1970s, 1990s, Crime/Detective, Drama, Thriller

The Godfather (1972) / The Godfather Part II (1974) / The Godfather Part III (1990)

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Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenwriters: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, Robert Towne (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath
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Mario Puzo was a journalist and sometime novelist who, frustrated by his lack of publishing success and tired of being in debt, set out with determination to write a bestseller. Puzo drew on his years of experience as a journalist working for pulpy magazines to present an anatomy of the most notorious branch of the American underworld which had been partly illuminated by investigations in the past two decades. This worthy ambition paid off in spades when his novel The Godfather, released in 1969, became a runaway hit and one of the most popular novels ever published. Puzo had sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures even before the book was done, who made it the test case for a new way of making movies that has since become the essential lynchpin of the movie business: the tent-pole blockbuster, a big-budget movie based on a popular property released with saturation acts of promotion. The rest, as they say is history.
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Although the first The Godfather film is getting on for a half-century old, the series’ impact and influence has probably never been more pervasive in pop culture. It’s passing obvious to note that, with their savvy in blending plot with strong yet unobtrusive style and obsession with antiheroic protagonists who simultaneously compel and repel, the Godfather films stand as an essential blueprint for ambitious contemporary television more than current Hollywood film, save for a few revivalist tyros. More immediately, Coppola’s films permanently changed the look and sound of the gangster movie to the point where talents as diverse and individualistic as Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Brian De Palma, and Abel Ferrara all made their separate peace with its influence. Only Michael Mann successfully defined another path for the genre. Likewise, from today’s perspective, it seems both bracing and disorienting just how many chances the studio was willing to take with their great money-spinning proposition, and the film’s production became contentious for that reason.
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But this was the Hollywood of the early 1970s, still desperately finding its feet after two decades of upheaval, trying to work out what a young audience in particular wanted and looking to young talents for the answer. One whizz-kid, studio boss Robert Evans, employed another as director in Francis Ford Coppola, because the Italian-American impresario in his early 30s could bring authenticity to the project and also would work for cheap. Coppola, scion of a cultured family as far from Puzo’s hoods as it seemed possible to get, initially balked at the proposition of making a film about the Mafia, but soon clicked with the material as a mode of exploring capitalism and the uneasy relationship of constituent populaces to power in the republic. Coppola in turn ruffled feathers by hiring the waning, industry-reviled star Marlon Brando and the barely-known stage actor Al Pacino for the two crucial roles. Evans also had the sense to assign the canny and disciplined producer Albert S. Ruddy to keep a tight leash on the production. All quite fitting for a film deeply concerned with the fraught dialogue between age’s hard-won wisdom and youthful prospect, and a study in square pegs ruthlessly shaved to fit in round holes.
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Puzo abandoned his more literary ambitions for his novel, offering a flatly recounting writing style that made for a quickly consumable pulp treat, but also offered up a substantial basis for dramatic enlargement, the arrival of the age where the successful pop novel was more than anything a long movie outline. Pauline Kael was rarely more accurate when she called what Puzo and Coppola accomplished with the film as alchemy. Puzo’s smarts as a constructor of grand narratives that could link the microcosmic with larger mythmaking, which would also later be exercised effectively in providing the story for Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), connected with Coppola’s interest in characters struggling to be more than the world wants them to be. These concerns Coppola had struggled with in his mainstream film debut, Dementia 13 (1963), made for his industry mentor Roger Corman, and his attempts to break out in the electric late ‘60s movie scene with the hipster comedy You’re A Big Boy Now (1967) and the melancholy drama The Rain People (1969). His one big studio excursion prior to The Godfather had been the backdated musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968). His best claim to fame however was winning an Oscar for co-writing Patton (1970), where his imagistic notions included the iconic opening scene of the prickly protagonist standing before a colossal American flag.
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The opening moments of The Godfather have a similar aspect blending theatrical directness and an emblematic quality close to what business lingo calls branding. Nino Rota’s sad and elegant trumpet fanfare heard of a stark black-and-white title gives way to funeral director Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) speaking to the camera in accounting both his faith in America whilst also requesting punitive action in an old world fashion from his feudal overlord. This stark episode of fatherly anger and yearning sees Bonasera asks Don Vito Corleone (Brando), the self-styled spiritual patriarch to a corner of New York’s Italian-American community and head of a crime family with fortune and influence far beyond that community’s borders, to punish the young American boys who viciously assaulted his daughter. Immediately the Godfather series’ essence is spelled out in the most concise verbal and visual terms. The dialogue evokes the faded theatrical tradition of the soliloquy: we’re in that exalted realm of drama detailing people who roam corridors of great power, sad stories of the deaths of kings and all that.
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The images, drenched in grainy shadows with warm fleshy tones, feel mindful of the bygone Expressionist style in cinema. But there’s also a purposeful echo back much further to old master painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, with a similar concept of the world is an inky zone of violence and pain where the human is both inescapably corporeal and spiritually intense, extremes of physical experience linked intimately with extremes of moral straits. There’s also the association with Renaissance Italy with all its surreal disparities of grim savagery in power and street life and beauty conjured for posterity. Coppola’s work with cinematographer Gordon Willis utilising underexposure created this look, and it became the defining expressive trait of the series. Amidst the darkness, warm hues, fleshy tones, bright and colourful electric lights, intimate places. The Godfather’s universe is a place of safe abodes from savagery, where the barbarians are ever at the gate.
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The trilogy charts the Corleone family’s travails from 1945 to 1979, with flashbacks to Vito’s childhood in Sicily and his fortunes in New York in the early century. Vito was chased out of Sicily by a vendetta, but rose by the end of World War II to a state of vast influence and authority. His eldest son Santino or ‘Sonny’ (James Caan) is the prospective inheritor, whilst the youngest, Michael (Pacino), is a college-educated and decorated former soldier Vito hopes will transcend the family trade. Middle son Fredo (John Cazale) is generally dismissed as untalented and dozy, whilst adopted son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), a former street kid Sonny brought into the fold, has become a shrew lawyer and gains the post of consigliere or counsellor. Vito’s refusal of a proposal by Virgil Solozzo (Al Lettieri) to bankroll him in drug trafficking, puts the Corleones on course for war with the other heads of New York’s crime syndicates, the so-called “Five Families,” because they want to annex the political and legal protection Vito has built up as they exploit this lucrative new trade. Solozzo, with the backing of rival Dons Barzini (Richard Conte) and Tattaglia (Victor Rendina), has Vito shot down in the street, obliging Sonny to command the family whilst Vito recovers in hospital. Michael steps up and kills Solozzo along with his pet police guardian Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Michael flees to Sicily to hide out and marries young local girl Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), only for her to die in a car bombing, so when he returns to the US marries his college girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton).
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After Sonny’s brutal slaying and Vito’s death by natural causes, Michael arranges the assassination of all his foes, including his sister Connie’s (Talia Shire) husband Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), who helped set up Sonny’s killing. Michael then moves the family to Nevada to profit from Las Vegas gambling. Part II, taking up the story few years later, sees Michael’s attempts to forge a partnership with aging rival Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in exploiting Cuba as a cash cow see Roth instead try to rub out Michael, manipulating Fredo’s feelings of resentment and implicating him in the plot. The Cuban Revolution foils all plans and Michael sees off an attempt by a Senate committee to brand him as a gangster using former family soldier Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) as a witness. Michael has Roth killed and Fredo executed soon after, whilst Kay permanently foils her marriage to Michael by confessing to an abortion and is cast out of the family, leaving Michael lonely and haunted. Part III, opening in 1979, sees Michael, immensely enriched by the casino business and now legitimate, aiming to become an international force by using his leverage over the head of the Vatican bank, Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), to gain a controlling share of a valuable corporation, Immobiliaire, off the church. Michael accepts his nephew, Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent (Andy Garcia), as his streetwise heir. Vincent has an affair with Michael’s cherished daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) whilst Michael tries to make peace with Kay. Soon all of them are caught up in the ensuing chaos as rivals try to shut down the sale, including Italian political heavyweight Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti), a slyly smiling, bespectacled mandarin who lurks in the shadows, and aided by Michael’s wise elder and supposed friend Don Altobello (Eli Wallach).
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The Godfather quickly earned many comparisons to Gone With The Wind (1939) as an epic film where the fortunes of a focal family are intimately tied to progressing national history, and as its inheritor in zeitgeist-defining success. There’s obvious accord between Michael Corleone and Scarlett O’Hara, as both are the second-generation representatives of families who have prospered in the New World through willingness to exploit others, and who become determined to restore familiar fortunes through means fair and foul, but eventually decimate their private happiness to accomplish their end. Even the basic structural motif of the three Godfather films of commencing with a long sequence depicting a celebration that brings together many different players in the unfolding drama feels patterned after the Twelve Oaks barbecue sequence of Gone With The Wind. But the opening wedding scene of The Godfather is also a catalogue of Coppola’s new approach to the epic, as the scene shifts jarringly from Vito’s office to the Corleone estate outside where guests mill, musicians blare out traditional tunes, and the various players in family melodrama and subcultural conflict converge to be carefully mapped and categorised by Coppola’s camera.
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Take the way Barzini is introduced, calmly having a photographer who’s snapped his picture detained long enough to strip out the film from his camera, contrasted with the way hot-headed Sonny assaults another photographer, smashes his camera, and confronts and insults the FBI agents hovering outside the estate. The difference in temperament and method of the two men is described with perfect efficiency whilst also declaring a basic theme of the series: power and character are immediately established as unforgivingly intimate bedfellows. Other vignettes are less consequential although they speak much of the dynamics of this brood, like Sonny’s dash for a quick tryst with bridesmaid Lucy Mancini (Jeannie Linero), whilst his wife (Julie Gregg) boasts about the size of her husband’s penis to her pals but notices her husband has left and why, and Tom gives an indulgent grin as he comes to fetch Sonny. Surrounding such episodes are general, raucous scenes of celebration that manage to seem like they’re happening entirely by accident, straying into the filmmakers’ shots, channelling documentary-like energy into a film that’s actually anything but haphazard. We see the Corleones as above all an Italian-American family, obeying mores and responding to cultural cues as natural as breathing but about to be tested. Only Michael, recently returned to the family orbit after a long excursion, seems truly uncomfortable, the product of two world-views and social definitions, harbouring his store of dark lore with guilty boding.
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Michael serves as tour guide for Kay and the audience, identifying people not just by name but by function in the family apparatus – Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) is not just a heavy but a juicy anecdote. The desire to belong to the world of Corleones is provoked, and its deviant aspects have fiendish appeal – a friend like Vito at the fore, a pet dragon in the corner like Brasi, to make problems and enemies vanish with a few well-chosen words and a little firearm brandishing. Part of the original film’s success lay in its cunning at playing this two-faced game. At once the Corleones are offered as the archetype of Mafia life but also get us to root for them as the best of a bad lot, fighting to stay alive and maintain rules of engagement. Almost all of the characters killed by Corleones in the course of the first film are either foes or traitors who endanger the family’s lives: their only innocent victims seen on screen are the unfortunate Khartoum, and one woman in bed with one of Michael’s whacked enemies. Vito’s sense of morality forbids him from turning the family to the drug trade whereas he regards gambling, liquor, and prostitution as essentially honest vices. Vito has an aspect of the folk hero, an aspect even the sequel doesn’t despoil, as a man who operates in a manner not dissimilar to the way Sherlock Holmes was once characterised, as a last court of appeal operating above and beyond mere legal and government institutions. The legendary vignette that follows the wedding scene illustrates the ruthless intelligence in the Corleone method. Tom flies to Hollywood to try and convince producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) to cast one of Vito’s favourite pet projects, the singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), in a war movie Johnny thinks will revive his career. After Woltz aggressively refuses Tom’s offers because he’s furious at Johnny for seducing one of Woltz’s prized starlets, the producer wakes to find the severed head of his hugely expensive stud horse Khartoum tucked into his bed.
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Another spur of The Godfather’s success was the way vignettes like this fed public interest at the time for portrayals of systems and confirmation of hidden truths behind official facades. Puzo immortalised barroom rumours about Frank Sinatra and the like and blended it with familiar factoids about the great crime bosses, with many ready analogues, including Bugsy Siegel stand-in Moe Green (Alex Rocco), who gets rubbed out by the Corleones to subsume his great creation called Las Vegas, and Roth, patterned after Meyer Lansky. The film’s many moments of verbal and behavioural specificity and quirkiness, often bordering on black comedy in their sharp juxtaposition of normality and easy acceptance of deadly extremes, provided a plethora of catchphrases – “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” – and electric images, particularly the head of Khartoum in Woltz’s bed, all retain a similar buzz of forbidden lore. It’s easy, even essential, to be a touch cynical about the way The Godfather films walk a line between outright valorising and deploring of its criminal clan. Small wonder that The Godfather is only outpaced on the Internet Movie Database’s user-voted greatest movie list by The Shawshank Redemption (1994), another film that describes the same cherished macho fantasy, that with just a little bit of cleverness and dedicated amorality all forms of authority and impediment might be circumvented. Coppola himself, disturbed to a certain degree by popular revelry in the original’s glimpse of the underworld, worked to undercut the vaguely chivalrous aspect of the Corleones in Part II through such touches as replacing the horse’s head with a slaughtered prostitute.
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But it’s also fair to say that depicting efforts to retain something like a code whilst squirming in the muck is interesting territory to chart. Precisely this theme, this question of where and how to draw lines of fair play, drives the trilogy, as Michael is pushed constantly into new and dizzying abysses of behaviour; by the time he’s obliged to kill Fredo, the ideal of defending family has become a mockery, whilst Kay has detonated the rigid parameters of marriage. Kay’s complaint that “senators and congressmen don’t have men killed” is met by the archly cynical proposal that she’s being naïve and that all public life operates, to a greater or lesser extent, like the Corleones. Coppola and Puzo take the inherent tension between the Mafia clan’s view of society and the outsider’s view of the clan to a logical extreme in Part III where Michael finally finds himself up against the forces that originally gave birth to the Cosa Nostra in the first place, the entrenched and respectable yet utterly merciless potentates of Italian political and religious regime who posture in palaces but have their heavies in the streets too. The Godfather hardly invented the gangsterism-as-capitalism metaphor. But it did extend that notion into a metaphor for family and social life in general, describing a purely Darwinian sense of social dynamics where only the walls of the family castle stand in contradiction.
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The oft-repeated slogan that subordinates personal feeling to business is obviously ironic as business is only ever deeply, urgently, and dangerously personal in this world. Cagey old Roth gives a lengthy speech noting that he never targeted Michael for revenge after the death of Moe Greene because it was “the business we’ve chosen,” but this is coloured by both men’s awareness that Roth is trying to kill him anyway for reasons that patently have little to do with business sense and everything to do with ego and denial. Michael makes his first foray into criminality to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey nominally to keep them away from his father but also delivers, despite his protestations, some heartfelt payback for their treachery and brutality. The saga dramatizes a dynamic notion of masculine duty, onerous and inevitable, with the detectable corollary that the level of power and danger the Corleones court in some ways delivers them from having to reckon with the modern world, a world that slowly breaks in regardless. Vito is the ideal old-school, old-world patriarch, a man who’s used raw muscle and genius of a kind to arrange the entire world for the sake of prosperity and peace that shelters his loved-ones.
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Soon Michael steps up to replace his father and brother and take on the responsibility of “saving” his family. “You can act like a man,” Vito barks furiously at Johnny when he shows feelings of weakness, and soon chases it with the assurance that “A man who spends no time with his family can never be a real man.” This highlights Vito’s certainty that it’s the capacity for loving rather than brutality that makes a man, although his cruel schooling as a youth has taught him the two can only ever be entwined. But just how one keeps the living stem of one’s emotional life growing whilst nursing the gift for annihilation is a deep and abiding enigma Michael never solves as he slowly becomes his own golem. The Godfather’s story laid claim to territory mapped out by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby whilst struggling with its basic question as to whether Americanism could make good on the promise of self-invention and an ahistorical spree severing past from future (a kinship Coppola surely recognised, having penned an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s book that would become the 1974 version). The film’s release at the wane of the counterculture era perhaps gave it some of its signature punch in this regard, offering up a story where identity wins out over idealism and the promise of generational revision, as youth wearily steps up to the plate in the name of cold realism. Not at all coincidentally, modern cinema’s other great original myth, created by Coppola’s pal and protégé George Lucas, revolved around a similar terror of becoming one’s father. Michael’s semi-sheepish protestations to Kay that his father is “no different to…any other great man” has the unmistakable tone of philosophy at one hastily erected but also long-nursed as an internal reality.
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Before writing The Godfather, Puzo was saddened that his previous novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, strongly inspired by his tough mother, had gained little attention, and so he transcribed her character as Vito, finding success by concentrating on manly business. And yet emphasis on the criminal world as a redoubt for masculine dominance is subtly but steadily eroded by the choices women make, and by the menfolk’s hypocritical failings in regard to them. Vito’s wife (played by Morgana King and as a younger woman by Francesca De Sapio) is the model Mafia wife, capable of maintaining a hard and functional border between her domestic zone and the rest of it. She’s just as much the last of a breed as Vito; her reward is to be buried with the honour of an ideal, and spared seeing one of her sons kill another. Michael gets Apollonia and Mary killed simply by being close to them, and by his self-deluding desire to annex their innocence. Connie evolves from collateral damage decrying her “lousy, cold-hearted bastard” of a brother to his supporter and then a rising neo-Borgia who sets about supporting Vincent’s rise and ordering and performing hits. Connie’s assault and battery by her husband following a raging domestic breakdown is in a way the most violent scene in the first film, a searing evocation of what Michael will later pompously call the “things that have been going on between men and women for centuries,” whilst Sonny’s infuriated protectiveness conflates with his bullishly insensate streak, a trait that’s so predictable his enemies play on it to destroy him.
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By the climax of Part III Connie has bought into the legend of the Corleones on a much more fundamental level than Michael ever did, savouring opportunities for intimate punishments and righteous muscle-flexing. Even Kay reveals something of a gangster’s aim for where it hurts when she deliberately targets Michael’s family man pride by confessing to getting their child aborted, going so far as to tell him “it was a son and I killed it because all this must end!” Kay is soon cut out of Michael’s existence, not quite as finally and coldly as Fredo but with a similar act of erasure. The door he closes in her face echoing the end of the previous film, fulfilling its promise and threat, whilst also marking another step in Michael’s self-defeat, confirming the price he’s paying for his acceptance of duty is ossification. Puzo’s fondness of The Brothers Karamazov is plain in the first film, not just in the structural and character affinities with the Corleone boys mimicking the Karamazov clan’s conception as a troika of traits, but also in the distinctly Dostoyevskyian journey Michael commits himself to. The trilogy as a whole could be the closest thing cinema has ever offered a Confessions of a Great Sinner, as Michael experiences the fall in terms of several different faiths – in religious terms, of course, but also from immigrant aspiration to assimilation and prescribed prosperity, from the religion of family, from the cult of community.
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Michael breaks with each in the name of an unstated hierarchy of priorities, each nesting in another, until he finds there’s no bottom to his plunge. That plunge is ironically charted in a constant social rise until by Part III he’s angling to become a pan-Atlantic CEO, even as some people can still spot “the map of Sicily” on his face, the rough and lumpy look of someone who’s had his face punched in and his soul turned inside out by drawing his will to a hard and lethal edge for survival. The costs Michael pays and the spurs that drive him are unstintingly stated. His picture-perfect traditional romance with Apollonia ends in an instant of fire and blood. His father and brother are riddled with bullets. He stalks halls of a deserted hospital in increasingly grim awareness of vulnerability as he realises his father has been set up for another hit; nothing, not even the humdrum business of a New York hospital can ward off cosmic corruption, only two scared men pretending to be resolute centurions. Death haunts Michael’s every step, and he fights back with every tool at his disposal. Rites of passage recur: Michael getting his jaw broken by McCluskey seems to have happened to his old man at some point. Vito’s husky drawl and pouchy cheeks, both of which deepen as he recovers from being shot six times in the street, are charts of pain and rage echoing back to another land.
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Scenes of Part II depicting Vito’s rise squarely place him (played as a boy by Oreste Baldini and as a young man by Robert De Niro) in the great immigrant tradition of the United States in scenes intensely evocative of a wistfully recalled past squalid in its moment but loaned a gloss of romanticism by time and longing for dispelled certainties. Vito, fleeing ahead of murderous wrath, arrives at Ellis Island only to be quarantined because he has scarlet fever, leaving the Statue of Liberty as an emblem beyond the grill of his cell’s window, to be admired and yearned for but never gained. In a present-day episode of the same instalment, Michael is told in no uncertain terms by a WASP Nevada Senator, Geary (G.D. Spradlin), that he despises their pretensions and ethnic traits. Vito’s ambitions for Michael highlight him as an aborted John F. Kennedy figure, doomed by his background to be unable to erase his past in the same way the other war hero son of a bootlegger could. Coppola, who had ambitions to being an empire builder himself as he tried to set up his own film enterprise, American Zoetrope, surely identified most particularly with that aspect of the Corleone tale, fighting not just for a foot in the door but for his own corner of the world. The ironic brand of ethnic pride that informs the Godfather films is balanced by awareness of the limits of empathy such parochialism can instil, particularly in the gross racism members of the Mafia underworld display: “They’re animals anyway so let them lose their souls,” declares one mob boss as he proposes only selling drugs to black communities. But the films spoke to a multiplicity of outsider identities regardless, including as style guides for hip-hop’s ardour for outlaws.
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Coppola eagerly exploited the new absence of punitive censorship for depicting the brutality inflicted by and on the Corleones. Part of the first film’s particular cunning and art lay in the way he carefully varied scenes of bloodletting in the way he shot and conceived them. The slaying of Vito’s treacherous driver Paulie (Johnny Martino) in a car parked on the Long Island shore conflates hard irony and dreamy meditation, with the swaying rushes lending muffling music and the distant, looming form of the Statue of Liberty indifferent to the scene. Vito’s bulbous lieutenant Clemenza (Richard Castellano) waters the earth with his piss as his button man waters it with blood; that’s how a homeland is made. Most other ferocious scenes are more direct and confrontational. Even the non-lethal, entirely quotidian moments of violence, like Connie’s battery by her husband and Sonny’s attack on Carlo, are gruelling spectacles. The first death in the film, Luca’s, and the last, Carlo’s, both come by garrotting, a terrible and intimate dealing of death Coppola shoots with cold regard, particularly Carlo’s end which sees him kick out the windscreen of the car that’s also his hearse in his death throes. This is achieved in one, fixed, utterly transfixing shot from the hood, the revving engine counterpoint to the desperate struggle, a flourish Anthony Mann might have been proud of. Sonny’s death is an orgiastic consummation a man as strong and virile as Sonny requires and understands, his entire body a canvas of erupting blood and pain, under the overkill fusillade of Tommy guns aimed his way – his enemies need to annihilate Sonny in a way that so contrasts the more targeted and precise Corleone method.
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That method is described in all its intricacy and unforgiving force in the first film’s climactic sequence, where Coppola cross-cuts between assassinations whilst Michael is made his niece’s godfather at her christening. In quick succession Barzini, Tattaglia, Greene, and other foes are gunned down in moments of vulnerability and surprise by a foe more patient and devious than them, all the Byzantine plotting and aesthetics suddenly cut through by the harsh report of gunfire. Coppola turns this sequence into a ritual in itself, the blaring church organ serving as funerary score lamenting the whirlwind Michael unleashes in the name of revenge and security. This sequence became another series fixture. Coppola’s reaction to a yahoo streak in the first film’s reception was to play the sequel as a far more minimal exercise in violence, although there’s still some punchy moments, particularly when Michael’s bodyguard (Amerigo Tot) tries to smother an ailing Roth in his bed only to be surprised by some Cuban soldiers who instantly gun the hitman down. Roth’s eventual slaying mimics TV footage of Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing by Jack Ruby. By Part III, Coppola was back to being more indulgent again, offering up a sequence that plays in part as a miniaturised repeat of the village attack in Apocalypse Now (1979) as Zasa and his shadowy backers assault a meeting of Family heads with a helicopter machine-gunning the collection of old men, as well as a finale that turns murder into grand opera.
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Another vital aspect of the trilogy’s mystique is the way members of the little community around the Corleones is fastidiously identified, thanks to Coppola’s attentiveness to giving each a little performative space. These people fill out the margins of this created world, imbuing it with continuity and constantly rewarding the attentive viewer, and Coppola often casts people not known for acting in such parts, including the likes of Gazzo, King, and Corman, to obtain a crackle of authenticity and nail down a character quickly by exploiting a particular persona. Figures of note range from major supporting characters like the Laurel-and-Hardy-ish contrast between Vito’s top enforcers, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), down to the people who graze the family mythos like Enzo the Baker (Gabriele Torrei). Some minor but consequential characters recur through all three movies, like Michael’s resolute goon Al Neri (Richard Bright), and Don Tommasino (played young by Corrado Gaipa and as an older man by Vittorio Duse), a Sicilian crime lord and Vito’s local partner, who protects Michael during his Sicilian sojourns. When Tommasino is gunned down by the assassin hired to kill Michael in Part III, his employee Calò (Franco Citti), who long ago guarded Michael, vows revenge and sets out on a suicide mission to achieve it.
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Other characters are fated not to last through individual episodes. The trilogy’s roster of villains rarely dominate proceedings, but there’s some marvellous miniature portraits in arrogance and menace in all three films, including Rocco’s flashy and aggressive Greene, Conte’s tensile Barzini, Gastone Moschin’s strutting Don Fanucci, Vito’s quarry in Part II’s flashback scenes, and Robutti’s Lucchesi. Lettieri and Hayden make a great double act in the first film as a hood with fierce motivation who soon plainly feels the fear of someone up against the Corleones, and a vicious old coot who confesses “I’m gettin’ too old for my job.” Some of the most vivid characterisations subsist in greyer zones of motive, like the hoarse-voiced Gazzo, himself a respected playwright, as the indignant but upright Pentangeli, and Wallach’s superficially charming yet covertly serpentine Altobello. One clever aspect of the follow-up instalments is the way they generate and hinge on nostalgia for the original. A gag at the outset of Part II, as Pentangeli tries to school some musicians in playing a decent tarantella only for them to turn it into ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ illustrates how far the Corleones have drifted from the sustenance and specificity of their roots. This also taunts the audience with the same awareness: things that seemed so cosy and alluring in the past aren’t coming back. The circularity of events – births, baptisms, weddings, deaths – drag the generational frame both forward and backward in each episode, the cyclical sustenance of family and identity constantly recapitulated. The famous musical cues of the original become diegetic aspects of the Corleone legend, offered as pieces of folk music from Sicily that provoke misty-eyed longing. The climax of Part III sees Coppola intermingling shots of Michael dancing with the women in his life, Apollonia, Kay, and Mary, each one of them lost to him in one way or another.
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Brando’s turn proved an instant resurgence to respect and clout and also gave birth to one of the most mimicked and lampooned characterisations in cinema history – even Brando himself would send it up in The Freshman (1990). The remarkable thing is that his performance eternally refuses reduction despite all that. Vito’s soft and gravelly sobriety, his shows of sudden ferocity and remnant strength when he tells off Johnny and runs from his assassins, his air of melancholy and careful drip-feed of charm, truth, and affected modesty, are utterly hypnotic when on screen and register like background radiation when he’s not, even into the sequels; he is the man who creates a world and all others are forced into mere response. Brando’s careful balance of reasonable fraternity and hinted fury when assuring the gathering of fellows Dons that he won’t break the peace unless Michael is harmed, even in a seeming accident (“…or if he’s struck be a bolt of lightning, then I’m going to blame some people in this room!…”), is one of the great pieces of screen acting. De Niro had a hell of a task stepping into his shoes to play the younger Vito, almost entirely in Italian no less, and yet he also turned in a master class in performing, not just depicting Vito’s nascent mannerisms but building on them, portraying a man whose quietness and thoughtfulness register as more interesting and dynamic than other men’s frenetic actions. His Vito watches and listens, the cogs of his mind all but visible as they turn over responses to situations. Rarely were the Oscars the two men won more justified.
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But it was Pacino who was destined to become the series’ axis and mainstay, and the trilogy charts not just Pacino maturing but also finding his feet as a screen actor. I find him a touch ill-at-ease in certain moments in the first two films, although he’s never less than an obvious star and hugely talented actor. Pacino was almost entirely new to the screen – he had only been in Panic in Needle Park (1971) before, playing a squirrely addict perhaps more in his Method comfort zone – and he failed his screen test repeatedly, but Coppola kept faith in him. The slightly clumsy, theatrical feel of Michael and Kay’s rupture in Part II betrays the way both actors were still learning to project effect and manage their bodies in a new medium; suddenly we’re back in the actor’s workshop under Strasberg’s watchful gaze. But for the most part the callow hue to Pacino’s performance was a strange bonus, giving flesh to Michael’s slow evolution and accumulation of pain and air of forced and premature solemnity. One of his best moments in the first film comes as he works up the nerve to gun down Sollozzo and McCluskey, his eyes jumping about like his pupils are fleas, offering those men a façade of thoughtful attention whilst we all but feel his pulse galloping, his nerves drugged by the oncoming moment of irrevocable action. When he returned to the role for Part III, Pacino was only just picking up his movie career after a few years recalibrating following the poorly received Revolution (1985). By this time Pacino was a man in total control of his craft and the medium, whilst the struggle with disillusion he’d been through off screen gave deep conviction to his portrait: Part III is very possibly Pacino’s greatest performance. The 60-year-old Michael as a man who’s obtained something like his father’s ability to coexist in two zones simultaneously, with a certain wry and crusty charisma balancing his weariness with the ways of the world, and he sets about courting Kay’s understanding and forgiveness with a needy streak.
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Coppola was too much of a cineaste to entirely detach himself from the classic American gangster movie. Midway through the film he offers a montage of newspaper headlines and photos in a typical old Hollywood expositional ploy, predicting his later efforts on The Cotton Club (1984) to more fully immerse himself in that style. The expanse of the narrative and attempts to make a statement about the criminal’s place in the broader sweep of history had some precursors, particularly Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). But The Godfather perhaps represented the first time since the early 1930s that Anglosphere film audiences had been exposed to a major film as vitally influenced by non-English-language cinema as by Hollywood norms, through Coppola’s borrowing of effects from the likes of the Italian neorealists, particularly Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. The music score, provided by Nino Rota who had scored films for many of the major Italian directors, gave the film a haunting lustre that was also unmistakeably rooted in this cultural background. The narrative unfolds as a restless and relentless arbitration between plot and character obeying familiar Hollywood storytelling ideals, but with Coppola’s carefully worked style used to render the film an aesthetic avatar for the experience of its characters, as a hybrid of methods and sensibilities, the meditative weight of the old world influence inflect the hard and punchy necessities of American life.
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Perhaps the strongest influence, Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), dealt similarly with a Sicilian family assailed by changing times, although nominally with the social opposites of the Corleones as protagonists. If the opening wedding takes Gone With The Wind as its narrative model, it’s the climactic ball scene of The Leopard that’s the template for how Coppola shoots it. Coppola’s tendency to let his camera stand away back and allow many shots to drink in panoramic detail cut against the feverish grain of much filmmaking at the time, often placing important gestures and highly dramatic moments in the distance in his framings, like the way Vito’s death sees an out-of-focus figure collapse whilst his uncomprehending grandson remains centre-frame. Coppola’s discursive evocations of emotion are perhaps most brilliantly illustrated by the key scene in the saga where Michael realises that Fredo is a traitor. Coppola goes in for a close-up that registers Michael’s cognition of the fact, but his private squall of grief and rage that follows is then thrust into the background of the next shot.
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The context of the revelation is just as noteworthy, a ribald excursion into Havana nightlife to a live sex act with a woman “sacrificed” to a man with a colossal penis, an outsized mockery of the social dynamics of both the potency-obsessed gangland and strongman-dominated pre-revolution Cuba, and with the act of revelation itself a gag before it suddenly becomes high tragedy. Cazale, an actor who made his debut in the first film, had a potentially thankless task in his role as the family stooge, trying to make the most dispensable man in his clan a worthwhile figure. His best moment in the first film comes when Fredo fails to ward off his father’s attackers, fumbling his gun and left weeping over Vito’s bleeding form, having faced the kind of moment of truth requiring action that defines manhood in his world and utterly failed in it. But Cazale’s highpoint, and perhaps that of the series, comes in Part II when he delivers a portrait of feckless despair, as Fredo confesses his sins to Michael, at once crushed by the weight of his guilt and vacuousness but also suddenly electrified by finally expressing his resentment and frustration. His bleating protestations – “I’m smart! Not like everybody says! I’m smart and I want respect!” – become the lament for every loser in the world. Suffering utter humiliation and exile, and with perhaps the underlying sense that his days are numbered, Fredo is later seen striking up a friendship with Michael’s son Anthony, all fire doused, exhausted and acquiescent to fate.
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Coppola readily admitted to taking on the project to make money and leverage more personal work. And yet, once more in affinity with Michael, he found The Godfather was destined to remain the cornerstone of his reputation, an ideogram of his art – small wonder Part III hinges on the rude bastard offspring becoming the embraced and accepted heir. The Godfather gave his career and directorial stamp definition he hadn’t really been able to give it before that, as the material allowed him to express so many of his creative talents at once, and most of his later films are rather permutations of the various facets found here. The protagonists of his juvenilia, wayward folk seeking a place in the world and a certain sense of self, evolved through Michael into the kinds of antiheroes littered throughout the rest of his oeuvre, Harry Caul to Willard and Kurtz, Motorcycle Boy and Tucker and Dracula, titanic figures who contend with their own dark and self-consuming sides whilst chasing their illusory goals. The painful romanticism and nomadic nostalgia of Rumblefish (1983), One From The Heart (1982), and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) are prefigured by Coppola’s efforts to portray marital strife and the relentless tug of a remembered, idealised past. Apocalypse Now would take up the attempts in the Godfather films to conceive personal, psychological strife as an extension, or rather wellspring, of larger social and historical travails.
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Coppola’s most important characters experience their most cherished and transcendent truths – love, creation, loyalty – as mortifying events that torment and wrack rather than free, whilst also conceding the blessed pain of having something to care that much about and suffer for is as much part of the life drive as pleasure. As he became more of a formalist, Coppola also became more interested in the dialogue between reality and fantasy, usually worked through in the tension between cinematic artifice and raw emotionalism, although the aesthete could win out in works that are little more than rampant exercises in stylisation (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992). The dominating style of The Godfather maintained a balance: the trademark photography style successfully evoked the past through shadows and saturated colours but also allowed a fine-tip realism. The first film is dominated by the use of doorways as a constant visual motif, from Michael and Enzo taking up station at the hospital entrance to the final, famous shot of the door closing on Kay’s face with all its intimations; Coppola’s compositions so often take a squared-off, rectilinear stance in regarding buildings, facades, and corridors, that reduces the universe into two states, within and without, and correlating these to various forms of power and autonomy. Water dominates the second film with similar immersive import, the lapping waves of Lake Tahoe glow gold at night under electric light and sparkle in the sun, but become cold iron grey as Fredo meets his end out there, prefigured by the rain that sheets down the glass as Fredo makes his confession to Michael.
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The ending of the first film rings so true and plangently because it captures the way subterranean certainty underpins agreed facades. Things will be swept under the rug, silences maintained, happy illusions forcibly preserved. By contrast, Part II, for all its determined gravitas, dedicates itself to finding a new and circumlocutory way of recapitulating the old message that crime doesn’t pay in a way that cuts against the grain of the original’s indulgence of violent power successfully articulated. Michael stills wins the great game but defeats himself in the fights that mean something to him. The series obeys Thomas Hardy’s dictum that character is fate, but it could also be accused of illustrating character type as melodramatic function. Sonny’s temper and Fredo’s weakness are their broad defining qualities, scarcely complicated. Kay represents the goggle-eyed fascination and then punitive judgementalism of white-bread society. Only Vito and Michael might be called truly complex figures. The alternations of timeframe in Part II contrast father and son on both a personal level and on a sociological one. Vito’s relationship with community is organic and outward-directed, recognising that community as a group of people who, like himself, have experienced uprooting and exile and who all have, in their way, some ideal of revenge in mind, even if it’s only against a creep landlord. His charitable and amicable streaks are laced with self-serving, but Vito clearly learns how to work people as well as work with them, a quality that Michael, who tends to reduce everything to either a threat or a profit source, clearly misses, as much as he tries to act the cool and concerted businessman.
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Vito’s struggle is with the world without, climaxing when he finally returns to Sicily and slays crime lord Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato), who killed the rest of his family, but by then only a pathetic old cripple. Michael rather contends with the inner natures of himself and the people around him: he, Fredo, Roth, Kay, and Pentangeli all are driven to self-destruction by little voices that won’t leave them alone. Michael’s world tends to shrink inwards, sheared of context and community. The mall the Corleones control in the first film, a carefully contrived semblance of suburban normality, gives way to the walled and remote compound by Lake Tahoe. At times I’ve grouchily referred to the present-tense sequences of Part II as “Gangsters In Mid-Life Crisis.” I recognise and appreciate the episode’s attempts to make overt the tragic undertone of the saga, but I still feel a touch of frustration with it. Part II is purposefully a much less gratifying and plot-driven than the first film, but some of the knit-browed self-seriousness feels strained. It also has story elements that fail, particularly the subplot of Pantangeli, which might have had more resonance if the character had been Clemenza as originally planned, but still doesn’t really go anywhere. Michael is so often so sullen and gloomy in this episode he threatens at times to become a nonentity; only his flashes of anger at Fredo and Kay wake him up. Coppola’s recreation of the look and sound of the Kefauver Hearings as seen on television is studious but dramatically inert. The episode gives Tom very little to do except for one graceful moment of instructing Pentangeli to kill himself under the cover of an historical anecdote. The scene of Kay’s leaving Michael comes abruptly and refuses to feel convincing.
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Where Part II works brilliantly is in the exchanges between Michael and Roth – Pacino’s respect for his old acting mentor Strasberg converts intelligibly into the cautious patience of one master gamester for another – and in the downfall of Fredo, which obeys the logic of Greek tragedy. Fredo’s character, or lack of it, drives him to make stupid decisions he can’t undo, just as Michael’s drives him to make smart decisions he likewise can’t undo. The scenes in Cuba are laced with a mordant sense of gangster capitalism fused with state oligarchy, illustrated with sublime humour as Michael and other tycoons are feted at a presidential banquet where a solid gold telephone is passed around. The flashback sequences are also superlative. The burnished images elsewhere are mediated here by a slightly diffused and hazy look befitting their backward-looking sense of nostalgia, nostalgia that doesn’t fend off the same confrontation with brute forces. The scene shifts from the primal rocky plain of the first shot where Vito and his mother (Maria Carta) try to bury his father only to find his older brother slain, killed in seeking a vendetta for his father’s assassination by the malignant Ciccio, to the streets of New York that teem with human industry and life, flotsam citizens of another land dashed against the brownstone shoals of another.
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Vito’s journey sees him barely avoid being slain whilst his mother is shot dead by Ciccio for buying her son time to flee by holding a knife to the Don’s throat. When the grown Vito is strongarmed by Fanucci, and the young entrepreneur, tired of being chased off and patronised, instead resolves to fight back and kills Fanucci, setting himself on a path he can’t leave but which immediately gratifies him with power. The sequence of Vito’s killing of Fanucci, carefully ambushing his foe in a grimy tenement building whilst festivities blare out in the street, has the quality of a communal dream, and stands as one of the best things Coppola ever did. The last flashback in the film is subtler, presenting a moment of totemic meaning for Michael that also again invokes nostalgia for the first film, as Michael remembers the occasion of his father’s birthday just before he went off to war, and several long-dead and disgraced characters reappear. Sonny is infuriated by his patriotic choice laced with undertones of rebellion. Fredo congratulates him. Michael is left alone at the table, anticipating Michael’s solitude as seemingly predestined whether he rebelled or became the perfect scion because of some misaligned element in his makeup.
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By Part III Michael has regained community, as the celebration of his receiving a Papal honour for charity work sees the Corleones back in their milieu, and something like the glossy, embracing feeling of a wealthy extended clan reunited has returned, in part because the processes of time has replenished their ranks, and Michael’s actions, however troubling, have bought him years of stability. Now the intruding hoods, like John Gotti stand-in Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), are notably out of place, like members of the family no-one thought would have the gall to turn up. Young Vincent is literally that, although he soon stakes a place inside the castle as a potent ally Michael sees potential in despite a temper the equal of his father – within moments of being ushered into Michael’s inner sanctum to hash out his differences with Zasa, his nominal employer, he’s tried to bite his ear off. Given that Michael’s oldest son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) has chosen to become an opera singer rather than follow him into the family business and with daughter Mary given the task of managing charities, Michael uneasily accepts Vincent as the man who will fight off the new flock of circling crows. Eventually the scene shifts from New York to Sicily as Anthony makes his starring debut in Palermo in a production of Cavalleria Rusticana.
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In between machinations of plot Part III is preoccupied with Michael’s fumbling attempts to make some sort of peace with the past in general and Kay in specific. He gives her a tour of the Sicilian landscape and tries to give her and his children new insight into his background and motives, and even manages to strike up fresh chemistry with Kay although she realises he can’t ever escape the trap he made for himself. Part III has often been dismissed as an ill-advised revisit, with some preferring to ignore it altogether. But I’ve always liked it, and feel it resolves the saga with real punch by its end. It’s easy to agree with some common complaints, including that Sofia Coppola was unequal to her role, and that it misses Duvall’s presence – after Duvall refused to return after a pay dispute, Puzo and Coppola rewrote their script so Tom had died in the interim, with his son Andrew (John Savage) now a priest and a slick and urbane creature, B. J. Harrison (George Hamilton), now Michael’s trusted legal rep. Certainly, too, its mere existence despoils the symmetry of the first two parts. The absence of so many familiar faces is however turned into a dramatic strength insofar as it focuses most squarely on Michael, whose journey reaches a cruel apogee as he fumbles a chance at redemption.
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Another of the series’ pivotal moments comes when Michael talks with a genuine and kindly Cardinal, Lamberto (Raf Vallone), who will soon be elevated as Pope John Paul I, and offers a memorable parable with a stone in a well to illustrate the lack of Christian feeling in a land long dominated by Christianity. Lamberto talks Michael into making his confession with an unerring eye for spiritual pain. Michael catalogues his crimes, building up to admitting to killing “my mother’s son,” and it becomes clear that twenty years have scarcely offered a scab over the raw wound of the deed. The sarcastic correlation of religion and mob power that informs the series from the start, the aspect of funerary rite that defines the climax of the first film and the subsuming of the role of giver of life and death by the Dons, here gives way to a more urgent questioning of just what if anything a man like Michael can ask of his nominal faith, and whether redemption, both worldly and spiritual, is possible for him. He tells Lamberto he does not repent his actions, but still seeks a form of release as he tries to turn his fortune to good works and sets out to try and save Lamberto’s life after he becomes pope. The film’s resolution suggests that the price for such redemption might be unbearably high. Keaton keeps pace with Pacino as the older and wiser Kay keeps a wary glint in her eyes and a slight smile on her face that constantly asserts her willingness to be friends and also her utter refusal to be bullshitted again. Around them is a bravura exercise in controlled style from Coppola, if also more flamboyant than its predecessors. This time around the signature sequence of cross-cutting ceremony and violence is inflated into a cinematic movement depicting the Corleones watching and performing Cavalleria Rusticana, turning the film into a meta-theatrical event. Gestures from life recur on the stage and vice versa. Identity has become as a ritualised script everyone’s doomed to read from, a passion play constantly repeated as long as humans remain so in thrall to their base drives and desires.
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As if reacting to the Michael-driven portentousness of the previous instalment, Part III offers Garcia as a revival of some of Caan’s strident force, with a new jolt of sex appeal as Vincent flirts with Bridget Fonda’s go-get-‘em journalist Grace Hamilton, who’s trying to interview Michael, a tryst that results in Grace getting caught between Vincent and two of Zasa’s goons hired to kill him. Although Michael wants anything but a new wave of bloodshed (he coins the line that serves as emblematic for so many neo-noir antiheroes, “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!”), Vincent, with Connie’s encouragement and with Michael out of action because of a diabetic attack, whacks Zasa. This sequence combines elements of various earlier killings in the first two films, signalling to both audience and Michael that Vincent combines talents of the Corleones but also has a hunger for the down-and-dirty side of their world he never had. Like Connie, Vincent loves the Corleone mythos, remembering his forceful but foolish father as “prince of the city.” His romance with Mary swerves into an incestuous stew befitting dynastic self-propagation, but Michael successfully buys him off by making breaking off the affair the one condition for Vincent stepping into Michael’s place as commander of the family muscle. Michael cleverly uses Vincent to gain Altobello’s trust and uncover his connection to Lucchesi, and realises that the efforts to kill off the Immobiliaire deal endanger not just the Corleone family members but also the new Pope, who signs off on Michael’s deal despite, and or perhaps because, he knows all about Michael’s dank guilt.
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Sofia’s performance as Mary got a caning from many commentators after Part III’s release, years before she’d find her real metier. She was only given the part after originally slated star Winona Ryder pulled out at the last minute, although Francis wasn’t really taking such a chance on her as she’d given a promising performance in Rumblefish. It’s definitely true that her scenes with Garcia urgently lack the crackle they need to drive the forbidden romance angle. But she offers a blowsy adolescent naiveté that suits the role to a certain extent, in keeping with Francis’ casting philosophy throughout the series. The second two films extended the original novel’s annexation of pulp paperback history blended with tart probing into the proximity of politics with money. Part III revolves around popular conspiracy theories regarding John Paul I’s short tenure as Pope, supposedly assassinated to prevent financial malfeasance and organised crime ties being exposed. The infamous, so-called “God’s Banker” Roberto Calvi, who finished up hanging from a London bridge in real life, is here represented as Frederick Keinszig (Helmut Berger), involved in siphoning off Vatican funds to Lucchesi and his pals, and killed by Vincent in his retaliatory strikes. These also see Gilday shot and dropped from a great height and Lucchesi slain by Calò, who has to approach the honcho without any kind of weapon but improvises by ramming the man’s own spectacles into his throat. Connie poisons Altobello with cannoli. But these moves fail to head off the Pope’s gentle murder by poisoned hot chocolate, whilst a roving hired assassin, Mosca (Mario Donatone), zeroes in on Michael. After killing Tommasino, who recognises him on the prowl, Mosca tries to gun Michael down as he watches his son perform.
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Mosca battles with Michael’s bodyguards, managing to avoid disturbing the performance and instead taking another shot at the target as he leaves the opera house, but instead kills Mary. Coppola’s visual hyperbole throughout this sequence, like the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in Apocalypse Now, sarcastically contrasts high culture with dirty business, whilst allowing Coppola to indulge pure artifice in a more functional way than in the odes to represented reality in One From The Heart and The Cotton Club, whilst the tension between realism and stylisation extends with shots as precisely composed as any classical art hacked through by the hard purpose of Hollywood editing. The howl of pain Michael releases over Mary’s body is at once bloodcurdling and cathartic, as it seems like the wail of protest as well as pain he’s longed to release since the death of Apollonia or perhaps even since his father’s shooting, woe and infinite regret for suffering given and inflicted and over the damned inevitability of it all, all of it fated since Michael’s promise to his father in his hospital bed. The last shot, of Michael quietly dying alone in great old age, confirms he was doomed for all his works and efforts to end up a ruined and solitary creature, nursing his ghosts and sorrows like a brood of black kittens. And yet the way Coppola shoots his end, settled in a chair in what was Tommasino’s garden, a place of placid and dreamy longings for the fallen titan, gives him more grace than his father’s slightly pathetic end. Michael leaves the world in a state of peaceful reflection in a setting of personal import, his memories of people, whether they died violently or not, now all rendered equal simply by time.

 

Standard
1970s, Horror/Eerie, Romance

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Director: Nicolas Roeg

Screenwriters: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant

By Roderick Heath

Morning in the yard of an English country home. Christine (Sharon Williams), a young, blonde girl, clad in a plastic rain coat the colour of blood, plays in the drizzle with a ball, skirting the pocked surface of a reedy pond, whilst her brother rides amongst the trees. The scenery is shot in that indefinably specific manner of early ‘70s filmmaking, all soft watery light, grainy mists, and fecund hues of green and brown and grey, the few patches of primary colours alight with portentous power. The playing girl’s listless parents inside the house in the comfortable envelope of their lives, with a touch of youthful cool and countercultural edge still to their learned, bourgeois calm, scents of green tea and marijuana blending with the pot pourri in cool English domesticity. Wife researching the deceptive minutiae of natural phenomena, husband surveying slide stills of the medieval churches he restores as cultural artefacts without any spiritual belief, before he suddenly senses disaster. He jumps up, runs outside, and plucks his daughter’s angelic corpse from the water of the reedy pond. He surfaces in a slow motion shot that captures every stir of water, a depiction of raw, primal agony elongated into a fateful eternity, transmuted into art, a motion Pre-Raphaelite painting depicting transfiguring grief. Art dissolves into life just as future, present, and past splinter and speak to each other in Don’t Look Now.

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The reputation of Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s third film as director, has steadily climbed to the point where some surveys have named it the greatest British film of all time. That kind of acclaim is particularly noteworthy given that Don’t Look Now is a horror film, a genre that rarely attracts such regard. But Roeg found a way to make the genre the vessel for stylistic ambition and cinematic invention it hadn’t been since the silent era, and Don’t Look Now straddles modes of filmmaking in singular fashion. Similarly, Roeg, who died recently at the age of 90, defied convention and cliché just as intrepidly. The son of a one-time diamond merchant with Dutch roots, Roeg entered the British film industry as a tea boy and worked his way up through studio ranks, becoming camera operator on a range of prestigious films in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before gaining repute for his second unit photography work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Roeg soon served as cinematographer on the likes of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968). Working with such filmmakers at a time of great cinematic energy and experimentation emboldened Roeg began developing a distinctive approach to filmmaking. He was soon courted for collaboration with Donald Cammell to make his directing debut with Performance (1970). Many talented cinematographers have tried to make the leap into directing before and since, but even greats from Karl Freund to Jack Cardiff to Janusz Kaminski have made it with often less than stellar results.

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Roeg, however, turned out to be something else entirely, a well-trained technician and product of studio cinema who nonetheless proved a unique and challenging film artist. The dazzling visual sensibility he demonstrated as a film shooter was unleashed, although he was lucky to emerge at a time when filmmakers of all stripes felt freer to improvise with the texture of cinema. Roeg took more advantage than most, and created in his early works bold fusions of narrative and experimental cinema, playing freely with cinematic time signatures and composing images in contrapuntal rhapsodies. Even as his style settled down in later films, they retained an element of jagged strangeness and sensual immersion that was utterly distinctive. The roots of Roeg’s style and status in the midst of a national cinema usually praised, or written off, for its penchant for classical calm and literacy, were evident in Petulia, and took that film’s experiments with structure and time to hallucinatory, hyperbolic places in his first two films. Performance offered a brain-twisting graph of blurring identity and the cacophony of Swinging London’s surreal collision of subcultures, whilst Walkabout (1971), his Australian outback odyssey, depicted a crisis in mutually uncomprehending ways of being which Roeg characteristically conveyed as fractured ways of seeing. Don’t Look Now was comparatively straightforward. Only comparatively, as Roeg stitched a dense fabric of image play and time distortion whilst telling an intelligible and deftly intriguing story. that managed to satisfy the generic requirements of a horror film but also, like some other, rare entries in the genre, moves into a realm of mystification and distortion of reality that lays bare a strange, extreme psychological landscape.

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The unfortunate parents glimpsed at the outset are John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie). Sometime after their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) died in that pond, Roeg rediscovers the pair in Venice, having left their son Johnny (Nicholas Salter) in boarding school. John supervises the restoration of an historic church. The first shots of John in Venice see him and workmen drilling into the church’s fabric like a dentist hacking into a cavity about to release foul and nasty rot. When the couple have lunch in a Venetian café, they notice a woman who seems to be staring at them. Laura learns the staring woman is actually blind when they meet in the washroom. Her name is Heather (Hilary Mason), and the woman she’s travelling with she calls her sister, Wendy (Clelia Matania). Heather claims to be clairvoyant, and she thrills and appeases Laura profoundly when she reports having seen a young girl sitting with them, meaning that Christine’s spirit is close and benevolently watching over them. Laura returns to John in the café but suddenly faints, knocking over the table. She’s rushed to hospital, but quickly recovers and indeed emerges in better spirits than any time since Christine’s death. This epiphany kicks of a subtle polarisation in the couple, as John’s regulation male rationalism seems beggared and suspicious of Laura’s equally regulation female mysticism, but also reunion, as the couple spend an episode of utterly carnal passion, seemingly their first in a long time, fuelled by a sense of liberation from disaster and guilt.

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The basis for Don’t Look Now was a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, who had also provided Alfred Hitchcock with material for Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963), and it has certain similarities – the encounter with the travelling duo of English women recalls Rebecca and the preoccupation with marriage and mating under the pretext of an enigmatic and disquieting plot is clearly reminiscent of many of Hitchcock’s films, going back to the likes of Rich and Strange (1932). The marriage of the Baxters, united both by passion and sorrow, is the true engine of a storyline that covers the span between two deaths, for a film that analyses the ephemeral experiences and connections that constitutes life whilst also suggesting a tentative belief in things beyond. The opening scene sees Laura trying to solve a question her son asked her as to why, if the Earth is round, frozen water is flat, and finds that it isn’t, but the arc can be imperceptible. John’s book, Beyond The Fragile Geometry of Space, sits on the sofa. Perception is limited, existence is infinite. John studies slide photos he’s taken of the church he’s working on, spying a red-clad figure seated on a pew, and when a psychic intimation warns him of Christine’s danger, he springs up and dashes out, knocking over a glass of water that causes the red figure on the slide to dissolve and create an abstract swirl encircling the stain glass window of the church; Roeg cuts between this act of incidental art-making with the terrible sight of John rising from the water with Christine’s body, past and future, spirit and flesh, love and hate all blurring in an inscrutable melange.

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The Baxters in Venice are still a handsome couple, but weighed down by experience, as John testily oversees a project that involves digging into the past literally and finding what he describes as layer of faux-Byzantine fakery after another. Laura loses herself in memories of rain-sodden melancholy whilst sitting in a tony restaurant. The encounter with the milky, staring eyes of Heather and her happy pronouncements of lingering personality and beneficence draw Laura out of depression, even as her prompt collapse sets the world into chaos. Roeg zeroes in on the spilt wine, oil, and salad dressing on the motley flooring, a shot reminiscent of the puddle of commingled perfumes glimpsed in one of the stronger precursors to Roeg’s style, John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), and with a similar import reflecting the director’s obsession with reality in flux. The film’s most celebrated sequence follows soon, as John and Laura reunite in a scene of sexual passion that pushed the envelope about as far as it would go in a mainstream film sporting two movie stars, intercut with shots of the couple dressing and preparing for dining out. Roeg’s careful structuring, including his deadpan sense of intimacy with the couple as they go through the motions of life together, showering and stripping and lazily eddying within the world-precluding walls of their room (save the hapless hotel maid who comes in to find John sitting naked), invites the viewer into John and Laura’s crucial moment of rediscovery of each-other in both the carnal sense and the subliminal.

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Roeg’s easy feel for the erotic was another facet that distinguished him amongst British filmmakers, and set him in both unity and contrast with the other major radical voice of English cinema of the early ‘70s, Ken Russell, fonder of outrageousness for its own sake. Roeg certainly didn’t spurn perversity as a subject, but he was more clean-cut in his way. Walkabout revolved around the sense of threat and disconnection when Jenny Agutter’s prim schoolgirl cannot comprehend the mating overtures of the young indigenous man, although they should be plain and natural enough, ironically identifying the incoherence of the erotic as the perversion; The Man Who Fell to Earth would invert the equation and contemplate intraspecies sexuality as a potentially valid form of communication. In a way, the pivotal sex scene of Don’t Look Now is fascinatingly square in celebrating connubial passion for a married couple, like Last Tango In Paris (1973) for high Anglicans, depending on Sutherland and Christie, at the height of their sinewy beauty as movie stars as well as actors, to fully inhabit the carnal display. It’s also a moment of cyclical meaning, the eruption of the life force that gives renewal between two losses: what is life but a chain of birth and death, and what are John and Laura Baxter but two momentary expressions of that cycle? The presence of the medium who gives hope of spiritual persistence gives hope of other layers of existence, but John and Laura are trapped, and liberated, by their continued existence on the one where the flesh has such exalted potency. Roeg’s crosscutting was aimed at helping get the scene past censors but also makes poetry out of sublime disparity the couple restoring their social visages, their worldly guises, after all the naked ape business: Roeg inverts moralistic assumption by noting the purity of sexuality and the puerile falsity of the restored worldly appearance and its peevish, isolated insecurities as John and Laura contemplate aspects of their bodies and appearance.

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Roeg’s evocation of Venice as a place spies flashes of tourist board-friendly glamour but more often regarding a place of festering, mouldering age, hovering like a semicoherent dream just above the water. It’s cold and out of season, not a summery abode of Italianate cheer but the same place of autumnal persistence of Death in Venice and Across the River and Into the Trees. Roeg drolly notes the workaday locals for whom the city is less a place of picturesque enchantment than a waterlogged, tourist-clogged mess. The staff in the hotel where John and Laura are staying waiting out the time until they can close down, still hovering in faintly desperate helpfulness for their single patrons. The cops roused to action over the most imprecise fears. Streets are as painful and confusing to navigate as memory; John’s attempt to rediscover the pension where Heather and Wendy were living sees him wandering in circles. Rats scuttle about with impunity. A killer is at loose in the town; John watches as the filthy and bedraggled corpse of a dead girl is fished out of a canal. He and Laura hear strange noises and cries for help echoing through the city night, and glimpse a diminutive figure wearing a red hooded coat dashing through the alleys. Roeg’s desaturated images give the city’s waterways a grey, crystalline quality, whilst the crumbling brickwork and paving seem near-organic, not entirely sapped of romanticism but charged with something more elusive and uneasy in its intimations.

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The city is as much as body as John or Laura’s or the corpse dragged from the water, a physical manifestation of an entire civilisation, arthritic in its bones and unmoored in its thoughts. John and Laura have trouble telling bridges and alleys apart. John is nagged by the feeling he’s visited certain places before, or denies having been places Laura swears he has been. The often withholding nature of the city architecture, which can harbour boles of chic modernism or ancient, pellucid beauty, also mediates the story’s invocation of psychological space, and the narrative hinging on characters who can no longer trust things lingering in their thoughts to remain obediently in place. A church John and Laura visit lulls them with its aura of hallowed calm and beatitude, encouraging Laura into ritual and John to lapse into prayer-like introspection. Venice offers elusive promise of communion with the past with all its bedraggled beauty and fetid richness. John’s job automatically invokes a sense of past and present commingling, digging into the matter of Venice itself, piecing together mosaics and restoring gargoyles. John interacts with the marrow of past and understands it’s in part an illusion to be sustained by keen eyes like his, the expressions of the long dead, the ghosts of their minds and eyes, needing faithful upkeep. John’s business is with the substance of human expression, where Heather speaks of the ethereal aspect, weaving unseen like mist around people.

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John has been hired by a bishop (Massimo Serato) from a rich and influential family, who takes solicitous interest in the Baxters’ spiritual welfare (“I’m kind to animals and children,” Laura tells him with fumbling humour and honesty when he asks her if she’s a Christian) and eventually proves to have a more ethereal connection with John, sensing when he’s in danger and witnessing his near-fatal accident on a hoist in the restored church. “Churches belong to God, but he doesn’t seem to care about them,” he notes with sad gravitas: “Does he have other priorities?” Meanwhile John and Laura play out a familiar tension, between her willingness to embrace Heather’s message and the possibility of the supernatural, versus John’s stiff-necked rationalism and simmering concern Laura might be slipping back into an irrational state she seems to have lingered in for a time after Christine’s death. And yet John ultimately proves vulnerable to irrational belief himself as he becomes convinced the red-cloaked figure he keeps seeing dashing through the Venetian alleys could be his daughter. Laura’s visit to speak with Heather and Wendy and gain deeper reassurance as to Christine’s benevolent presence sees John left to get drunk in a neighbouring café: he goes into the pension to find his wife only to get caught lurking by a resident and forced to run off in case he gets arrested as a peeping Tom. John later can’t find Heather and Wendy precisely because they moved out after reports of prowlers, a subtle fillip of humour that’s also a deftly reasoned consequence of plot.

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Roeg described Don’t Look Now as his exercise in film grammar, a concise if rather dry description that hardly encompasses all the flourishes encoded into the film’s tapestry-like form, one that recounts a simple story in the most enriching fashion. Adapting Du Maurier allowed Roeg the chance to offer his own, highly individualised tribute to Hitchcock. As many genre writers have also noted, Don’t Look Now also strongly resembles as an upmarket equivalent to the giallo style that was all the rage in Italian film at the time, a distinctive mode of artfully shot, narratively baroque thrillers also influenced by Hitchcock, instituted by Mario Bava and take up by a range of talented directors including Dario Argento. Roeg might well have taken ideas from Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966), with its similar use of a young female figure that proves deadly in the midst of a crumbling, deserted-feeling city, and the shock finale with its revelation of an unexpected killer certainly has a strong giallo flavour. Argento sometimes betrayed stylistic ambition similar to Roeg, as in the revisited, revised stabbing in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and the flash edits of Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), but Roeg’s specific, more overtly audacious method distinguishes his movie from both his model and his rivals, not just in his approach to editing and his fulsome sense of his characters as more vital than machinations of story and spectacle, but his rejection of the rectilinear succinctness of Hitchcock’s visions and the games of framing in giallo.

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Roeg’s visual lexicon is, rather, restless and troubled, sometimes settling into a careful observational rhythm, as in the build-up to John and Laura’s sex scene, or cranking up to outright jangling hysteria, as he zeroes in on the finale. Roeg and his cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond employ zoom shots and handheld camerawork throughout, and angles that could swoop up high or crouch down on floor level. Don’t Look Now composites a wealth of images that mimic both the psychological reactions of its characters, unmoored as they are from the moment by grief and blurred perceptions of reality, and also their physical straits, anxious attempts at control giving way to increasingly frantic and belaboured searching. Recurring visual touches – water, flashing light, mirrors, broken glass, the colour red – are keys to an associative symbology alongside moments of totemic import for the characters that accumulate meaning as the film goes on and are finally ticked off in the rapid succession right at the end. Immersion, with all its uterine import, is also a state between life and death. Venice sits above the water, defiant but frigid, a lot like John’s masculine being: intellectually hip, as his book indicates, he is nonetheless reflexively entrapped by his own conviction that he’s saner and straighter than anyone. In fact, as Heather realises, he’s rejected his own second sight, and so is at its mercy, inflicted with visions that foretell the future but give no context or sense of the illimitable. The warmth and vitality of John and Laura’s relationship is underscored by lingering shakiness, anxiety and discord finally defined as John berates his wife for being taken in by the two women he dismisses as charlatans.

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When the couple get a phone call from their son’s boarding school back in the drizzly English countryside, telling them Johnny has been mildly injured, Laura immediately flies out, leaving John to his work and anxiously await her return, alone in a cold, grey, decaying labyrinth of a city where every step he takes brings him closer to his end. He becomes distracted after he sees Laura on a passing boat accompanied by Heather and Wendy, and alerts the police, who ask him to locate the pension where the women were living, and have him followed by one of their men. There’s a strong suggestion that heather and Wendy are actually a lesbian couple. It doesn’t feel coincidental that female homosexuality was once sometimes euphemistically described as “Venetian tastes”, and both couples reflect Du Maurier’s divided life as a married mother who often had queer affairs, and John’s reaction to his wife gravitating to the women has an aspect of reactionary jealousy. Roeg finds pathos and humanity in both duos as John’s recourse to the police eventually results in him pathetically apologising to and guiding Heather back to her rooms after he gets a phone call from Laura, safe in England and secure in her restored sense of sanity and security. Everyone, according to Roeg, has Venetian tastes, at the mercy of forces encoded in the blood and the mind, hungrily seeking their fulfilment on the way to dusty death.

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Roeg’s faults as a filmmaker could be as pronounced as his strengths, as he often didn’t know when to quit or moderate his flow of images, and could sometimes lapse into atonal showmanship, as in some of the more sophomoric and drawn-out passages of Performance or The Man Who Fell to Earth. Don’t Look Now stands as his best film precisely because its storyline gave a coldly deterministic enclosure that allowed him to deploy his signature visual invention whilst also compressing it with clear purpose. The notion that fate is pressing down on John Baxter grows all the more omnipresent as Roeg’s camera picks out mysteriously significant sights as casual as a man crossing a bridge or as pointed as a double-exposure vision of Heather’s sightless eyes as John ascends to a rickety vantage to inspect a mosaic only for a piece of falling lumber to almost cause his death. Don’t Look Now has strong affinity with the same year’s The Wicker Man as a bleak game of sliding panels unveiling a man’s predestined fate, complete with a nasty twist involving the search for an elusive girl. Both films tried to define new ground for horror cinema whilst also honouring the genre in some essentials, including their gruesome finales and cunningly delayed revelations of the hovering blade over their protagonists. Don’t Look Now is particularly beguiling in the way it traverses arty pretence and character drama before arriving at a final twist that’s as bizarre and grotesque as anything in horror cinema.

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Along the way Roeg casually tosses off a superb sequence of physical suspense staging as John clings desperately to the collapsed hoist in the church, saved by a worker’s cool and clever efforts. This near-disaster seems to prove Heather’s warnings that John is in danger, but its happy ending also gives the illusion of restored safety. Don’t Look Now is built around evoking a sense of a thin and permeable membrane that constitutes reality, a membrane easy to mistake for solidity and security. The hoist accident sequence dramatizes the concept as John’s secure footing turns instantly to chaos, dangling high above the church floor, debris falling on his bishop sponsor and workers alike. The shock of the incident coming on the back of Johnny’s accident and Laura’s departure informs John’s quick segue into clammy panic after he catches the bewildering sight of Laura with the two women. Don’t Look Now verges on a fatalistic statement that fate claims its pounds of flesh sooner or later, but also strives to make a vital point that it’s precisely the vulnerable, all too perishable bonds of being that give life its beauty as well as pain.

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Despite the mounting sense of portent, the later scenes of Don’t Look Now have a quality reminiscent of screwball comedy in the sense of criss-crossing paths and missed meetings, using Venice’s torturous routes as a stage to enact an anxious sense of disconnection, as Laura dashes back to her husband but can’t quite catch up with him as he takes Heather home from the police station. The faintly comic element twists into panicky concern as Heather experiences a mediumistic fit as she’s possessed by Christine, and tries desperately to warn Laura that John’s headed off towards danger. The climax of Don’t Look Now, as vivid and delirious as its opening, sees John pursuing the small, red-clad figure, oblivious to the cries of warning and fear that often ring out whenever it appears, locking himself inside an abandoned building with it so he can corner it. Roeg offers some familiar horror movie hype here, as the Venetian canals and cavernous ruined interior swim with mist and shadow, whilst his handheld camerawork becomes frantic as Laura tries to chase them down, scuttling over bobbing boats and beating at the locked gate.

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John corners his quarry, who seems until the very last instant to be some lost and desperate child if not an actual ghostly manifestation of his daughter, but turns to him at last finally reveals a wizened and malevolent visage – an elderly, viciously psychotic dwarf who whips out a knife and cuts John’s throat. This is ridiculous touch on one level, of course, but also Don’t Look Now’s most inspired and gleefully cruel conceit. John’s paternal grief and misfiring second sight bring him to a brutal end, his life flashing before his eyes as his life blood gushes out of his neck in a great red spume: Roeg’s most symphonic editing arrives as he revisits sights and actions from the rest of the film and stitches them together in new context, the desperate striving for meaning in the last few moments of a man’s life. The killer has been waiting for John ever since glimpsing her in the church photo, mysteriously conjoined with his daughter’s loss. Could she be regarded as an agent of fate, the minion of some patiently boding evil, or just a random expression of chaos, of the things that maul and mutilate? The coda offers a mordant yet also grand, even triumphant sense of revelation and completion, as it’s revealed his sighting of Laura with Heather and Wendy was actually foresight of them accompanying his body to a funeral on a hearse boat. The salving aspect of this could be Laura’s firm and centred gaze and gentle smile as she buries another loved-one, alone but also bolstered by new faith that nothing is every truly lost.

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

The White Buffalo (1977)

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Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenwriter: Richard Sale

By Roderick Heath

Horror films and Westerns long seemed utterly irreconcilable genres. The Western engages official mythologies of nation, history, and society, where the Horror film tends to set them in happy disarray. Horror films court anarchic impulses and dwell in zones of psychological figuration, where Westerns roam large in the world and usually operate by rigid moral parameters. And yet the two genres wield some definite affinities. Both depend upon generating atmosphere as a tangible force, a sense of being at extremes beyond the reign of normality, at the mercy of a random and hostile universe, and often involve clashes of firmly demarcated good and evil enacted by supernormal characters. Horror elements creep through some apparently upright Westerns, including John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Richard Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1969), particularly when dealing with the anxious threat of the Native American as the menacing Other surging out of the great western night. The rise of the Spaghetti Western injected Gothic imagery and a spirit sometimes verging on death worship, and entries like Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968) have strong doses of savage violence and semi-surreal weirdness very close to Horror in nature. In the late 1950s a proper fusion of the two genres was born, dictated by commercial inspirations in combining two ever-popular styles for patrons of drive-ins and grindhouses.
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The results of this fusion were usually pretty lame if not outright ridiculous: Edward Dehn’s interesting but hesitant Curse of the Undead (1959) kicked off a run of gunfighter-versus-monster films, like William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1965) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966). It wasn’t until the 1970s that some sort of fruitful union of the two began to appear, usually with Western imagery providing a kind of septic spiritual backdrop to Horror, on the likes of The Velvet Vampire (1971), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Race with the Devil (1975). The ‘80s and ‘90s saw some vigorous attempts to fuse the forms, with the likes of Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996), and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) all calling back to the classic stand-offs of the old school Western with their own wilful tweaks. Most of these films were set in contemporary times, placing them in deliberate tension with the aura of historical remoteness that once again links the Western and the Gothic Horror mould. Wayne Coe’s Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) tried more concertedly to find middle ground for the classic genre moulds. In recent years Horror Westerns have become relatively plentiful as trashy home viewing fodder, but Craig S. Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) gained real admiration as a rich and gruelling entry that truly understood where the overlap between the genres lies.
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But The White Buffalo is perhaps the strangest entry in this rarefied mode, and my favourite. Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis was trying to carve out a place for himself in Hollywood in the mid-1970s, and after his interesting if garishly misjudged remake of King Kong (1976) looked to gain commercial traction with tactics well-thumbed in the Italian film industry in particular, by making some oddball cash-ins on recent successes, in this case Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1975). De Laurentiis produced two ambitious, eccentric derivations, The White Buffalo and Orca, the Killer Whale (1977). Orca was the rather more stridently trashy and weird of the two, marrying King Kong’s sympathy-for-the-beast trip to a sub-Herman Melville plotline and going far over the top in its man-versus-beast action. The White Buffalo, on the other hand, was based on a 1974 book by experienced screenwriter and novelist Richard Sale. Both films feature not just battles with marauding animals, but notably strong themes derived from fashionable concerns for ecology and pro-Native American sympathies. Both feature the Muscogee actor Will Sampson, who had gained a measure of stardom thanks to his part as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
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De Laurentiis hired Sale to adapt his own novel which was published before Benchley’s, and drew more meditatively on their common inspiration, Melville’s Moby-Dick. Sale was an arch professional, but he had evinced an interest in bizarrely spiritual adventure tales with his early novel Not Too Narrow…Not Too Deep, which was filmed under the title Strange Cargo (1940), depicting escaped convicts battling their evil impulses under the watchful eye of a Christlike stranger. The White Buffalo transferred Melville’s scenario to the Old West, and converted it into a metaphor for the clash of civilisations enacted on the western plains as well as the looming death worship underscoring much Old West mythology. Rather than going for any of the young tyros lighting up Hollywood at the time like Spielberg, De Laurentiis preferred hardy professionals to helm his Hollywood forays, often nabbing seasoned British directors, having employed John Guillermin to make King Kong and Michael Anderson on Orca. For The White Buffalo he hired J. Lee Thompson. That Thompson had just worked with the film’s star Charles Bronson on the nifty LA noir flick St. Ives (1976) probably helped. Thompson, like Sale and Bronson, was a weathered old salt of the sound stage. Orson Welles famously dissed him for that once, but Thompson probably took it in his stride, as he was one of those rigorous, skilful, no-bullshit talents who used to make film industries go ‘round.
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Thompson, who came from a theatrical family and made his start as a playwright, had served as a tail gunner during World War 2. He decamped from Britain to Hollywood after gaining international attention with exactingly crafted, vividly composed movies like Ice Cold In Alex (1958), Tiger Bay, and North West Frontier (both 1959), and soon gained a Best Picture Oscar nomination with The Guns of Navarone (1961). Thompson had a real knack for action-adventure films, often with stories involving small groups overloaded with bristling personalities travelling through dangerous and remote zones, expertly diagramming both group dynamics and faultlines of social perspective as well as his action sequences. But he took on just about every genre in his time, and revealed surprising ability at horror on Eye of the Devil (1967), a film that transmuted Thompson’s feel for colliding worldviews into a different zone, as did the cruel but memorable post-Holocaust melodrama Return From The Ashes (1965). Commercial stumbles in the late ‘60s with Mackenna’s Gold (1968) and The Chairman (1969) saw Thompson sink down the Hollywood totem pole. Thompson nonetheless continued to prove himself invaluable in bringing energetic camerawork and expert storytelling to an odd raft of films, including the last two Planet of the Apes films. Thompson fell into regular collaboration with Bronson until the late ‘80s when Thompson wrapped up his career ingloriously with films like Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989).
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The White Buffalo itself was a little too weird for critics and audiences in 1977 and not quite weird enough to gain a cult following. Nonetheless it represents an apotheosis for the ‘70s style of “mud and blood” Western, taking the genre’s new grittiness and outsider empathies up to the threshold of a hallucinatory terminus. It might be one of the offbeat Westerns ever made, but it’s also one of the last not afflicted with any hint of self-conscious nostalgia for the genre’s rapidly fading heyday, whilst also tackling some of the issues causing that wane head-on. Sale’s concept had some felicity, as the notion of a white, monstrous beast representing death is a common one in folklore: Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer (1953) had tackled a version found in Sami legend. Here Sale offers it unabashedly as cosmic invocation of the annihilating force unleashed by colonialism and race war, as well as the eternal, personal frontier of reckoning with fate. In a manner reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936), the narrative yokes together great figures of Western lore, in this case the gunfighter James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok (Bronson) and the great Sioux war chief Crazy Horse (Sampson), who both are predestined in their own way to chase down the eponymous animal.
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Hickok’s spur is a recurring dream in which he sees a snowy clearing in the woods, the monstrous animal stalking him in the moonlight with terrible purpose. So terrifying is the dream that Hickok often awakens firing off the pistols he sleeps with: he’s lucky not to kill anyone on the train taking him west when he does this, as the bunk above his is unoccupied. Hickok travels under the pseudonym of James Otis, as he’s not keen to advertise his identity on the frontier after a sojourn to New York, considering that so many people want to claim his scalp for the sake of specific grievance or the desire to make a name. The train conductor, Amos Bixby (Douglas Fowley), recognises him easily and reassures him that the last known albino buffalo was recently shot dead by hunters: such creatures, exceptionally rare, were a prized and valuable prey for hunters. But a white buffalo is certainly at large in the Black Hills of the Dakotas. Hunter and prospector Charlie Zane (Jack Warden) barely escapes a small avalanche the powerful beast sets off, and then it charges pell-mell into an Oglala Sioux camp, leaving gored warriors scattered and killing the small child of Crazy Horse and his wife Black Shawl (Linda Moon Redfearn). Stricken with grief, Crazy Horse is renamed Worm by his father, and told to placate his daughter’s spirit and regain his true name he must kill the buffalo and bring back its hide to wrap the child’s body in.
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When he arrives in Cheyenne by train, Hickok is soon forced to fight for his life when a local Cavalry commander, Captain Tom Custer (Ed Lauter), brother to the better known Colonel, arranges with some of his loutish underlings to ambush Hickok and kill him as payback for an old altercation that saw Hickok kill two of his men. A barman, Paddy Welsh (Bert Williams), who upbraids Custer for his self-serving memory and unsporting purpose, tosses guns to Hickok, allowing him to blow away the soldiers and forcing Custer to flee. Hickok quickly moves on towards the frontier, catching a stagecoach on to Fetterman along the Bozeman Trail, driven by Abel Pickney (the inevitable Slim Pickens) and also carrying Winifred Coxy (Stuart Whitman) and Cassie Ollinger (Cara Williams). Hickok threatens Coxy over using bad language before the lady, but when she releases a string of cuss words Hickok gives up and tries to sleep. The white buffalo itself is hardly the only threatening thing on the loose in the stormy night. When Hickok catches Coxy about to kill and rob him, he forces the cad out of the coach despite the man’s desperate appeals for mercy, and he’s quickly shot dead by Crazy Horse, who tracks the stage’s passage. Crazy Horse later tries to snipe at Hickok when Pickney pulls up beside a pair of dead gold miners left on the roadside. The war chief’s bullet misses Hickok and the gunman drives him off with a fusillade from his pistols.
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Thompson stages this sequence, the familiar Western situation of a stagecoach journey with some disreputable characters, with a nightmarish lilt, as the conveyance trundles laboriously along muddy roads in pouring rain with lightning flashing, half-seen menaces dashing through the shadows. Mortality is so discounted out in these leagues neither Hickok nor Pickney are terribly bothered when they have to load frozen corpses onto the stagecoach roof. Thompson picks out vivid images of cruel death, in the astounding sequence of the buffalo’s charge through the Sioux camp as the beast’s horns gouge out eyes and rip open bodies in gory flash cuts, and when Coxy lolls in the mud and rain, hands smeared in his own blood. Snowfall turns nightmare to fairy tale but death is just as arbitrary, as Hickok learns when he realises the unfortunate Cassie has been killed by Crazy Horse’s bullet meant for him. Arrival at Fetterman in the bleary, mud-strewn morning finds old coot Amos Briggs (John Carradine) burying two men who killed each-other in a fight, inspired seemingly by one swearing he’d seen the white buffalo. Hickok visits local madam and former flame “Poker” Jenny Schermerhorn (Kim Novak), who’s following the frontier with her special services. But Hickok takes his leave of her after another nightmare of the buffalo sees him blast away the fake white buffalo head she hangs on her bedroom wall.
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The White Buffalo carefully builds up mirroring aspects to Hickok and Crazy Horse, noting that both men are using pseudonyms in trying to avoid their worldly status whilst pursuing their private missions. Each deals out annihilation with casual ease although neither sees himself as an aggressor – Hickok blows away Custer’s soldiers trying to kill him just as Crazy Horse shoots men intruding on his land and fights off a rival tribe’s braves. Both are dogged by enemies from their own nominal nations as well as the foes they’ve unstintingly earned in the frontier wars between Europeans and natives, and the two finally move into wary mutual respect and friendliness when Hickok decides to help Crazy Horse fend out some of his Indian enemies. But they’re also propelled by very different urges. Hickok is pushed towards his confrontation with the beast by the call of his own dream-world communion with death, whilst Crazy Horse has a far more personal motivation, driven to avenge his daughter in the same way he’s obliged to protect his ancestral homelands from the invading whites. Hickok has a dose of syphilis slowly corroding away his body and mind and can’t take bright light, and the pair of vintage dark glasses he perpetually wears are reminiscent of those worn by Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Hickock is unsure at first whether the prophecy he seeks to fulfil is real or just a product of his decaying wits. He fends off Jenny’s amorous advances although, as she comments, “I probably dosed you myself.”
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Thompson and Bronson’s collaboration seemed to be fuelled by a strong suggestion of mutual recognition, a sense transmuted into the film and Hickok and Crazy Horse’s screen amity. Bronson praised Thompson’s to-the-point style and economy on set, something a coal miner’s son made good like the former Charles Buchinsky appreciated. Beyond that, both men seemed to share an understanding as talented guys who nonetheless found themselves increasingly reconciled to servicing an ever-narrowing notion of what they were good for, and continuing to work for the sake of sheer professional cussedness. Bronson had become a big star in the 1970s playing variations on the terse-talking, stone-faced, death-dealing persona he’d perfected in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), including in huge hits like Death Wish (1974), but sometimes he tried to stretch his persona and occasionally reminded moviegoers he had a latent romantic streak and a talent for dry comedy on movies like St. Ives and the wonderful From Noon ‘Til Three (1976). Bronson’s Hickok probes Bronson’s screen persona as a dealer of death and picks up the same notion of the Western hero who finds he’s live long enough to become a victim of his own legend as in From Noon ‘Til Three. Hickok has just returned from performing on the New York stage with Buffalo Bill Cody, serving up that mythology to audiences. Now Hickok tries to outrun his one real talent, as a killer, returning to a territory where the myth is still being played out and the costs on the intimate, human level still flagrant.
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Identity is a performance in The White Buffalo, but the typecasting also runs deep. Novak’s Poker Jenny affectionately calls Hickok “Cat-Eyes” for the mesmerising beauty she once saw in his killer gaze, most ironically, when he was in the heat of battle rather than love. Sale seems to have taken some licence from the encrusting of folklore that built up around Hickok in particular, like the fact that he supposedly had odd premonitions, like fearing Deadwood would be the last town he would visit – the new settlement is mentioned fleetingly by Zane – and of course the totemic meaning of his legendary last hand of aces and eights Hickok would hold before being shot in the back. So, here Hickok is a protagonist drawn on to his great duel by prophetic dreams and blessed with an intimate relationship with the great beyond. Aspects of The White Buffalo anticipate Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996) in conjuring a spiritual western, where adventure out into the wilderness becomes an allegory for confronting mortality. Both films regard with horrified fascination the great mountains of bones built up by buffalo hunters, engaged in wiping out the food source for the unpliable plains nations, and consider the American West as a vast amphitheatre of annihilation. Charlie Zane reports to Hickok seeing the white buffalo standing off the other Custer and his 7th Cavalry soldiers at a river crossing, bringing the touch of imminent demise to them too.
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“You know what I hate more than anything else in this world?” Hickok asks Zane as he contemplates the inevitable journey out into the mountains to court his destiny: “Even more than dying? Being afraid.” Mastery of death, the honed talent for dealing it out, is in Western mythology necessary for life, for civilisation and order to take hold; that’s the essence of the genre. But it’s also, equally, a fact that must be put to bed as soon as its end is accomplished, the corollary to the myth enacted in many a movie like Shane (1953) and The Searchers. “It was like you were fighting Armageddon with Satan himself,” Jenny declares after Hickok’s riddled her bedroom walls with bullets following one of his dreams, and though the fight with the real buffalo appears to only be a confrontation with a wild animal, its seems to have just such a spiritual import. The demonic bull awaiting Hickok and Crazy Horse becomes a mystical task only two great death-dealers can take on, the task of putting down the rampaging incarnation of death, in order to give some sort of peace to the anguished spirit of the place and allow the possibility of eventual peace. Hickok seems to unconsciously sense this as he ruefully considers the chance of developing a real rapport with Crazy Horse, although a ticking time bomb threatens to wreck their amity: Hickok is considered a callous and committed enemy for shooting dead one of their chiefs, a man who was called The Peacemaker. Before he properly encounters Crazy Horse, Hickok survives another attempt to shut his eyes, this time at the hands of the hulking “Whistling Jack” Kileen (Clint Walker), out for vengeance because one of the soldiers Hickok shot down in Cheyenne was his son.
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Hickok meets up with Zane, an old comrade, in a memorably bustling, grimy tavern for miners called the Frozen Dog, a place where men line up to sleep with the couple of frazzled prostitutes on hand and otherwise get drunk and gamble; it’s the standard frontier dive as rendered by Breughel or Bosch, one even Peckinpah and Altman might have turned their noses up at. Zane helps Hickok blow away several of Kileen’s gun-toting friends, and the two head out into the mountains, trying to keep a step ahead of further reprisals as well as track their quarry. Hickok falls in with the ornery Zane, who has a glass eye and a general contempt for Indians, one that Hickok protests he shares, and yet he soon proves to be surprisingly proficient in the courtesies of Native American negotiations as he deals with Crazy Horse. The war chief pays back Hickok for his help by saving him from Kileen when he ambushes Hickok and keeps him pinned down, riddling Kileen and his confederate with arrows after sneaking up on them by pretending to be a wolf. Knowing the white buffalo is close after it gores one of their tethered horses, the hunters settle down to wait out a snowstorm and hammer out their fractious philosophies around the campfire.
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The White Buffalo has an odd rhythm at first, almost tripping over its own feet in rushing through early scenes and utilising some patched-on narration by Fowley to fill in the gaps, probably the result of studio tampering to get the film down to its current runtime of just over an hour and a half (Thompson and Bronson’s follow-up Caboblanco, 1980, would be more seriously wrecked by this). But rather than being gutted, this only seems to have compressed the film’s essence, managing to evoke a sense of the Wild West that is, in its way, as epic and disorientating as something like Apocalypse Now (1979), with which it bears kinship as a trek towards the edge of human experience enacted as a physical journey, a succession of vignettes illustrating a zone of life where history and morality are in a state of flux. Thompson’s highly mobile, often lunging camera, mediated by DP Paul Lohmann, heightens the feeling of being constantly dragged on by a current through a flooded cave. Sale’s brand of frontier lingo with its blend of archaic grammar and salty directness is constantly in evidence (one favourite line, from Carradine, in explaining the cause of death for two corpses he’s burying: “This one with the moccasins allowed as how this one was a fork-tonged lying asshole.”)
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One aspect that ties The White Buffalo together with great authority is John Barry’s superb score, evoking in the opening dream sequence a sense of foreboding, a mood that pervades the entire film; indeed, it’s one of the great Horror movie scores. Discordant strings hint at the presence of numinous influences and lurking fear, whilst deep, sonorous brass signifies the force of the buffalo and what it represents. One of the film’s greatest moments comes when Thompson stages a breathtaking long-range zoom shot that pulls back as Hickok dashes down a snow-clad slope in pursuit of his foe, revealing the small and hapless human amidst a vast mountain landscape under roiling storm clouds, Barry’s music surging with grand, sepulchral menace. The cathedral of nature is a place where Crazy Horse’s mode of spiritual understanding reigns, and communing with the wind and sky and the stone bulwarks means negotiating the dreams dark and light of the universe, and the path of the white buffalo leads Hickok into Kileen’s trap. There was some irony in Thompson finding his niche in action films given that his wartime experiences had left him a considered pacifist. But that tension surely informed the particular strength of much of his work in the adventure film mould, as he thrived on depicting microcosms where characters come into conflict because of violent schisms in their most stubborn faiths.
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Situations like the cross-country train trip in the midst of a religious war in North West Frontier and the problems of using expedience against great evil versus personal feeling in The Guns of Navarone were ideal for Thompson, although he could also wield it in a setting like Eye of the Devil, where adherence to a pagan faith clashes with traditional religion and modernity but unsettles both with fervent promise. Here this manifests in the uneasy endeavour by Hickok and Crazy Horse to understand each-other’s perspectives is one of the most interesting and meaty attempts in any Western to depict such a negotiation. Hickok ripostes to the Sioux chief’s claims that they were given their territory by divine providence that his people won in conquest over neighbouring tribes, and that the white man is only doing the same thing. Crazy Horse counters in turn that at least they did it honourably. “That’s a thing called progress.” Hickok states, to Crazy Horse’s sharp retort: “It’s a thing called greed.” Finally Hickok tries to tell Crazy Horse, to Charlie’s delight and Hickok’s rueful warning, that no matter what kind of stand he makes, sooner or later the whites will swamp his nation with sheer numbers and terrible weaponry. Crazy Horse declares his intention to die trying, but he and Hickok nonetheless make a pact of brotherhood and not to fight each-other in the future, much to Charlie’s disgust. Nonetheless Crazy Horse has no intention of leaving the white buffalo to them, and he sneaks out in pursuit of the beast. But all three men are destined to converge on a landscape Hickok recognises in shock from his dream, and declares, “If this is the night I was born for then so be it.”
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The buffalo itself is seen fairly early in the film as it rampages through the Sioux camp, but lurks for much of the time glimpsed in fragmented close-ups of a balefully glaring eye and curling maw. The animal was cleverly realised in animatronic form by Carlo Rambaldi, who would gain repute a few years later for creating the title character of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982); it’s a little marvel of pre-CGI monster making. Thompson offers astonishing images of the buffalo charging through underbrush, barrelling out of the night and careening by the hunters: Hickok seems to have a perfect shot at the beast but realises too late his trigger’s become caked with ice, and almost finishes up skewered on its horns. The hunt builds to the grand moment reminiscent of John Huston’s film of Melville, when Crazy Horse manages to spring onto its back and stabs its hump furiously with a handful of arrows, red blood caking white fur, until it throws him and bounds away. The hunt proves a real battle but also one invested with a ritual quality, hinted at through Hickok’s premonitions and the way the buffalo behaves, sneaking up on its foes as if just as determined to wipe them out as they are it. Finally a few quick-draw shots from Hickok manage to bring the buffalo down just before it crashes into him and Crazy Horse.
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The White Buffalo was widely criticised upon release for not spelling out what the symbolic thesis is here, but to me, that’s precisely what makes it so intriguing, as the underlying drama is constantly suggested and delineated without needing to be overtly stated. D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death dream at the heart of the frontier warrior legend finds a suggested purpose as great gunfighter and war chief perform their allotted metaphysical task, enacting blood rite and spiritual cleansing. Hickok defends Crazy Horse’s right to take the hide nonetheless to an outraged Zane. The coot stomps off after accidentally letting slip Hickok’s real name to Crazy Horse, who declares with sad solemnity to the gunfighter that although they’re now brothers in spirit they can’t ever meet again without being obliged to enact their roles as avatars of their societies, “and we will both solve the great mystery.” The film fades out to fake tintype images of the two men, noting the similarity of their ages and the fact both would soon be murdered. As the film would have it, they succeeded in reining in the dominion of the death dream, but at the cost of offering themselves up as sacrifices to the violent gods they were committed to worshipping without understanding why. The White Buffalo stands as a unique achievement for both the Western and the Horror film in the way it manages to outdo the likes of Sergio Leone and Mario Bava on one crucial level, by leading both back genres to the same inception point in primal mythology, the battles of culture heroes with the monstrosities born of perverted natural order, given a new and coherent shape in terms of history.

The White Buffalo can be viewed here.

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1970s, 1980s, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie

The Omen (1976) / Damien: Omen II (1978) / The Final Conflict (1981)

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Directors: Richard Donner; Don Taylor; Graham Baker
Screenwriters: David Seltzer; Mike Hodges, Stanley Mann; Andrew Birkin

By Roderick Heath

The success of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) inaugurated a brief moment when Horror films were not just big business but could potentially be classy, mass-audience fare. Rosemary’s Baby had woven quotidian anxieties over childbirth and coupling into a story that slowly unveiled the presence of genuine supernatural evil but avoided all but a faint aura of standard genre imagery. The Exorcist had become a huge hit for many reasons, on top of satisfying a basic hunger for raw showmanship and thrills. Perhaps the most vital factor was how it identified the degree to which religious anxiety had percolated during the sexual and social revolutions of the late 1960s. By the time The Exorcist came along, disaster movies had also become hugely popular, serving up another variety of realistic horror as Hollywood’s old-timers and young stars alike lined up to be endangered and often killed off in inventive ways. Producer Harvey Bernhard hit upon a project that allowed him to combine these two popular modes. A friend of Bernhard’s suggested the idea of the Biblically-predicted Antichrist being incarnated in a contemporary setting, and the excited producer hired screenwriter David Seltzer to give flesh to this notion.
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Bernhard aimed high and succeeded in hiring big-name actors not normally associated with the genre, in particular Gregory Peck, who was attracted by the element of psychological drama inherent in the story. The result became a colossal hit that Bernhard and Twentieth Century Fox soon sought to expand into a series, producing two sequels over the next few years that became one of the first real examples of something more familiar to moviegoers today, a coherent blockbuster trilogy. For a director, Bernhard bypassed established genre talents, looking instead for someone with experience in more intimate dramas with the ability to imbue a glossy texture, and one who would also be conveniently cheap. He settled on the little-known Richard Donner, a Bronx-born director who hadn’t made a feature film in five years, since the jailbait sex comedy Lola (1970). Donner was 45 when he was hired to make The Omen, hardly one of the young tyros setting ‘70s cinema alight at the time. Donner had debuted as a feature filmmaker with X-15 (1961), but had done most of his apprentice work on television, on everything from The Rifleman to Kojak, with perhaps his most notable effort being the infamous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of The Twilight Zone.
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The raw material of The Omen could surely have fuelled a hit at any time, but the resulting film’s potency is rooted deeply in the mid-‘70s zeitgeist: not only did it successfully tap the same vein of religious angst as The Exorcist but also connected with a broader zeitgeist, one fuelled by a general feeling of cultural crack-up in the face of events like the Energy Crisis and Watergate, and compelled by a general penchant for conspiracy theories and New Age jive. A time of Erich von Daniken and In Search Of…, the post-counterculture distrust of official narratives and a blend of paranoia and mystical assurance greeting any theory that a deeper truth lay behind any façade, that even human history itself might be an elaborate cover-up. Another aspect of The Omen’s unusual approach to the fantastical lay in the way it avoided the usual trappings of Horror films, taking on a glamorous milieu in dealing with a rarefied zone of worldly consequence and power, quite a distance from the often grimy realism inflecting the lower-budget genre movies of the time, and showing evil at work not with monsters but a blend of human conspiracy and otherworldly influence. Val Lewton’s series of horror films and some rare other examples like Sidney Hayers’ Night of the Eagle (1961) had purveyed a certain level of ambiguity over manifestations of evil as possibly elaborate accidents and the like, but The Omen films made this aspect the essence of their formula. With the added twist that rather than trying to establish doubt, these tricks mesh together to form the irresistible impression of something perfectly wicked and insidiously purposeful at work.
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The Omen begins with American diplomat and wealthy scion Robert Thorn (Peck) trying to reach the hospital in Rome where his wife has just given birth to a son who died almost immediately. Robert is soon convinced by the hospital chaplain, a priest named Spiletto (Martin Benson), to adopt another baby born at the same time, one without any apparent family connections; even his wife doesn’t have to know about the substitution. Thorn agrees, and he and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) name the boy Damien. The family soon travels to Great Britain, where Robert is appointed ambassador, representative of his old college roommate who’s now the US President. An apparently idyllic childhood for Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) begins to destabilise at a showy fifth birthday party thrown for him, a great moment in diplomatic and plutocratic hoopla. Damien’s nanny (Holy Palance) seems to fall under the spell of a staring Rottweiler hovering in the bushes of the Thorn estate. Soon after, the nanny appears the roof of the house, and after shouting the salutation, “It’s all for you Damien!”, hangs herself in full view of the party. The nanny’s place is taken by the sweetly assuring but enigmatic Mrs Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), who breezes into the Thorn house and quickly establishes a rule over Damien that perturbs his parents. An anxious, seemingly disturbed priest, Brennan (Patrick Troughton), sneaks into Robert’s office to spout warnings that Damien is the anointed Antichrist, and pleas for Robert to perform Communion.
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When Robert meets him again on the Thames bank, Brennan warns him that Katherine is pregnant and now in danger from her son. The priest is immediately killed when a bizarre windstorm rises and a lightning rod, dislodged from the church he dashes to in seeking sanctuary, impales him. Fulfilling Brennan’s warning, Katharine does prove to be pregnant and loses the baby after she suffers a spectacular fall caused by Damien. A freelance photographer, Keith Jennings (David Warner), approaches Robert to share bizarre evidence about Brennan’s obsession, including photos Jennings took that seem to depict supernatural forewarnings of Brennan and the nanny’s deaths, and perhaps his own. Robert travels to Italy with Jennings to investigate Damien’s birth, but they find the hospital burned down along with all records. After tracking down Spiletto, left badly mangled by the fire and repentantly clinging to existence in a lonely monastery in Subiaco, they head to a remote cemetery where Damien’s birth mother is supposedly buried. They find the skeleton of an animal, alongside a baby with its skull smashed in – Robert realises this is his true son’s remains, whilst animal skeleton conforms a prophecy the Antichrist would be born of a jackal. Robert and Jennings head on to Megiddo in Israel, obeying one of Brennan’s implorations, to see Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), a former exorcist turned archaeologist. Bugenhagen presents Robert with seven antique daggers, part of set forged specifically to destroy the Devil’s spawn, and instructs him how to use them, and also on how to finally prove Damien is the Antichrist, by looking for a birthmark of the letters 666, the number of the beast, which might be under his hair.
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Donner and Seltzer’s talent in purveying a potentially absurd story is evinced right from the opening frames of the film: Donner immerses the audience in Robert’s fraught emotional state as he’s driven through the Roman night filled with anxiety and heartbreak as a phone conversation telling him his baby is dead loops in his head. The expert use of disjunctive sound and vision establishes Donner’s storytelling as sophisticated in a very (1976) modern manner, even as his story subsequently dives into a realm of atavistic terrors and ethereal faiths. After Katharine’s recovery from childbirth and a brief moment of panic when Damien vanishes from sight during a country walk, the Thorn way of life seems like perfect fodder for a glossy lifestyle magazine, a similarity Donner underlines as he depicts their life in a montage of still photos. He manages in this way to fend his way through a difficult narrative movement in getting from Damien’s birth to his fifth birthday, when the real drama starts, shocked into life by the nanny’s suicide, a shock illustrated in Remick’s wide blue eyes as Katharine cradles her son and stares aghast up at the dangling body.
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“We’re beautiful people aren’t we?” Katharine half-sarcastically asks her husband in bed as they contemplate the possibility something’s wrong in their life. Peck’s imposing stature and air of stiff-necked conviction made an ideal framework to hang such a movie off, with a strand of dark humour as well as aspirition lurking behind such casting, as the former Atticus Finch is pushed towards trying to stab a small child for the sake of sparing the world a great evil, degenerating from emblem of state to a sad, sick, murderous avenger: finally, when he narrates the same poem Brennan quoted to him recounting the rise of the Antichrist, Peck is back playing Ahab again, speaking incantations of bleak promise. Robert’s emotional crises fight to escape his long, rigid Yankee body, all the smouldering, blue-blooded authority encoded in his frame and mindset resenting being forced to such an end. The build-up to his ultimate failure evokes both the biblical task of Abraham moving to sacrifice Isaac and also the popular moral conundrum of whether you’d kill an infant Hitler. Although The Omen’s plot invokes cosmic-scale drama, Seltzer proved smart enough to focus it on a resolutely human scale, refracted through real-feeling parental anxieties as well as a mainline connection to a lode of paranoia that might be mental illness or pan-cultural.
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Katharine flails increasingly under the certainty not only that Damien is not her child but has malign intention towards her, and Robert becomes increasingly rueful of the choice he made seemingly to protect his wife and secure his family legacy. The Omen builds up the impression of Damien’s strangeness through happenings that could simply be reflections of the unexpected eccentricity and intractability of kids that so easily upturns all picture-perfect lives, as when Damien throws a screaming fit when his parents take to a church for a wedding. A visit to a safari park sees howling baboons crawl over the car. The storyline invokes maternal depression as Katharine becomes increasingly alienated from her son and mindful of Baylock’s influence, who breezes in as a cruel lampoon of Mary Poppins, installs the lurking Rottweiler as a guard dog, and who advocates for the child’s needs above the parents’ wishes, like a personification of ‘70s childrearing books. At the same time The Omen also presents a twist on an old folkloric metaphor for such a state of emotional alienation, the notion of the changeling, the creature that takes the place of a child and stakes a parasitical place in a family. The finale pivots on Robert’s awareness upon returning to his house that it now lies under an alien regime, like a newly divorced father contending with others controlling his child.
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Although it’s not gleefully gruesome as some other set-pieces in the film, the sequence of Katharine’s fall is the film’s greatest illustration of its cunning method, a seemingly very credible kind of domestic disaster touch with signs of genuine malice and numinous influence. Damien drives his tricycle around in his room whilst Katharine stands on a table trying to arrange a hanging plant, high on a second floor balcony. Damien, deep in that trancelike intensity of transportation kids can achieve in playing or possibly actually pushed along by Satanic will, with Baylock watching him with indulgent and opening the door so he ride out: Damien crashes into the table and knocks Katharine down. A fishbowl crashes to the floor far below and explodes. Katharine clings to the railing, unable to pull herself up, and falling to earth under her son’s staring regard. Donner’s direction here is a master-class in building a sequence, observing patiently as the circumstance is created in a way everyone can wince at because it’s so believable, whilst there are signs, as Baylock opens the door to let Damien out and Jerry Goldsmith’s chant-ridden, chugging music scoring betrays an unseen factor.
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More famous, however, and gleeful in purveying startling evidence of demonic influence masquerading as happenstance are Brennan’s and Jennings’ deaths. Brennan’s last moments invoke more traditional horror movie imagery, as powerful winds rip through trees and Brennan desperately seeks sanctuary, before the lightning rod plunges from its perch, flash edits alternating a high perspective on Brennan’s screaming face and his of the plunging rod. Jennings’ end comes when he resolves to pick up the seven daggers after Robert tosses them away in a fit of resistance. A truck laden with glass sheets for a building job rolls down a slope after its handbrake slips off, and one of the sheets slides off the tray in languorous slow motion, slicing Jennings’ head clean off. Less pyrotechnic but just as vividly staged is the graveyard venture, where Robert and Jennings uncover the troubling skeletons and fight off a team of savage watchdogs that suddenly try to lunch upon them, ripping teeth and jutting steel fixtures brutalising their bodies. Donner’s gift for intensifying a narrative is suggested in more off-hand scenes, too, as when Robert and Jennings press the gnarled and barely living Spiletto where to find Damien’s mother. The agonising process of him scribbling out the answer with a piece of charcoal is rendered even more unnerving and rhythmically intense as a bell starts to peal above their heads.
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Another vital aspect of the film lies in how Seltzer’s inventive plot uses the structure of a mystery thriller to pull the narrative along, as Robert and Jennings parse the increasingly suggestive evidence and contend with a lurking, almost existential threat. The act of parsing the signs and omens becomes, rather than medieval irrationality, a process of contemporary logic, whittling down alternatives until it’s plain what’s going on. By the end every cue in the film leaves no ambiguity that Damien really is the Antichrist when it might have been plied far more subtly with the possibility Robert’s psychotic. Which might be counted as a fault of the film but it also surely explains why it became such a big hit. The climactic scenes see the family house, initially seen as a great hunk of real estate porn, become the classic, labyrinthine old dark house, a place where Robert has to outwit the devil dog and battle a startlingly savage Baylock before snatching away Damien. But not before he’s penetrated the ultimate layer of the mystery by clipping away Damien’s hair until he finds the 666 mark. Robert stabs Baylock to death in a tussle and steals Damien away to the church, but pursuing police, thinking some kidnapping drama is unfolding, instead seem him perched over the boy with raised dagger and shoot him dead.
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Here Donner twists the knife with particular sadism as Damien speaks properly for the first time in the film, pleading with his “daddy”, and the cop’s bullet erupts from his gun in spectacular slow-motion. Dissolve to a funeral at Arlington as Robert and Katharine are interred and young Damien is now seen taken in hand by the President, turning to smile triumphantly at the camera. One of the great merciless endings in cinema, of course, but also one that invites the audience conspiratorially into Damien’s space at the end: all the evil is, after all, being purveyed specifically for our entertainment. As classy as The Omen affects to be, it’s really sheer blood and thunder, wielding the thrill of bloodshed with a hint of gamesmanship and design cleverness wrapped in an affection of high-minded metaphysical and familial distress. Part of the film’s effectiveness lies in its sense of branding – the gnarled and creepy 666 birthmark, the lovingly crafted Megiddo daggers. There’s mystique and evocation of grand historical backdrops in the scenes of Robert’s visit to Bugenhagen in Megiddo, the ancient catacombs yawning wide and echoing with the whispers of archaic lore. The strength of the supporting performances also do a lot to convince you this malarkey is conceivable, particularly Warner’s projection of cool anxiety, Troughton’s sweaty disquiet, McKern’s bristling presence, and Whitelaw’s marvellous incarnation of ferocious momma-bear force touched with fanatical lunacy.
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The Omen’s success made Donner a go-to arch-professional for muscular action films and stylish melodramas for the next thirty years. Donner quickly moved to make a kind of messianic sequel/antistrophe when he next took on Superman (1978), offering a hero who’s a perfect inversion of Damien, staving off disasters and misfortunes. For an actual sequel, however, neither Donner nor Seltzer would return. The Omen’s success and open ending begged one, however, and Bernhard began to think more expansively. After hiring Stanley Mann to write the script, he then brought Mike Hodges, the punchy, intelligent director of Get Carter (1972), on board; Hodges contributed to the screenplay and began making the film, but soon he was fired for moving too slowly, and instead Don Taylor was hired to finish it. Taylor was a decent filmmaker who had done yeoman service on Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), but one prized for productivity rather than invention. The sequel, Damien: Omen II, commences immediately after the original, with Bugenhagen dashing into Tel Aviv after reading of Robert Thorn’s death and seeing young Damien’s photo in a newspaper. Bugenhagen talks a colleague, Michael Morgan (Ian Hendry), into coming with him to see a recently unearthed mural in Megiddo called Yigael’s Wall, painted by a prophet and affecting to reveal the faces of the Antichrist in his maturation. The wall does indeed prove to have young Damien’s face as one of the visages, but the underground excavation complex collapses in upon itself and buries both men alive.
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Bugenhagen’s death right at the outset of the second entry was both a clever touch and also a bad one when it came to expanding a one-off hit into a series. The trilogy was left without a strong antagonist or connecting figure other than Damien himself, leaving a hole an actor of McKern’s skill and force might easily have filled. But it also served the purpose of re-establishing the original’s sense of threat, the lack of any assurance the Satanic project can be forestalled, and reiterating that any character can be killed. The cleverly exploited wellspring of the series’ anxious outlook was in identifying not simply the fear that scripture might be right and that a great contest of Good and Evil is in the offing, but in also suggesting that there might not actually be such a contest. That the Devil is uncontested now. That perhaps Jehovah has grown disgusted and uninterested in the fate of his wayward creation in the face of the rational, permissive, immoral modern human world, the infrastructure of which seems to stave off such metaphysical worries and yet which proves consistently throughout the series entirely amenable to Satan’s uses. The way holy talismans and places seem to offer little real defence against Satan’s power throughout constantly hints at this state of abandonment, and the ironic passion the various Satanic minions and then Damien himself wield stems from their state of utter religious conviction, conviction out of reach to anyone else.
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Moreover, Damien: Omen II is wise enough to expand on the original’s basis in family, with the extended Thorn clan coming into play as a rough assemblage. Seven years later: Damien, now 12 and played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor, has been adopted by his father’s brother Richard (William Holden), who has a son the same age, Mark (Lucas Donat), who Damien regards as a brother, and a second wife, Ann (Lee Grant), who plays mother to both boys. Damien and Mark attend military school together, where Damien is solicitously treated by his new instructor, Sgt. Neff (Lance Henriksen). Richard is a powerful industrialist at the head of the Chicago-based Thorn Corporation: Richard and his long-time associate Bill Atherton (Lew Ayres) are taken aback by the plans of hotshot young executive Paul Buher (Robert Foxworth) to buy up land in the third world and seize control of international food supplies to ensure hegemony that can counter OPEC. Meanwhile Richard’s elderly aunt Marion (Sylvia Sidney) urges him to split Damien and Mark up as she believes Damien’s a bad influence, despite lacking any real cause to think so. Shortly afterwards Marion is visited by a raven in her bedroom, and she drops dead from a heart attack.
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After convincing Richard not to go along with Buher’s plan, Atherton falls into a frozen lake whilst playing ice hockey with the Thorns, and drowns. Dr Charles Warren (Nicholas Pryor), the head of Richard’s charitably financed Thorn Museum, works to retrieve Yigael’s Wall from Megiddo and bring it to Chicago. His journalist friend Joan Hart (Elizabeth Shepherd), who also knew Jennings, has seen the artefact as it was excavated, and she approaches Richard in a panic to warn him about Damien. Whilst the first film suggested that Damien was aware of his true nature, Damien: Omen II finds him oblivious, at first merely an occasionally smart-aleck but hardly terrible lad on the brink of manhood. The ideas that propel the film are notably similar to the thesis espoused in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, adapted for TV in the same year of 1976, in presenting a metaphor for the creation of a social monster via the active, purposeful elimination of characters who represent not just opponents in a hierarchical chain, but also alternative value systems, like Ayres’ conscientious old-fashioned businessman, aghast at a nascent age of dictatorial corporate cynicism, and other checks and balances of family and friends, charity, and faith. Damien’s callow overconfidence and agonised struggle in realising what he is amplify a familiar state of adolescent angst.
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The first film was fairly vague beyond the lot of the Thorns themselves and the trappings of ambassadorial power about the wider implications of the Antichrist’s rise, beyond muttered references to the European Common Market and the Eternal Sea that is “the world of politics.” Whereas Damien: Omen II tries to animate an intriguingly pointed contemplation of American Empire as fit soil for the Antichrist to grow from, from martial inculcation at the military school to increasingly amoral corporate governance. The film’s portrait of world-shaking evil spawned in the form of a relentlessly coddled son of privilege is one that’s taken on a shade more relevance in recent years. A less cluttered narrative might have made more of the way Damien’s ego is fed by minions like Neff and Buher, as he’s rewarded with such adolescent fantasy pleasures as captains of industry kowtowing to him and white-clad debutantes hanging on to his every word. Bill Butler’s excellent photography wraps proceedings up with a sense of high-life lushness in the snowy landscapes and autumnal leaves, the polished and glitzy worlds of the Thorn estate and the military school, as well as pulling off the staging coups when it gives to delivering the goods in the various scenes of contrived death and calamity.
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Where Donner was able to surprise with his death-spectacle trimmings, however, unnerving the audience as the mechanics of death could appear out of nowhere, Taylor is much more obvious, inspiring more a chortling anticipation of watching him set up grim demises than real menace. Still, there’s real visual force in some of the set-pieces, as when Joan is gruesomely attacked by the ominous raven, which pecks out her eyes and leaves her stranded on a highway to be run over by a truck, and when a doctor, Kane (Meshach Taylor), on the verge of discovering Damien’s inhuman physiognomy, is sliced in half by a cable connected to a plummeting elevator counterweight. The film’s best scenes however aren’t the episodes of violence but the very personal ones involving Damien, as when he contends with a teacher at the military school who finds he can’t trip the lad up on historical events, Damien retorting his answers with defiant cool. The highpoint of the film, and perhaps the series, comes when, following a breadcrumb trail of clues left by Neff, he discovers his birthmark. Divining its import, Damien dashes in anguished panic through the school ground before collapsing on a jetty, gazing up into a cloud-riven sky, and screams out the eternal demand, “Why me?” Damien quickly accepts his lot, however, because the promise of power is the ultimate salve and, as noted above, it blesses him with the potent weapon of self-belief. Later, when he’s driven to use his powers to kill Mark, he releases a great cry of despair and weeps over his brother in also mourning for the last of his abandoned humanity.
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As strong as these aspects of Damien: Omen II are, it doesn’t add up to nearly as much as it might have, because it struggles in lacking the original’s sense of foreboding and discovery whilst trying to retain its formula. The basic premise is solidly established and the film refuses to do much to complicate it. So it becomes too often a mere succession of elaborate set-pieces aimed at pleasing an audience there for the great kills, repeating the same process – some hapless individual gets in the road of the Satanic programme or threatens to uncover Damien’s identity – over until the requisite running time is reached. Meanwhile Holden is locked into a role that forces him to play out Peck’s arc from the last film again, with the twist at the end that this time the doting Jane, who makes a show of refusing to think ill of anyone, proves to be another Satanic minion. She stabs Richard in the stomach with the retrieved Megiddo daggers when he plans to use them on Damien. The film ends effectively if bluntly with Damien unleashing an exploding boiler in the Thorn Corporation headquarters to clear away all evidence including the luckless Jane, and he marches out of the burning Thorn Corporation building to take charge of his kingdom. The third and final entry, The Final Conflict (sometimes also called Omen III: The Final Conflict), came out three years later. This time Bernhard hired Graham Baker, who had only directed TV commercials previously, perhaps in the hope he might nab another Ridley Scott or Alan Parker, and he hired a young New Zealand actor, Sam Neill, to play the now-mature Damien.
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Set nearly twenty years after the previous film (although all films are set demonstrably “now”), Damien has become an immensely powerful plutocrat who’s plotting to spark war between east and west by blowing up the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and leaving conflicting evidence about who did, with the chance to step in and appear the humanitarian saviour. But his attention is distracted by the seemingly imminent rebirth of his ultimate nemesis, Jesus, whose return is heralded by three stars converging into an alignment in the night sky, recreating the Star of Bethlehem. Damien becomes convinced through interpreting Revelations that Jesus will be reborn in England, so he manipulates the current US President (Mason Adams) into assigning him his father’s old post of Ambassador to Britain, after the compulsory hovering Rottweiler mesmerises the current Ambassador into committing elaborate suicide. Meanwhile a team of monks at the Subiaco monastery have formed themselves into a band of assassins, led by Father DeCarlo (Rossano Brazzi). Having recovered all the Megiddo daggers, the monks set out well-armed to protect the returning Jesus by slaying his foe. As Damien moves to battle them and kill the returned Messiah, he also falls into a pensive romance with BBC TV journalist Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow).
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Although it was another big box office success, The Final Conflict has since its release been generally taken for a humiliatingly weak cap to the series, and a particularly worrying example of what can happen to an interesting property if it hasn’t been thought through by a strong creative hand. But it certainly wields some good ideas, chief amongst them a central sequence in which Damien assembles an army of his acolytes, called The Disciples of the Watch, to recreate Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, killing all the male children born in England in the appointed time for Jesus’s return. Damien addresses them in a meeting that evokes a twisted recontextualisation of artwork depicting Christians performing masses in the Roman catacombs. There’s also one charged and memorable moment in which Damien, having survived an assassination attempt by the monks during a fox hunt, performs the ritual of “blooding” Kate’s son Peter (Barnaby Holm) by wiping the blood of the prize on his cheeks, only with the blood being that of one of his felled enemies, bringing Peter under his influence. Primal rite plays out in the blasted beauty of the English countryside laced with a discomforting note of seduction. There’s also an interesting notion in Damien’s desire to influence all youth, after also wrangling himself the post of UN Ambassador for Youth, setting himself up as a cultish hero for rambunctious youths who might all share, as he once did, a thirst for such ego gratification and exaltation.
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Moreover, The Final Conflict could be regarded as an analogue, Horror genre precursor to The Social Network (2010) in portraying a lonely and neurotic young billionaire who responds by developing delusions of grandeur whilst simultaneously grasping greedily on his few human contacts and also using them cruelly. Damien hovers around his country mansion, barking taunts at the Jesus icon he keeps hanging about his attic, extolling the beauty of “perfect solitude” as a worthy riposte to a saviour he accuses of doing “nothing but drown man’s soaring desires in a deluge of sanctimonious morality” when “there is only one hell, the leaden monotony of human existence.” There’s a great idea here, as Damien tries to convert his own alienated emotional state into a religious paradigm. Damien begins to suspect his loyal lieutenant and executive Harvey Pleydell Dean (Don Gordon) is lying to him over the time of his child’s birth and eventually uses his canine harbinger to mesmerise Harvey’s wife Barbara (Leueen Willoughby) into slaying both her child and husband. When he seduces Kate, he turns from tender lover to brute in bed, buggering her and leaving her bruised and bedraggled (he’s the son of Satan, so of course he’s also a sodomite).
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There’s a hint of the familial psychodrama dynamic of the first two film sustained as Kate realises her son has become Damien’s slavish follower, and the Deans are destroyed by Harvey’s attempt to profit from managing Damien’s malign mission only to run off in horror when he learns he might have to make his own sacrifice. The trouble is, The Final Conflict desperately lacks any of the sense of urgency and wild, obscene revelry that seems inherent in such an ambitious story motif, nor any Biblical-scale spectacle in watching Christ and Antichrist do battle. The film rather plays out on a level that’s so stodgy and unpassionately earthbound it might as well be a rejected episode of a TV soap. Granted, it would never be an easy thing to try and film an apocalyptic drama or sell it to a Horror audience, who, much like the characters in the film, find it much easier to believe in the Devil than in God. And to be fair, The Final Conflict tries to sustain the core substance of the series as a perverted bildungsroman, locating the adult Damien as a man both obsessed with justifying himself and operating from a position of crushing solitude, and playing out his apotheosis and downfall on a worldly scale. But where the film might have been rich, weird, and clever in the attempt, The Final Conflict just slouches along. Given that special effects showmanship was starting to creep into Horror and Fantasy filmmaking around this time, it feels particularly frustrating that The Final Conflict nails itself down to such a glum palette.
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Baker has none of Donner or even Taylor’s sense of composing suspense sequences, with some supposedly thrilling episodes, like when three of the priests try to corner Damien in a ruined castle, and the scene of the Dean family’s nasty end, proving particularly clumsy and enervating. Rather than seeing righteous ministers finally stepping up to the task of battling the Antichrist, the priests are ludicrously incompetent and clumsy mob who all get themselves pathetically killed. Hiring Neill and Harrow, who were a couple at the time, to anchor the film suggests a level of bravery on the filmmakers’ part, the feeling that now the series didn’t need big names to attract viewers – Brazzi is the only old-time star on hand, and he’s given very little to do. But the film desperately lacks a compelling focal point. Neill looks the part but his Damien is dull and shrill, desperately lacking wicked charisma. There’s not even a note of amour fou and romantic apocalypse in his relationship with Kate, who finishes up wielding the last of the Megiddo daggers after DeCarlo manages to maintain his team’s terrible batting average by trying to knife Damien but killing Peter accidentally instead.
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Kate stabs Damien in the back vengefully just as he manages to track down the reborn Christ to his hiding place in an old monastery and is confronted before death by the brilliantly shining cosmic manifestation of the Holy Spirit hovering over the infant – Disco Jesus to the rescue. The Final Conflict is generally so flaccid and uninspired that it feels almost unfair to consider it with the first two films, except for two elements: the excellent, atmospheric photography by Phil Meheux and Robert Paynter, and, once again, Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring. Astonishingly, Goldsmith won his only Oscar for The Omen, particularly its main theme with Latin lyrics and dramatic choral singing of inverted paeans to Satan’s son. Goldsmith remained with the series, turning each film in a grandiose study in what great music can do with mediocre cinema. At the end of The Final Conflict, Goldsmith’s invocation of resurgent divinity is every bit as impressive as his portrait of depthless evil, and succeeds in doing what weak filmmaking can’t, in conjuring a sense of truly epic spiritual horizons opening as the series concludes.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Blaxploitation, Crime/Detective, Thriller, Western

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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Director/Screenwriter: John Carpenter

By Roderick Heath

In the dark alleys of a modern cityscape, war is brewing. Heavily armed gang members stalk the dark, only to be spotlighted and coldly massacred by policemen, the bringers of death rendered dehumanised figures as the camera elides their faces and concentrates instead on their hands and weapons. In the following hours, the warlords of the gang, a peculiar multiracial confederacy known as Street Thunder, perform a blutbruderschaft rite, pooling their red blood in a bowl. They head out into a blandly shabby suburbia looking for any event, any victim, that will serve as a spark for a snowballing confrontation with authority, and give an excuse for an all-consuming mission of destruction. We’re where The Spook That Sat By The Door (1973) left off, the ghettos armed and battling the official death squads. This time, though, the institutional black man isn’t quite so outmatched. Late afternoon of the following day sees newly promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) of the Highway Patrol assigned to take command at Precinct 5, Division 13, a police station in his own one-time home suburb of Anderson, a notoriously wretched area of Los Angeles.
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The station is closing down, a hollowed-out shell of institutional function with faintly wistful Art Deco curlicues that hint at the ambitions of a different age, left out in the urban wilderness as the tides of civilisation retreat a few blocks. In the station, Bishop encounters the station’s curt departing Captain (James Jeter), and his crew for the shift: weary desk clerk Chaney (Henry Brandon), and office stalwarts Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis). None of them are happy about holding the fort for the night, least of all Bishop, whose grimaces give away his frustration at being handed such a chickenshit assignment for his first job as a lieutenant. Two intersecting parties will decide the course of the day and night. A father, Lawson (Martin West), and his young daughter Kathy (Kim Richards) drive into Anderson to pluck his elderly mother from her home in the decaying neighbourhood to come and live with them.
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A busload of prisoners, including a killer headed for Death Row, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), is put in the charge of Strayker (Charles Cyphers) to be taken to a state prison. Wilson is an enigma to the lawmen, fending off questions about his motives in some mysterious killings and seemingly ready to proceed to death row with stoic composure. But he’s sure to pay back his abusive jailer (John J. Fox) by contriving to trip him with his chains before boarding the bus. One of the passengers for the big house is sick, obliging Strayker to find a safe harbour long enough to fetch a doctor, so he chooses the Division 13 station to stop at. A hell of a time to make a stop. The warlords of Street Thunder, one white (Frank Doubleday), one Chicano (Gilbert De la Pena), one Oriental (Al Nakauchi), and one black (James Johnson), gather with arms to seek out the right stage for a clarion killing, a ritual that seeks its single, perfect sacrifice.
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Much like his hero Bishop, John Carpenter was a man trying to get somewhere when he made Assault on Precinct 13, one feeling the pinch of frustration. This was to be his second released feature, and his first truly professional effort, following the theatrical release of Dark Star (1974), the film he and fellow film students at UCLA including Dan O’Bannon had pieced together for a pittance. One of its makers later laughingly described the result as the best student movie ever made and the worst theatrical release. Afraid he might never get a shot at directing again Carpenter had set to work busily writing scripts, some of which were produced, including as Irvin Kershner’s Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Carpenter was particularly eager to make a Western, like many young filmmakers of the generation pejoratively labelled the Movie Brats, but that genre was entering its long twilight. So Carpenter had the bright idea of making one in a contemporary setting, boiled down to vistas of sun-baked tar and ruddy orange sunsets over a concrete wasteland descending into grainy dark. This wasn’t entirely a new idea. Don Siegel had purveyed the same notion with a straight-arrow import for 1971’s Dirty Harry. Martin Scorsese was thinking the same way about his release of the same year, Taxi Driver (1976), but where his approach was neurotic and interiorised, Carpenter attempted to keep the ritualised form intact and render the modern concerns more implicit.
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Assault on Precinct 13 signalled Carptner’s real arrival as a director of force on the low-budget film scene, although its report would be largely drowned out by the colossal success of his follow-up, Halloween, two years later. Assault on Precinct 13 is however certainly one of Carpenter’s best films, perhaps even the best in a pound-for-pound sense. Not that Carpenter was subtle at this stage of his career about drawing on the influence of films he loved. Much like he’d do with Mario Bava and Dario Argento on Halloween, here he transposed Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) into a modern setting, and mixed in a little of Night of the Living Dead (1968), which some Hitchcock and Sergio Leone references thrown in. Wilson drops quotes from Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) with a teacher who told him he was “something to do with death” and promise to explain what he’s about at the moment of dying. Cicatriz himself is the desk clerk. Bishop’s anecdote about a fateful childhood attempt to scare him straight was borrowed from a story Hitchcock liked to tell about himself. He names his heroine after Leigh Brackett, screenwriter of Rio Bravo and a slew of great films. He cast Stoker as Bishop in emulation of George Romero’s similar ploy, although where Romero had anticipated the nascent Blaxploitation genre, Carpenter was riding the tail end of the wave, contemplating the harsh scene of the post-Civil Rights and liberationist high.
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Carpenter’s attuning of his framing to environment is the stuff of film school classes throughout, from Bishop’s early drive through the streets of Anderson, a zone of horizontals where cars cruise straight flat as trains and there seems to be nowhere to hide from the baking midday sun, the buildings looming as taciturn and isolate as John Ford’s Monument Valley outcrops. Later, when the warlords cruise the same streets, the great, fat, lengthy silencer on a machine gun slides out of the car window and extends right across the widescreen frame, mimicking the horizon. This manages to be at once one of Carpenter’s most menacing shots and one of his most blackly humorous, the threat of militarised death immediately looming over anyone in range note with deadpan calm. Whilst the latter part of the film unfolds like a familiar war movie, this section clearly anticipates the gamesmanship of Halloween: the doped-up warlords are as alien and implacable as Michael Myers and arbitrary in their predations, but also armed with a very specific ideal, a faith that bringing terror and bloodshed to the world will shock it into some new state of awareness. So they drive around the blocks searching for the right moving target. The tense, cagey ice cream man (Peter Bruni) who’s plainly spent a lifetime bringing tinny, jaunty charm and sweets to kids around this neighbourhood even as he knows damn well what sicknesses its adults are cultivating, is wary enough to finger his revolver whenever he sees the warlords’ car drive by.
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Carpenter serves up his central, definitive shock early on. As her daddy tries to use a pay phone to get directions, Kathy walks up the parked ice cream van to make an order. The driver anxiously waits until the warlords’ car is out of sight, before serving her. But the warlords have doubled back, and the white warlord toys with shooting the ice cream man, inserting the barrel of a pistol into his mouth but seeming disappointed by his petrified lack of resistance. Ah, but here comes Kathy doubling back to swap her regular vanilla for vanilla twist; in a moment the white ice cream and golden locks are smeared with brilliant red, and goodnight Kathy. Even in the ruder climes of mid-’70s exploitation film, what balls it took to pull that off. Halloween’s famous punch-line to its opening scene, revealing Michael Myers as a child utterly given over to icy slaughter, and his grown self’s disinterest in killing kids, could well be Carpenter’s fiendish idea of payback as well as a mea culpa to all the shocked grindhouse patrons. Lawson doesn’t know what’s happened, as all the gang’s guns have silencers, until he returns to see his daughter dead and the drier expiring on the tar. The driver manages to tell Lawson about his gun in the van, so Lawson takes the gun and jumps in his car, pursuing the warlords through the streets. Forcing the warlords to pull over, Lawson’s focused rage proves an edge deadlier than the white warlord’s drugged-up berserker disinterest: Lawson guns down the warlord, and flees his comrades in stark terror.
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The closest safe harbour is, of course, Bishop’s new command. Lawson makes it to the station and collapses, gasping out vague explanations before folding up in a catatonic ball. Chaney ventures outside to see what he was running from, only to collapse on the lawn, assumed at first to be a pratfall, only for Bishop to venture out after him and very quickly retreat under a hail of bullets. The siege has begun. Carpenter’s poles of civilisation are blocs of anonymous drones dedicated to conflict, and the rest of the poor bastards caught between them, and he throws into its titular besieged outpost a cubic set of archetypes at war with a relentless, faceless enemy representing unleashed chaos: Cool Outlaw, Tough Woman, Flailing Patriarch, Aspiring Black Man. Street Thunder actualise a boogeyman of common imagining, the underclasses of the urban landscape uniting into a powerful and marauding force: lucky for the world their project is tinged with drug-induced nihilism. The white warlord’s cold, implacable face is a layer of whitewash away from Michael Myers’ incarnation of primal dread. The zombie-like implacability of the gang members also anticipates Carpenter’s radical-edged reconstruction of Hawks’ Thing from another world as a metamorphic gestalt in his 1982 remake, gathering everything into itself. Ripe for a multitude of interpretations, from a commentary on the anonymous quality of poverty and social exclusion to the state of modernity threatening old school hard-won individuality such as Carpenter’s heroes wield.
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Whilst mashing together his own favourite films, Carpenter is also rapidly developing his own private mythos. His uneasy feelings about authority, mediated by making the lawman another form of outsider, his instinctual fascination for the outlaw, complicated an apparent, blithe lack of compunction about working against all civilised rules. Wilson is the blueprint for Escape from New York’s (1981) Snake Plissken and Ghosts of Mars (2001) Desolation Williams, the superlative hard-ass maverick, outside the law, “out of time and out of luck.” Bishop is trying real hard to be the shepherd, but his annoyed grimaces and barely constrained irritation give away his rueful realisation his promotion hasn’t yet rescued him from patronising: “That sure got around fast,” he comments when the departing Captain lets slip he knows it’s Bishop’s first day out with his new insignia. “Black?” Leigh asks him, meaning coffee, but she’s answered with his immortal quip, “For over thirty years.” A couple of years earlier Stoker had appeared in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) where he played the voice of intelligent and conscientious humanity speaking up for itself in the face of disenfranchising; here he’s the guy tolerating every slight for the sake of a project started when, in his own description, he walked out of Anderson by his own volition. Thomas Wolfe was right; you can’t go home again, as Bishop finds the locals are now packing high velocity weapons.
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Strayker and his menagerie arrive, only to find the station seeming to be quickly going to the dogs as the phones cut out, so Strayker contemptuously decides to move on, only to be cut down along with his underlings by the gang’s bullets. Wilson finishes up trapped under one of his dead prisoner pals and need Bishop to come haul him out. Only Wilson and Wells (Tony Burton) are left from the bus, bundled into holding cells and left to stew whilst Bishop and the two office workers try to work out what the hell’s happening. Sniper bullets start punching through the windows, shattering the glass, only the sound of breaking glass to announce the fusillade, all racket of gunfire perversely lacking, only George Washington’s youthful fetish for the sweet song of the whizzing bullet itself. This is a flourish Carpenter wields with particular cunning, threat without source, deadliness without catharsis, locked in a nightmare zone where the familiar rules of life (and movies) are suspended. Then come the invaders, dark figures in the windows, incarnations of blank threat. Guns are few, ammunition low. The heaviest weapon on hand is a pump-action shotgun the Captain was seen locking up in a chest earlier with import in castrating Bishop.
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The two women almost see to be in a uniform of their own, long skirts, wool sweaters, although character is soon divergent: Leigh is hardy and taciturn, Julie fretful and brittle, soon suggesting they haul Lawson out to please the besiegers and desperately hoping they’re gone when the bullets cease. No, they come breaking in the back door as Leigh goes to check on the two prisoners, a bullet tearing a groove in her upper arm. Leigh stays cool and waits until the gun-wielding thug gets close, then socks him in the face with the cell keys before a kick to the balls. And that’s how the modern action heroine was born, kids. Wilson helps her defeat the next goon, and Bishop manages to pass him the shotgun in time to blast away a few more suckers. Wilson’s eye gleam with ferocious glee as he comprehends the chance gifted him, but immediately unleashes on the next gang members to attack: they’re no friend to him or Wells. It took Seijun Suzuki to make a film called Pistol Opera, but Carpenter made it first, as he turns the central sequence of gunplay, as Bishop, Leigh, Wells, and Wilson battle off their persecutors, into a mischievous piece of near-musical sonic orchestration, the tempo of gunfire speeding up and gaining rhythm.
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Zimmer made only a handful of films before she quit acting, supposedly ill-at-ease in her performances, despite Carpenter’s encouragement. It was a real loss, as her excellence here as the ever-so-cool yet subtly sensitive Leigh readily matches Stoker’s poise and Joston’s squirrely charisma, the water light of extreme world-weariness and fried emotional reflexes in her eyes even as she boots bad guys in the bollocks and swaps charged glances with Wilson as she lights his cigarette. Leigh and Wilson seem magnetically attracted from first glance, a cosmic joke played on them both. Leigh’s coup comes as she talks the antsy Wells out of a planned dash for freedom, taunting him with the certainty of his death as he holds a gun on her, only to realise his gun’s not actually loaded. Julie is already dead, killed without anyone to notice during the furious battle. Wells has a plan – “It’s called ‘Save-Ass’” Soon after Leigh talks him out of it it’s proposed someone try to sneak out of the building via a drainpipe linked to the basement, get to a parked car, and race off to the nearest phone box. “What’s the difference between this and what I was gonna do ten minutes ago?” Wells demands. He and Wilson go head to head in a loaded game of potato to see who’ll be it. Wells expects to lose. He does. Out he goes, and manages to escape the drain and hotwire the car without flaw. He races up the road and halts before the phone box. But one of the gang members has been waiting on the back seat for such a ploy; he sits up and shoots Wells through the head.
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Wells and Julie are the designated victims of course, the ones just little less stoic, a little lacking in sangfroid, although their frailty is of course perfectly human. Part of the specific power of Assault on Precinct 13 lies in the way it meets all criteria for a hard-charging pulp movie but retains a sense of mortality and its meaning for all its characters (save the gang members, but fuck those guys anyway), from Kathy to Julie to Wells, as Bishop and his pick-up posse fight nominally to protect Lawson. There’s real power in the repeated gesture of jackets being draped over the dead Kathy and Julie, pathetic victims of forces brewed on a great scale. Early in the film Kathy proposes to her father they ask directions from a cop because her teacher told her the police are there to help, only to be told by her father that her teacher’s “never taken any big steps outside the sixth grade.” The film’s opening evokes ruthless brutality in the name of state security, but by the end it’s allowed a tacit faith in the ideal of the civic guardian, so long as that guardian is an actual representative of the community he’s policing. Bishop is post-Blaxploitation hero, a man seeking to redefine institutions according to his identity rather than the other way round, whilst still contending with all the compromise, frustration, and occasional terror that comes with such a struggle. Leigh is the Hawksian one-of-the-boys ladies dragged out into the glare of the Women’s Lib sun, hardy, self-sufficient, mature, able to take care of herself as much as anyone in this situation can. By contrast the gang members engage in an act of nihilistic intent, a death-dream invocation.
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Meantime Carpenter records the bristling, protoplasmic mass of the new social landscape in his widescreen frames within the tight, rectilinear assurances of the station architecture, and his own frames, characters huddling together, breaking apart, forming and reforming their alliances. Present straits aren’t so different from the schoolyard, confirmed during Wilson and Wells’ potato bout. Childhood tends to haunt the characters, from Bishop’s recollections of being scared straight to Wilson’s opposite experience of preordained fate: everyone’s the product of something that puts them on a path, and Carpenter’s ultimate, humanist idea is that everyone retains an aspect of the heroic in them, despite the opinion of Bishop’s commander that “there aren’t any heroes anymore,” often suppressed and sometimes honed by circumstance. Assault on Precinct 13 is a way station in Carpenter’s slyly evolving variety of social mindfulness in genre cinema, coming just after Dark Star, which sent up the Domino Theory and the idea of the nuclear deterrent, the Domino Theory, and the technocratic subservience of modern life in general, and long before Escape from L.A. ’s (1997) raw disgust and final push-the-button nihilism. It would be easy to dismiss Street Thunder as a conveniently literalised version of urban angst, except that Carpenter pointedly removes sectarian meaning from their looming vision by making them multiracial, the warlords each designated by specific, cliché modes of dress – the white warlord and his black singlet, the Chicano with his Che-like garb – and their weapons of choice. Urban warfare is a blend of state-of-the-art weaponry and down-and-dirty tribal warfare, cars becoming rolling barricades.
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Two cops spend the night circling around the precinct in disorientation, sent out to chase down the peals of gunfire reported by houses near the station but cannot find. Telephone men have vanished. A black hole might as well have opened in this corner of the city. There’s a great if casual joke in the plight of the cops who can’t find anything wrong in the middle of a warzone, one that Carpenter would parse again in his work, like in The Fog (1981) where the need to keep the news going out is an urgent theme in the midst of a corrupt and oblivious community, and They Live (1988) where the act of actually penetrating a web of distraction to perceive truth is turned into an overtly political act, and the difficulty of piecing together coherent narrative in the face of crisis in Ghosts of Mars. The evocation of paranoid isolation would prove a Carpenter specialty in his early films, where he’d turn his straitened budgets and productions to his advantage in creating precisely described pockets of reality. The absurdist approach to this in Dark Star, where his shaggy astronauts were forced to wander the universe, gave way here to a tighter, less meditative but no less anxious sense of characters dangling on the end of life’s long rope.
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One of my favourite moments in the film comes when Lawson tries to alert the police in a phone booth out in some wasteground after gunning down the white warlord, only to see his fellows marching out of the dark: the confrontation seems to be taking place at the end of the universe, the last survivors of humankind battling for the one bloc of light left. One indelible aspect of the film’s texture is Carpenter’s electronic music score, performed on a bank of early synthesisers with the film’s art director Tommy Lee Wallace, who would become one of Carpenter’s regular collaborators (another, Debra Hill, helped out as an uncredited editor). Carpenter took a lot of licence from Lalo Schifrin’s score for Dirty Harry, but he finished up creating something original enough that it had a deep impact not just on Carpenter’s own film style, but on the emerging forms of electronic music and hip hop. Electronic drones declare the presence and attack of the gang members, thudding drum beats with a woozy groove sustain suspense, synthesiser strains wail in the dark like police sirens and make a repetitive cracking sound like a burst tyre flapping against asphalt. Plaintive declarations from an electric piano evoke Bishop’s survey of his old neighbourhood at sunset and recurs as characters survey the dead and face the fallout of a night of carnage.
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Carpenter finally lands his most definite nod to Hawks as he appropriates Rio Bravo’s famous blood-in-the-glass scene: the two cops pull over in frustration only to hear what might be rain on the roof, only for one to get out and realise the rain is actually dripping blood, trickling down from the dead body of a murdered telephone repairman, hanging with arms splayed a grotesque wind chime. Meanwhile Bishop, Wilson, and Leigh have their backs to the wall, literally. They retreat into the station’s basement for their last hope of standing off a mass charge along with their catatonic charge Lawson. Bishop banks all on his marksmanship, planning a Viking funeral for the gang members by igniting some acetylene tanks whilst the trio shelter behind a broken sign that reads, hilariously, SUPPOR YOUR LOC POLIC. The traditional last gallant ending for siege dramas is raised as Leigh suggests she keep the last two bullets in her gun for herself and Wilson; “Save ‘em for the first two assholes who come through that vent,” Wilson instructs. “There are two things a man should never run from,” he comments, the first being a wounded man and the unspoken second acknowledged only in the long gaze held between him and Leigh.
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The final charge of the gang members sees Bishop rising to the status of classic American hero, Hawkeye, the deadly shot and frontier tamer, uniting two hitherto barely related varieties of American iconography. “Can’t argue with a confident man,” Wilson notes repeatedly and with increasing sarcasm as his shots go wild, but at last one hits and the hallway explodes in boiling flame. The cavalry arrive at last, a squadron of police cars screeching to a halt outside, cops pouring into the desolated station and coming across the three combatants still ready to fight on with any weapon at hand, only for the smoke to slowly clear and reveal nominal allies rather than more foes, our heroes slowly easing out of their defensive postures. Carpenter gives them their moments to walk out of the movie like from a stage, Leigh alone and integral, needing no theatrics of injury despite being battle-wounded. She’s followed by Wilson and Bishop together: “You’re pretty fancy Wilson,” the cop grants. “I have my moments,” Wilson replies, and out they march That’s Carpenter’s notion of Elysium – cop and criminal, black guy and white, grinning at each-other and walking out of hell. He’d stick them both back in there for The Thing and They Live. The urban Nibelungenlied is over, but every myth is told and retold, each time a little differently.

Standard
1970s, 1980s, Action-Adventure, Family Films, Fantasy, Scifi

Galaxy Express 999 (1979) / Adieu, Galaxy Express 999: Final Stop Andromeda (1981)

Ginga Tetsudô Surî-Nain / Sayônara, Ginga Tetsudô Surî-Nain: Andromeda Shûchakueki

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Director: Rintaro
Screenwriters: Kon Ichikawa, Shirô Ishimori; Hiroyasu Yamaura

By Roderick Heath

Leiji Matsumoto isn’t a household name outside of Japan except to fans of manga and anime, Japan’s beloved, specific styles in cartooning and animation. But for anyone who does love those art forms, he’s been one of pop culture’s most vital figures, and even those who don’t might still have felt his influence in their childhood TV watching and their contemporary moviegoing. Matsumoto, born in Fukuoka in 1938, helped spark a popular sci-fi boom and a revival of the romantic early style in the genre called space opera, a few years before Star Wars (1977) officially did the same thing in the west. Matsumoto’s love of the space opera mode took some time to gain traction in his early career, and he gained his breakthrough with Otoko Oidon, a manga about a young man struggling to get into college. That project might seem light years away from Matsumoto’s later repute for fantastical dreamings, but rooted all his work in authentic reflections on rites of passage for boys struggling to achieve manhood and define what that means. Matsumoto’s success was sealed when he was hired to develop a concept by a producer for a tale about space travellers on a desperate mission to save the Earth from alien assault. Matsumoto’s take saw a wrecked World War II battleship rebuilt as a spaceship, a bizarre notion that nonetheless proved the key to the idea’s success. A TV adaptation of Matsumoto’s manga, Space Battleship Yamato, or Star Blazers as it was called for its first English-language dub, became a perennial touchstone for anime.
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Space Battleship Yamato defined Matsumoto’s unique touch, his fascination for combining the super-futuristic with the bygone and antiquated, a sense of possibility and longing at once childlike and sophisticated, and vigorous, spectacular action colliding with dreamy lyricism. Matsumoto soon began producing a clutch of beloved characters who evolved to share a fictional universe in his manga and various adaptations for television and cinema, including Galaxy Express 999 and Space Pirate Captain Harlock, making him one of the first artists of his kind to really embrace what is now called intertextuality. The French electronica outfit Daft Punk so idolised Matsumoto they talked him into directing Interstella 5555 (2003), a feature-length tale woven around the music from their album Discovery. Matsumoto’s style transposed a very personal and localised sensibility onto happily harvested concepts and tropes from a global tradition in sci-fi and fantasy. Growing up in the midst of war and resulting devastation profoundly impacted upon his creative attitude, and his beloved franchises gained much of their power from an informing anxiety about the tragedies of defeat and loss and the irreparable state of lost innocence and youth. Galaxy Express 999 was first made into a popular TV series and then adapted into a film version by Rintaro, one of the storied hands of anime who had first gained repute working on morning children’s programming perennials Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion series in the 1960s, adaptations of another legend of manga and anime, Osamu Tezuka.
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Rintaro (born Shigeyuki Hayashi) became chief director on the TV version of Matsumoto’s Space Pirate Captain Harlock, and went on to helm many successful anime series and films including a chapter in the acclaimed Neo-Tokyo (1987) and Metropolis (2001). Rintaro worked with Matsumoto, who was credited as planner on the film and, most interestingly, the director Kon Ichikawa, maker of such classics as The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959). Ichikawa had started his career in animation and began dipping his toe back into the field in the ‘70s, and served here as supervisor and co-screenwriter with Shirô Ishimori. Ichikawa’s talents for adaptation and feel for mediating a poetic lustre meshed with Matsumoto’s vision and Rintaro’s visual skill. Galaxy Express 999 revolves around a similar motif to Space Battleship Yamato, a spaceship voyaging through the void built to resemble a far less sophisticated piece of technology, in this case a steam train, in a storyline replete with picaresque discursions but always arcing towards an ultimate confrontation with a formidable foe. But the martial valour and warlike spectacle of the other series were swapped out here in favour of images and ideas more redolent of westerns, and an overall aesthetic that pushed Matsumoto’s romantic and sentimental streaks to the fore.
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Matsumoto’s sci-fi style had a host of readily recognisable inspirations, including the Victoriana dreaming of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and space opera of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith and Alex Raymond, but he also drew on more specifically Japanese properties, particularly the novel Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa. There’s a strong similarity in sensibility, too, to works like the poet Hagiwara Sakutarô’s poem “Night Train,” and the opening chapter of novelist Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, where the act of travelling by train takes on near-spiritual dimensions, being dissolving into a near-ethereal state of communion. From Sakutarô:

Near daybreak in the dark
Fingerprints chill on the window
Like a soft spill of mercury
White glimmer on the mountains
Passengers hang between sleep and waking
Over them the light-bulbs
sigh with fatigue
(…)
Unexpectedly
we draw close in sadness
and gazing at the eastern clouds
watch light touch
a nameless village in the mountains

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Galaxy Express 999 unfolds in a future where humankind has achieved tremendous technological leaps to colonise many nearby planets and travel to distant galaxies. But a new force is taking hold and redefining existence, as an increasing number of people are travelling on the famous Galaxy Express 999 transport to its distant, scarcely-seen final stop to swap their frail mortal shells for cybernetic bodies, and conflict between the finite and the virtually immortal seems to be nascent. Young Tetsurô Hoshino (voiced by Masako Nozawa) is an orphan living a hardscrabble existence on the streets of an Earth city called Megalopolis. Tetsuro harbours relentless ambition to get off the Earth again and track down the nefarious robotic overlord Count Mecha (Hidekatsu Shibata), who murdered his mother for sport when they accidentally strayed into his hunting grounds whilst traversing a distant colonial planet. Idolising the outlaws of space whose faces he sees on posters, including Captain Harlock and his fellow pirate Emereldas, Tetsuro wants to obtain a robotic body of his own so he can stand a chance in battle with the Count. He tries to steal a pass for the Galaxy Express from a passenger at a ticketing office, bringing down the wrath of law enforcement.
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Tetsuro glimpses a mysterious woman during his escape, and she helps him evade the cops and hide in her apartment. Tetsuro is startled by the woman’s resemblance to his dead mother, and the woman, whose name is Maetel (Masako Ikeda), agrees to help him achieve his goals. She buys a ticket for Tetsuro and becomes his travelling companion as the Express blasts off into space. The inherently dreamlike conceit of an intergalactic craft that looks like a rattling old steam train is mediated through some expertly deployed technobabble as the engine, actually an incredible, self-aware piece of engineering, sustains all within an “anti-energy infinite-source electro-magnetic barrier.” More importantly, as Maetel explains to her young charge, it’s an aesthetic choice that means the same thing to its passengers as to the movie viewer: it’s designed to foster a sense of nostalgic delight to offset the intensely alienating sensation of travelling deep space and encountering a vast and teeming cosmos.
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Tetsuro gets to know the train’s crew, including its assiduous Conductor (Kaneta Kimotsuki), a squat, glowing-eyed entity in an official uniform, and the attendant Claire (Yôko Asagami), a robotised girl whose body is made of transparent crystal. The Express stays for the length of one day on each planet it lands on, which can be, in Earth time, a couple of hours or a couple of weeks. When it lands on Titan, which has been colonised and terraformed into a lush and rustic backwater, Maetel is kidnapped by some bandits headed by the bristling old warrior Antares (Yasuo Hisamatsu), who is dedicated to battling off the encroachment of the robots and raises a gang of children, all orphans made by Count Mecha. Ignoring Maetel’s pleas for him not to risk himself by chasing her, Tetsuro tracks down the bandits, who test both him and Maetel with x-rays to see if either is a robot; surprisingly, Maetel proves to be entirely human. Tetsuro encounters an old woman (Miyoko Asô) living alone in a cabin, and she finds him so similar to her long-lost son Tochirô in his fighting spirit that she gives him two of her valued possessions: a battered-looking hat, and a laser pistol, the only one of its kind capable of killing robots.
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The movie narrative reproduces the episodic storyline inherited from the manga and TV series, as the Express moves from planet to planet. The filmmakers turn this to their advantage, as each new world reflects as aspect of Tetsuro’s psychological journey as well as his external quest, whilst also suggesting encapsulations of different epochs in recent history. The crude arcadian beauty of Titan blesses Tetsuro with a grandmotherly figure and allows him to step into the shoes of the missing Tochirô to gain a more specific identity, and accumulates the garb and convictions of a mature being. When he and Maetel next disembark on Pluto, which is used as a giant refrigeration unit to keep the discarded mortal shells of the robotised humans, Tetsuro encounters Shadow (Toshiko Fujita), a robotised woman who fills the job of caretaker for the ice cemetery to be close to her own human body, a beautiful corpse she keeps in a glass coffin to pine for and worship. Desperate for human contact, she tries to claim an unwilling Tetsuro as her child, but Maetel fends her off. Maetel herself seems fascinated by something in the ice which Tetsuro doesn’t get to see. Here lurks the threat of frigid emotional stasis and a frightening surrogate mother figure who provides a distorting mirror to Maetel in the role.
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The gritty frontier atmosphere of Trader’s Fork reproduces a western feel and exploits that genre’s suppressed evocation of rootless melancholy to convey Tetsuro’s alienation as he encounters other characters, like the sad chanteuse Ryuzu (Noriko Ohara) and the real Tochirô (Kei Tomiyama), who share his state of exile and longing. Tetsuro gains a peculiar family in the form of ambiguous but devoted Maetel and the train’s crew of oddballs, and fearsome friends and comrades in the form of Harlock (Makio Inoue) and Emereldas (Reiko Tajima), who both intercept the Express and find their fates linked to Tetsuro’s. Antares has told Tetsuro that only Emereldas knows where Count Mecha’s wandering Time Castle can be found at any time, so when her spaceship flies by the Express Tetsuro brings it to a halt with a blast from his pistol and soon finds himself confronting the fearsome female pirate, who proves, despite all to be defined once more by a pining absence, longing for a lost lover who proves to be the sickly, dying Tochirô. Tetsuro finds Tochirô in the wastes of Trader’s Fork and helps him achieve his dying ambition, uploading his consciousness into a computer system so he can serve as the navigation system for his comrade Harlock’s space ship. Harlock turns up shortly after to thank Tetsuro for giving his friend’s mortal remains a burial, and repays the favour by beating up some of Count Mecha’s goons who have attacked Tetsuro.
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Tetsuro is the hero of Galaxy Express 999, but it’s Maetel who is its most obsessive locus of images and pivotal figure, and the ultimate example of Matsumoto’s obsessive figure of femininity. Her iconography is exact, with her cascading mane of blonde hair and huge, long, limpid eyes, and all-black garb of fur coat and cap, resembling some fey-gifted young Russian Countess riding the Trans-Siberian circa 1900, the centrepiece of the film’s uniquely Proustian take on sci-fi adventure. She’s dogged by an air of inexplicable melancholia, her mystique in seeming both infinitely enigmatic and yet deeply familiar embodying a half-forgotten ideal from childhood. Willowy and fragile-looking, she nonetheless constantly proves more powerful than she seems. She’s at war with her own identity in profound and disturbing ways, as it’s revealed she’s the daughter of Queen Promethium (Ryôko Kinomiya), the terrifying, witch-like mastermind and controller of the robot horde. A weirdly dichotomous charge wells up when Tetsuro accidentally walks in upon her in the shower, and Maetel comes to occupy a perverse Freudian nexus as, alternatively an echo of Tetsuro’s mother, avatar for a worldly big sister, and a dream of first love.
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This aspect makes Galaxy Express 999 feel crucially similar to Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) in contending with the intensely protean experience of adolescence where the roles of life and the people who fill them blur into commonality. In the series Tetsuro was a small, naïve boy, where in the film he’s on the cusp of adolescence. It’s ultimately revealed that Maetel is actually inhabiting a cloned reproduction of Tetsuro’s mother’s body, which doubles down on the perversity. The other female characters – the wretched Shadow, haunted Ryuzu, sweetly transparent (literally) Claire, brooding, powerful Emereldas – all resemble her (aptly, in one of his revisits to his creation, Matsumoto revealed Maetel and Emereldas are twin sisters). This is certainly partly because of Matsumoto’s famous basic template for his romantic heroines, but it also makes perfect sense given they can all be seen as reflections or distillations of the essence of a cosmic feminine Tetsuro chases across the void but can never quite take a proper grip of as he matures. Tetsuro’s physique sharply contrasts his partner’s, a short urchin with a round face and squiggle of a nose, he almost becomes lost to the eye once he dons his complete signature costume, with overcoat and hat reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s in his Sergio Leone westerns.
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Tetsuro himself has many doppelgangers and brothers in spirit, from Harlock, who stands as an idealised version of the man he’d like to be, Tetsuro, whose boots he steps into, and Antares, the grizzled old warrior who’s taken on duty of care to a host of waifs with the same tragic story. The theme of life journey conjoins with Matsumoto’s anxious confrontation with the forces of modern transformation, which had gone through a breakneck process in his youth: the Galaxy Express itself belongs to an evocation of a pre-war world and dreams of gilt splendour as glimpsed in the retro classiness of the great railway station Tetsuro and Maetel pass through, even in the surrounds of the glittering superstructure of Megalopolis. The new and the old are in constant dialogue throughout, both in terms of physical entities and the gap between action and remembering. Tetsuro’s desperate desire to grow up and take on the evils in his universe is constantly retarded by a growing awareness of the ephemeral nature of his life. Maetel carries a device that allows one person to tap into the dreams of another, a sublime metaphor for the act of creating and sharing art itself, and also a vessel for mutual comprehension, or lack of it, for the characters: Tetsuro’s maturation is measured in part by his choice not to tap into Maetel’s dreams, for all his desire to parse her foreboding opacity.
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Matsumoto’s gleeful mix-and-match of ages and styles is even justified in terms of his tale’s internal logic as the characters are all desperate to locate themselves through clinging on to pieces of the past, to familiar and amusing things that subvert the impersonality of an oncoming state of total, alienated modernity, embodied by the robot people. The tavern full of toughs all weep in listening to Ryuzu’s song of longing for lost childhood. It’s not until they reach their destination in the Andromeda galaxy that they confront a shining, alien, inimical bastion of pure modernity that just so happens to look like any sleek new train station or airport, a setting equated with the loss of identity, physicality, and the pleasures of liminal existence. The robotised people Tetsuro encounters are all haunted by their loss of it, like Claire, who gained her crystal form to please her mother, or driven into utter hysteria, like Shadow, or completely lose humanity, like Count Mecha. Ryuzu testifies to abandoning her human body to please the count and eventually evolving into a spiritual force with power over time itself, but losing in the process all sense of tangible existence. The basic theme could be read Rintaro and Matsumoto’s next-generation burlesque on the comfortable power fantasy of Tezaku’s Astro Boy as well as mediating the post-human disquiet of arguably the most famous anime works, Akira (1987) and Ghost in the Shell (1995).
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Despite being produced on a relatively small budget, Galaxy Express 999 proved the biggest hit of the year at the Japanese box office upon release, a sea-change moment that coincided with Hayao Miyazaki’s debut on Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro in announcing cinematic anime’s arrival as a potent cultural force. Miyazaki’s later films would often sport his particular brand of young heroine who combine the qualities of Tetsuro and Maetel. Galaxy Express 999 was soon taken up by New World Studios and became the first anime film in many years to be released in the US, albeit in a sharply truncated form. The animation style of the film is fairly limited because of the budget, and yet it’s a stream of visual pleasures, particularly the ecstatic sequence when the train takes off for the first time, Tetsuro’s enthralled perspective conjuring the sight of his mother in the stars set to a theme song provided by the band Godiego, best known for scoring the cult TV show Monkey; the band were experts at creating a sound at once carefree and wistful. There’s a strong echo of Yellow Submarine (1968) throughout, not just in the basic conceptual conceit but also in the evocations of a fantasy landscape built out of the detritus of a nostalgic perception of the world, a child’s vision of adult realms inflated and transmuted into the stuff of dreams.
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That quality is apparent in settings like the towering, cavernous halls of the Express’s railway station, and echoes on through the film’s visions of surreal splendour. Shots of the train speeding across the face of the Earth and amongst the stars and planets, and descending through the cloudy atmosphere of Titan. A Plutonic landscape of hazy grey clouds and hovering moons with thousands of human bodies locked in the ice. The abstract green sworls and winging snowflakes around Tetsuro and his mother as she dies, her hair shimmering in the wind, and the appearance of Count Mecha and his hunters with their single huge glowing eyes. The grotesque sight of Tetsuro’s mother’s body mounted and stuffed in Mecha’s banquet hall, in the midst of his faux-gothic castle. The stark, near-featureless faces of Shadow and Queen Promethium, whose dress is bedecked with stars and whose appearance most clearly echoes a figure out of Noh. When Tetsuro finally locates the Time Castle thanks to Emereldas, he sneaks into its halls and finds that Ryuzu is Mecha’s concubine and servant, and is promptly surrounded by the Count android guards. But Antares appears, having followed Tetsuro, and helps him annihilate Mecha’s guards and finally, heroically blows apart the shield Mecha and Ryuzu hide behind, whilst Ryuzu fatefully betrays Mecha by refusing to transport them in time, giving Tetsuro the chance to shoot the Count dead. Ryuzu grievingly strips down to her robotic body and lies with Mecha as he and his castle crumble into a rusty pile of scrap.
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Success against Mecha does not sate Tetsuro’s anger, however, as he now believes robotisation is a scourge destroying all that’s worthy about life. He resolves to travel on to the last stop on the Express’s route to the machine planet and destroy it to. But he’s in for a rude shock as he learns the name of the planet is the same as his travelling companion, and learns from the robots who meet him at the station that although he’s killed the robots’ hero Count Mecha, he’s nonetheless a very fit candidate to be turned into a cybernetic component of the planet’s vast machine complexes. Stung and betrayed, Tetsuro smacks Maetel and is strapped to an operating table under Promethium’s approving gaze. But Maetel’s own, ultimate purpose finally reveals itself: she carries with her an amulet device containing the stored consciousness of her father, who is appalled by what Promethium has become, and intends destroying the machine planet, having stored up an explosive lode of energy to do so. Harlock and Emereldas throw in their support, attacking the planet with their pirate vessels to give their comrades a chance. Maetel falters on the very precipice of destroying her mother’s empire, so Tetsuro has to help her throw the amulet into Promethium’s power supply, whereupon the planet begins to disintegrate. Maetel and Tetsuro manage to get back to the Express, but find Promethium has managed to get aboard too. Rather than let her kill Tetsuro, the only person she ever felt was truly her friend, Claire grabs the Queen and detonates her own robotic body, blowing both of them up. Tetsuro pockets the only piece of Claire remaining, a piece of crystal shaped like a teardrop.
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Maetel’s considered act of parricide, however necessary, cruelly mimics Tetsuro’s own orphaning, releasing them both from the obligations of identity but also now needing to reconstruct themselves: for Maetel this means recovering her original body. And of course, being as they are a pair who love each-other but who cannot reconcile it to any familiar life role, they’re doomed to never quite meet in any sense, and Maetel delivers Tetsuro back to Earth and leaves again on the Express after a jolting moment when she kisses him on the mouth. In a moment reminiscent of the finale of David Lean’s Summertime (1957), Tetsuro runs alongside the Express as it departs, with Maetel gazing back at him, becoming the ghost of all things lost in growing up. It’s one of cinema’s great tragic finales, so of course there had to be a sequel. Adieu, Galaxy Express: Final Stop Andromeda was released two years later. Far from releasing the galaxy from robotic domination, Tetsuro’s actions prove to have sparked all-out war between humans and mechanicals. Hordes of robots are laying waste to Megalopolis, and Tetsuro is now one of a ragged and weary band of resistance fighters cowering in the ruins. Tetsuro settles down in a muddy puddle in his disheartened and exhausted mindset, only for the old, tough commander of the unit to tell him he might as well be choosing death. One night whilst gazing up into the sky, Tetsuro sees the familiar glowing green squiggle that is the Express’s wake coiling through the sky, but no-one’s seen it land on Earth in ages.
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Nonetheless Tetsuro soon receives a device from a dying runner carrying a voice message from Maetel calling him to board the Express. The rest of his unit volunteer to help him get by the robot patrols to the station, at the cost of their lives: the old commander uses his dying breaths to make sure the Express can take off. Tetsuro soon finds, to his bewilderment, he’s the only passenger on the Express and that Maetel is not on board. The Conductor introduces him to Claire’s replacement, a robot maid named Metalmena (Yôko Asagami), who claims to have taken the job to get a chance to get hold of “the most precious thing in the universe.” The Express makes its first stop on the planet La-Metal, where the human settlers are battling the robots. Tetsuro is wounded by a flying robotic sentry and saved by a guerrilla unit, and he becomes friends with an alien warrior, Meowdar (Kei Tomiyama). The duo explore a ruined castle and find huge portraits hanging on the wall that look startlingly like Promethium and Maetel, and Meowdar tells Tetsuro the rumour abroad that Maetel has taken her mother’s place as controller of the empire. Tetsuro is so enraged by this notion he slogs Meowdar. The two are almost captured in a robot ambush, but the appearance of Harlock’s ship helps them escape. Parting as friends, Meowdar leaves Tetsuro at the La-Metal station, where Maetel appears, striding out of the steam plumes, entirely unchanged.
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It’s not explained why Maetel never recovered her body and with the portrait on the castle suggesting she’s always looked this way, the cloned body idea seems to have been dropped (pedantic consistency of detail was never something Matsumoto’s properties have been famous for anyway). Tetsuro is joyous upon seeing Maetel again, but becomes increasingly perplexed and aggravated as she fends off his questions and encourages him to leave the Express. The train has strange encounters with other vessels. A craft the Conductor calls the Ghost Train bullies its way past the Express, much to the engine’s shame and chagrin. A spaceship commanded by a menacing cyborg calling himself Lord Faust (Tôru Emori), who seems to have a specific interest in Tetsuro comes next. Maetel almost gets herself killed leaping between the two when Tetsuro tries to shoot Faust, and his spaceship explodes from damage Tetsuro’s gun makes. Tetsuro makes it aboard the Express and Maetel is plucked on the edge of death from space by Emereldas, turning up in the nick of time. During a stopover on the heavily industrialised planet of Mosaic, Tetsuro sees the Ghost Train parked and thinks he hears the sound of a music box belonging to Meowdar, but he can’t break into the menacing craft. Maetel finally reveals that she didn’t send the message that brought Tetsuroi aboard the Express, and someone wants him to come to the true capital of the Machine Empire, Great Andromeda. Soon enough the Express gets there and Tetsuro learns that Meowdar wasn’t wrong: Maetel really has returned to take her mother’s place as queen, Promethium’s remnant consciousness still sustained as part of the planet infrastructure.
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Adieu, Galaxy Express is darker and punchier in many respects than its predecessor, kicking off with scenes of grimy warfare and cyberpunk terror that sharply anticipate oncoming preoccupation with apocalyptic imagery in much acclaimed ‘80s and ‘90s anime. The plot leads into a revelation that evokes Soylent Green (1972) as well as carrying strong holocaust connotations as Tetsuro learns that the energy pills the robot people take to sustain themselves contains life force drained out of captured humans, ferried to Great Andromeda on the Ghost Train. The film also displays increased directorial ambition from Rintaro working with crisper, more fluid and confident animation, apparent in an emphasis on dreamlike ellipses like the fades in and out of black interspersing the credits with the opening scenes and flashing, mono-colour backgrounds the envelope Tetsuro in moments of pain and crisis, and some cleverly animated battle sequences, including a nod to North by Northwest (1959) as Tesuro is pursued by a flying robot sentinel. The Express’s arrival at Great Andromeda, passing through barriers of time, space, and energy, becomes a dazzling psychedelic interlude, particularly well-scored by electropop artist Osamu Shoji. Both films are marvellously scored at that, the first replete with syrupy beauty by Nozomi Aoki and the second with Shoji’s spacier synthesiser strains.
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But Adieu, Galaxy Express noticeably lacks the sense of poetic metaphor that made the first film so striking, and wields a more generic edge to its animation concepts at times. The absence of Ichikawa’s input on the sequel tells, and the plot essentially boils down to a retread of the original’s, with appearances by the likes of Harlock and Emereldas feeling like afterthoughts. The best call-back is the most minimal, as Tetsuro catches a glimpse of Shadow still watching over her frozen charges in silent pathos. Maetel doesn’t turn up for a good fifty minutes, which means the film lacks its obsessive pole to Tetsuro’s for too long. Still, it’s just as desperately romantic and outsized in its evocations of dire emotional straits, becoming particularly gruelling as Meowdar and Metalmena die, and offers up moments of deliriously transformed emotionalism like Harlock’s mouthless female alien crewmember weeping spherical, crystal tears. Rintaro offers ideas reminiscent of Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966) in his portrayal of a malign mother punishing a hostile world and following a relentless quest for power ever since she and an infant Maetel were exiled from their home on La-Metal, a tragedy suggested as in Bava through portraits on the walls of a ruined castle. High gothic paraphernalia and technological Gotterdammerung collide as Maetel once more confronts her mother and steps into her shoes – if only, as it proves, to access a sanctum and find out the truth behind the fate of the human captives. Metalmena’s object of desire proves to be Maetel’s body itself, hoping to transfer her consciousness into it, but learning just where the power capsules she likes consuming come from drives Metalmena to attack some of the robot guards, getting herself terribly wounded but earning Tetsuro’s admiration.
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Adieu, Galaxy Express also goes memorably for broke in a spectacular finale when an even more formidable threat than Prometheum and the mechanical empire appears, a force dubbed Siren the Witch, an all-consuming cosmic void attracted by the wealth of energy on Great Andromeda. As Siren begins sucking in everything in its path, the crews of the Express and the pirate ships have to try and make headway whilst not using their computer systems or other sophisticated machinery, which means for the Express quite literally driving its engine with coal in the boiler. Meanwhile Tetsuro has to duel the looming Faust upon the train roof, trying to use the lesson he learnt for Meowdar about listening for robotic enemies rather than looking for them. Tetsuro wins the duel, only for Faust to reveal, as he drifts off into Siren’s maw, that he’s Tetsuro’s long-lost father: it was he who arranged Tetsuro’s journey so they could fight out the basic battles between human and mechanical, old and young. There’s such wild spectacle here, with an undercurrent thrusting the material back into the correct zone of Oedipal frenzy, that it makes up for the feeling of déjà vu, and also suggesting the ultimate irony that a Matsumoto property was suddenly in debt to George Lucas rather than vice versa.
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A bittersweet coda beholds the wastes of Great Andromeda, reduced to the frozen asteroid it was originally, the ghost of Prometheum’s consciousness still clinging to it in delirious longing for her daughter’s touch, who stands upon the planetoid with Tetsuro regarding the waste. The most interesting, tantalising, painful idea constantly repeated throughout the two films is the awareness that gaining anything, from victory over evil to achieving maturity, usually requires losing something just as vital, and to exist means being gnawed at eternally by that sense of loss. Inevitably, Maetel parts from Tetsuro once more, now with the stated awareness that she’s a wanderer in time whose job it is to help other boys grow up, and Tetsuro’s last wail of her name from the departing Express still carries with it the charge of loss even as a final title declares he’s become a man at last. Anime has grown a lot as a school of cinema since these films, but they stand as estimable, defining classics in the style. Mainstream worldwide cinema perhaps owes them a debt both immediate and through their influence on the mode – would the filthy, glistening world of Blade Runner (1982) exist otherwise, or the fierce images of human softness in the clutches of robotic hellspawn in The Matrix films, the poetics of Wong Kar-Wai (his 2046, 2004, borrows a lot from the Galaxy Express 999 concept as well its obsession with the ephemeral, and his The Grandmaster, 2013, references it in a key scene), or even perhaps the “King of the World” scene in Titanic (1997)? At any rate they’re marvellous lodestones for the gregarious pleasures of anime, and at their best attain that rarest of conditions for popular art, the feeling that they’ve cleaved off and kept safe a piece of a collective unconscious, like that shard of Claire’s heart Tetsuro keeps in his pocket.

An English-language dubbed version of Galaxy Express 999 can be viewed here

…and the sequel, Adieu, Galaxy Express 999: Final Stop Andromeda here.

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1970s, African cinema, Auteurs, Drama, Experimental, Romance

Touki-Bouki (1973)

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Director/Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty

By Roderick Heath

Following its 2007 restoration by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki-Bouki has emerged in recent years to be celebrated as one of the finest products of African cinema. Touki-Bouki made a Sight & Sound Film Poll as one of the hundred greatest films of all time, and these days even celebrities are paying homage to its most famous images. Quite a ride for a film that did make a mark in its time, gaining an International Critics Prize at Cannes, only to then generally sink from view. Touki-Boukis director took another twenty years to make a second feature, as Mambéty re-emerged for a brief spell of productivity before his death from lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 53. Mambéty, born in Dakar in 1945, was the son of a Muslim cleric who, after dabbling in theatre as a student, became interested in film, at a time when an eruption of new cinematic energy was taking place across Africa at the time, part of a general scene of cultural fervour in the post-colonial dawn. Mambéty’s countryman Ousmane Sembène had flown the standard for new African cinema with 1966’s Black Girl.
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In spite of his lack of formal training, Mambéty pieced together a short film, City of Contrasts, in 1968, dedicated to surveying haphazard attempts to synthesise a novel architectural style at various sites around Dakar with a sceptical eye. He followed it with another short that gained some attention, Badou Boy, a portrait of a young scallywag engaged in a duel of wits with a policeman, mediating Mambéty’s own formative experiences and looking forward to the larger clashes driving Touki-Bouki. Next Mambéty set to making his first feature with a budget of $30,000, most of which came from the Senegal government. One irony is that Touki-Bouki is both a perfect emblem of that moment of cultural energy and a reaction to it. Mambéty avoided the kitchen-sink realism and overtly critical style of melodrama being made by Sembène and others, in favour of an approach obviously influenced by the French New Wave, but also wielding a definably independent spirit rooted deep in its native landscape and sensibility. Touki-Bouki defines a more personal, allusive, but hardly disengaged reaction to the moment, celebrating the maddening mismatch of impulses and ambitions beckoning.
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Touki-Bouki emerged as a freewheeling tragicomedy with a rambunctious sense of humour as a well as a spirit of commentary and satirical import that lands all the more sharply for its deceptively breezy disposition. At times Mambéty’s eye is as cruelly excoriating of social disparity as Luis Bunuel was on Los Olvidados (1951), recording the day-to-day life of the poor citizenry who encircle the islet of westernised modernity in the downtown Dakar. His camera pans down from the gleaming ramparts of office blocks and apartment buildings colonising Dakar’s precincts to the shattered slums and shanties scattered around its fringes with a witty, needling sense of contrast, but also a casual familiarity with such violent contrasts. Mambéty sees in them the spirit of a place and a time, the super-modern colliding with the unknowably ancient, the slick with the gritty, the Western idea of time and space with the African.
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Mambéty’s antihero is Mory (Magaye Niang), a young man who makes a living driving cattle to an abattoir to be butchered, whilst his girlfriend Anta (Mareme Niang) is a student attending college. Mambéty’s Dakar is a place of petty jealousies and tolerated pests. Anta lives with her Aunt Oumy (Aminata Fall), a produce seller and low-grade conjurer who lets friends take her produce on credit. Anta is first seen irritably forcing one to put back everything she’s taken if she can’t pay. Anta resists the cajoling, charged demands of a mob of young student radicals in a truck, whose political action meetings seem to be mostly an excuse to pick up girls. When Anta refuses to come to one of their meetings, the radicals, in their frustration, accost Mory when he comes to the campus looking for her, lassoing him and driving across down with Mory tied to the back of their truck. In a rage after this humiliation, Mory flees to a favourite place on the coastline, and Anta tracks him down. The duo make love on the cliffs above the ocean, a sequence Mambéty communicates with shots of languorously rolling, foaming waves on the rocks with the sounds of sex on the soundtrack. Afterwards, lounging in the sun next to the motorcycle, the lovers resolve to leave Senegal by any recourse and head for Paris to make their fortune.
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With a puckish sense of ne’er-do-wells at loose in the world, improvising their path through life, Mambéty’s assimilation of New Wave tropes occasionally feels closer in spirit to Richard Lester than Jean-Luc Godard. Still, Godard is an inescapable influence, with visuals that recall the bright, lushly-coloured, almost pictographic approach of Pierrot le Fou (1965). But there’s a stark, deceptive quality to Mambéty’s style that’s quite individual, unfolding through a succession of images precisely framed and lucidly composed, attentive to the pungent atmosphere of a time and place, in a way that’s almost still-life art, but which also merge to form a brisk and energetic whole. Touki-Bouki unfolds according to its own peculiar rhythms and focal points, but it also plays, interestingly, as a lampoon of a film noir plot. Mambéty’s portrait of desperate lovers making their ploy to escape their circumstances, turning to crime to better their lives, evokes a swathe of noir films and films that coexist on the border between that grim genre and social problem studies, particularly Nicholas Ray’s films like They Live By Night (1949) and Rebel Without A Cause (1956). Except that the crime is tepid and the criminal lovers’ escapades are more than a little absurd, thanks to Mory’s significant overestimation of his own street smarts. The very end can be read as a satire on the climax of that founding text of French poetic realism and noir aesthetics, Julien Duvivier’s Pepe Le Moko (1938).
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Mambéty starts the film with shots of cattle being herded and driven to an abattoir, lazy undulations of the haunches of cattle and the ponies bearing loft the herders filling the screen, for a scene from a rural lifestyle that might as well be taking place a hundred or a thousand years ago. Mambéty quickly despoils the placid mood as he depicts the cattle being slaughtered gorily. This unflinching segue anticipates a similar sequence in Rainer Werner Fassbender’s In a Year of 13 Moons (1976). Mambéty’s motivating spirit is rather different to Fassbender’s punkish effect, but there’s a similar idea at play, correlating the butchery of animals with the brutal processes of personal and historical transformation. Mambéty repeats the motif later on when he shows Oumi slaughtering a goat, all part of the raw and bloody business of providing food, the earthiness of the lifestyle of Mambéty’s fellow Senegalese, laid bare in grim and dazzling detail. Mambéty cuts between Oumi slicing open the goat’s neck with Anta stripping off her shirt in the staring sunlight for her seaside tryst with Mory, evoking a sense of squirming desperation to the couple’s psychic horizons despite the often comic tenor of their adventures, as well as conjoining sex and death as sublime necessities.
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Early in the film Mambéty watches with a documentary filmmaker’s eye as women cue up for clean drinking water, a moment of reportage that could fit into any news report on life in the third world, except that Mambéty turns it into a scene of human comedy as two women begin fighting over their place in the line; when a supervising man tries to break up their tussle, both begin beating him up instead. Authority figures are either wielders of latent violence, like the cop Mory encounters, or absurd occupants of jobs that seem them disseminating a vague sense of state relevance, like the portly mailman who makes the rounds of the shanties on the Dakar fringes, with Aunt Oumi convinced he’s keeping letters from her son from her, and struggles to make a ponderous passage up a hill. Mory’s first attempt to rustle up some cash comes when he decides to take on a dude tantalising and tormenting pedestrians with his prowess as three-card monte. Mory bets a thousand francs he pick out the right card, but when he loses has to flee because he doesn’t have the cash to cover the bet, chased down the street by a mob happy to take off after anything that moves just for something to do.
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Mory manages to elude his pursuers only to come across a cop who enjoys intimidating him with the possibility he might just shoot him for the hell of it, before then asking for a match: Mory is so relieved he offers his whole matchbox. The same cop proves to be a nemesis for the next score Mory and Anta eye, when Anta realises they could rip off the gate take for a wrestling match. Several boxes are left in the cop’s keeping, one of which contains the money. Mory, making a declaration of status as boss man, decides the box on the bottom must be the one. The actual robbery isn’t shown, but Mambéty cuts to Mory and Anta’s getaway, hailing a taxi to transport the stolen box across town whilst Mory pursues on a motorcycle. He’s stopped by an officious traffic cop for driving through a zebra crossing, but Mory makes a successful ploy to scare off the cop by pretending to have seen him at a rowdy party that got busted. The cab driver, a wheezy old man, accidentally drops the cashbox when he’s unloading it for the elated bandits, only for the contents within to prove not riches but a skull.
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The title is usually translated as “Journey of the Hyena,” an apt description of Mory’s skulking opportunism as a criminal who dreams of grand successes, a small predator who darts around the flanks of bigger beasts. The early scenes of Mory and Anta on the beach see Mambéty breaking up the linear flow of images, weaving a texture at once repetitive and discombobulated, fitting for a film about Senegal, the westernmost country on the African mainland. The lovers confront the ocean as a vertiginous frontier standing between them and Paris, which might as well be Oz. Mory decides next to rob a rich gay man named Charlie. Charlie lived in Paris in the past, and now resides in a large modern house on the Dakar waterfront. He lounges about his swimming pool and extemporises airily from his bath whilst Mory gets down to robbing him blind. Charlie introduces a particularly noir-like development in Touki-Bouki’s plot, as a character whose erotic wont contrasts and mirrors the social and financial yearning of the young people and who float in a possible zone of mutual exploitation. The scene could be set like the ugly moment in Midnight Cowboy (1969) where that film’s desperate main character assaulted and possibly killed the old gay man he decided to rob to facilitate his own life escape. But Mambéty wryly deconstructs the canard by making Charlie a humorous and likeable figure whose supine good cheer is just as hapless as Mory’s half-assed criminal entrepreneurship. When he finds he’s been robbed his first response is to phone up the police and chat amiably and teasingly with some officers he’s trying to seduce.
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Charlie represents a gently satirised breed of cosmopolitan colonials. The uneasy relationship of colonised and colonisers is a nagging theme of Touki-Bouki, although Mambety’s credo that “anticolonialist laughter is also laughing at yourself” is illustrated as well, as he considers the landscape of modern Senegal as a strange mutt where eye, heart, and mind can leap from the primal to the space-aged in one survey of the landscape. Dialogue is littered with sniping mutual racism. Oumi and her larcenous patron kvetch about sons of the nation heading to Paris and not coming back, or worse, “They bring their white women back with their diseases.” When Mory and Anta finally do get aboard a passenger ship bound for France, they’re thrust into the company of patronising French teachers who complain in turn about just about everything, from the stolidity of their African students and the extremity of the radical movements back home, and make comments like “African art is a joke made up by journalists in need of copy” whilst proclaiming Senegal barren physically and intellectually. The elders’ solution for everything is to call in a marabout (a variety of Islamic religious advisor in Senegal), and Charlie has the bad news as one who’s supped at the font of imperial beneficence and left no illusion for anyone who follow: “France isn’t what it used to be,” now that it’s no longer the beating heart of a great imperial complex.
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Nonetheless the siren call of Paris echoes irresistibly for Mory and Anta, represented by a soundtrack driven along by the sprightly strains of Josephine Baker’s song “Paris.” Baker, as the black chanteuse who found love and favour in France thanks to playing out an exotic fantasy of a bare-breasted, banana-bedecked jungle girl only then to reinvent herself as the essence of cosmopolitan sophistication, makes for a loaded, ironic touchstone for such ambitions. The cinematography by Pap Samba Sow keeps in mind both the potent colours and design intricacy of African art and also the purposefully flat and placard-like effects of ‘60s radical movie agitprop. Colours blaze with fervent immediacy, the gush of blood from the goat’s neck and the patterns of the kaftans and lettering of city signs all lit up with delirious intensity, as if the world is a great collection of hieroglyphs rendered in colour needing a sympathetic eye to decode. One of the funniest punch-lines comes when it’s revealed that the wrestling match Mory and Anta try to rob is being held to raise money for a statue of Charles De Gaulle, a symbolic erection in the name of continued close connections between France and Senegal.
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Mambéty’s preferred symbol, the lynchpin of the movie and of his protagonists’ lives, is Mory’s bike. It’s a practical instrument, Mory’s transport, his vessel of self-image and independence. Mambéty’s images of an outsider hero on a motorcycle echoes expressions of countercultural disaffection like Easy Rider (1969) coming from overseas and also rhymes with the same year’s radically different exploration of postcolonial crime and rebellion, The Harder They Come. But the bike is also a representation of Mambéty’s concept of Senegalese spirit, circa 1973, and his concept of a culture that’s a fusion of ways of being and experiencing: a cobbled-together chimera, western-made machine festooned with the potent animalistic totem of horns on the handlebars, and an incantatory, rather phallic sculptural veve on the rear. Such adornments elevate the motorcycle from mere device to a totem communing between the human and the animal, the spiritual and the historical. As long as Mory and Anta ride it, they retain a self-sufficient lustre, a dash of romantic heroism. Once they rob Charlie, Anta abandons the bike in a wasteground, leaving it to be retrieved, in a hilariously bizarre touch, by a man dressed like a Halloween caveman, who happens upon it like the spirit of atavistic anarchy, and begins riding it around Dakar in glee.
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Oumi curses Mory for failing to pay her for some rice she gave him, screaming that she hopes he winds up in hell to Anta with an incantatory air – not for nothing, it seems, does Anta call her “the sorceress” – and the fractured sense of time at play throughout Touki-Bouki seems to stem from Oumi’s curse; time, place, and self all splintered and randomly dispersed. The skull the luckless taxi driver finds inside the stolen box seems to be a relic of some esoteric rite, death’s head grinning out at the luckless would-be plutocrats as a reminder of strange and ancient forces working against their venture in self-improvement – small wonder the box it’s in rests under the one they should have stolen, which sports the colours of Senegal’s flag. The sequence following Mory’s robbery of Charlie is nonetheless a comic tour-de-force as he and Anta head across Dakar to the port, even subordinating Charlie’s chauffeur by pretending he’s been told to drive them. In his exultation, Mory strips bare-assed and stands triumphant in the back of the open-topped car, and flees into a lengthy fantasy imagining the two lovers returning from France, rich and powerful. Crowds flock to watch their progress and they’re given all the pomp and paraphernalia of national heroes. Even uppity Oumi dances in celebration before their car whilst the couple lounge with cigars and make like big shots.
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In more prosaic reality they still make a splash as their travel agent thinks she knows them (“Maybe from New York,” Anta suggests). They encounter a man named Margot, a con man they know who’s desperate to escape from Dakar as he’s being hunted down by a dude with a club after some misfired scam: Mory and Anta let him hide in the car into the port. The lovers have succeeded, making it to the ship on time and in style. But Mory is halted on the gangplank by the thought of one of the cattle he herds to slaughter, and suddenly runs off, desperately trying to find his bike. Anta, left alone, waits for him, but when sailing time comes, she remains aboard. Where Duvivier’s antihero was finally consumed and destroyed by his status as exile and petty overlord of a colonial citadel, and died at the dockside foiled in his last gesture of escape, Mambéty inverts the situation: his lovers are separated and his dopey protagonist pulled back to native soil in a sudden pang of realisation of what he’s abandoning, only to find he’s already lost his source of pride and energy. When he does find his bike, it’s been smashed to pieces, its cattle skull mascot broken, the caveman rider terribly injured in a crash. Mambéty sees a generation in flux, a wealth of possibilities on hand but also invisible to the needs of the moment.
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The ship is a vast, beautiful, floating white carcass spiriting Anta away to a vague fortune whilst Mory weeps over his own shattered machine and destiny. Mambéty returns to the pivotal image of Mory, Anta, and the bike at rest on the cliffs above the infinite dreaming ocean, perhaps as a remembered idyll or perhaps a suggestion everything we’ve seen has been one possible path these two might stray along. Mambéty later stated that he made Touki-Bouki to dramatise his own emotional and intellectual reactions when he fantasised about leaving Senegal for any greener grass – tellingly, when Mory halts on the gangplank, a “Mr Diop” is being called for to board – and the film, in spite of Mory’s eventual desolation, elucidates a specific faith, that any place and people retain the seeds of great dreams and possibilities. When he returned to filmmaking Mambéty made Hyènes (1992), a follow-up with a plot inspired by Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, taking up the theme of returning from diaspora to hammer out old debts. Every future is bought at the cost of another.

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