was Tarantino.

Not many movies can lay claim to rewiring the zeitgeist. But Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (1994), mapped a major continent of early 1990s cinema. Tarantino’s trumpet first blew at the Sundance Film Festival and culminated at Cannes. The one-time video store know-it-all turned movie world wannabe had made one attempt at filmmaking, My Best Friend’s Birthday, in the late 1980s, but it never saw release because of a severely damaged last reel. When he emerged properly with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino suddenly became a pop cultural lightning rod, as most everyone who was young and hungry for hard-edged cinema and other permutations of alternative culture in the early 1990s latched onto Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction with fierce and personal fervour. Suddenly every film school student and their dog was making films laced with grungy violence, rapid-fire dialogue, and movie referencing, and a new breed of creator impresario began to emerge. If Jim Jarmusch had staked out the turf for the modern indie film mode and Steven Soderbergh provided the fanfare, Tarantino gave it an adrenalin shot. It was hardly as if Hollywood wasn’t making gritty, violent, smart-aleck thrillers at the time, not with the likes of Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) recent memories, and Tarantino emerged in the midst of a revival of film noir laced with retro flavour that kicked off several years earlier.
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But there was of course much more to the Tarantino phenomenon than mere revivalism or swagger. Tarantino’s arrival marked the official dawn of self-conscious postmodernism in Hollywood cinema, replete with fancy-pants notions like intertextuality and death-of-the-author recontextualisation, as well as a non-linear approach to screen narrative of a kind mainstream cinema screens had scarcely deigned to employ since the early 1970s. The ‘90s indie movie craze seems like something of a lost idyll now, particularly since the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, who fostered much of the movement in large part on the back of Tarantino’s success for the then-respected Miramax Films. Several of Tarantino’s major rivals in the ranks of those often cited as today’s most important American filmmakers, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson, ran with aspects of Tarantino’s example to leverage their own beginnings, with acts of calculatedly ironic nostalgia and pop culture riffing, whilst many of his talented, more earnest contemporaries fell away.
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Tarantino was hardly the first filmmaker to erect his movies in part as Parthenons dedicated to the movie gods. The French New Wave and the ‘70s Movie Brats had already done the same thing. The open secret about classic Hollywood filmmaking was that the vast bulk of movies were remakes and remixes of others. Take the way an esteemed classic like Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) leans on a plot quote from one of its screenwriter Jules Furthman’s earlier films, China Seas (1935), whilst Hawks himself happily ripped himself off many times. But Tarantino set about drawing the eye to his, the quotation marks all but neon-lit, his carefully chosen musical cues and references framed with such totemic inference it seemed as if some Ennio Morricone music cue had dragged him out of some deep emotional crisis sometime during his days in the video store. For Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s touchstones, including Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987), Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), weren’t just evident but flaunted. But there was still something bizarre and thrilling about this new cinematic voice regardless, one that remains difficult to pin down after a quarter-century of familiarity and endless imitation, relating to how, despite his films’ magpie’s-nest compositing, Tarantino’s touch proved unique.
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The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs still illustrates that touch in all its unruly, arresting confidence. A group of eight men, all dressed in sharp black suits, seated around a table in a diner, gabbling on as they finish off breakfast and prepare for a day’s work: Mr White (Harvey Keitel), Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr Blue (Eddie Bunker), Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr Orange (Tim Roth), Mr Brown (Tarantino), Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), and his son ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (Chris Penn). The blankness of identification and dress is in aid of criminal enterprise, as in The Taking of Pelham 123, but has another, more unusual dimension. Here are eight characters well and truly found by their author, out to prove their vitality in the face of an itchy delete button. Dialogue comes on as a frenetic stew of character definition, pop culture theory and excavation, and socio-political argument, good humour and fraternity, laced with macho showmanship and signals of asocial reflexes and simmering aggression. Where a more classical noir film would use such a scene to make a distinct point about the characters as social animals, Tarantino engages them as both creations in a movie and of a movie: there is no longer a sharp divide between observant diagnosis and analysis of generic function. Hollywood had dedicated itself assiduously to trying to stay with it since the late 1960s, but Tarantino’s arrival suddenly declared the arrival of a hip culture happy in sifting through the detritus of mass-produced entertainment.
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Tarantino made sure the audience knew who he was by casting himself as Brown, who delivers his memorable analysis of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” for the edification of his fellows in identifying its covert theme as one of feminine sexual liberation confronted by new experience in encountering a prick colossal enough to cause her pain again. Hell, some might argue that’s a fitting metaphor for Tarantino’s entire relationship with his viewing audience. More cogently, the notion that all entertainment has subtext and can be interrogated until it takes on new form was hardly novel in 1992, but Tarantino found a way here not just to make his audience aware of it but to make it an actual dramatic value. Tarantino was offering American genre film’s revenge on all those smart-aleck New Wavers who collected Hollywood cinematic tropes in their deconstructive tales of Parisian losers. And yet at the same time he was subjecting the genre movie to another perversion, dragging it into the intimate conversational world of indie film. Tarantino disposed of any worry that a film image could sustain a multiplicity of reference points – that any moment could be at once a movie quote, a plot point, a proper dramatic idea, and a meta joke. The dialogue immediately betrays ardour for the twists of American tough guy argot, a tradition going back to the likes of Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner. Now the lexicon runs the gamut between frat boy attitude – “This is the world’s smallest violin playing just for the waitresses” – to Muhammad Ali – “You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologise.”
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The characters who utter these two lines, White and Pink, define themselves immediately by these different cultural lexicons, by generations and by ideals of wit. The amicable breakfast becomes charged with actual tension and disagreement as Pink refuses to contribute to the tip for the waitress, citing personal scruples: “I don’t tip.” White’s sensibility counters Pink’s cynical distaste for being expected to operate according to a social nicety and cough up a dollar. The dynamic the two characters will enact in the oncoming drama is stated, in the clash between White’s empathy and Pink’s suspiciousness, laced with cultural inference. Pink makes excellent points about the arbitrariness and unfairness of rewarding some workers over others in a mostly, thoroughly Darwinian capitalist system. White has the vote of audience sympathy in observing unfairness doesn’t preclude the necessity of the gesture for those benefitting from it regardless. Joe’s gruff decisiveness ends the conversation with the firmness of old-school patriarchy: the rights and wrongs of a social expectation don’t matter nearly so much as the fulfilment of it for its own sake, to maintain an equilibrium which allows them all to operate. This vignette, droll and incisive as incidental characterisation and a dissection of socio-political attitude, also anticipates the crew’s borderline pathetic need for Joe to turn up and play decisive daddy. But we’re also on the countdown towards the moment when the gun will be aimed at Joe, and down daddy goes.
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The opening titles sequence helped cement the film’s mystique. Tarantino individually identifies his actors as an ensemble of handpicked pros, a description that also encompasses the parts they play, strutting in slow motion through the blandest of conceivable LA locales, the George Baker Selection’s jaunty, jangly “Little Green Bag” on the soundtrack. Tarantino’s ironic approach to movie scoring, using upbeat, retro songs and movie score extracts from disreputable wings of pop culture to contrast moments of savage violence and sanguine cool, is now so familiar a movie strategy as to be a cliché, but at the time the greater part of its impact lay in a similar quality to grunge rock’s arrival in pop music: it was a complete rejection of the slick pretences of ‘80s film styles. His visual method, whilst hardly antiquated, similarly cut across the grain of what film style had largely been in the previous decade, instead somehow managing to shoot the interior of the warehouse where most of the tale unfolds as if it’s a wealth of space out of a Western, the physical attitudes of his actors allowed to hold the weight of the compositions just as their mouths carry the weight of the dialogue.
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The violent undercurrent of the opening scene’s jocularity – “I changed my mind, shoot this piece of shit.” – is fully exposed after the title sequence. Perhaps an hour or so later or even less, White is now found driving a car with Orange a bloody mess on the backseat, shot in the belly during the getaway from an armed robbery of a diamond merchant’s building. An incidental detail here proves endlessly consequential, as Orange calls White by his real name, Larry. White’s sense of friendly responsibility for the belly-shot young team member becomes a point of honour overriding White’s other tribal responsibilities. Tarantino obviously understood one essential aspect of classical tragedy: the spiral into all-consuming calamity is not just caused by clashes of character but by a fatal inability to reconcile colliding value systems. The white criminal underclass the crew represents is expertly observed in a way that highlights their tribal behaviour, whilst many of his subsequent films would deal with the interlocution of tribes. They’re loaned a crisp, professionalised glamour by their black-and-white attire, which they certainly wouldn’t possess if they were dressed like telephone repairmen or the like; if Reservoir Dogs is ultimately a tale of faking it ‘til you make it, a legend of show business expressed through crime flick drag, Tarantino reverses the traffic just far enough to lend his cadre of hoods the aura of movie stars.
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Ironic perhaps, given that Reservoir Dogs put together what might have been the best ensemble of actors for a crime movie since The Maltese Falcon (1941). Old pros Keitel and Tierney matched by squirrelly young talents who had gained notice in an odd sprawl of ‘80s movies, as well as crime novelist Bunker with his laidback aura of authenticity, and Tarantino himself, his young, smooth-cheeked visage resembling a pre-transformation portrait of the Joker found in the three-tone prints of old Batman comic books. Keitel helped get the film made, along with another hero from the American New Wave, Monte Hellman. Keitel’s presence linked Reservoir Dogs with Martin Scorsese’s equally showy, gritty early works, whilst Tierney, an actor whose genuine off-screen ferocity and bullishness had foiled his career and was still intimidating Tarantino during the shoot, gave a palpable connection to the days of classic noir. Hellman might well have felt a shock of recognition in the kinship between Tarantino’s project and his takes on the Western, The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind (both 1966), which similarly subjected genre canards to a deconstructive, vaguely existential whim.
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Tarantino had consciously written a film that could be executed on the smallest budget possible, so the bulk of the movie unfolds in a warehouse somewhere in the LA hinterland, Joe’s base of operations for the heist and rendezvous for the crew. Largely thanks to Keitel’s presence the budget proved big enough to allow punchy episodes of chase and gunplay, in flashback to Pink, White, and Orange’s escapes from pursuing cops, although the actual heist remains only reported in the dialogue. The story, as it proceeds from there, is exceptionally simple, even as the connections and suggestions ripple far. Brown and Blue are dead; Pink, White, Orange, and Blonde make it to the warehouse, although Orange soon passes out. Pink thinks the heist was a disaster because the crew were set up by an informer in their ranks. White is sceptical, and holds Blonde more responsible for unleashing a bloodbath. Blonde has taken a cop, Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) captive, and the three men beat him. When Pink and White depart to find the stolen diamonds Pink stashed, Blonde goes much further in cutting off Nash’s ear and planning to set him on fire, but he’s shot dead by the revived Orange, who actually is the informant, and explains that although the warehouse is being watched by police, none will come until Joe shows up. When Joe and Eddie arrive, Eddie kills Nash, and disbelieves Orange’s hastily concocted story that Blonde was planning to rip them off, whilst Joe is now sure Orange is the rat. White shoots Joe and Eddie rather than let them kill his friend, but is mortally wounded himself by Eddie.
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Along the way Tarantino pauses to relate how the various members of the crew were drawn together, with White and Blonde clearly old pals of the Cabot clan and sometime employees, particularly Blonde, real name Vic Vega, who just got through a stint in prison after refusing to turn stoolie on the Cabots when he was arrested in a locale filled with their stolen merchandise. Orange is seen going through a kind of performative boot camp to master the streetwise act required to fool the genuine criminals. The authentic members of the crew can be taken as lampoons of up-by-the-bootstraps capitalism, proud of their know-how and professional ethos and dismissive of concerns that get between them and fulfilment. Notably, Joe and Eddie have names and identity as employers the others cannot afford, as captains of their little industry. Joe’s office, with its wood panelled walls and elephant tusks and maps of Venice on the wall, is a cheerfully vulgar seat of power as signified by eras – tribal, medieval, and Victorian. Pink’s sarcastic commentary – “It would appear that waitresses are just one of the many groups the government fucks in the ass on a regularly basis” – makes a play of seeming rudely sympathetic but is actually shorn of class feeling and filled instead with yuppie arrogance, the looking-out-for-number-one philosophy at a zenith. This is expressed in many ways throughout the narrative, even by White who declares that, “The choice between doing ten years and taking out some stupid motherfucker ain’t no choice at all.”
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White is however genuinely shocked and vehement over Blonde’s cold and exacting execution of bystanders and staff in the merchant’s: the rogue psychopath is as much odd man out in the company of professional criminals as the rat, because his purposes have no connection to any rational aim of business. And yet it becomes clear Blonde’s brutality is rooted in the same deep hatred for the forces of justice. The flashback depicting his meeting with Joe and Eddie commences with a joshing session as Eddie gleefully provokes Blonde by suggesting he’s turned queer and black after being raped by black men in prison. This results in the two men wrestling on the office floor, as if they’re ten-year-olds. Blonde’s cobra-like gaze could harbour genuine rage or just a sociopath’s indifference, and possibly Blonde has become a machine for victimising the world in response to the way he feels like he’s been victimised. Tarantino here was taking up an aspect of the gangster film following on from The Godfather films, as this genre depends to a large part on the viewer’s identification with the most palatable choice amongst bastards. White, by comparison, seems comparatively upright, sticking up for friends and operating according to his instincts and experience. The flashback to his and Orange’s flight from the cops reaches its punchline as it’s revealed Orange was shot by an armed woman whose car they try to hijack, and he shot her dead in reflexive response. White’s conviction Orangie is okay is then based not just in guilt or amity, but what he experienced, and what he’s afraid of, knowing full well it could be him slowly bleeding to death.
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The surface interchangeableness of the crew is then steadily contradicted, but they mostly share a very similar identity as white, plebeian criminals, members of the tribe (there might even be a sneaky joke about that in regards to their dress, meant to evoke Jewish diamond buyers) who maintain strict internecine codes and forms of recognition, marked out by brusque contempt for non-members, including of course gross racism. They’re also members of pop cultural camps, however, delighting in yardsticks of cool, toughness, and erotic appeal, many of which cut across traditional borders of social identity, as well as old-fashioned notions of dramatic integrity. White confirms both his age and his ideal when he quotes Muhammad Ali even as he muses contemptuously on the black men he’s known. Orange clearly loves Silver Surfer. They’re all hot for Honey West and Pam Grier characters. Most old-school screenwriters and directors would have portrayed these characters as ignorant on this level, because their terms of reference would have been their own working class parents or friends. Jean-Luc Godard was obsessed with defining the no-man’s-land between his idea of real life and the art forms that obsessed him. Tarantino saw no such space, not anymore: the lens of pop culture is how most people experience the world now, just as they once absorbed national or religious folklores to situate their identities and process emotional experience. And so “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” is discussed with Talmudic intensity and debates about the actors of obscure TV shows sit cheek by jowl with plotting a robbery and personal ruminations on sex and race.
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Superficially, Reservoir Dogs stands with Jackie Brown (1997) as Tarantino’s most quotidian, grounded work, and yet it’s flecked with nascent aspects of surrealism and absurdism. Tarantino’s gore-mongering scruffiness was already laced with distinct hints of hyperbole: the lake of blood that forms about Orange prefigures the outlandish bloodletting seen in the likes of the Kill Bill diptych (2003-4) and Django Unchained (2012). Connections form with Tarantino’s subsequent films – Blonde is the brother of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega, White’s ex-lady has the same name as the heroine of True Romance (1993), hinting he could be the older, battle-scarred version of that film’s hero – suggesting a free-floating mythological world in the offing. Pulp Fiction would land as hard as it did in large part because it moved a step beyond Reservoir Dogs in simultaneous celebration and mockery of anatomisation of hipster subcultures and the iconography of a raised-by-TV generation, offering a fictional agora where S&M freaks, hippie dope dealers, beatnik assassins, blaxploitation heavies, bodypiercers, retro freaks, and the by-products of war and suburbia all meet and are diagrammed according to possible usefulness in terms of B-movie storylines. The use of barely-remembered classic rock ditties on the soundtrack, often deployed with a sarcastic invocation that relates to the on-screen drama in a fashion like Greek chorus gone funkalicious, is justified by the characters’ penchant for the radio show K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70s. The show’s host is played by the deadpan ‘90s comedy hero Steven Wright, whose fillips of hype and commercialism – the way he pronounces “Behemoth” in an ad for a monster truck rally is an endless delight – feel like broadcasts from another planet.
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One of Tarantino’s less noted precursors was Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Godard’s Breathless, which pulled off a similar feat in transplanting New Wave conceits out of the hypercultural climes of Paris to suburban Los Angeles. Perhaps the least analysed side of Tarantino is the ironic realist: particularly in his first three films, his work was deeply rooted in his feel for LA, his love for its sunstruck streets and the rhythms of its downtown conversations. The film’s deeply cynical contemplation of a criminal underworld as a stand-in for urban bohemianism and the artistic demimonde proved, despite not really focusing on such things, weirdly attuned to the mood of riotous dissent in LA at the time. Tarantino’s later work hinges much more on a dance between aesthetic posture and authentic emotion and experience, as in the Kill Bill films or Death Proof (2007), which moved onto another zone of tribal struggle, in their case concerning female protagonists, before his trilogy of historical incitement, Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight (2015), where the narrative centres around historical tribal wars rhymed to different modes of cinema. When Tarantino would to a very great extent remake Reservoir Dogs with The Hateful Eight, the core variance was that with the later film Tarantino would make each character a representative of a different tribe rather than a homogenous group with an odd man out.
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The impact of Tarantino’s directorial approach amounted not just to a scorecard of iconographic flourishes like sharp suits and old tunes. The clear-eyed cinematography Tarantino got from Andrzej Sekula, who would also shoot Pulp Fiction, spurned most of the stylistic reflexes of ‘80s action cinema, with few shallow focal plains and little diffused light or flashy filter work. Tarantino and Sekula instead made heavy use of wide-angle lenses to achieve a more igneous effect, epic even on a small scale. There was a touch of irony in the fact that Tony Scott, a doyen of the ‘80s style of action movie, took on Tarantino’s rewritten script for My Best Friend’s Birthday as the baroquely shot True Romance, which looked good but felt, by comparison, instantly dated, although the likes of Michael Bay would carry over something of that style. Reservoir Dogs wasn’t exactly a work of strict classicism however, and comes on with a visual language both muscular and skittish. Long static shots and standoffish camera placements redolent of Antonioni somehow manage to at once unfetter and trap the energy of his actors, alternated with camera gymnastics betraying the immediate influence of Scorsese and particularly Brian De Palma, as if taking the place of an unseen watching presence thrust in amidst the carnage.
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Reservoir Dogs also established Tarantino’s fondness for circumlocutory structuring, deployed less to evoke, as with filmmakers like Orson Welles or Alain Resnais, vagaries of time and memory, than to engage traditional narrative propulsion in a different fashion. The flashbacks do more than simply explain backstory, but set up each little act in the core drama, resituating expectations and tension. In this regard Tarantino revealed himself as one of the few filmmakers to properly understand the dynamic behind the flashback in Vertigo (1958) and use it as a means of changing the pitch of dramatic intensity. White’s vignette is one of slightly rueful friendliness and straightforward aims and desires. Blonde’s vignette explains his visceral hatred of cops and just about everyone else except for Joe and Eddie. Orange’s doesn’t simply inform us that he’s the interloper or how he got shot but why these two facts are both facets in an extended deed of method acting. Tarantino made no bones about the inherent theatricality of his approach. Many scenes in the warehouse feel like acting exercises. This makes sense, given that the insistent motif in the film is role-playing, and the lurking suggestion what we’re seeing is all a metaphor for Tarantino’s days as a sometime actor and general, would-be Hollywood player. The film quoting is something like the filmmaker’s equivalent of an actor trying out different costumes for different characters, busily donning and shedding guises in the hunt for one that will settle and sell.
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Perhaps the film’s most famous image, of Pink and White pointing guns at each-other in a moment of heated argument, is filmed intimately at first, engaged in the ferocity of the moment. But then Tarantino steps back, shooting them from a remove that strands the men in posturing absurdity, and draws the camera away a few paces to reveal Blonde standing watching them whilst lazily sipping on a milkshake. Blonde is audience, assessing the effectiveness of the performed machismo, and he quickly begins provoking White with his own perfect attitude of supine cool. “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan,” Blonde comments, nailing down both his and White’s style hero and generic forebear. The chief tripwire of the plot seems to be Orange’s power over White in knowing his name, but this proves to have rather placed him as much in thrall to White. He accepts the rules of his appointed role to the point where he stands around looking anguished and not intervening as White ruthlessly blows away two fellow cops, before Orange shoots a woman and gets himself shot twice for the sake of their friendship. Once he’s wounded, all boundaries between life and pose vanish, and Orange becomes merely a desperate man and White the one trying to get him through it. Fake it ‘til you make it indeed. White’s comment to Joe, “You push that whole woman-man thing too long and it gets to you after a while,” betrays his unease with commitments advisable with his lifestyle, and also offers the slightest hint of homoerotic subtext to his attachment to Orange.
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The longest of the film’s flashbacks revolves around the division between life and art in a way that’s more overt than Tarantino would usually practice in his films. Orange, real name Freddy, wheedles his way into the bandit circle. He sets about mastering, at the behest of his handler Holdaway (Randy Brooks), an “amusing anecdote” for the purposes of furthering his cover. This part of the film might initially seem vaguely extraneous, but it is in truth the very essence of Reservoir Dogs and the mission statement for the rest of Tarantino’s career, as an exploration of the slippery boundaries between act and life, creation and deconstruction. The anecdote relates how Orange supposedly once sweated through a close encounter with cops and a drug sniffer dog in a railway station washroom whilst carrying a large quantity of weed. Holdaway tells him that you have to be “naturalistic, naturalistic as hell” to convince in undercover work. And so Orange’s journey mimics the processes of being an actor – meetings in diners, read-throughs, stagy rehearsals, and finally entering the zone of make-believe so intensely the narrative becomes a mini-movie into which Orange projects himself. The blend of Tarantino’s directing, Roth’s acting, Sekula’s shooting and Sally Menke’s editing is at its most ingenious here, as Orange’s anecdote jumps locales as he works his way through stages of conviction. Finally Orange delivers his highwire monologue before Joe, White, and Eddie, before he is finally glimpsed standing before the cops in his anecdote, recounting it to them.
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The crowning moment of the anecdote sees Orange jab the button on a hand dryer, momentarily drowning the cops’ conversation and drawing their annoyed gaze, including that of their barking dog, but it also seals his victory, both imagined and real: the riskiness of the gesture achieves a perfect simulacrum, and Orange has become so convincing he bends the language of cinematic reality itself. The most notorious portion of Reservoir Dogs, and its initial spur to fame, is the scene of Blonde’s torture of Nash. This scene seems the complete opposite in nature to Orange’s story, as a portrait of authentic and immediate evil. If Orange is the bullshit artist made good, Blonde is cold truth, providing his own soundtrack when he turns on the radio and tunes in for the ‘70s Scottish folk-rock band Steelers Wheel’s song “Stuck in the Middle With You,” with its spry, insidiously catchy tune and refrain of “please” offered as a cruelly deadpan mockery of the cries Nash can’t make with his mouth taped shut. Even here, we’re deep in a zone of performative zeal and competition, as Blonde proves he’s the one with show-stopping moves, the one who gives us what we really want. Blonde’s taunting little dance to the tune as he gets ready to attack Nash with a straight razor suggests he’s having a ball even as he’s nominally the one presenting his literally captive witness with the last word in audience involvement.
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But the most galvanising choice in this scene was to avert the camera’s gaze as Blonde hacks Nash’s ear off, camera again playing bystander who this time has finally found their tolerance limit. The avoidance of bloody pyrotechnics paradoxically makes the moment feel much nastier, partly because it subverts the rules of performance, intimate in refusing to countenance. Tarantino walks the viewer up to the very threshold of unbearable horror, as Blonde’s intention of setting Nash on fire is only avoided by the fusillade of bullets Orange fires at him. This was another superlative piece of sleight-of-hand on Tarantino’s part, as Orange has become virtually forgotten since passing out. Orange’s killing of Blonde feels like a heroic gesture, but it’s one that ultimately costs the lives of nearly everyone left in the crew: Eddie instantly undercuts it when he returns to the warehouse and shoots Nash dead. Much later in his career Tarantino would, in the scene of D’Artagnan’s death by mauling in Django Unchained, walk up to a similar threshold and then shove characters and audience over it. Perhaps it’s the provocateur’s lot to have to constantly ratchet their effects up, but the later film also revises the dynamic seen here with a notable consequence. Django’s self-control makes him in a way party to horror, but also enables his ultimate happy ending; his performance is a matter not just of his own life and death but also for his great love and by extension for all his tribe, where Orange remains to a certain extent a mere dilettante. The relatively green Nash proves to recognise Orange, who doesn’t remember him: his native tribe, that of the police, offers no succour. By breaking character, Orange has doomed himself.
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Except that the film’s very end offers Orange one last way to take his role to the limit, as multiple zones of identity and performance collapse in upon each-other. White’s defence of Orange obliges him threaten to Joe as the old warlord intends to shoot Orange; Eddie aims at White in retaliation, whilst Pink pleads for reason unheeded. Faithfulness works like gravity, drawing people to the most immediate orbit, and the logical end-point of all the macho posturing is reached as the three men gun each-other down, leaving only a shocked and bewildered Pink to look around a stage as littered with corpses as the last act of Hamlet. Pink skedaddles with the diamonds, although the faintly heard sounds from outside suggest he gets cornered and captured by the cops. Orange, now twice shot, confesses to the wounded, gasping, broken White that he’s a cop. By confessing to be a fake, he demands reality, the consequence of that revelation. White cradles his head like a baby and squeals in heartbreak, but seems to deliver the wished-for coup-de-grace, even in defiance of the police who burst in at the last moment and gun him down in turn. By one standard it’s the traditional end of a gangster movie, a portrayal of greed, violence, and treachery on a path to mutually assured destruction. But by another, it’s the ultimate deed of performance. If, as the old canard has it, the only true feat of greatness for an actor is to cross the line into madness, Orange manages the next best thing, to play an outlaw until you die like one.

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Film Freedonia, Podcast

The Film Freedonia Podcast

Friends, readers, internetians: introducing a new feature to this site, the Film Freedonia Podcast. Which is basically just me reading the featured essays here, so you can have all the mental stimulation and vague irritation of reading one of my film commentaries whilst you do something actually useful like fold the laundry or pick the lint out of your belly button. The first instalment is my look at Robert Rossen’s 1956 historical epic Alexander The Great.

Click here to go to Anchor.fm where you can listen or download.

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1950s, Drama, Historical, War

Alexander The Great (1956)

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Director/Screenwriter: Robert Rossen

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay or download the podcast

Robert Rossen is remembered today chiefly for two films. His political tale All The King’s Men (1949) captured the Best Picture Oscar. The Hustler (1961) gave Paul Newman his most iconic role and helped define a new school of urban realism matched to sifting psychology in American moviemaking that arguably helped create a template for the independent film movement. Rossen, born in New York’s Lower East Side in 1906 to Russian Jewish parents, made his name as a screenwriter specialising in social issue dramas and crime epics like They Won’t Forget (1937) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). He debuted as a director with Johnny O’Clock (1947) thanks to the support of star Dick Powell, and his second film, Body and Soul (1948), put him on the map with the story of a boxer who eventually defies corruption and bullying cabals to determine his own fate, with his famous line in fending off rapacious gangsters, “What are you going to do, kill me? Everybody dies.” Body and Soul established Rossen’s interest in tough, trenchant, streetwise tales about individuals at war both with the world and their own private natures.
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All The King’s Men, an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel, mostly divested the book’s meditations on power and the place of the intellectual in modern America to offer instead a pseudo-Shakespearean study of its antihero, Willie Stark, inspired by the populist Louisiana governor Huey Long, who sets out to battle entrenched powers for the sake of the common man but eventually is rotted out by the same forces. The Hustler took on Walter Tevis’ novel to offer Rossen’s most refined character study, the drama of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, whose superlative gifts as a pool player are foiled by his lack of authentic character, and whose eventual gaining of wisdom and self-control comes at a heavy price. Rossen surely empathised. His directorial career and ultimately his life were badly stunted by his bruising encounter with the HUAC investigations of the early 1950s, when he was targeted for his leftist affiliations. After first trying to work around blacklisting by making Mambo (1953) in Italy, he eventually caved and became a friendly witness like Elia Kazan, although where Kazan’s career seem comparatively unharmed, Rossen had difficulty regaining his momentum and was dogged by the consequences of his decision to an early grave. By the time of his last film, Lilith (1964), his characteristic hard and worldly tone had caved in, to study the dreamy mental landscape of a troubled young woman.
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What connects most of Rossen’s films regardless is the theme of individuals who find themselves overwhelmed in pursuing the goals society thrusts upon them of success in wealth and power, and who eventually have to negotiate their own reckoning. For his first film after escaping the blacklist, Rossen tackled the largest possible canvas to pursue that theme, in the tale of Alexander II, King of Macedon, remembered to history as Alexander the Great. In its efforts to outpace television’s encroachment, Hollywood began making big-budget historical dramas filmed in blazing colour, a style kicked off by Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and extended by the likes of Quo Vadis (1951) and The Robe (1953). These big, diverting, parochial tales invoking religious myth-history would reach a height with the likes of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959), before the epic fashion evolved into something more complex in the 1960s. As a mode these kinds of blockbusters seemed the polar opposite of what a director like Rossen usually aimed for, but he engaged it on his own terms. Rossen was ahead of the curve as he tried to forge a new idea of the historical epic, one that feels a lot more familiar today than it would have in 1956, in his attempts to knit together serious historiography and a highly psychologised portrait of one of the most famous yet maddeningly enigmatic people who ever lived.
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Rossen’s film never gained much appreciation, and the film had been virtually forgotten by the time Oliver Stone got around to making his own big-budget, economically disastrous and aesthetically fractured take on the king, with 2004’s Alexander. The two films tend to mirror each-others’ faults. Rossen’s cool, restrained visual style, constantly and carefully mindful of the position of his actors in relationship to the landscape, is the opposite of Stone’s baroquely stylised spectacle and madcap energy. Despite the much greater resources available to Stone and the lack of fetters of censorship and theme, his work still managed to be less intelligible than Rossen’s, but Rossen’s strains against limitations of production and editing room tampering. The story of Alexander and the forces he unleashed in world history might well be too large, too fractious and complex, to be encompassed by the niceties of commercial cinema. Both Rossen and Stone responded to the problem by recreating Alexander in their own image. For Rossen, that meant seeing Alexander as a figure similar to his best-known protagonists, blessed with unique talents and determined to exercise them, but also riven with covert neuroses as individual identity fractures under the pressure of insanely divergent prisms of conceiving the world, temptations towards godlike power and base human frailty trying to coexist in a single frame.
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Rossen’s Alexander squirms under the twin identities imbued by his parents, King Philip (Fredric March) and his mother Olympia (Danielle Darrieux), an uneasy union between a bullish warrior-king and an icy priestess-queen. Philip dashes home to his capital Pella from the battlefront when he hears he’s become a father, only to find that Olympia is convinced through the advice of her Egyptian soothsayer (Helmut Dantine) that Alexander is the son of Zeus, rather than her all-too-human husband. Philip has infinitude of lovers and is obsessed with elevating his formerly backward and peripheral nation to an exalted status amongst the states of Greece. Philip entrusts Alexander’s education to Aristotle (Barry Jones), who admires his young pupil but also warns Philip of his splintered nature and the potential danger in ignoring it. Alexander himself, growing into the form of Richard Burton, chafes at being kept away from his father’s side and the chance for glory, as Macedonia’s brilliant army slowly overcomes the other Greek states.
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Rossen conceives of ancient statecraft as an extension of royal personality, which runs hot and cold, defined by the essential Oedipal conflict between Philip and Alexander, a conflict then transposed onto a geopolitical stage. Alexander longs to join his father’s army and gain a share of his glory in preparation for his own, eventual ascension. But Philip is justifiably scared of plots and manipulations, as well as also cagily protecting his own prerogatives to make and break his heir. Alexander constantly finds himself a pawn in the power battle between his father and mother, who remain married but intensely alienated, and Philip seems to always be considering remarriage to produce a new heir. Philip is usually glimpsed in the company of his generals and courtiers, a man of a dense, jostling, very human society, whilst Olympia maintains a vigil from the portico of the royal palace, gazing out into distant fields of fate, stark in Olympian remove. When Alexander is finally called to service, it’s to keep order in Macedonia whilst his father fights the other Greek states, so he quickly proves his mettle by putting down rebellious hill tribes and making them rebuild a city called Alexandropolis. Philip rebukes Alexander for his actions, but also appoints him commander of one wing in the fateful battle of Chaeronea, where the Macdeonians take on finally subjugate a Greek coalition headed by Athens: Alexander saves his father’s life during the battle, intervening to fight off warriors who have him cornered.
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Rossen spares a surprising amount of time dealing with the intellectual and civic background of the age, commencing the film with one of the famous oratorical battles between Demosthenes (Michael Hordern) and Aeschines (William Squire) as they behold the rise of Philip and the birth of his heir. Later Rossen spares time to depict Alexander’s interactions with Aristotle, absorbing his wisdom and cultural propaganda, deployed in a fashion that reveals Rossen’s underlying political parable regarding McCarthyism, the Cold War, and American imperialism in the post-war period. “The Persian way of life has the seed of death and fear in it,” Aristotle intones, mimicking Cold War rhetoric about communists, before more loudly announcing, over a montage of his pupils schooling themselves for war, “We Greeks are the chosen, the elect – our culture is the best, our civilisation the best, our men the best. All others are barbarians, and it is our moral duty to conquer them, enslave them, and if necessary destroy them.” And making fun of foreign gods: “The gods of the Greeks are made in the image of Man – not men with birds’ heads, and bulls with lions’ heads, but men who can be understood and felt.” Alexander’s life course reveals both the potential grandeur and danger in allowing the merely human to annex such an exalted sphere as divine status, as he imbues his military mission with a quality of something larger, a great act of cultural and philosophical adventure, something that must assimilate the world.
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Rossen digs into the question of political messaging in a way that’s authentic for the period but also made coherent for any time, as Alexander surveys various forms of propaganda presented in the form of culture, in the idealised statuary of Athenian pretence and the awesome scale of Persian infrastructure, whilst Demosthenes makes quips about good comment being bought with Macedonian gold, and finishes up withering in depression whilst his rival announces to the crowd that Alexander must be worshipped as a god, the last, hardest, most awesome stage in achieving hegemony. Rossen cuts between the different invocations of the Greek and Persian leaders before battle, laying bare the distinction of their cultural outlooks and ways of conceiving the universe, and of course noting how every side thinks god is in their corner. The frontiers of cultures and nations are nothing however compared to basic spurs of familial identity, sexuality, and generational tension, all of which define Alexander’s upbringing, his own steely, mercurial persona contrasting his father’s swaggering, earthy machismo. Rossen devotes himself to exploring Alexander’s psychological formation, becoming a being Aristotle describes to Philip: “He is logic and he is dreams. He’s warrior and he’s poet. He’s man and he’s spirit. He’s your son but he’s also hers.”
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Philip meanwhile chafes at being labelled a barbarian by the Greek elites and quietly fumes over Alexander’s supposed divine status, a discomforting prospect for a man who wants to order the world according to his own whim, as it suggests some other force at work – more likely his wife’s ambition rather than the will of Zeus. After gaining his greatest victory, Philip gets drunk and dances upon the bluffs overlooking the corpse-strewn field of Chaeronea, chanting “Philip the barbarian!” in his exultation, yet revealing himself as still dogged by a potent inferiority complex. He’s fetched down by his son and Athenian general Memnon (Peter Cushing). Philip relents towards other Greeks when he sobers up and sends Alexander in his stead to negotiate a peace treaty. It’s Death of a Salesman in sandals. Alexander encounters Demosthenes and Memnon’s wife Barsine (Claire Bloom), who attracts his eye and mind. He gets in a wry dig at Athenian self-aggrandizing, as he scans rows of statues of idealised male physiques and questions where all these incredible specimens were at Chaeronea. But Alexander lets his own grandiosity slip as he describes the potential in unity and purpose for Greece in invading Persia: “And this is what I have brought you!”
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Alexander soon finds his position precarious, however, as Philip celebrates the birth of another son by his new wife Eurydice (Marisa de Leza), daughter of his loyal general Attalus (Stanley Baker), precipitating a vicious exchange between Alexander and his new father-in-law, and driving him and his mother into exile. They’re allowed to return when Eurydice gives birth to a son, but Alexander is forbidden the company of some of his hero-worshipping school friends. Attalus humiliates one of them, Pausanias (Peter Wyngarde), before the court by questioning what he’ll do without his god Alexander around, to Philip’s great amusement. Pausanias gets drunk with Olympia, who steers him towards avenging himself. The next day Pausanias stabs Philip dead as he and Alexander are entering the palace. Alexander promptly dispenses justice by slaying Pausanias, and vows over his dead father that he didn’t arrange the deed. Eurydice kills herself and her son in fear Alexander might torment them, and Attalus tries to assassinate him, earning his own death. Alexander survives nonetheless to be hailed by the army as the new king, and he sets about leading a Greek coalition to war in Asia Minor against the mighty Persian Empire, ruled by Darius II (Harry Andrews), with a cohort of trusted helpmates, including his friends Cleitus (Gustavo Rojo), Ptolemy (Virgilio Teixeira), and Philotas (Rubén Rojo), and the latter’s father, Parmenion (Niall MacGinnis).
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Rossen might well have helped prepare ground for the oncoming boom in Italian peplum cinema (Baker and Andrews had both featured in another proto-peplum, Robert Wise’s film Helen of Troy, a year earlier). Rossen’s visual approach here rejects the plush decorative effects inspired by Renaissance and Victorian Academic art most concurrent Hollywood historical epics offered, in exchange for a spare, stripped-down look that often feels more like a rough draft for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s blend of the raw and the abstract in his historical films. The cinematographer was Robert Krasker, who had won an Oscar for his work on his famously skewed images on The Third Man (1949). His approach here couldn’t be more different, his location shooting portraying an ancient society that’s stout and aspiring in its important structures but abutting cities of shacks, and ruins shattered by warfare, as if we’ve stumbled into a neorealist work. Rossen’s classical Greece and Persia are harsh, sunstruck places. Armour, costumes, landscape are all intensely tactile. Battle scenes chaotic and dusty rather than spectacular and slickly choreographed. He shoots as much of the film outdoors as possible. Interior scenes are gently stylised with use of the widescreen frames and bright, unrealistic lighting to accentuate a fresco-like quality to his mise-en-scene, actors swathed in colourful costumes striking postures and angles against pale walls. On a dramatic level, Alexander The Great feels close to the stark, intimate quality a lot of straitened TV productions were wielding at the time. Cushing as Memnon strengthens the connection with that kind of TV drama, as Cushing had found fame in TV (bizarrely, his long-time Hammer Horror co-star Christopher Lee’s voice can be heard very distinctly dubbed over Dantine’s).
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Cushing is cunningly cast with his wiry, verbally dextrous intensity as Memon, who at first befriends Alexander but soon becomes a dogged enemy. Memnon makes hapless attempts at a principled form of dissent once he realises that Alexander wants not to be just a war chief but a grand autocratic power. Memon goes into exile rather than swear allegiance to him, but fighting as a mercenary for Darius, he finds himself abandoned and vastly outnumbered against Alexander’s invading horde at the Battle of the Granicus, the first big clash of the war. Rossen uses Memnon as a figure of commentary on the plight of anyone who, as Rossen did, tries to speak truth to power but finds power speaks its own truth right back. “You fight for pay,” Alexander tells him in contempt: “Earn it.” After having his attempts to plead quarter for his men denied by a contemptuous Alexander, he gets chopped down on the battlefield along with his fellow mercenaries. When Alexander encounters Barsine again, she’s captured human chattel, and Alexander forcibly beds her, only to seem ashamed of it afterwards. “You will be treated according to your rank,” he tells her, only for Barsine to point to another captive woman tossed into the street: “My rank is hers.”
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Barsine nonetheless becomes a convert to Alexander’s mission as well as his most loyal lover, suggesting Alexander isn’t the only person split by duality of nature. Indeed Rossen diagnoses it as a general state of being, the borders between binaries – male and female, body and spirit, east and west, between cultures and countries, and forms of political power – and colossal strength lies in the hands of anyone who offers people the unique shock of being led from one state of being to another. Soon after decrying Alexander from the shell-shocked ranks of the conquered, Barsine is leading a gang of camp followers with torches to help burn down captured Babylon as part of an exercise in world-renewing fervour. When Alexander haplessly protests such arson, Barsine accuses him of being seduced by Oriental opulence and abandoning his mission to remake the world in a Greek image, whilst his warriors become increasingly unhappy over a long exile and being asked to make concessions to the Persian lifestyle, with the courtly majus encouraging Alexander’s faith in himself as overlord and godhead. Finally Alexander’s world-conquering quest comes to a queasy halt in India when he quarrels with a drunken, resistant Cleitus, who berates Alexander for forgetting who he is and assuming god-king status: Alexander reactively slays Cleitus with a thrown spear, only to decide his friend was right as he mourns him, and direct the army back to Persia.
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Rossen incorporates some of the possibly apocryphal episodes from the various histories of Alexander, like the legendary scene of him cutting the Gordian knot, and the rhyming episodes of his saving his father’s life at Chaeronea and Cleitus saving Alexander in turn at Granicus, moments that ironically bind the players in roles of resentful gratitude. Rossen fully understands the ready-made symbolic potency of such tales, however. Rossen was obliged by 1950s censorship to avoid any overt mentions of Alexander’s supposed bisexuality. Rossen suggests it as artfully as he can however, in the faintly queeny fury of Pausanias when Philip humiliates him, suggesting the depth of his and Alexander’s connection, and in a framing when Alexander tries to hold his own conversation with Barsine with the rather prominent buttocks of a statue of a muscular male figure in the back of the frame, indicating his previous sexual experience. One of the bigger pieces of licence involves merging Alexander’s eventual wives, Roxana, a princess from Bactria near the Caspian Sea, and another, Stateira, a daughter of Darius.
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There’s much that’s fine to Alexander The Great, but much that’s awkward too, and it’s one of those films that feels all the more frustrating and interesting because of its evident failings. It’s a very different film to a later Burton-starring epic, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), but like that film it was released to audiences in a severely curtailed form, and was plainly a work directorial ambition trying to offer tart and meaningful political commentary under the cover of historical dreaming. Rossen decried the severely edited version of the film that was eventually released, a version he said cut out many of his carefully developed psychological details and parallels, and leaves the latter part of Alexander’s adventure reduced to a few, paltry montage images. These include his invasion of India and deadly march back through the Iranian deserts, as well as the increasingly mean-spirited turns of the later campaign including the paranoia-induced assassination of Parmenion and Philotas. Other scenes don’t seem to have been edited properly and feel patched together. When Alexander has his first bout of epilepsy a clumsy show reel of earlier scenes of import is projected over his face, the sort of bad movie trick satirists have been making a meal of for decades.
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Casting Burton probably seemed a very natural move at the time, being as he was a young, virile actor with Shakespearean training. A perfect blend to put across a character accomplished in both warrior grit and intellectual attainment. He already knew his way around this kind of period fare after starring in The Robe (1953). Burton grasps Rossen’s concept of Alexander as a schismatic creature, able to convey both the haughty aristocrat and the overboiling incarnation of will, his blue eyes flashing with fanatical self-belief, and gift for projecting violence verbally, anticipating his turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) when he mocks his father during one of their quarrels, “This is the man preparing to pass from Europe into Asia, but he cannot even pass from one couch to another.” But his performance is another of those weirdly uneven turns his film career proved busy with. At 29, he was the right age, but already seems far too mature, and his performance nudges the overripe as Alexander becomes more overtly neurotic. He also seems uncomfortable providing heroic beefcake reclining in a miniskirt. Marlon Brando was shoved into a few too many poorly-fitting movie roles around the same time in this, but he might well have made a better meal of this part with his more galvanic talent for physical expression. That said, March is characteristically terrific as Philip with his mix of hot-blooded intransigence and intelligence. Darrieux (billed as “the French Star”) is effective as the proud, scheming Olympia, and Andrews surprisingly moving as Darius, whose doom is the perpetual partner in fate with Alexander’s triumphs.
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The film’s dramatic highpoint tellingly belongs not to Alexander himself but to Darius as he’s driven into the wilderness and finally stabbed to death by some of his bodyguards who hope for Alexander’s favour: Darius is left riddled with gory wounds, perched upon his mobile throne, lording it over a frontier wasteland. Alexander finds his body and reads a letter he leaves for him, imploring him to marry Roxane and bring peace, a lesson he takes too long to take to heart. But when Alexander does at last return to Babylon after his exhausting Indian campaign, and sets about trying to unite the worlds he’s conquered, Rossen uses it as a cue for perhaps the most graceful moment of his directing career. His camera surveys the ranks of Greek warriors being married to Persian ladies at the same time Alexander marries Roxane, all bedecked in bright hues and flowers, as if it’s not simply a wedding rite but an invocation of spring and renewal. This moment of florid romanticism dispels the warlike and desolating tension of what’s gone before and gives brief but eloquent voice to the concept of fusion, realised on all levels, breaking down the many boundaries the narrative has charted, all realised in one gliding, unifying camera movement. But Alexander is soon delivered up to fate and cheated of the chance to see the seed he’s planted grow, as he’s stricken with illness and wastes away before his subjects, and Rossen’s more characteristic tone of noble fatalism coincides with Alexander’s recorded pith perfectly. He responds to the question of who his empire will pass on to with, “To…the strongest.” You can all but hear Willie Stark, Eddie Felson, and the rest of Rossen’s brilliant yet fatally flawed heroes laughing without sentiment, only sympathy.

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