1950s, 1970s, Horror/Eerie, Scifi, Thriller

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) / Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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Directors: Don Siegel / Philip Kaufman
Screenwriters: Daniel Mainwaring / W.D. Richter

By Roderick Heath

I said, “Hello!” again, a little louder, jiggling the phone, the way you do, but the line was dead, and I put the phone back. In my father’s day a night operator, whose name he’d have known, could have told him who’d called…But now we have dial phones, marvelously efficient, saving you a full second or more every time you call, inhumanly perfect, and utterly brainless; and none of them will ever remember where the doctor is at night, when a child is sick and needs him. Sometimes I think we’re refining all humanity out of our lives. – Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers

Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers began life as a serialised story in Colliers Magazine and was published as a novel in 1955. Finney, a former copywriter and journalist, became adept at writing in many a genre with the discipline of a shrewd professional. He wrote many crime stories, some of which were also adapted as films, including Phil Karlson’s 5 Against The House (1955), although his biggest publishing success was the 1970 time travel tale Time And Again. The Body Snatchers was received harshly by some science fiction writers and critics as a variation on an already well-worn idea: Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick had already explored very similar notions. Even when adapted as a movie in 1956, it was following Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953) in employing the theme of people in a small town replaced by alien doppelgangers. But Finney knew how to place such a story in a resolutely believable and human context, and Don Siegel’s adaptation immediately made the story the most famous variation on the theme, lodging itself in the popular consciousness and birthing the phrase “pod people” in common parlance. The hyped-up retitling initially gave it a trashy lustre but the film’s quality quickly grabbed critical attention, helping cement Siegel’s reputation.

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Siegel himself, unlike Arnold, wasn’t drawn to science fiction by inclination, and like Finney was more associated with thrillers. But it was precisely this likeness, each creative hand’s skill in grounding a tale in an immediately substantial and quotidian sense of the world, that would lend the story its specific texture. Eventually Invasion of the Body Snatchers was lodged as a diamond-hard genre film classic, an eternal touchstone for anyone who saw it when young and had their love for dark thrills galvanised. It also proved a ready template, officially remade three times, and imitated and lampooned endlessly. Philip Kaufman’s first remake, released in 1978, rode a wave of new interest in sci-fi cinema following the success of Star Wars (1977), as studios scrambled to find genre properties that could be quickly given a new gloss with modern special effects. Kaufman’s version immediately inspired and influenced a string of remakes, including John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), and Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988), adding new lashings of gruesome corporeal detail and radicalism to a fairly clean-cut and beloved movie in a manner that divided fans of the originals. But the most interesting disparities between the two films speak more of the radical social shifts in the twenty-two years that separate them, and the distinctive perspectives of their directors.

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Siegel was noted as a studio hand who’d risen to become a master editor at Warner Bros., and fought to get a break as director. Far from finding himself washed up as the studio system declined, Siegel thrived in the grittier climes of the 1960s and ‘70s, noted for his spiky tales of antiheroic misfits and his fascination for dramas pitting avatars of anarchy and control in direct, almost schizoid opposition. Kaufman, by contrast, was a literate bohemian turned filmmaker who started making movies in the mid-1960s but who didn’t start gaining traction until his fortunes aligned with the emerging Movie Brat generation. Both films retained the same basic structure and stuck fairly closely to Finney’s storyline, although Kaufman’s version transferred the setting from the small California town of Santa Mira to the urban zones of San Francisco and altered aspects of the character drama. Finney’s lead character Miles Bennell is a doctor in his home town Santa Mira who reconnects with his former teenage flame Becky Driscoll, and they edge into a tentative romance again as both are recovering from divorce.

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Kaufman and his screenwriter W.D. Richter reconfigured this so Bennell, rechristened Matthew, is a health inspector and Becky, now Elizabeth, is a colleague and friend with an obvious spark of connection although Elizabeth’s married. In both versions Bennell begins encountering anxious people who report that loved ones have been replaced by beings that look, sound, and act just like the people they know and yet are missing some vital defining trait. Bennell consults a psychiatrist friend, named Dan Kauffman in the original and David Kibner in the remake, who insists the phenomenon is purely mental. But Bennell’s writer friend Jack Belicec and his wife call him to take a look at a mysterious body that’s appeared on their premises, looking like an unfinished version of Jack. A terrible truth begins to emerge: people are being replaced by lookalikes growing out of seed pods with an extra-terrestrial origin, mimetic organisms able to absorb every characteristic of humans save any capacity for authentic emotion.

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Finney’s book had laid down a fine blueprint for describing the tensions between communal and individual identity. The main characters cut across the grain of their surrounds and old-fashioned social presumptions, with Miles and Becky as divorcees, whilst Miles and Kauffman and Belicec comprising something like the intelligentsia of their town with just a faint hint of the siege mentality such cliques often feel, an aspect Kaufman would elaborate on, just as their names nod to the polyglot state of American society. Siegel’s version doesn’t expend a great deal of time setting up the social backdrop of Santa Mira, because he doesn’t need to: it’s so damn ordinary, the people wandering through it familiar with their howdy-neighbour grins, everyone performing a function, from Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) to Kauffman (Larry Gates) to Police Chief Nick Grivett (Ralph Dumke) to gas repairman Charlie (Sam Peckinpah). The first sign of disturbance to the status quo comes as Bennell sees young Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) running away from the family fruit stand, gripped by the conviction his mother isn’t his mother. Bennell soon finds the same apparent delusion gripping several other people, including Becky’s friend Wilma (Virginia Christine) who swears her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t her Uncle Ira. “A strange neurosis, evidently contagious – an epidemic of mass hysteria,” Kauffman judges it, and to Miles’ question what causes it, responds: “Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.”

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Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers has long been the object of debate as to whether it can be considered as a political parable, with factional readings rooted in its era taking it as either a metaphor for the anti-Communist panic of McCarthyism, where a community gangs up on a small and hapless group to destroy or assimilate outliers, or rather the opposite, a vision of Communist infiltration, as the lookalikes conform to certain canards about the Red Menace, detached and enforcing a collective, hive-mind-like system. The quote from Finney’s book above indicates his target was something at once vaguer and more thoroughly encompassing, a general portrait of modernity as a state of perpetual, alienating shock, defined by a constant succession of nudges away from immediate human reference into a state of prophylaxis. Political readings blur into each-other from such a perspective, the desire to project insidious and malignant motives onto an Other a desperate attempt to return shape to communal experience, which is subject to a constant, intense process of homogenisation. Siegel had a love for characters who, for whatever reason, exist on the outskirts of society and try to operate according to their own very peculiar code. Here he’d found a perfect ironic text to explore his obsession, one that allowed him to make his heroes at once beings apart and the final exemplars of “normality,” the act of retaining their individuality valorised above all else but also doomed to cost them everything.

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At the same time, the story echoes more personally and immediately, speaking to a basic aspect of human experience that’s hard to portray dramatically. The fear of changes in people we know and love, the tiny, almost imperceptible alterations in behaviour that can signal anything from infidelity to senility, the noticing of which can often make the observer feel like they’re the one losing their wits. The way the story ties Bennell and Becky’s resuming relationship to the larger drama emphasises their frail and worldly-wise sense of becoming and cherishing, starkly contrasting the relentless assimilation of the alien invasion. When the lovers are confronted by the replicated Belicec and Kauffman, they insist it’s a blissful deliverance from all the fractiousness that defines human identity, the passion that brings pain, a sort of instant shortcut to a Zen state that represents however not triumph over flesh but the mere deadening of it. Kaufman would take up this facet, envisioning poddom as a kind of transubstantiation that fulfils in detail familiar religious visions – release from the tyranny of flesh and self, the achievement of perfect pacifism and embrace of a higher, gestalt truth – with infinitely cruel sarcasm.

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Part of what was innovative and notable about Siegel’s approach to Invasion of the Body Snatchers lay in the way he completely avoided the usual signifiers of a film in its genre. No dreamy expressionist visuals until the very end or familiar stars, no bug-eyed monsters or giveaways to suggest the alien point of view or airy, poetically meditative dialogue, but unfolding more like a mystery thriller or police procedural a succession of revelations and inferences. Pretty much to be expected, given that was Siegel’s usual purview. He was following Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954) in taking up that approach, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers took the method a step further: the most monstrous thing it can conceive is beings who look like people but who are not, the most frightening thing a horde of neighbours chasing you through the street in blank determination to erase what makes you you. Shots of Bennell and Becky running through the dark streets of Santa Mira’s downtown, glaring lights reflecting off wet tar, and dashing through empty office buildings and across the desert landscape, is more purely film noir stuff, close to Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Private Hell 36 (1954), or Karlson’s The Phenix City Story (1955). The connection with the latter film, a portrait of corruption and conspiracy proliferating in a nominally average small town, is especially strong, as Siegel applies the sci-fi element to such bedrock.

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The body on the Belicecs’ dining table, grotesquery in the midst of the utterly banal, alien horror manifesting in the space where the characters usually play at small town sophisticate, signals a narrative shift as an invisible phenomenon suddenly becomes substantial and paranoia becomes reality. Soon horror is suggesting itself everywhere, in cellars and greenhouses and farm fields, but remains excruciatingly hard to pin down. Siegel’s expert use of deep focus in widescreen frames constantly places his characters in coherent relationship with each-other and with strange phenomenon, containing them neatly within the same reality despite the protestations of hallucination. This leads to the crystallising moment where he films the replica Belicec’s eyes slowly peeling open, with Belicec and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) in the far reaches of the frame, trying to last out a vigil at their kitchen counter, Teddy alerted by the flicker of movement to a new and terrifying development. Another expert use of the same method comes when Bennell spies in through the window of Becky’s father’s house and sees the cabal of the replaced preparing to distribute pods, whilst a hand reaches into the frame and grips his shoulder. When the danger and perversity become more urgent and disorientating, Siegel’s proclivity for vertiginous low and high camera angles becomes more and more blatant, becoming defining aspects of the film’s most vivid scenes.

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Bennell queasily senses a likeness, having witnessed Becky’s faint disquiet at her father (Kenneth Patterson) making a mysterious trip to his basement. Sure enough, as Bennell breaks in and checks out the shadowy cellar, he finds a similar doppelganger of Becky, so he sneaks up to her room and snatches her away. In both Siegel’s and Kaufman’s films, the psychiatrist character is a rhetorical villain, offering up rationalisations in trying to convince Bennell and his friends that they’ve hallucinated or misinterpreted what they’ve seen. He almost convinces the characters the problem is all in their mind, and yet the psychiatrist is swiftly and easily subsumed to the alien purpose, or was perhaps part of it all the time. Kauffman/Kibner is identified as part of an infrastructure of detachment and learned distrust of the senses. The psychiatrist in each movie even essentially parrots socio-political readings of the narrative of the film he’s in. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you. Both homunculi vanish and Grivett grouchily reports to Bennell, Belicec, and Kauffman that the male form was found burning on a bonfire out on a farm. The many people who had insisted relatives had been replaced like young Jimmy and Wilma report to Bennell that they were mistaken and everything’s fine. This seems a victory for good sense. Except that as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs to try and leave behind the bizarreness by having a barbecue in Bennell’s backyard, they discover giant seed pods in the greenhouse that pulse and foam, and split open disgorge humanoid forms that begin taking on the likenesses of the four.

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Most good films detailing the eruption of the fantastic amidst the familiar hinge upon the question as to just when what’s logical – in the sense of what conclusion about a situation that can be reasonably deduced from the facts – ceases to obey one set of presumptions and dictates another. The heroes of such tales are usually those who make the leap a little earlier than anyone else. The discovery in the greenhouse marks the pivot in Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this regard, but it’s a narrative that cleverly obfuscates all certainty in other aspects. We never know when most of the townsfolk are replaced or even if Bennell, Becky, and the Belicecs are the last humans there. This loss of a common reality is the most insidious aspect of the narrative. At what point do the humans become aliens, threatening the native population? One detail in Finney’s novel the films intriguingly avoid mentioning is the fact that the replicas only have a very limited life span, and can’t sexually reproduce, in essence moving about the universe like a locust swarm laying each planet they come to waste. Both films engage the pod people less as a specific parasitical enemy and more as a purely social phenomenon. This might seem to rob an aspect of urgency from the films, but it does throw into relief the notion that really concerns Siegel and Kaufman: what is humanity, and what are we willing to endure to hold onto it?

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Siegel’s film is inexplicit about how aspects of the alien replication work. Part of the physical process is glimpsed in the greenhouse, fleshy human forms rapidly taking shape as would a pumpkin, a blend of familiar forms of propagation to signal the completely alien. Some sort of psychic process seems to be involved in the transference of memories and character. It becomes clear that the vital stage of replacement occurs during sleep, when the pod people have the capacity to download the minds of their models and to upload their own. Which does make one wonder why the pods bother replacing bodies at all, although there’s some potent metaphorical value in there. It makes sense that just as there are people who get by in life despite lacking any sense of integral identity or feeling by mimicking others, so too there might be other species doing it too. Kaufman would be very finicky in nailing down the details in his version. Either way the greenhouse discovery makes the source of the doubles and their nature clear to the protagonists: the psychological narrative, the problem of knowing one’s localised reality, gives way to a battle for existence, but both are seen as stations on an existential continuum. Bennell and Becky hide out from their pursuers in Bennell’s surgery overlooking the town square, where they become witnesses to the replica horde suddenly converging once the first morning bus has been through to distribute truckloads of pods.

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The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ connections reached both backwards and forwards in screen history. Siegel would more aggressively pursue the theme of the lone wolf warrior in films like Edge of Eternity (1959), Coogan’s Buff (1968), and Dirty Harry (1971), and offer a gendered examination of collision of the one and the group in The Beguiled (1971). Kevin McCarthy gained by far his best-known screen role in it, but his casting at the time certainly carried association with his performance as Biff in the Fredric March-starring adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1951), another story rooted in the superficially placid yet tense mood of post-war America where someone finds someone they love isn’t the person they think they are. Gene Fowler Jnr’s I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) would take up the alien masquerade theme as a manifestation of gender angst. One of the many later films Siegel’s would clearly influence would be George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), with its similar sense of besiegement within the superficially normal and the terror of loved-ones become emotionless shells, although Romero would twist the idea with the ultimately more marketable concept of a total removal of identity.

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Siegel’s film would echo through a host of films both within and without the sci-fi and horror genres, lurking in the DNA of thrillers in the 1970s like The Parallax View (1973), where the humdrum turns menacing and the infrastructure of daily life becomes enigmatic and oppressive. So when it came time for Kaufman to make his version, he gave the ‘70s paranoid trip a fitting terminus in also bringing it full circle. The pod people motif involves the ironic creation of civilisation that works better according to civilisation’s own ideals where the zombie tale eyes the animalistic underside of social identity. Finney’s novel ended in an upbeat fashion as Bennell’s assault on the pod growing farm results in the aliens abandoning Earth, realising it’s too tough a planet to colonise. For once a Hollywood adaptation decided to go in another direction and embrace a grimmer outlook. The climactic sequence of Siegel’s film is justly immortal as Bennell reaches a busy stretch of highway, the pod people halting their pursuit in caution as Bennell enters the lanes of traffic bellowing out hysterical warnings, Siegel’s camera viewing Bennell’s sweaty, bedraggled, mad-eyed visage as he tries desperately to alert the world only to be lost amidst the din and disdain. The good doctor has become just another nut, as Siegel switches to one of his characteristic high-angle shots and zooms out from him, leaving him stranded in his pathos.

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This, the film finally seems to say, is what we’re all offered as a choice in life: to become braindead in conformity or to be a madman howling at cars in warning. Siegel’s initial cut of Invasion of the Body Snatchers dismayed test audience, so his backers, Allied Artists, and producers Walter Mirisch and Walter Wanger, shot a wraparound sequence that turned the bulk of the movie into a tale recounted by Bennell to patient but sceptical doctors, Hill (Whit Bissell) and Bassett (Richard Deacon), after Bennell is brought into a police station in a frazzled, near-hysterical, but lucid state. It’s usually considered an awkward and obvious appendage as has been excised from some prints, particularly as it despoils the perfection of the highway scene. But it’s never really bothered me, in part because the act of narrating the story gives the film context that engages the possibility of an unreliable narrator. The very end as Hill realises Bennell’s been telling the truth thanks to a very well-timed traffic accident, leaves us on a tantalising note: can any action be taken in time? And what about Bennell, on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion?

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Kaufman and Richter (Richter would go on to write Big Trouble in Little China, 1986, and direct The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, 1984, both movies that couldn’t find an audience but which became cult objects), in updating and transposing the original’s story, radically altered aspects of its meaning. The relatively unruffled hominess of the Ike-era small town setting is swapped out for the jostling, already mistrustful environs of a mid-1970s American metropolis, where the oddball is always on the boil and the architecture already seems encoded with a disdain for the human, thrusting pyramidal skyscrapers and facades of glass and steel cutting the human connections into cubist fragments. Where Bennell in the original has the noble task as town doctor of ministering to his local flock, Kaufman’s Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is tasked with seeking out filth and carelessness as agent of benign bureaucracy resented by those he surveys: he’s introduced as a looming face distorted in a peephole lens, and infuriates the manager of the swank restaurant he inspects as he insists an object he fishes out a bubbling dish is not a caper but a rat turd. Kauffman, renamed Kibner, is not just a psychiatrist but a writer of successful advice books, peddling fashionable New Age bromides to his audience. Belicec in the original seemed an avatar for Finney himself as a modestly successful and personable writer, so Belicec becomes Kaufman’s frustrated shadow in his version, a frustrated poet and angrily authentic bohemian. Belicec decries Kibner’s work even as he hopes to ride it for a little benefit, weeping by himself after failing to get a chance to read his work at Kibner’s book launch, even whilst running a mud bath with his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright).

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Kaufman makes his Invasion of the Body Snatchers a more literal horror movie than Siegel’s, with flashier camerawork mediating realism with a slow dissolution into a neo-expressionist nightmare, and extended sequences of nascent body horror and gore. And yet Kaufman takes a more leisurely and quirk-sensitive time in setting up the story with flashes of wit and menace as well as incidental characterisation. The credits unfold over visions of alien spores flocking on the surface of a strange planet and being disgorged into space, floating through the void before landing on Earth in rainfall, making the presence of the aliens explicit from the start. Kaufman zooms in to study the alien spores growing parasitically on Earth trees and eventually growing into small, blooming pods. Elizabeth picks one and tries to identify its species, whilst contending with her dentist husband Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle), who takes time out from watching football immersed with headphones on to come ravish her: theirs is a marriage that seems cheerful but has the quality of a college hook-up nearing its use-by date. The next morning Elizabeth awakens to find Geoffrey already well-dressed and acting in a taciturn, almost robotically severe manner, cleaning up the broken glass she kept the pod in on her bedside table, and spiriting out a strange load of matted material to a garbage truck.

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Whereas Siegel kept the slowly metastasising invasion in the shadows until the last portion of film, Kaufman offers, mostly through Elizabeth’s eyes at first, a sense of a cabal forming and taking grip. She glimpses Geoffrey meeting strangers around town, handing each-other strange objects wrapped in blankets or bags, unspoken accords forming. Michael Chapman, who had shot Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver two years earlier, was called upon here to expand his feel for inner city psychosis, expounded through shots that play with diffused and disturbed vision. Grainy zoom shots of ambiguous dealings. Faces seen through or reflected in distorting mirrors or glass, or looming out of shadows. One shot of Bennell hiding in a cupboard in Geoffrey and Elizabeth’s house is pure Expressionism. Handheld camerawork to capture a sensation of woozy, disoriented isolation. Chapman’s camera notes a man dashing across the street as it pans onto Elizabeth heading to work, faint screeching sounds and people starting to chase after the man unnoticed by her, just more city weirdness to tune out. Soon she’s pounding pavements seeing strangers all around on buses and the like who seem somehow charged with strangeness, the din and frenetic movement of the cityscape not quite obscuring the change at its heart. Bennell’s shattered windscreen, broken by an angry cook at the restaurant he shuttered, becomes a quasi-abstract pattern. It’s through this that Bennell and Elizabeth glimpse a panicky, urgently warning man they almost run down as he dashes in front of them: why, it’s Kevin McCarthy, still sounding the alarm, only this time to be swiftly run down and killed by pursuers.

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This inspired cameo gives Kaufman’s film less the lustre of a remake than a quasi-sequel, taking up where Siegel left off. He left Bennell as the incarnation of a world spirit crying out for attention and awareness, whilst Kaufman runs over it. Siegel himself appears later as a taxi driver. When Bennell takes Elizabeth to meet Kibner, the psychiatrist’s encompassing roster of condemnation and proposed causes for paranoid conviction now includes a disintegrating family unit and people who can’t handle responsibility because life is too confronting. Belicec sticks up for the bohemian spirit as bawls out Kibner’s book: “Where’s Homer? Where’s Kazantzakis? Where’s Jack London?” Meanwhile his wife Nancy accidentally draws attention to the problem of trying to alert people to disintegrating reality when one is already deeply plugged into New Age kookiness, as she brings up Von Daniken-via-Quatermass notions. Then again, who’s to say she’s wrong? The omnipresence of the garbage trucks in which the replicas dispose of the shrivelled remains of the replaced become Kaufman’s most bitterly amusing touch, the most fitting etude for a consumerist society to be deposited in the rubbish by a parasitical species.

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Despite their differences in outlook and temperament, Siegel and Kaufman were nonetheless united in their fascination with and determination advocacy for individualism. Perhaps indeed it’s one trait shared by just about any creative in the western tradition. Abel Ferrara’s awkward, misjudged 1992 version, which to a certain played as less as another remake than as a companion story simultaneous to Kaufman’s, nonetheless included one brilliant sequence rooted precisely in this artistic sense of humanity, in which the one remaining human child in a class is outed when the kids are all made to draw: the human offers colour and form whilst the aliens all come up with static-like fuzz. Kaufman’s sense of political parallel is more pointed and self-conscious, however. Kaufman senses in frustration an oncoming conservatism after the flowering of the Counterculture that would soon bring about Reaganism. Perhaps his most memorable tweak to the way Siegel presented the pod people was to give them a distinctive shriek they release to alert others of their kind when a normal human has detected them, usually with a finger thrust out in identifying accusation.

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This nerve-rattling touch gives the pod people a more immediately alien, monstrous quality, but also more draws out the notion of social horror acutely: the humans become the hated enemy, the deviation, that must be abhorred. Holocaust metaphors are hard to miss, particularly in a late scene in which Bennell watches, in deadpan distress, as a busload of school children are unwittingly ushered into a building to be assimilated. As in Siegel’s film, Kaufman builds to a sequence where Bennell and Elizabeth are confronted by the fake Kibner and Belicec, calm proselytisers for the change who Bennell finishes up killing in a terribly intimate struggle. Like Siegel, Kaufman would devote the rest of his career to celebrating gutsy people apart after having defined his personal nightmare. But where Siegel’s vision became increasingly antisocial, Kaufman tried to celebrate an ideal, helping create Indiana Jones and glorifying the Mercury astronauts and turning Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin into bohemian swashbucklers. Kaufman stages his take on the original film’s greenhouse scene out in Bennell’s backyard, where he, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are resting: Bennell falls asleep sprawled in a sun chair. Fine tendrils from one of the pods are seen attaching themselves to his body for the sake of absorbing his physiognomy and then mind.

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This brilliantly executed scene did for makeup and prosthetic effects what Star Wars had done for spaceship action the year before in showing an audience a sudden leap forward in a special effects art, presenting a convincingly corporeal vision of the replication of process, twitching, shivering bodies growing rapidly. Only Nancy’s interruption, screaming out to Bennell as she spies the malefic scene, awakens him and forestalls the process. Bennell hacks his replica to pieces with a shovel and the gang flee the house. In both films Bennell can’t bring himself to attack Becky’s replica and so attacks his own instead. Another of Kaufman’s great scenes, a moment charged with the essence of ‘70s screen culture, is a montage sequence in which Bennell tries to alert authorities from pay phones in the San Francisco downtown. Random voices from a distant regime fending off his warnings drone on audio as Kaufman’s visuals employ swooning hand-held camerawork, tracking Bennell as he wanders the city and makes his calls, all sense not just of structured society and authority disintegrating but reality along with it, as Bennell falls down the rabbit hole into complete disconnection from the world, the city completing its transformation from enveloping community to enemy territory.

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As the conspiracy busts loose and the heroes are driven out onto the streets, the style becomes increasingly baroque. Bennell, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are glimpsed under a flight of stairs, only their four sets of eyes visible through gaps in the woodwork, as their pursuers pound down the steps before them; then the fleeing foursome’s shadows are seen dancing upon the wall of the Embarcadero like they’ve become refugees from a Murnau film. Kaufman’s genuine engagement with the original is also nodded to in two sequences that are also inspired enlargements upon Siegel’s. In the original Bennell and Becky’s efforts to move undetected amongst the pod people by acting emotionless are foiled when Becky screams in concern for a dog that nearly gets hit by a truck. Kaufman has Bennell encounter the bedraggled, homeless busker Harry (Joe Bellen) who sleeps with his dog in the park: Bennell kicks at a pod lying near him to save him from assimilation, but later as Bennell, Elizabeth, and Nancy escape a locale teeming with pod people a grotesque chimera comes loping towards them, the dog with Harry’s head, tearing a scream from Elizabeth. It feel like a black-hearted gag taking aim at too-little too-late liberalism as well as an episode seeking some genuine perversity in the evocation of new frontiers of flesh.

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The second variation plays on a haunting sequence in Siegel’s where Bennell follows the sound of eerie music only to find it’s only on a radio ignored by the replica people working on a pod farm. In Kaufman’s version, this becomes a more expansively operatic moment as Bennell hears a mass bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” echoing from the waterfront and thinks they might be able to escape on a ship still crewed by humans, only to find as he ventures close that pods are being loaded onto the ships for exporting. The simultaneously mocking and plaintive sense of spiritual longing and human grandeur takes Siegel’s ironic scene to a new place here, all the more tragic in the sense of such art and feeling being erased. Perhaps the greatest moment in Siegel’s film comes when a completely exhausted Becky collapses as she and Bennell try to flee a cave where they’ve hidden. As Bennell tries to pick her realises she’s fallen asleep just long enough, no more than a few seconds, to be possessed by the aliens, her black eyes opening slowly with impassive and depthless regard: Siegel cuts from viewpoint to viewpoint – Bennell’s horrified reaction, eyes wide with shock and revulsion, mirrors the possessed Becky’s – as it becomes clear at last this is a nightmare there’s no waking up from.

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Kaufman’s version of the same moment is less immediately vivid, but it has its own sick power. Bennell returns from the waterfront to find Elizabeth asleep and lost. He sits cradling her body until it crumbles into a fibrous mess, and her replica arises from the scrub nearby, naked and remade as a blankly carnal thing that mocks the way Bennell and Elizabeth played at platonic friendship that finally became passion with the sarcastic permission of the alien invasion: Elizabeth becomes a mere body there’s no point in trying to make love to. Faced with the choice between honouring Finney or Siegel’s endings, Kaufman and Richter chose to do both, which makes for a slightly awkward if still vigorous set of climaxes. Fleeing the fake Elizabeth, Bennell comes across a warehouse where the pods are being cultivated, and he manages to lay waste to the place by dropping lighting rigs on the nursery and starting a fire. But faced with no chance to escape the city, Bennell returns to the Department of Health building and seems to make a play of operating normally amongst his colleagues, now all silent, pokerfaced, utterly futile beings for whom the workaday treadmill has become a robotic routine, a bleak and tedious reductio ad absurdum for all late capitalist life.

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The sting in the tale waits until the very last shots, as Bennell wanders solitary in the town only to encounter Nancy, who gives away her humanity by giving him a complicit grin: Bennell lifts a hand and points at her, releasing the demonic alien scream of accusation. Kaufman’s camera zooms into the black void of the screaming maw. It’s one of the most memorable and ghoulish endings in fantastic cinema, capping the movie with a note of bottomless angst and horror. And yet it’s also ambiguous. Many critics felt the end of Kaufman’s film implied there had never been much point fighting the pods and that the pod Bennell simply represented clapped-out acquiescence. But what does it mean that Bennell became a pod person? His yawing-mouthed cry evokes both his counterpart in Siegel’s film as he raved his desperate warning, and also his own choked-off scream as Elizabeth crumbles in his arms. Did he simply run out of steam, unable to keep himself awake? Did he give in because it was too painful to be alone? Or did he, as the last glimpses of him gazing at the replicated Becky possibly suggest, give in in order, in whatever pathetic, degraded, impotent state, to share it with her? The horror of the ending of Siegel’s film is that Bennell seems inhuman when bellowing and crying out in a most human way. The horror of Kaufman’s is that our most human need, for other humans, could lead us to abandon humanity.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Mystery, Thriller

The Parallax View (1973)

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Director: Alan J. Pakula
Screenwriters: David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr, Robert Towne (uncredited), Alan J. Pakula (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Alan J. Pakula’s work as a director was often defined by the gulf between the films he’s known for, and all the rest. Pakula stands as virtually synonymous with a type of paranoid, conspiratorial thriller, a reputation that does honour his deepest influence and best work, but also stands in contrast with his attempts to sustain a varied and mature-minded oeuvre. Originally entering the Hollywood system as an assistant in Warner Bros.’ animation department, Pakula quickly proved his worth as a behind-the-camera manager and became regular producing partner to Robert Mulligan. Pakula gained his first Oscar nomination in his mid-30s, producing Mulligan’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved novel To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). Pakula made his first venture as a director with 1969’s The Sterile Cuckoo, a portrait of young college students struggling with their emotional maturing. His second film, Klute (1971), presented an eerie and disorientating melding of character drama and giallo-influenced psycho-thriller. The Parallax View, his third outing, was initially met with mixed reviews and poor box office. But it quickly became a cult object, and so effectively established Pakula’s touch with conjuring an enigmatic and obsessive atmosphere that Robert Redford hired him to direct All The President’s Men (1976), a portrayal of the investigation into Watergate that proved one of the most generally admired films of ‘70s Hollywood.

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Afterward Pakula seemed to consciously choose to leave behind thrillers for a time, for an array of personal dramas, but like many directors who had revelled in the openness of ‘70s movie culture, Pakula struggled throughout the 1980s, making several films virtually no-one saw, with only the post-Holocaust drama Sophie’s Choice (1982) gaining real acclaim. Unlike many faltering fellows, however, Pakula resurged with the excellent, moody courtroom drama Presumed Innocent (1990), and whilst his last few films before his death in 1998 were weaker, The Pelican Brief (1993) and The Devil’s Own (1997) rewarded his return to thrillers with high-profile successes. As easily his most famous and admired work, closely joined in style and tone, Klute, The Parallax View, and All The President’s Men represent both crucial unity and divergence. Klute’s focus falls on characters detached from all sense of self and the latter, with its reportorial veracity, contends with individuals at odds with a blank and alien sense of authority as threat. The Parallax View, based on Loren Singer’s novel, mediates as a nominal portrait of post-1960s anxiety and distrust but one driven by an ironic sense of its central character as a portrait in self-delusion, for a film that ruthlessly disassembles the old movie mythology of the fearless reporter. Warren Beatty’s lead performance, one of his best, is characteristic in trying to boil a sense of his character to the essence.

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So, in playing reporter Joe Frady, Beatty summarises the character’s motivation and character to a casually hapless admission: “Can’t help it.” He’s clearly a man who’s disappointed and aggravated many of the people who work with him and even those who love him, with a history of abusing the bottle and rubbing editors the wrong way. The Parallax View first truly registers Frady when his colleague and ex-lover Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) gives a rueful smile and refuses to play along with security guards as he tries to get in on a press junket with her (“Is he with you, miss?” “No.”). Frady, Lee, and other journalists are covering the campaign of Senator and Presidential candidate Charles Carroll (William Joyce). As Carroll visits the top of Seattle’s Space Needle, he is shot dead by one man dressed as a waiter (Bill McKinney). But another waiter, Thomas Linder, is the one seen holding a gun and pursued by security, falling to his death after a struggle on the Needle roof. A congressional committee reports that Linder was the lone assassin. Three years later, Lee visits Frady’s apartment in a quietly terrified state, telling him that several of the people who were near to Carroll at the time and counted as witnesses to the killing have died in the interim, including a judge, Arthur Bridges; Lee has been in contact with another witness, Carroll’s smooth and wealthy aide Austin Tucker (William Daniels), who like her suspects an active plot to wipe them all out. Frady can barely take Lee’s story seriously despite his solicitude over her emotional state, but is soon called to identify her body after she turns up dead, supposedly having crashed a car whilst under the influence of drugs.

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The Parallax View establishes its odd, oblique, off-kilter rhythm as Pakula’s cool, distanced style depicts Carroll glad-handing and campaigning in the midst of Seattle festivities. Pakula employs little direct dialogue as his camera simply notes his actors at large amidst documentary-like footage of milieu and hoopla. The selection of jostling people around the politician are observed as an organic mass of types exemplifying the familiar paraphernalia of American political life, an event with a surface appearance of being a scrambling, freeform carnival concealing its reality as a carefully ritualised act. Only later do the individuals involved in this scrum of democratic energy and playacting resolve, according to the roles they play in the assassination’s aftershocks. The systematised use of locations to shape the drama is first really noticeable in Pakula’s depiction of Linder’s desperate attempt to escape secret service guards atop the Space Needle, falling over the edge with a desperate scream and the agents: it’s all done in one dizzying shot, the radius of the roof and the panorama of the skyline converging zones of strange space with a hapless human vanishing at the meeting point. Lee’s visit to Frady’s apartment sees them photographed through the blinds of his balcony, at once a suggestively romantic image but also one that’s ghostly, ethereal, transient, anticipating Lee’s death which arrives with brutal force at the very next cut.

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Frady has a prickly relationship with his boss, Seattle newspaper editor Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn), who barely tolerates Frady’s shambling persona and tendencies to push patience and licence to a limit. When Frady is first glimpsed after the assassination, he’s harassed and arrested by local cops who want him to give up his sources on a story. Rintels, after getting him released, compares Frady’s liking for stirring up trouble and giving potential news stories a creative push to a comedian who makes fun of people to entertain audience: “They’re amused, but they’re not happy about it.” Later he bitterly accosts Frady after he asks him for money to continue the investigation: “I won’t advance you a dime. I don’t care if your self-serving ambition gets you a paperback sale and a Pulitzer.” “You’re really tired, aren’t ya?” Frady questions by way of retort, writing Rintels off as another ossified remnant getting in the way of his mission to blow the lid off things. Frady’s breezy reasonableness when talking with Lee drives her to the point of becoming distraught. Beatty skilfully puts across Frady’s character, alternating professional savvy and a certain remnant zeal with a dry drunk’s need to perpetually justify himself as the man who’s more authentic and tuned-in than anyone else, with occasional flashes of self-awareness. Frady knows how badly he’s alienated so many people close to him and his attempts to rebuild himself and his reputation ironically test the last few bonds even more.

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Cronyn plays a potential cliché – the hard-bitten but likeable editor – with aspects of remnant, potent authority and sorely tested moral resolve as he dresses down Frady, and exhausted acquiescence, perhaps seeing something of himself in the younger man. The low flame of amity he feels for Frady brightens a little as he comes to realise Frady’s really on to something. Both contrast Prentiss’ brief but effective portrait of a soul in a state of true desperation, fully aware she’s going to die and like Cassandra doomed to not be believed. Frady’s sense of personal mission as he sets out to find why she was killed seems genuine, but the truth in Rintels’ assessment of him is visible as his investigation becomes inextricably linked with the expectation the story will bring him rewards and riches, as he blows off an offer from Tucker for money to keep low and quiet. Tucker himself is living in fear, closely watched over by a bodyguard who’s so thorough in tending to his boss’s anxiety he makes Frady go through a full-body search before allowing them to meet. Before encountering Tucker, Frady investigates Judge Bridges’ death, going undercover with false IDs obtained through his friend, the former FBI agent Will Turner (Kenneth Mars), and posing as a “hostile misfit” (“For that, you don’t need an ID,” Turner quips).

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Frady visits the small town of Salmontail where he’s bullied in a bar by a sheriff’s deputy, Red (Earl Hindman) over his long hair, sparking a brutal fistfight that Frady wins, impressing the sheriff, Wicker (Kelly Thorsden), who seems to accept Frady’s story of being a friend of Bridges wanting to know how he died. Frady goes fly fishing at the river spot where Bridges was drowned, apparently caught unexpectedly by a discharge of water from a nearby dam, despite the great volume of the sirens warning of the release. Frady is confronted by Wicker with a gun, who seems to intend Frady die the same way, but Frady manages to swat him with his fishing rod and the two men are washed whilst grappling downriver. Frady survives, Wicker does not, and the reporter goes to the sheriff’s house where he discovers strange literature sent out by an organisation called the Parallax Corporation, including a bewildering questionnaire. Frady has to escape Salmontail, stealing Wicker’s police car to elude other cop cars and crashing it into a supermarket, but he manages to slip away and get back in contact with the still-cynical Rintels. Frady talks next to a psychological researcher (Anthony Zerbe), who thinks the Parallax questionnaire is designed to filter for psychopaths and violent types. Frady gets him to school him in the right answers to give to look like a great candidate. When he meets with Tucker on his yacht, Frady barely escapes with his life as the yacht explodes from a planted bomb.

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Gordon Willis, who would shoot many of Pakula’s films, had a specific aesthetic and sense of expressivity Pakula was well-attuned to. With his grainy, slightly underexposed images and use of shallow focus, Willis filters the film’s visual experience to match the theme, heroes glimpsed as blotchy manifestations amidst complex and jostling frames or isolated and exposed, a sense of myopic confusion engrained in the very filmic texture. Some of this is based in a wary sense of the contemporary landscape – the soaring reaches of the Space Needle, the wavy, plastic forms of the Parallax headquarters, the blank, drab, voluminous expanse of the hall where a political rally is to unfold, scantly decorated with blocks of patriotic colouring in furniture and decoration. Pakula’s penchant for suggesting hidden patterns through visual cues, exercised more overtly on All The President’s Men, is illustrated here in a scene where a corpse is slumped over at the same angle as the books on a shelf behind, and later scenes where Frady roves around the interior of a building with interiors sliced up into frames within frames like a Mondrian painting, the jangled and compartmentalised reality Frady is exploring realised as well as a dark joke based in the idea of Frady marching towards a frame-up.

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The few, spasmodic moments of action are similarly mediated through jagged or layered images. Carroll’s killing is glimpsed through a window of the Space Needle observation deck, spurts of blood appearing on the glass, before Pakula returns inside as people dash to and fro in chaotic reaction, silhouetted and indistinct against the sunlit windows. Frady’s fight with the sheriff breaks up the actual physical conflict into a succession of blurred, obliquely framed actions and very quick glimpses of blood and violence, alternated with calm, distant shots of the water spilling from the floodgates and gushing down river, dragging the two men along. The explosion of Tucker’s yacht is similarly shot from a distance as the craft moves with languorous grace across the water. Moments like this gain a strange kind of impact because Pakula’s carefully modulated approach: innocuous things become charged with a lingering sense of menace, but also dangerous and frightening things come to seem strangely familiar, even humdrum. Parallax employees look like any rank of suited, smooth-talking corporate functionaries.

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The Parallax View is usually classified as a political thriller. Certainly it deals with a preoccupation common to both 1973 and today, questioning if the official version of things dealt out to the public is a true one, conveyed here through the narrative’s echoes of the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. Lee and Frady can be seen as exemplary period liberals left bereft and paranoid by the failure of alternative political options leaving the nation mired in Watergate and the last legs of the Vietnam War: Frady expresses this directly as he remembers when “every time you turned around some nut was knocking off one of the best men in the country.” The Parallax View describes a feeling of political void, the ruination of democracy through the systematic removal of its most effectual figures, perhaps indeed to maintain not a party rule or a factional force but to enforce the tyranny of the mundane, to refuse change to exactly the equal and opposite degree people like Lee and Frady want to shake them up. “You move his plate five inches, that boy’s gonna starve to death,” Wicker comments about Red, a throwaway quip that also perhaps nods to this need by the kinds of people who support Parallax to keep things exactly stable, the meal ticket well-filled.

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The notion of forces stirring behind the façade of democracy, such as shadowy corporations that have more wealth and immediate power than governments, certainly also raises one of the great worries of contemporary democracy. And yet on other levels The Parallax View not political at all, not in the same way that Mikhail Kalotozov’s I Am Cuba (1964), Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) or Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969) are in contending with real and present contentions in world governance. No real political ideas or concepts are explored or at stake save the broad notion of democracy. In many ways The Parallax View updates the sinister cabals and lurking criminal conspiracies glimpsed in the silent films of Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang, with shades of Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Spione (1928) but without villainous figureheads to embody the evil, as well as the quasi-abstract espionage threats Alfred Hitchcock was fond of. That is to say, like those precursors, it’s more a work of existential anxiety, a feeling of being surrounded and corralled by impersonal, malevolent forces. The storyline rearranges the pictures and themes of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), whilst giving them new dimensions. The plot to assassinate a presidential candidate during a political rally in Frankenheimer’s film gives way here to a listless rehearsal in a near-empty space, the booming political speech pre-recorded whilst the candidate holds his place in distracted boredom. Rather than offering a brutal plan to corrupt and shatter the democratic process, The Parallax View offers what we see as another facet of government’s perpetual background drama, real power’s theatrical apparatus, planting seeds or trimming branches where needed.

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Most genre films congratulate an audience on letting them identify with canny and competent protagonists. The Parallax View’s storyline has a vital similarity to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man from the previous year, as a cynical moral drama portraying a hero whose faith in his own skills and street smarts proves far too inflated and who ultimately walks easily into a nasty trap he’s been carefully measured for. Like Sgt Howie in Hardy’s film, Frady represents a particularly ripe sacrifice to a dark god because he represents an opposing camp with real but self-deluding passion. Some of All The President’s Men’s potency would stem from the sense of incoherence in power – the seats of authority and its figureheads are all too visible but the minions, the midnight operators, are manifold and insidious, with perhaps even the people nominally in charge of them having no real command. In the end The Parallax View, being fiction, is freer in expostulating a sense of murderous threat, a dark nexus of evildoing which is after a fashion more reassuring as a world-view to some sensibilities.

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The inspired notion of a corporation specialising in creating operatives for conspiracy and assassination, a logical confluence of big business amorality and right-wing politics, is employed without being clarified. The film resists to the utmost any temptation to have anyone explain Parallax’s outlook or purpose – the company’s recruiting film suggests aspects of it, but Pakula still leaves it for us to infer to what the corporation is up to and why. The only member of Parallax to speak for himself, recruiting emissary Jack Younger (Walter McGinn), offers Frady in his guise as a good potential applicant, the kinds of opportunities that would sound perfect for a frustrated, self-perceived exile within their own society (of whom the internet has only proven there’s a proliferating number of in recent years), with promises of wealth and adventure based in precisely the characteristics other zones of society have rejected them for. Younger is less a voice of fascist politics than a salesman for a line in self-improvement by radical means. Coscreenwriter David Giler, who would help produce and write Alien (1979), would carry over some of this film’s eerie and paranoid sense of corporate malfeasance to that work. The other credited writer (Robert Towne was hired for polishing) was Lorenzo Semple Jr, whose schooling in writing the Batman TV series emerges during Frady’s fistfight with Red as a mockery of macho brawling.

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Frady proves surprisingly adept in fisticuffs and, later, improvising to escape Salmontail by any means necessary, proving that for all Frady’s lacks, physical adeptness and ability under pressure aren’t amongst them. Pakula and the writers are inflect the post-Bullitt (1968) action stuff with a more than faint flicker of absurdity, pitting Frady against small town cops not particularly more able than he is, Frady’s make-it-up-as-you-go action moves and careening driving successful mostly in being fuelled by reactive necessity. Later, as he ventures closer to the true nexus of evil, his instincts fail him as he fails to consider he might be the one being played, even when encountering such happy coincidences as glimpsing Carroll’s assassin in the Parallax headquarters. Then again, Frady’s encounters with various police departments could make a guy cocky. “The truth is they don’t have very bright guys,” Deep Throat tells Bob Woodward in All The President’s Men, hinting heavily that Nixon’s conspiracy comes undone in part because the real world’s villains are often much less competent than they think they are. The Parallax View however articulates a worthy anxiety of encountering an organisation in the world up to no good that really has its shit together.

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The Parallax View’s pivotal sequence sees Frady visiting Parallax headquarters after talking with Younger. Frady is left to settle in a large, dark theatre in a chair that seems to be rigged to measure his reactions, and shown a sort of recruiting film. The film flashes up words with potent, straightforward evocations – LOVE, MOTHER, HOME, COUNTRY and so forth, magazine ad images of homey associations of such words mixed in with still from movies like Shane (1953) and patriotic shrines like Mt Rushmore, the word ENEMY illustrated with pictures of Hitler, Mao, and Fidel Castro, HAPPINESS as stacks of coins, good booze, naked women, and so on. As the film goes on, the inferences become darker and the distinctions blurred, becoming a scurrilous satire of sentimental imagery – FATHER becomes associated with Depression-era poverty and gruelling, consuming toil, MOTHER with sorrow and sour regret, COUNTRY with gawking, 3D-glasses wearing voyeurs looking on in detachment at lynching and Ku Klux Klan rallies, as well orgiastic promise, murderers and superheroes. Show business and politics, art and journalism, propaganda and advertising. By the end all binaries and concepts have been churned into a frenetic and indivisible evocation, violent rape and incest, assassination and pornography, riches and power all part of a system of insiders and outsiders, users and the used. This marvellous vignette offers a strong experimental film deployed within a larger commercial movie narrative.

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This might even be part of the point for Parallax, reaching for a part of the psyche beyond doubt for a more primal nexus. It suggests something deeply troubling about Parallax’s approach to recruiting its goons – not with overt indoctrination but with images wielded with a mesmeric associative inflection, at once laying bare aspects of their outlook whilst still remaining shrouded in ambiguity. Does Frady pass or fail the implicit test? Is Frady revealed as a phony, or is his inner identity as yet another schmuck who thinks he’s a genius confirmed and prized? Frady at this point has no reason to think Parallax knows who he is, as he’s officially dead after the bombing of Tucker’s yacht – only Rintels knows he’s alive. The most Hitchcockian sequence directly follows the screening as Frady catches sight of Carroll’s assassin, recognised from photos Tucker showed him, leaving the Parallax building, and tracks him to the airport. Frady realises the assassin has placed a bomb hidden in luggage on a plane that has one of the current rival Presidential candidates, Gillingham, as a passenger, but only after he’s trapped aboard. Frady tries to tip off the plane crew to his fear without giving himself away, first writing a message on the toilet mirror and then sneaking a written missive on a napkin so the flight attendants will discover it. This does the trick and everyone is evacuated from the plane moments before it explodes.

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When he returns to his grimy rented apartment to resume his assumed identity, Frady is again visitedby Younger who, as Frady expected, has established his identity is false, and Frady now claims to be a man on the run from the police. Meanwhile the assassin poses as a deliveryman to give a poisoned lunch to Rintels, who is found dead in his office the next day: Frady is completely oblivious to his one ally’s death, having sent him a tape recording he made of his talk with Younger. Pakula portrays Rintels’ death first with a sense of low-key tension, drawing out the moment when he’ll consume a meal we know will be the end of him, and then cutting dispassionately to the discovery of his body the next day, a forlorn sight with a sting as Pakula notes the package containing Frady’s tape missing. Frady next follows Younger to a large office and convention centre where it proves a rally for Gillingham’s rival George Hammond (Jim Davis) is being rehearsed. The assassin shoots Hammond as he drives about across the hall in a cart and leaves the rifle at precisely the place Frady has been so expertly lured to. Frady realises, far, far too late, that he’s the patsy for the assassination, witnesses below pointing him out from below and tracking his attempts to escape.

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This sequence is a masterful piece of moviemaking that sees Pakula and Willis generating a sense of the nightmarish whilst completely resisting usual methods of creating suspense. The pace of shots stays calm, the framings still often oblique, action viewed from a remove and glimpsed in small portions of the frame. A piece of showmanship put on by the young boosters, flipping around cards that form images of patriotism and great leaders like Washington and Lincoln before arriving at Hammond’s caricatured visage, echoes the Parallax film in proffering calculated iconography as well as Pakula’s segmented visual scheme. Hammond’s cart, its driver slumped and dying, pathetically trundles about, crashing through the neatly arranged furniture. High shots from Frady’s perspective sees a labyrinthine network of shadowy catwalks and gantries, below the brightly lit stadium floor a grid of colourful blossoms on grey concrete, a zone of clandestine criminality lording over the bright clarity of democratic spectacle. Shots from the floor only offer vague glimpses of Frady. Silhouetted Parallax heavies roam like androids in apparently searching for Frady, but really they’re herding him. Michael Small’s subtle, creepy scoring doesn’t overwhelm the ambient noise, which eventually includes ambulances and police cars invading the hall floor, as the great hall becomes a trap where every noise and motion seems amplified.

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The camera stays at a distance from the hunters and hunted in the ceiling reaches as they scuttle along gantries: the nominal urgency of the moment is suborned and becomes something more like watching some game of logic being played out with grimly concerted precision. Urgency only comes when a way out suddenly beckons. The open door that represents deliverance to Frady is filled with brilliant, hallucinatory light, and his dash to it filmed from front on in a reversing zoom shot that stretches out the moment in infinite agony – only for a Parallax goon, a figure of black, blank fate, to appear in the frame and blast him dead with a shotgun. The earlier shot of the congressional committee is now reversed, the inevitable report that Frady was Hammond’s killer and denying all conspiracy theories now filmed with the camera drawing out, officialdom shrinking to a paltry block of light in infinite black. The cruel ingenuity of The Parallax View lies in the way the entire narrative has pointed to such an end without giving itself away. But the greater part of its force lies in the way it conceives of political paranoia in essentially mythic terms, a warning about blocs of potential power and disruption in contemporary life that could also be a carefully observed paranoid psychosis in the mind of an assassin. When reality has lost all shape, all faiths and creeds corrupted, reality can be chosen by will.

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1970s, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Night Moves (1975)

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Director: Arthur Penn
Screenwriter: Alan Sharp

By Roderick Heath

When Bonnie & Clyde (1967) proved a hit, Arthur Penn became the first real hero of New Wave Hollywood. Penn’s sad, savage, ambivalent portrait of outcasts and authority at war during a rare moment of desperation for the American outlook took critics and studios equally by surprise. But it hit the mood of an elusive, generally young audience with a cultural bullseye, and provided a rough roadmap for an oncoming wave of talent. Penn’s early film works after graduating from television, The Left-Handed Gun (1958) and The Miracle Worker (1962), marked him as a forceful dramatist who, like generational fellows John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet, brought the aura of stark, sober seriousness found in the cross-pollinating zones of ‘50s stage and television drama to bigger screens. But Penn’s Mickey One (1965) saw him moving beyond the brittle demarcations of that style, attempting to mate trends coming out of European art film with the argot of Hollywood. The Chase (1966) confirmed his fascination with outsiders and the dark side of the national communal mind, and whilst the result was largely dismissed as a failed exercise in prestigious muckraking, it clearly signalled Penn was trying to get at something. With Bonnie & Clyde Penn opened the door for a great raft of subsequent talent, and yet Penn’s career was doomed to register as a disappointment in many ways, trailing off with a couple of straightforward if well-made genre films and a long twilight.

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Penn’s first follow-up to Bonnie & Clyde was Alice’s Restaurant (1969), a brilliant seriocomic examination of the counterculture in the light of history’s sprawl of yearning and horror. This aspect of Penn’s cinema, a search for truth and spirit in the American project, connected his wayward career until it ran out of the fuel in the ‘80s, coupled with a broad project of revising basic film genres according to his peculiar internal compass. Little Big Man (1970) and The Missouri Breaks (1976) were distortions of the western just as Bonnie & Clyde had played about with the familiar imperatives of the gangster thriller. Night Moves, penned by Scottish novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp, was an assimilation of the private eye flick that is as much sardonic, metafiction-tinged commentary on that subgenre as it is classical tale of mystery and danger. Today Night Moves stands as both an apotheosis of Penn’s filmography, and a quintessential product of its time. Night Moves crucially reunited Penn with Gene Hackman, who had first gained real attention in Bonnie & Clyde and since hit the big time with The French Connection (1971). Hackman had become the prototypical ‘70s star. An earthy-looking, world-weary, balding guy over forty, Hackman nonetheless was gifted at projecting livid aggression and a physically potent presence to a degree that could make just about anyone else on screen with him look pallid, with an edge of unexpected intelligence to boot.

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Hackman was clearly fascinated by characters undercut by their own blind spots and the shifts of a world they don’t entirely comprehend, often playing cops and other authority figures who find themselves out of their depth. Hackman stretched this type when he starred as the alienated romantic and lone wolf professional at the centre of Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). In Night Moves, he plays Harry Moseby, a former professional footballer who has taken up private investigating as a profession. Other characters, like Harry’s wife Ellen (Susan Clark) and casual lover Paula (Jennifer Warren), mock him repeatedly for his obsession for solving mysteries in a time where there’s a near-omnipresent mood of disregard, and awareness that facts aren’t quite the same thing as truth. His attraction to this line of work seems in part through a quixotic attachment to allure of the job, its aura of self-sufficient, swashbuckling individualism, and also out of a direct, personal motive. The skills he’s acquired in the job helped him to track down his father, who abandoned him when he was a small child. This aspect of Harry’s character suggests the irresistible allure of the material for Penn and Hackman as well as a personal touch on Sharp’s behalf: he had been adopted as a boy by a religious dockworker and his wife, and had fantasised that “Humphrey Bogart was me dad and Katherine Hepburn me mum.”

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Night Moves is in part a work of sarcastic cinephilia where the mystical fathers of genres past, like the private eyes flicks where Bogart turned his collar up to the rain and got on with a dangerous job, are both fetishized and pulled to pieces. And yet as a film it completely resists any air of pastiche. Night Moves’ settings include the affluent hinterland of California where Harry is losing his bearings along with his wife to the cult of upmarket sensitivity and Me Generation permissiveness, the storied rapacity of Hollywood given new, arch licence, and the free-and-easy loucheness of beachcombing dropouts. Like Phil Marlowe and Lew Archer, Moseby hovers around the edges of LA’s freaky scenes and film industry, and then takes a swerve down the waterfront world of Travis McGee, where the beachfront lifestyle seems initially healthier but proves to have just as much iniquity and heartache lurking in the shadows. As a homage-cum-deconstruction of the private eye mythos, Night Moves followed Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) into release, dimming some of its lustre. Being dumped by an uninterested studio didn’t help. Penn’s film had been shot in 1973, its release delayed by two years as Penn worked around cast member Melanie Griffith’s age, and its release proved an afterthought.

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Harry’s friend and professional rival Nick (Kenneth Mars) wants Harry to join his larger PI agency, and sometimes farms out spare cases to him. The latest of these sees Harry engaged by a former, minor Hollywood starlet, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), whose 16-year-old daughter Delly Grastner (Griffith) has gone missing. The oft-married Arlene had Delly with her studio magnate first husband and lives off the income paid out by his estate. Delly went off with her mechanic wiz boyfriend Quentin (James Woods) to a movie set in New Mexico where he was employed to maintain the vehicles used in the filming. She stayed just long enough to have it off with the film’s chief stuntman, Marv Ellman (Anthony Costello), a former lover of her mother’s, who beat up Quentin in a jealous brawl; Harry meets Marv and through him the film’s stunt coordinator, Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns). Harry, working on the theory Delly has a plan to seduce all of her mother’s lovers, heads down the gulf coast to see her second husband, Tom Iverson (John Crawford), who runs a charter boat along with girlfriend Paula; just as he hoped, Delly is staying with them. On a night swimming excursion, Delly is horrified when she comes across a wrecked plane with a man’s corpse still in the pilot’s seat, unrecognisable from being lunched on by fish. Harry spirits Delly back to Los Angeles but she dies soon after, killed whilst appearing as an extra on the film in a car crash with Joey, who survives.

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Night Moves’ peculiar mystique is generated by the permeating feeling that it isn’t about what it seems to be about. Despite the genre games, it’s also like most of Penn’s films a work of reportage recording the psychic tenor of the moment, contemplating people who find themselves at once exemplifying their times whilst also being trapped outside of them. It’s easy to characterise Night Moves as one of the key Watergate-era films, a winding trip up a path to oblivion by way of conspiracy, disillusionment, and corrupt authority figures. One line from the film is often taken as a pure epigram of the period zeitgeist, when Ellen asks Harry who’s winning the football game he’s watching on TV, he replies, “Nobody is – one side’s just losing slower than the other.” But it’s really more a work of sociological rather than political pensiveness, as Harry finds himself confronted by new religions where everybody’s acting on their unruly appetites and trying to work out who the hell they are when familiar demarcations are in flux. Harry’s no former radical or dropout, but he does maintain a version of independence that bespeaks his desire to retain a certain retro ideal of American masculinity, an ideal other men he encounters also try to maintain in varying ways.

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Harry’s also a married man facing a personal crisis. Glimpsed early on in a playfully randy attitude with his wife, who deals in antiques, Harry goes to pick her up from a movie she’s seeing with her gay employee Charles (Ben Archibek) only to see her driving off with another man, Marty Heller (Harris Yulin), and kissing him. Harry avoids confronting Ellen immediately, and instead visits Heller, an artfully wounded intellectual who knows all about his rival because Ellen’s told him all about her husband: “I was trying to describe you to myself,” Ellen tells Harry in fumbling explanation. Harry and Ellen are both intelligent, sophisticated people, but Ellen is nonetheless frustrated with Harry’s determination to maintain a passé self-image and resistance to change when everyone has given themselves up to a protean tide, signalled both by his shying away from working for Nick and also by his refusal to live up to his intelligence. Harry’s penchant for playing and studying chess betrays his cerebral side. The film’s title is a pun based in the game, as Harry demonstrates for her an infamous chess match one player lost when he might have won with three moves of a knight. The theme of marital discord is set up through a cineaste’s joke, as Harry declines to go see Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969) with Ellen with the much-quoted jibe, “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.”

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This refusal turns out to be one Ellen was counting on, and one that signifies her frustration with Harry, who’s no fool or philistine but simply wants to fancy himself as precisely the kind of guy who’d blow off seeing a French movie about relationships. The more allusive twist becomes clear as Harry soon finds himself plunged into a strange netherworld where minute cues of behaviour and motivation rhymed to politics of desire prove equivocal and misleading much as they do for many of Rohmer’s bourgeois miscreants: Harry’s distaste for ambiguity in art leaves him unable to deal with it in life. This quip also pays heed to Penn’s career efforts to unify the storytelling verve and immediacy of American film with the more open-ended, personally observant tenor of European cinema, a goal common to many New Hollywood talents. Night Moves is one of the tautest and most intelligent products of that aspiration, delivering a film that obeys all basic genre precepts whilst also making brutal sport of them whilst covertly offering a character study. Penn had landed the job of making Bonnie & Clyde where its writers originally hoped Jean-Luc Godard might direct it, but he proved to have exactly the right kind of touch the material required, wielding a quietly stylised blend of bleary nostalgia with a raw, utterly present-tense portrayal of physical action, pitting two modes of experience as well as cinema against each-other.

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Penn’s preoccupation with outsiders had been plain from The Left-Handed Gun, a preoccupation accompanied by a grim sense of reckoning about what happens when people lash out against the world and the world lashes back. Alice’s Restaurant took on the then-topical question of the counterculture’s viability whilst also considering it as one manifestation of an ancient urge towards new mental and spiritual landscapes, whilst Little Big Man set its hero loose upon the expanse of history to finish up as stranger amongst and repository of memory for two warring communities. Harry Moseby doesn’t seem, on the surface, to be much of a rebel or social exile, but he is an abandoned native son like so many of Penn’s protagonists. Raised by relatives after being forsaken by his parents, Harry has tried to settle into an identity that suits him, only to run into a zeitgeist where looking for one is all the rage. Harry’s visit to Heller’s seaside apartment sees the PI confused and angered when Heller proves to know all about him, to learn that he’s an enigma his wife and her lover have been trying to puzzle out the same way he works cases. Heller seems at first glance like Harry’s opposite, the man Ellen wishes he was – an intellectual who carries a cane because of a limp, a guy with lots of books and art rather than sports memorabilia on his walls – but quickly seems more like another version of him, one that walked down a different road.

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Harry’s initial avoidance of outright confrontation with Ellen, trying to get the measure of things by talking with her lover instead, sees him applying his professional method to his own life, much as, it’s revealed, he did with another aspect of his essential identity, when he tracked down his father. Harry again comes to Heller’s house after returning from an excursion to surprise him and Ellen in bed, straining to be polite and good-humoured but letting the simmering aggressions show here and there, particularly when Heller speaks about him in the third person – “Harry thinks if you call him Harry again he’s gonna make you eat that cat.” Harry and Ellen’s problems exist in counterpoint to the main drama but eventually also become bound in with it, as Harry spends the night with Paula during his brief surrender to the illusion of escape. Meanwhile Harry’s hunt for Delly sees him encounter the gangly, insolent Quentin, the arrogant cock Marv, the saucy but wounded Arlene, the world-weary Joey, the wary Paula, and the sleazy Iverson, all of whom prove connected in both professional and personal ways and who have things the others want, usually between their legs. Above all Delly, the beautiful jailbait sylph slipping through the Caribbean brine. “If everyone gets as liberated as her there’ll be fighting in the streets,” Paula quips to Harry.

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Penn creates a deliberate linkage with Alice’s Restaurant, which had prophesised the decay of the hippie movement through being exploited by people acting in sybaritic self-interest. Crawford as Ivarsson echoes James Broderick’s performance as Ray in that film, spluttering awkwardly as he admits to having sex with young Delly: “I mean there ought to be a law,” he declares, to Harry’s hard reply: “There is.” Harry’s arrival at Iverson’s feels jaunty – Michael Small’s jazzy score, cool and atmospheric for the most part, turns sarcastically like a TV ad for a Caribbean cruise at this juncture – and an appealing lifestyle seems laid out before him, one of sea and salt wind and easy sex, as he gets to flirt with Paula and play the noble adult for Delly. Even this life, however, has intimations of something hard-won, as Paula tells Harry about her apparently fancy-free but actually cheerless, gruelling past. The happy-go-lucky skipper is a paedophile. The whole thing is a front for a smuggling racket. Harry, and Penn, recognise Delly not as a rogue but rather an innocent whose wantonness disguises a desperate search for the same thing Harry himself looked for: a father. Harry becomes something like one for Delly as he counsels her after her gruesome discovery of the crashed pilot.

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Harry’s journeys skirt various idylls of lifestyle – Arlene in her Hollywood house, with her glistening pool, Iverson’s beachfront bungalow and glass-bottom boat – that are also small empires of the egocentric. The people in them often act monstrously but have their aspects of pathos and foolishness, as Harry discovers when he tries to deliver a righteous harangue at Arlene for failing Delly, only for her to recall her own youth as a mistreated teen starlet and order him out. Almost every life Harry encounters is a ledger of corruption received or paid out, usually both. Penn often depicted exploitation and appropriation, often of the young by the old, but also tended to see it as an inevitable by-product of the way too many people feel cheated of what they need, whether by something natural like age or a social imposition. Harry proves himself heroic by the general standard about him by cheating with the worldly Paula rather than Delly. Paula hovers at just at the end of Harry’s reach, cool, knowing, with a backbeat of wounded pathos, someone who’s glad to have the safe harbour she has whilst grasping full well what compromises it demands like everything else in life. Her memory of her first erotic encounter with a schoolkid beau – “The nipple stayed hard for nearly half an hour afterwards. Don’t you think that’s sad?” – sees Paula casting herself as another sad seeker in a world full of them. But she’s also, like the film around her, a clever method actor, blending craft and experience to present the version required to hook Harry. Meanwhile Harry comforts the nightmare-plagued Delly and gives her a salutary jolt of the sort of wisdom no-one else around her is honest enough to offer: “I know it doesn’t make much sense when you’re sixteen…but don’t worry…when you get to be forty, it isn’t any better.”

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Harry the professional has his day as he delivers Delly back to her mother, only to get an earful of Quentin’s haranguing him for dumping her back in a situation he doesn’t understand, quickly escalating into a full-on domestic quarrel he turns his back on and drives away. Part of Harry’s urge to reengage with the case when he’s discharged such responsibilities well from a reflex of parental outrage after Delly’s death, especially when he suspects that he had a positive effect on her. The returned Delly was a more mature and collected person. Delly defends herself from Harry ironically when he first reveals his purpose in tracking her down by telling a waterfront heavy that “this old creep keeps flashing on me,” playing on the same dichotomy of protective urge and lust she tends to stir, sparking a brawl Harry wins quickly and efficiently, proving he’s certainly tough enough for his job. If only that was all it took negotiate such labyrinthine ways as Harry begins charting. An obsession with antiques, totems not just of value but of a suggestively prostituted promise of legacy and identity that everyone seems to crave, connects Harry through Ellen to the mystery he stumbles upon. The McGuffin at the plot’s heart when revealed eventually, a huge, arcane Aztec sculpture smuggled from Yucatan piece by piece, seems to embody the deeper concerns of the story. Looking like some kind of sacrificial altar, it’s carved in the form of a lizard with a huge phallus lying on its back, a sign that the young have been dying to restore the potency of their elders and communities since time immemorial.

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Penn and Sharp’s self-referential play is enriched as the film Joey, Quentin, Marv, and Delly are involved in making is a retro cops-and-robbers drama resembling Bonnie & Clyde, and the shoot is the nexus of a criminal enterprise; a most ‘70s version of crime, where everyone’s trying to bolster their lifestyle. Tellingly, those characters are all grunts in the great project, those who put their bodies on the line to make it happen and nuts-and-bolts people tasked to make the engine run smoothly, and like Bonnie & Clyde or Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Night Moves regards a landscape of would-be escapees from society who find crime the only likely way to leverage such an escape. Arlene, survivor of a slightly earlier era in corrupt debauchery, her looks insufficient to win over the movie world but enough to carve off a slice of the pie in return for glorified prostitution: “When I was her age,” she boozily retorts when Harry accuses her of ruining her daughter, “I was down on my knees to half the men in this town. I’m sorry the poor little bitch is dead.” Penn makes fun of himself and his business and indicts its more obnoxious precincts in manner more subtle than, but not really so different to, that of Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), perceiving everyone as living in a movie in their own head to some extent and trying in whatever way they can manage to write an acceptable end for it. Human transactions in such a setting can too easily become based in degrees of self-delusion in service to rapacious self-interest. Joey, the closest thing to a mover-and-shaker in the film, is at once its most patently empathetic figure and its secret villain.

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Fake crash becomes very real tragedy. Perhaps the most piercingly sad moment in Night Moves comes when Harry forces himself to watch a documentary crew’s record of the crash that left Delly a blood-smeared mess, whilst Joey, who was driving the car, retreats in shame from the screen room. Harry’s adoption of a heroic role in his own life as movie likewise finds itself beholden to the proliferating mess of existence. The one time he tries to get in on the general roundelay of gratification sees him fall victim to a performance – Paula seduces him to distract him whilst Iverson heads out to cover up the crash. When he and Ellen reunite and recover their sexual and emotional accord, they find a new zone of intimacy. Harry can finally confess the real climax to his search for his father, where he didn’t speak to the shambling old wreck he saw in a park. His life quest proved to be a long journey to an answer not worth learning; it was rather the quest that proved who Harry was, and the quest is still ongoing. Harry is right to insist that his job means something as bad things really are happening and a young girl really has been murdered. In this regard he maintains integrity lost to the other characters in the film, but also prefigures his ultimate destruction, because to care means to risk something.

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Night Moves is one of the best-shot films of the 1970s, if not in a showy way, and not just in terms of attractive pictures, although it has plenty of them. As Altman and Polanski had done, Penn and his director of photography Bruce Surtees worked against the traditional style of film noir by shooting much of the drama in the clear Californian daylight and with naturalistic intimacy. But Penn had demonstrated on Bonnie & Clyde a talent for infecting general authenticity and immediacy with patches of the elegiac, even the surreal. Here he aimed for a seemingly clear-eyed yet ever so slightly cryptic evocation that proved subtly influential, and helped the evolving neo-noir mode gain definition. The cool colour palette and use of environment to create a hazy sense of reference, verging at times on abstraction, anticipate Michael Mann’s systematisation of such a style; likewise Mann would take up the film’s incidental fascination with flashy, chitinous machinery as yardsticks of modernity matched to eruptions of primal violence. The crisp, metallic hues and linear confines of the urban zones Harry bestrides, a world cut into cubes by the hard angles of modern architecture, contrast the glittering shoals of the seaside and the lucid glimpse into corrupt depths upon discovery of the wrecked plane, building to the incredible vistas of the sunstruck, blood-caked finale.

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Penn’s images play constant games with how Harry sees, through reflections in mirrors, through flyscreen, through water and celluloid, a dance of things he’s not supposed to see and the things he fails to, culminating in the final, vital revelation of the finale, where Harry is reduced to audience of suffering even as he solves the case. Not for nothing is Iverson’s boat is called Point of View, its glass bottom the portal for terrible discoveries and revelations. Eventually some of the haze of mystery burns off, albeit only once Harry decides to close down his agency and move on: clarity only comes to those not so busy looking. Delly’s death and Quentin’s flight from Harry’s questions makes him realise that none of the coincidences he’s grazed have been coincidences. Iverson and Paula were engaged in smuggling. Quentin and Marv were in on it. Marv is the corpse in the ocean. Delly knew and had to be silenced. Only one player hides in plain sight. Quentin flees Harry’s questions only to turn up dead at Iverson’s. Harry battles Iverson whilst Paula berates them for their absurdity in playing their roles to the bitter end. Harry wins the brawl and Paula takes him out to witness the raising of the great Aztec relic.

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But a seaplane comes flying over, its pilot wielding an Uzi that puts a hole in Harry’s leg. The pilot lands and tries to run down Paula as she swims back to the boat, an easy chance to tie off a loose end. Her scuba tank explodes as the float hits her, driving the plane against the floating statue, causing the plane to crash and sink under the boat. Dede Allen’s editing here rises to the most extraordinary pitch in organising cause and effect to the finest millisecond whilst still conveying the beggaring quality to the rush of action. Everything goes right until it suddenly doesn’t, and then everything goes to hell. It’s the film’s entire thesis inscribed in pure visual effect. The mysterious pilot is Joey, identified by the plaster cast from the car crash on his arm. Harry watches him as he tries to escape the sinking plane, screaming in silence. Even revealed as killer and mastermind of a criminal conspiracy, Joey still comes across like the same hapless, life-battered, football-loving schlub Harry liked, pathetically consumed by his own master plan. Harry tries to get the boat started, but his injury is too painful, leaving him sprawled in despair as the boat chugs in a sorry circle, as Surtees’ camera retreats into the clouds, the scene of violence and its players dissolving in the gleaming sea. Penn and Sharp pull off their last, nimblest desecration, at once solving the mystery and capping the tale with perfect economy, but leaving their hero to a vague fate. Such refusal to deliver an answer would drive Harry mad if he were watching it, but it delivers him a strange grace when he’s the victim of it.

Standard
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

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 fiction works 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. From today’s perspective, it seems both inspiring and surprising just how many chances the studio was willing to take with their great money-spinning proposition, although the film’s production was contentious for just that reason.

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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 cruelly 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 one 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 sensibility. 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.

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