1990s, 2000s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

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

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Directors/Screenwriters: The Wachowskis

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay or listen to the podcast

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

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

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

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

…and then there was Tarantino.

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

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

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

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Director/Screenwriter: Carl Franklin

By Roderick Heath

Although crime films and thrillers never went away, the late 1980s and ‘90s saw a busy revival of noir film, a new mode conscious of the genre’s past but invested with a hard edge of contemporary awareness. A battery of filmmakers including Michael Mann, John Dahl, Howard Franklin, Bill Duke, Stephen Frears, Lee Tamahori, Spike Lee, the Coens, Melvin Van Peebles, Lili Fini Zanuck, Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Singer, David Lynch, the Wachowskis, and Curtis Hanson all began stripping down and reassembling the genre according to their extraordinarily diverse talents and interests. Several of these directors represented a new wave of black cinema talent infiltrating Hollywood, talents who found the genre a natural field to plough in cultivating tough, pithy, interrogative dramas about America’s social makeup and urban realities, populist kin to the wave of contemporary dramas like John Singleton and the Hughes brothers were making at the same time. Carl Franklin had been acting since the 1970s and made his directing debut in low-budget, trashy thrillers like Nowhere to Run (1989) and Full Fathom Five (1990), but suddenly caught the trade winds of the burgeoning indie film movement with the neo-noir One False Move (1992), a movie that also provided a leg up to its coscreenwriter and cast member Billy Bob Thornton.

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Franklin briefly became a hot ticket around Hollywood and parlayed his success into Devil in a Blue Dress, a vehicle for Denzel Washington. Franklin then tried a shift of direction with the family drama One True Thing (1998), which attracted Oscar nominations but lost Franklin his cool factor, and his return to thrillers on the silly High Crimes (2002) and the underrated Out of Time (2003) gained no new traction. Since then Franklin has worked busily in television, returning to cinema only for the well-reviewed but barely-seen Bless Me, Ultima (2013). But One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress have proven over time to be fondly regarded, even essential bits of filmmaking. The first film provided a bloody, acrid calling card that showcased Franklin’s awareness of the impact of violence and his wry sense of modern America’s blurring frontiers of class and race. Devil in a Blue Dress was by contrast a period film, an adaptation of a novel by crime writer Walter Mosley. The book was the first of Mosley’s tales about detective Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins and his loose-cannon pal Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander, who have so far appeared in ten novels and a short story collection, covering a time period from the late 1940s to the early 1970s.

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Mosley’s creation was the first major work in this field to sport black protagonists since Chester Himes’ classic novels, a film of which, Cotton Comes to Harlem, helped kicked off the Blaxploitation movement in 1970, and Bill Duke’s film of Himes’ A Rage in Harlem (1991) also nudged along the ‘90s noir revival. Where Himes’ heroes were cops, Mosley took the classic template of the private eye hero and gave it some sharp twists in the figure of Rawlins, unlicensed and chiefly commended to his line of work thanks to his gift for handling people and negotiating LA’s black community. Although spiritually linked to some of the great Blaxploitation heroes from the ‘70s, Easy was not a swaggering fantasy like John Shaft or Trouble Man’s (1973) Mr T, but a product of and observer of the American social landscape in all its transformative turmoil and iniquity. Mosley coproduced the film whilst Franklin wrote the script, but aspects of Mosley’s specific style, like Rawlins’ fascination with his own ability to coolly instruct himself in high-pressure situations, were hard to reproduce cinematically. Devil in a Blue Dress remains the only adaptation of his works to date, largely because it was a flop at the time, and overshadowed by other works in a similar key at the time, particularly Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997).

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Devil in a Blue Dress takes as its guiding principle less the assimilation of retro tropes and celebration of macho neurosis found in Hanson’s film than the artwork that appears under the opening credits, Archibald Motley’s “Bronzeville at Night,” a stylised and wittily textured panorama exploring a specific time, place, and culture all too often passed by in the movies of its own time. Franklin evokes an islet of black history at once tense and eternally expectant of trouble but also basking in a moment of respite, in the post-war spell of prosperity with the ever-so-faint possibility of a better future. Easy, a former GI and transplanted Texan washed up in Los Angeles after World War II, is a machine operator who has even dared buy himself a house in Watts. But he’s also just been fired when the film opens in 1948 by a boss who disliked his tendency for standing up for himself, and is deeply anxious about his mounting bills. Sitting in the upstairs bar run by his pal Joppy (Mel Winkler) scanning the newspapers for jobs, Easy is approached by DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), as Easy was recommended to him by Joppy as the type of guy who knows his way around. Albright claims to be working for the rich and influential Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), and wants to track down Carter’s former fiancé. Carter recently quit the race to be city mayor after breaking off his engagement with the glamorous but elusive beauty Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), and Albright wants to find Daphne, who has a supposed predilection for black lovers.

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Easy accepts Albright’s cash with the lingering sense he’s getting himself mixed up in some rancid dealings, but after making the rounds finds the wife of one of his friends, Coretta James (Lisa Nicole Carson), is pals with Daphne. Coretta is soon found murdered and Easy finds himself a favourite suspect of detectives Mason (John Roselius) and Mille (Beau Starr) and threatened with being fitted up for the crime unless he can turn up a better alternative. Albright quickly reveals a sinister and brutal streak, visiting Easy with a trio of goons and intimidating him to make sure he’s telling them all he’s learned. Easy encounters Carter’s former rival in the mayoral race, Matthew Terell (Maury Chaykin), who seems interested in the hunt for Daphne and who is Albright’s real employer. Easy soon meets Daphne herself: she enlists Easy to take her to a rendezvous with an associate, but find him dead upon arrival at his house. Easy eventually learns Terell has assigned his goons to destroy Daphne because she bought incriminating pictures that he proves he’s a paedophile, so Easy calls in his old friend from Houston, Mouse (Don Cheadle), to watch his back. Eventually Easy discovers Daphne’s secret: she’s passing for white, and hopes to use the dirt she’s gathered on Terell to fend him off and allow her and Carter to be married.

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The story structure of Devil in a Blue Dress is very much that of a traditional detective tale, as Easy moves about LA encountering odd characters and finding himself embroiled in situations dangerous, sexy, and enigmatic. But in the fashion of the genre’s more modern template, it fills in elements elided or offered through euphemisms in earlier film editions like The Big Sleep (1946), and ties such discoveries to a larger project of analysing the social landscape. The insidiousness of Terell, the traditional sleazy fat cat, is rendered baldly exploitative and depraved even as he proclaims himself “friend to the negro,” and the classic figure of the femme fatale is deployed in a way that further elucidates problems of race. One of the more original aspects here, however, lies in its rigorous sense of characters grounded in an everyday world. Where figures like Sam Spade and Phil Marlowe drifted in and out of a cloud of existential suspension, whilst many a noir film concentrates on natural outsiders and demimonde denizens, Easy, whilst tough, canny, and streetwise, is an aspiring property owner trying to maintain his position in a community. He’s a man of daylight obliged to become an adventurer in a nocturnal universe. In that regard he more closely resembles the sorts of protagonists favoured by ‘40s and ‘50s directors who blended noir with social realist concerns, like Nicholas Ray and Jules Dassin.

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Franklin spares time for simply observing Easy and his position in his street, his enjoyment of sitting on his porch and watching the parade of life, interacting with neighbours, and contending with disturbances, like the local pest who fancies himself as community gardener but mostly likes to chop down trees. The equilibrium of such an environment has its uses, particularly when said pest helps save Easy from getting his skull cracked through his attentiveness to what’s going on. Easy isn’t such an ordinary figure, however. The decorated former soldier can handle himself, and he has a murky past, suggested in a brief impressionistic montage and in furtive rumours repeated by some of his acquaintances, connected with Mouse, whose propensity for violence is both handy and chilling. He’s readily and easily seduced by Coretta when her boyfriend (Jernard Burks) lies sleeping off his liquor in another room. Coretta seduces Easy but easily switches roles of sleuth and prey as she breaks off screwing to force him to cough up his reason for searching for Daphne, a move that reduces Easy to a gabbling brat desperate to get back to business. Easy’s aspirational streak (“Man, I loved coming home to my house…”) is signalled early on as a rare accomplishment for a man of his race and class, a sign he’s cannier than most in his ability to outpace the corrosive forces he faces. Property here signals permanence, security, yardsticks of pride, and threats to property maintain a special kick against their owners, not just in Easy’s concern for his home but also Joppy’s vulnerability to Easy’s special method of interrogating him – bashing his inherited marble bar top with a hammer.

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Washington was on fire in the mid-‘90s as arguably the biggest black star since the heyday of Sidney Poitier, propelled by his Oscar-winning turn as the angry Trip in Glory (1989) and cemented by his performance as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, two roles strongly rooted in a new openness to black history and sensibility in mainstream cinema. Devil in a Blue Dress was, amongst other things, a perfect star vehicle for an actor like Washington, engaging him in all his modes, segueing from dirty comedy in Easy’s sexual gamesmanship with Coretta, to frantic physical action. Easy evolves from a man making his first, furtive attempts at self-empowerment glimpsed in his glum and uncomfortable effort to stick up for himself in a flashback to his firing, to reactive anger as the two detectives bully him and then cowering fear as he unleashes one cop’s swift readiness to punish an uppity black man. Easy nonetheless accumulates new confidence in his dealings and confrontational potency in contending with dangerous and powerful characters. The pivotal moment comes when he encounters Carter, a drab and beaten-looking man in spite of his great wealth; when Carter thinks he’s trying to take him for a ride and mentions he’s friends with various city officials, Easy, like a verbal equivalent of a jujitsu master, converts a threat into an advantage for himself as he suggests with quick and businesslike assurance, “Then they can help us find her.” Which then obliges Carter to admit that no, they can’t; only a man like Easy can navigate these particularly mean streets.

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Franklin successfully ties his camera effects to Easy’s perspective without any ostentatious gimmicks, tracking Easy’s progress through a mystery that’s serpentine in all the regulation ways but with an added layer disseminating the games of social demarcation and secrets that hide in plain sight. Like the discomforting sight of Terell in the back of his limousine with a young Latino boy he describes as his “adopted son.” Franklin’s recreation of the period atmosphere is at once palpable and believably crowded and bustling, but also dreamy, a mood enforced by Elmer Bernstein’s scoring and Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography. The film’s very end stages a long, languorous reverse pullback that drinks in Easy’s street with all its simple, mundane pleasantness, blessed with an aura of the idyllic through Fujimoto’s use of light. An early sequence in which Easy encounters Coretta and her husband in a bar captures the flavour of a bygone era’s nightlife in all its smoky, sweaty, sin-on-Saturday-and-pray-on-Sunday intensity. But the soft parade leads into a cryptic aside as Easy catching sight of Coretta’s red lips reflected in her makeup mirror, hinting at forces in motion he scarcely has any idea of yet, signalling Coretta’s sensual enticement, but also rendering her a ghost already in the midst of all this life, speaking to Easy from the far side of an ethereal veil.

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As in One False Move, which revolved around a white southern cop’s hapless love for his black former girlfriend, Franklin here uncovers of fraught and transgressive grasping at sources of pleasure and happiness as manifests in many forms. The overtly brutal business of movies in this genre is mediated throughout by his care in observing so many of his characters as people lost in the world and lonely. The basic motive of the entire plot proves to not be mere greed or even the desire for betterment, but Daphne’s genuine love for Carter foiled by the failure to completely obscure her roots, that elusive promise of the Gatsby America. Easy presumes Daphne is having an affair with the tough black gambler Frank Green (Joseph Latimore), but he proves to be really her brother, connected by bonds of blood and love but thanks to random acts of genetics planted in totally different spheres of life. Easy’s enclave is filled with transplants who fled to the prosperity of the coast only to find themselves in over their heads, but it’s a phenomenon that even more widespread. One of the film’s most intricate sequences in terms of gesture and meaning comes when Easy goes to meet Albright at a seaside pier and gets into conversation with a young white girl from Des Moines (Renee Humphrey), who’s forlorn and disinterested in her boorish young male shepherds. When they come out and see them talking, Easy faces a seemingly inevitable fight that will seem him beaten and possibly killed by the young men, but Albright arrives and intervenes with drawn pistol, less out of liking for Easy than for a chance to exercise his delight in sadistic acts.

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Franklin and Washington are thorough in depicting Easy’s emotional experience in this scene, uneasy as the girl makes conversation as he knows it’s a potential distraction and a risk, gearing up for a fight he knows well may be the end of him in the face of the men’s offence that Easy might offer a possibility of romantic sensitivity they can’t manage (“You was talking about the ocean!”), and shocked by Albright’s delight in dealing out pain. It also sets the seen for much of the later drama as Easy is all too aware that Albright is a malignant force. The terrible speed with which ordinary events gain a charge of violent promise, particularly in the context of a racially hierarchical society, is one of the film’s quiet but exactingly charted concerns. But there’s also strong suggestion that all the violence and disaffection glimpsed in the film is an eternal roundelay forced along by alienation, that perpetually nagging sensation of being stranded in a poorly-knit and rootless society where money and ownership are perceived as tickets to some sort of secure identity. But even Carter comes across as a man crushed by his role rather than anointed by it, and the most assured and pleased-seeming characters are men like Terell and Albright who relish power for the way it allows them enact sick tastes.

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Easy’s aspirations and efforts to be at once on the make and decent are contrasted with rude force by his friendship with Mouse, who arrives just in time to save Easy from getting his neck sliced open by Frank Green. Mouse has a perfect absence of compunction about dealing out violence, shooting Frank through the shoulder to try and get him to talk and later finding his own Jesuitical response to a problem by strangling a man to death after promising Easy he won’t shoot him. Mouse’s ruthless streak is however very useful to Easy in fending off threats and keeping his back well-covered as the case demands real force to contend with Albright and his hired guns. Easy only has to negotiate deeply dangerous interludes as when Mouse, drunk as a skunk, starts practicing his quick draw and jams his gun into Easy’s ribs. He’s like some emanation from the Texas badlands, Easy’s potential darker self given shape as a perverse imp, wielding his pistols like a gunfighter and dealing death with abandon.

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Given Washington’s well-established gift for playing truculent dudes and firebrands and Cheadle’s tendency to play warmer, more thoughtful figures, if Devil in a Blue Dress had been made a few years later it would be easy to imagine the two actors swapping roles. But as long as Cheadle’s on screen he provides a brilliant source of psychopathic charisma, with his cold killer’s glare and glib smile, eagerness for money and readiness to provide a receptive audience for Easy’s acerbic way with words in the little acts of theatre that constitute macho relations in their circle. There was interesting subtext to Franklin’s casting of Beals as the title’s nominal demon temptress: Beals, singularly associated with her role in 1983’s Flashdance, was like her character half-black, half-white, and had a moment in the spotlight before mysteriously falling out of sight again. Trouble is, Beals is also one of the more awkward aspects of the film, as Daphne is supposed to be a figure of electrifying sensual attraction and nigh-tragic pathos, but the promise never quite translates into real force (indeed, quite a few of the neo-noir films from this period foundered on the problem of the femme fatale). Franklin also reportedly cut out a love scene between Easy and Daphne, which might well explain why the subplot of the two characters’ charged exchanges never really goes anywhere.

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Daphne is nonetheless a genuinely interesting character who is ultimately revealed as a hapless and misunderstood figure, one who revises the classic figure of the femme fatale. Daphne’s attempts to control her own fate get other people killed, and almost end in terrible fashion at Albright’s hands as he kidnaps her and. Fortunately Easy and Mouse manage to track them down to a Malibu beach house, and Easy is forced to intervene as he Albright intends to torture Daphne with a glowing poker. For the most part Devil in a Blue Dress is more interested in character interaction and mood than action, conjuring the feeling of sitting down with some interesting characters for a drink and an anecdote about that bad shit that went down. This is certainly one reason it didn’t hit at the time. And yet Franklin’s talent for staging violence in a way that conveys force and ferocity without seeming romanticised comes to the fore throughout, in the percussive intensity to Easy’s fight with Green and the brief but excellent eruption of gunplay at the climax.

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Easy must take on Albright and his heavies to save Daphne, and is given a hand by Mouse, whose poise under fire is admirable, but comes at a cost. Necessary action and deadly struggle surge on with dizzying speed. The results see men riddled wandering about with holes in their flesh and writhing upon the ground, twitching in death throes, watched in abiding perplexity by their killers. The storyline resolves with a lingering sense of severance and impossibilities, although Daphne’s gift to Carter promises that at least a decent man might be elected mayor. But Daphne’s hopes are dashed as she cannot convince Carter their secret is safe, foiling all her efforts, and Easy finds she’s vanished when he decides to look her up. He’s left to weigh up his own guilty place in the scheme of things and his friendship with Mouse, a man he knows very well is a menace, but is also, at the very least, his menace, a dragon that keeps watch over the hearth. The very end sees Easy sure in his place again, considering detective work as a metier but knitted back into the fabric of his community, grateful for it toehold. History is rolling on, but time only ever passes at the same pace, day by great and painful day.

Standard
1990s, Horror/Eerie, Thriller

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenwriter: Ted Tally

By Roderick Heath

Jonathan Demme’s death last week at the age of 73 sent a shock through the film world. Demme was one of the many talents to graduate from Roger Corman’s school for no-budget auteurs in the early 1970s, chalking up his first feature credit with 1973’s Caged Heat, a women’s prison flick that collected a studious cult following in the next few years for its oddball take on a seamy genre. 1977’s Citizens Band was a movie made according to a Corman precept, exploiting the CB radio craze, but started its director on his rise up the Hollywood ranks thanks to Demme’s gift for creating witty, humane movies sporting woolly characters, facilitated by Demme’s love for actors. 1981’s Melvin and Howard confirmed his talents in that regard as he shepherded Mary Steenburgen’s performance to an Oscar. As the ’80s progressed, Demme increasingly satisfied his love for music and exploring the culture at large with a sideline in documentaries, whilst making a string of movies that are the core of his cineaste following: pop comedies often sporting a dash of the violent and tragic, including Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986), and Married to the Mob (1988). After he gained an Oscar himself and was set as one of Hollywood’s reigning filmmakers, he started plying a more conscientious brand of prestige cinema with the sententious but brilliantly made Philadelphia (1993), but hit a reef with the luckless Toni Morrison adaptation Beloved (1998). Amidst a sprawl of further documentaries and music films, Demme recovered his mojo with two little-appreciated but entirely winning remakes, The Truth About Charlie (2002) and The Manchurian Candidate (2004), and vibrant revisits to his everyday comedy-dramas with Rachel Getting Married (2008) and Ricki and the Flash (2015).
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A quality most everyone loved about Demme’s films was his big-hearted awareness of the world immediately about him, his sense of life and people as a cornucopia even when abutting grimmer facts of existence, and his unforced, celebratory delight in America’s diverse makeup. Considering such qualities, it’s both a glaring irony and a fitting twist that the one movie he made that everyone knows was his discursion into a dark and morbid annex of the modern imagination via a virulently intense and violent horror film. That film somehow became an instantaneous fixture in the pop culture firmament and was the first of its genre to win the Best Picture Oscar, on top of awards for Demme himself and his stars. This was chiefly the result of Demme’s canniness as a hardy and tested director who knew how to shift and vary his style according to the rhythms of his material and the energy of his actors. The Silence of the Lambs was based on a novel by Thomas Harris, a former journalist who had broken through as a novelist with the terrorist thriller Black Sunday, filmed smartly by John Frankenheimer in 1976. But Harris had found his real metier with his 1981 novel Red Dragon, a tale depicting an obsessive FBI agent’s attempts to track down a serial killer, which he accomplishes in part by seeking the advice of another killer he caught, the entirely mad, insinuatingly wicked, yet often bizarrely composed and helpful, cannibalistic former psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Red Dragon was filmed superlatively by Michael Mann in 1986 under the title Manhunter, but that film proved a surprise bomb. Meanwhile, Harris composed a follow-up that recycled several elements of his first book, but with the inspired idea of substituting for Harris’ first hero Will Graham a young FBI trainee named Clarice Starling, launched in verbal combat with the still-caged but relentlessly scheming Lecter.
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Most studios had passed on the rights to Harris’ book, in part because of Manhunter’s flop, but also because it seemed floridly unpleasant and left field, at a time when horror cinema was in a deep rut. The quality of Tally’s script attracted Demme, who was on a hot streak, as well as a battery of stars who normally bypassed such a grim project. They soon had the services of recent Oscar winner Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins was long a British actor of great repute on both screen and stage. Since the early 1970s, he seemed in constant danger of becoming a major star, but just never quite got there, from his sub-James Bond action hero part in When Eight Bells Toll (1971) to his kindly doctor in The Elephant Man (1980). One peculiar freedom allowed Demme on The Silence of the Lambs was the fact that although there was a recent film sporting some of the same characters and essentially the same plot, he didn’t have to worry about trying to meet any expectations. Nonetheless, his approach couldn’t have been more opposed to Mann’s if he had set out precisely to counter it. Mann had presented Harris through the prism of his terse and stripped-down modernist stylistics, his Lecter played by Brian Cox as a nerveless pervert whose sense of humour is colder than the surface of Neptune. Tally, Demme, and Hopkins instead presented him as a larger-than-life figure armed with Hopkins’ sibilant, slightly alien-sounding vocal mannerisms and an array of blackly comic quips that make him as much the film’s comic relief as its representative from darkest Hades.
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Demme’s canniness in handling the material is quickly evinced in the film’s opening moments, depicting Clarice called off the obstacle course at the FBI training school to perform a peculiar errand for senior serial killer tracker Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). He captures Clarice hauling herself up a slope by ropes, literally coming up the hard way, before his camera tracks her with hungry precision through the woods, establishing the way the camera moves throughout the rest of the film, constantly tugged along, usually by Clarice’s stride in all her alternations of confidence, intrigue, and timorousness. She’s presented as a tiny figure getting into an elevator with a bunch of other, hulking trainees. Many films, both before and after this one, would waste reams of dialogue on a point Demme makes with swift, telling cinematic blows. By the time she’s seated in front of the wiry, paternal yet enigmatic Crawford, we know who Clarice is and what she’s up against. Her mission, given her by Crawford but with unspoken, ulterior motives, is to interview Lecter to learn more about his psychopathology. She does so, followed by the warnings of both the FBI honcho and Lecter’s smarmy psychiatric keeper Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) that Lecter is a dangerous being in the extreme. Chilton even entertains Clarice by showing her a photograph of the awful damage he did to a nurse’s face when she failed to keep him restrained.
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Clarice’s trip to see Lecter is shot as a journey into subterranean wells, gaining a briefing for a descent into hell from Chilton and the sturdy attendant Barney (Frankie Faison) on the way before she’s ushered into a murderer’s row, in a sequence reminiscent of Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946). Except that’s it not just clasping hands of the repressed reaching out from the bars but handfuls of sperm, tossed by the resident whacko sex fiend “Multiple” Miggs (Stuart Rudin), representative of the masculine character reduced to its most bestial, counterpoint to Lecter’s equal and opposite monstrosity of the same spirit lurking under the façade of the perfect civilised man. Here the walls are all suggestively medieval brickwork, matching the swirling autumnal hues of the opening for situating the film squarely in a neogothic state of fragrant, fecund dissolution. Lecter himself hovers behind a modern barrier of thick glass, standing straight and unnatural as some kind of lawn ornament when Clarice, and the camera, first glimpses him. Lecter, an irresistible mixture of great mental aptitude mated to unconscionable will, quickly discerns something Clarice has (deliberately?) not thought too hard about. Crawford has another motive for tapping his brain, the possibility that Lecter might be able to provide an insight into another serial killer currently perplexing Crawford and the rest of national law enforcement. That killer has been dubbed “Buffalo Bill” in a pitch-black piece of cop humour because “this one likes to skin his humps,” leaving his female victims in rivers missing patches of skin.
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Demme’s often subjective camerawork and use of close-ups represent film technique at its most easily parsed and recognisable, and accomplishes the important task not merely of animating the film’s intense, headlong experiential quality, but also in inhabiting the driving notion behind the psychosis of its villains and the method of its heroes. As Lecter prods Clarice to realise, Buffalo Bill covets what he sees, most immediately, the skins of women and more existentially, their identities, like some corporeal incubus sucking in their beings to give himself solidity. Lecter himself covets freedom and achieves it through a careful and relentless process of keeping an eye out, most specifically demonstrated when he sets eyes upon Chilton’s pen. Clarice and Crawford meanwhile are obligated to look at things almost impossible to look at for the sake of their jobs and their motivations, allowing the evil of others, in essence, to colonise their own minds and emotional reflexes. Thus Crawford has pictures of Bill’s victims decorating his walls, and Clarice discovers the clue of the moth chrysalis by peering at a snapshot of a bloated and stinking corpse. Like Hitchcock, Demme tethers his deepest cinematic reflexes to this interplay of looks, although lacking an obvious analogue in the story for visual obsession, unlike what Hitchcock provided in Rear Window (1954) and in Harris’s own Red Dragon, where the killer was a photographic processor who gazed at the home movies of others and wanted to write himself into their hermetic perfection. Seeing is a source of power in The Silence of the Lambs, particularly for Clarice, whose ability to look at life’s worst facts in raw, corporeal form, is her key to success. Her viewpoint creates her reality, but also creates its own distortions. The pathetic and tragic photos of Bill’s dead victims spur her sense of offended sympathy, but she needs Lecter to point out the fact that Bill “kills women” is purely incidental to her quarry. Chilton’s punishment of her for failing to respond to his chat-up line is to be shown that totemic photo and also informed as to part of the reason she’s being sent in, as a pretty face to turn the monster on.
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Looking is also an act bound up with erotic wont and prelude, although here the erotic is always being channelled into other pursuits, or mangled via deeply weird psychological dynamics. Clarice, with eyes straight ahead, is engaged in her ambition to quiet her own sense of wrenching detainment by her past, wilfully oblivious to concerns others would love to impose. Demme notes the way Clarice and her pal and Academy roommate Ardelia Mapp (Kasi Lemmons) attract massed glances from other recruits, and fascinates the men in her life, even Crawford, a paternal figure who rivals Lecter for post of father-mentor and also with hues of potential lover, a point with which Lecter enjoys teasing Clarice. Demme makes a visual rhyme out of two moments of the most gentle physical communion (in a tale where that’s a very wide gamut indeed), those when Lecter contrives to touch his finger to Clarice’s and when Crawford shakes her hand in congratulations. Both moments have layers of import, especially from Lecter, who deduces things about Clarice purely by her smell where others only see, laying claim to Clarice in just about every way except physically until that moment. Lecter’s own olfactory brilliance is again linked to Miggs’ cruder immediacy: “I can smell your cunt!” are the words with which he greets Clarice’s entrance to the ward, and Lecter offers Clarice a compensating clue setting her on the path to Bill in part as compensation for Miggs’ offensive behaviour, just before Lecter somehow contrives Miggs’ death, killing off, at least temporarily, his bestial other.
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Clarice follows Lecter’s clues and learns to decode his riddles through an affinity of intellectual seriousness in a generally much less attentive world. This affinity allows Clarice to understand immediately his advice to look “deep inside yourself” not as a pop-psychological bromide but a direction to an actual place, a storage facility where the weird paraphernalia of Lecter’s life resides, including, bobbing in a jar of preservative, a severed head. This sequence is grand, from Clarice’s exchanges with the elderly mogul (Leib Lensky) who owns the facility to the exploration of this zone and her uneasy laugh before venturing into the dark place, a territory that works like Lecter’s mind as a compartment of stored information, complete with hearse and mannequin without a head, and echoes back to the septic American gothic of Psycho (1960) and also to the baroque hideaways in Mario Bava’s films, staged during a heavy downpour for extra flavour. The head, Lecter protests, is not from one of his victims but from a patient who died shortly after reporting his male lover was starting to show signs of hatching lunacy and intense fetishism for the skin of others. Clarice realises that Lecter suspects he knows the killer, but is soon distracted when she’s roped in by Crawford to help him when another of Bill’s victims turns up in a river. Clarice notices a vital clue, a rare insect cocoon jammed into the victim’s throat during the post mortem, and learns from a pair of pleasantly nerdy experts (Dan Butler and Paul Lazar) that the cocoon houses a Death’s Head Moth, a suggestive clue that has to bide time for unpacking when Bill (Ted Levine) snatches another woman. But this one, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), brings troublesome portents for the killer, who imprisons her in a pit in his basement. The terrified Catherine nonetheless has enough nascent spunk to try to find ways to escape, and she also happens to be the daughter of a senator, Ruth Martin (Diane Baker), stoking law enforcement into paroxysms of impotent action and giving Lecter a very good reason to help.
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The Silence of the Lambs casts a very long shadow over today’s pop culture, as the seeds it planted soon sprouted hundredfold in film and television. Its success immediately disgorged nasty wannabes like Copycat and Se7en (both 1995), and now TV, in particular, is still filled with police procedurals where grisly, often misogynist fantasies are indulged via the actions of fictional serial killers only to be safely caged by swashbuckling law enforcers. That’s one reason The Silence of the Lambs has also often suffered from blurred genre definitions, existing at once on the level of horror (intense, phobic images, a dark, near-surreal visual palette, sustained fight-and-flight sequences, monstrous figurations, and episodes of primal violence) and thriller (puzzle narrative with a proactive hero figure engaged in pursuit and detection). The film’s success in this regard was not simply because of its ineffaceable pictures and catchphrases, but because, although hardly the first horror-thriller with the chase for a murderous fiend at its core, it took the serial killer to be the authentic embodiment of contemporary anxiety, a source of danger all too real but readily translating into the image of a beast from the id.
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One of the ways the film achieved this was in bifurcating the image. Buffalo Bill, whose actual name is Jame Gumb, is closer to the squalid reality of the serial killer, a misfit preying on the vulnerable whilst subsisting through a series of borrowed guises in a depressed and drearily fallow corner of the American landscape. Hannibal Lecter is a fantasy version of the same, deliberately removed from the normal realm of psychopathology (“They don’t have a name for what he is.”) and incarnating the idea of the casual thrill killer at an ultimate extreme, at once Renaissance man and man-shaped tyrannosaur, capable of doing extreme damage only with words, smart enough to fool and defeat law enforcement, finally becoming something like the bogeyman as he escapes into the world at large. Clarice’s narrative involves the defeat of the former monster, but the latter is soon unbound. Like a vampire held in check by physical and cultural demarcations, Lecter’s worst ravages can be held off in part through social graces – courtesy, attentiveness, intellectual engagement. Clarice Starling, for her part, was the kind of heroine 1991 needed very badly. Hollywood already had Ellen Ripley and a handful of other tough cookies, but most of those were in fantastic fare. Whereas Clarice was notable for her immediacy and solidity, whip-smart but not omnicompetent, focused but not a hard-ass, connecting to the case not just through professional commitment but from deeply personal motives rooted in the death of her policeman father. In short, an actual character and not a symbol or a contrivance.
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Lecter’s easy job disassembling her poised veneer to diagnose her life history and motives shakes her up enough to make her think of her father, pictured by Demme in flashback along amidst memories of an idyllic small town where neighbours wave to each other and young Clarice’s father is the literal and figurative embodiment of paternal protection. The absence of love interest is in part a function of her focus – one of the film’s best jokes is that after just about everyone strikes out with Clarice, the one guy who gets a charmed smile from her is one of the museum entomological nerds, except that he himself is instantly distracted by an exciting development relating to his own field of obsession – and also because the real romance is between Clarice and Lecter. It’s a clue that Starling grips Demme as a heroine, not simply as a small woman in a big man’s world but because she’s a fallen citizen of the kind of world he preferred, the one where human connections, no matter how evanescent, are enormously powerful. Clarice struggles to regain her right to live in such peace but is drawn into a labyrinthine netherworld filled with monstrosities worthy of any Greek hero like Theseus or Oedipus, with Lecter suggesting both imprisoned Minotaur and riddling Sphinx, and Buffalo Bill as lurking Procrustes (cross-reference: the visual kinship between Mario Bava’s Hades in Hercules in the Center of the Earth, 1961, and Demme’s depiction of Gumb’s basement, with its earthy walls and invading roots). Clarice’s journey is marked in a series of met tests, from being easily rattled in her first interview with Lecter to her confident rebuffs of his later attempts to wrong-foot her, building her poise on her path to an ordeal.
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Lecter’s insidious delight in penetrating the minds of people and sadistic spectacle, counterbalanced by a psychiatrist’s remnant ethos that sees a curious cleansing in the process of baring all, soon demands its own price from Clarice. The pair engage in a quid pro quo arrangement, Clarice offering up fragments of her traumatic experience after her father’s death, including a time when she was sent to live with some farming relatives where she made a hapless attempt to save a spring lamb from slaughter, a symbolic rescue that had the powerful effect of leaving her even more rootless and rejected. There’s a facetious facet to all this, derived from Harris, in the underlying faith that a great hunter of psychopaths must be a little mad themselves, but it’s the powerful engine of the drama nonetheless. In these sequences, which undoubtedly won The Silence of the Lambs its acting awards, Clarice and Lecter are filmed in delirious close-up investigating every nuance of feature. Where the film becomes less certain is where Harris’s material diverts from espousing its best aspect, the theatre of psychological warfare, for more familiar bestseller business of wailing cop cars and low-grade political tussles. The venal Chilton, fully aware of what’s going on between Clarice and Lecter thanks to his eavesdropping, outflanks her and Crawford by convincing the senator to give Lecter an authentic deal for better treatment. Lecter endangers his own good luck for the sake of his own sadistic gratification when he taunts the senator, but eventually, he gives up all the accurate details about Gumb except for his real name. Meanwhile, Clarice and Crawford catch stentorian protests from on high, rebuking Crawford for his methods (although Demme wittily cast Corman as the voice of such authority). When one examines the narrative, it’s actually built not on Lecter’s brilliantly intuitive understanding of another bird of the same feather but on coincidence, the fact that he encountered Gumb’s handiwork in his practising days. Only that crucial act of coveting is explicitly revealed as Lecter’s insight, in part because it is the motif of his own Tantalus-like existence.
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Demme’s filmmaking, in spite of such narrative hesitations, retains a remarkable mixture of control and propulsion, and in particular his attentiveness to mood and atmosphere. Like the way he creates a cordoned hush around Clarice as, left alone in a small-town funeral parlour for a moment, she hears soft organ music, and slides into a sad reminiscence of her father’s funeral, seeming to drift out into the service with a fixated purpose before reverting to her child self to kiss her father’s cheek. This moment is again rhymed towards the end when Lecter’s phone call to Clarice at her FBI graduation party again seems to cleave her out of the same reality as other people, reduced to spying back on a bash that was her seeming elevation. There’s enormous craft in the intricate dance of actions and reactions in the post-mortem scene, Demme’s camera leaning close to catch each face, in isolate character and their reactions to atrocity, as a universe in itself. Even the most off-hand gestures have meaning, like the smile Tracy Walter’s character, one of the local coroner’s aides who also doubles as organ player, gives to Clarice when he sees her peering in on the funeral – a moment that supplies a charge of friendliness to proceedings even as both these people go in to inspect a bloated, partly-skinned corpse. Demme’s use of such controlled and sometimes deceptive perspective leads to more spectacular effects later, like the cunning cross-cutting between Crawford leading a SWAT team to what he thinks is Gumb’s house and Clarice ringing the doorbell of his actual home.
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The most ostentatious sequence comes when Lecter finally springs his long-anticipated escape plan, segueing from the soft lilt of Bach piano music to face-eating and brain-smashing and then back again. Demme holds his nerve even as he grazes the outer edges of authentically Sadean imagery – a policeman’s face sliced off and used as a mask, another hung from Lecter’s cage, eviscerated and used as a prop in an act of psychological terrorism that renders Lecter’s all-too-human adversaries too blinded by their own feelings to see what’s in front of them. Several major American auteurs would follow Demme’s example in trying their hand at horror in the following decade, but most, from Scorsese to Coppola to Zemeckis, would never reveal the kind of sure hand Demme seems to wield so effortlessly here. Demme himself had hoped to make a work equal to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and smartly followed its lead in avoiding gore except for when absolutely necessary, on top of the already fitting connection between the two films, both being based in part on the legend of the “Wisconsin Ghoul” Ed Gein. Part of Demme’s ingenuity lies in how his camera notes all the important aspects of Lecter’s design and yet carefully avoids revealing how they fit together, and the total concept is not apparent until Lecter arises from his hospital gurney, strips off his gory disguise, and grins hungrily at the hapless medic sharing his ambulance. It’s a little like that famous The Twilight Zone episode about the man who accidentally unleashes the Devil and an age of calamity begins.
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The Silence of the Lambs was controversial as well insanely popular in its time for some understandable reasons, for its violent implications and also for its portrait of Gumb, a would-be transsexual, at a time when cornball queer villains were appearing quite often in Hollywood thrillers as a big red button marked “malevolent other.” Less than reassuring portrayals of human behaviour are part of the territory with a horror film of course, and Demme and Tally still took care, perhaps spuriously, to use Lecter as mouthpiece to dispel the notion Gumb is actually queer, but rather a creature totally lacking in identity who tends to annex anything close at hand that gives shape to his unique drives. Nonetheless, Levine’s Gumb is one of the film’s less appreciated qualities, as is Smith’s terrifically convincing performance as the object of his bleak intentions. Gumb, first seen as a fusion of human and technology as he spies on Catherine, has to convince as the more immediate and genuine threat in the tale in contrast to such a florid scene hog as Lecter. Hopkins’ Lecter, with all his knowing, flashing-eyed deliveries and relish of a good laugh-line, comes on with calculated theatricality. Demme, whose usual playfulness as a filmmaker didn’t belie his more radical side but rather facilitated it, intuited the rebellious aspect to Harris’ dark fantasies, an aspect that gives The Silence of the Lambs connection to its only rival as a mainstream horror hit, The Exorcist (1973), which similarly offered an audience thrilling jolts of revelling in extreme transgressive behaviour viewed through rigid moral veils. Chilton represents authority at its most petty and sleazy, and Lecter whispers with serpentine appeal to that part of everyone who wouldn’t mind dealing out a little biting payback to such egotistical overlords.
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Levine’s Gumb, by contrast, is a quieter, more authentically unnerving creation. Introduced play-acting as an injured man moving a sofa to lure in Catherine, Gumb seems eminently and terribly possible, the kind of bland, unremarkable figure who can dissolve amidst the background details even whilst he commits unspeakable crimes, longing for ascension to Olympian stature. Gumb confirms the howling void of human being under his surface as he mimics and mocks Catherine’s screams and literally objectifies her (“It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.”). There’s perverse humour, subtler than Lecter’s quips, and a charge of anxious eroticism running under the sequence when he makes himself up in a feminine form as prelude to furthering his aim of completing a woman suit composed entirely of harvested skin. So deeply ingrained is Demme’s humanism and his love of actors that he offers a certain pathos to Gumb here, seeing his frustrated and fervent creativity, his need to believe, like the insects he cares for, that he’s constantly becoming something. There’s a close kinship with Barbara Steele’s mean but frustrated prison warden in Caged Heat indulging her covert fantasies of being a chanteuse. The appeal of his twisted life becomes apparent in the rainy, depressed town he lives in, a secret bole of radical detachment from the everyday, a secret bohemian lair gone horribly wrong.
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The crucial moment comes as climax not just to Demme’s careful deployment of setting and mood but also his attentiveness to his actors: when the penny drops and Clarice realises she’s standing in Buffalo Bill’s house, the man himself is before her, sniggering like a conspiratorial school boy, as Clarice tries to keep her cool, and her fate, foretold throughout the film, is to one who descends to the labyrinth, alone and unaided. This finale is particularly superb not simply in managing suspense effects well but in drawing the film’s consistent obsessions to a wicked point. Clarice is reduced a blind and groping interloper in a Stygian zone whilst Gumb, armed with infrared glasses, stalks her. But Gumb fatally forestalls his own chance to dispose of his enemy and elude capture because he must indulge his coveting, letting his hand hover over Clarice’s face, rejoicing in his power over her, until he makes the fatal mistake of cocking his weapon, giving her a split-second chance to retaliate. Even here there’s a strong visual gag, in the way Gumb curls up, shot full of holes by Clarice and still wearing his night goggles, making him look like a man-sized insect who’s just met his fated can of fly spray, his black abode suddenly filled with cleansing, diminishing sunlight. Clarice’s defeat of one dragon is undercut by the reminder that the other, more eternal one is still out there, planning a moment of revenge on the haplessly fleeing Chilton with impudent cool. Demme manages something rare with his blackly mocking coda, transmuting his blood-and-thunder show into a modern myth, finding strange and saucy delight in Lecter not simply as a sharp-tongued rogue but as the embodiment of something eternally insurgent beneath the human spirit, dissolving into the crowd to become the daemon of the world.

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1990s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Jurassic Park (1993)

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Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

The box office success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Steven Spielberg’s third trip to that popular well, partly disguised his struggle to find his artistic maturity, a struggle that defined his oeuvre in the late 1980s and early ’90s. With the fervent, Dickensian lilt of The Color Purple (1985) nominated for multiple Oscars but then frozen out, and Empire of the Sun (1987), now regarded as one of his greatest achievements, a box office bomb and object of critical suspicion at the time, his foray into a more serious brand of cinema might have seemed a blind alley. He returned to lighter, fantastical tributes to moviemaking’s past with Always (1989) and Hook (1991), but in spite of tremendous moments in both, time hasn’t been particularly kind to either on the whole. Whilst Spielberg was working up the project that would eventually become Schindler’s List (1993), he also set out to find a new property to convert into hard-charging popcorn cinema in the Jaws (1975) mode. He found it in a novel by Michael Crichton, a former physician who turned to writing smart-pulpy scifi and thrillers for the printed page and TV in the late 1960s and even found some success as a film director himself for a time. Crichton had essentially recycled the core idea of his 1974 hit film Westworld for Jurassic Park, both being tales of a futuristic theme park contrived to realise deeply cherished fantasies for its audience whose illusion of control vanishes when the exhibits quickly become hunters.
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Jurassic Park now looks very much like a pivotal moment in Spielberg’s career—not just chronologically, or in its success, which was colossal, even industry-deflecting in reestablishing Spielberg as the titan of pop cinema and giving the CGI era its clarion blast. Jurassic Park is its own work of theatre and self-dramatization, paying tribute to the ageless wish to see something truly awesome and to actually satisfying that desire. But it’s also a study in complication, the awareness of mechanics behind spectacles and the dangers of knowledge—the lot of adulthood. Westworld’s grounding in the Me Decade of the ’70s depicted very adult fantasies realised through the well-worn scifi concept of the humanoid robot that goes berserk. Jurassic Park, by contrast, had a more original, timely, scientific McGuffin to employ, and developed it with a variation on Crichton’s recycled concept with broader appeal: what if scientists could recreate dinosaurs using advances in DNA technology and exhibit the results as the ultimate tourist attraction? The concept of primeval forces placed before armies of sticky-fingered kids and their bewildered parents was obviously irresistible to Spielberg—a life-and-death entertainment for whole family.
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Jurassic Park is also, more obviously, a tribute to and contemporary spin on a hallowed strand of scifi, one in which a remnant of the distant past and its formidable wonders is found subsisting in the present. This subgenre had roots in fare like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, entries from the early days of speculative fiction. The most famous movie inheritor of their lexicon was Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933), the definitive monster movie and progenitor over the intervening decades of the likes of Ray Harryhausen’s films and the Japanese kaiju epics. One of Jurassic Park’s key images, of the park’s wooden, momentous gateway, pays direct tribute to King Kong, whilst the opening scene deploys a wry joke for fans of the classic and a bluff for an audience expecting thrills. Tense and wary workmen and their overseer, great white hunter Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), watch as something monstrous stirs behind trees, as Kong did in his first appearance. The culprit? A forklift. But the joke dies in the throat with intimations that something slyer and deadlier than Kong’s lumbering protomachismo is in play—the mechanical monster carries forth one of the deadly chimeras science has conjured ready to take a bite out of any hapless soul foolish enough to get close. Hints of dread give way to contrasts of absurdity and elusive promise, as lawyer Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) braves jungle depths to talk to miner Juanito Rostagno (Miguel Sandoval), who holds a shard of precious amber with its ancient prisoner, a luckless mosquito, every bit as powerful a relic pulled from the earth as Spielberg’s Ark of the Covenant. Gennaro, an insulated modern astray in the field contrasts Rostagno, a man confidently engaged in an ancient and honourable art, one shared by one of the film’s core heroes, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), a digger.
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Alan and his palaeobotanist colleague and lover Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) are tempted away from their dig for velociraptor bones in the New Mexico desert by the initially obscure temptations of twinkle-eyed entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who offers to fund their research for years if they agree to come with him, no questions asked, to inspect his latest creation. Alan and Ellie find themselves thrown into the company of Gennaro and flashy mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who’s also been hired for expert opinion. Soon, the trio find out just what Hammond and his company, InGen, have been brewing on Isla Nublar, a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica. InGen’s scientific wizards, led by Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), have conjured a motley collection of dinosaurs bred from remnant DNA extracted from amber-entrapped prehistoric insects and arranged in paddocks. Hammond hopes this will be the commercial coup of the millennium. He’s distressed when the three savants all bring up the potential risks and variables they’re facing now that dangerous animals have come back from the dead, even though the scientific team working for InGen have tried their best to control the population, including breeding only females and leaving them hormonally deficient. But the real spanner in the works is human: Hammond’s chief computer technician, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), angry that he’s not getting paid enough for building Hammond’s cutting-edge, completely automated systems, has agreed to steal embryos for a rival company and arranges to send the park haywire to cover his theft and retreat. Nedry’s plan plays out during a confluence of complicating situations, with a hurricane brushing the island and Grant, Ellie, Ian, and Hammond’s two grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello), trapped by the system breakdown in a very inconvenient situation.
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The basic notions at the heart of Jurassic Park are some of the oldest and most familiar in science fiction, but given an ingenious gloss of cutting-edge theory and technology. The Frankenstein question of how far humankind’s dominion can and should stretch over the natural world is dressed up in some pop science thanks to the chaos theories espoused by Malcolm, who doubles as the film’s colour man: Malcolm’s mathematical extrapolations say that no outcome can be entirely predicted, especially when dealing with a living system. The film minimises, but doesn’t entirely eject the scientific detective element in Crichton’s book, as Alan tries to understand how the dinosaurs, in spite of their creators’ labours, prove still able to mate and reproduce: the use of frog DNA to fill in gaps in the genome proves the catalyst. Jurassic Park also came up with a great way to give those old lost world works a believable spin in an age when all the blank spots have been cleared from the world’s maps and a sense of wonder, and caution, in the face of the unknown steadily dulled. For Spielberg, the appeal of seeing dinosaurs is inevitably correlated with his very stock-in-trade, his cinematic skill, and the way he made the act of beholding itself a totemic action in his work.
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Jurassic Park’s most powerful scene, one of the definitive moments of Spielberg’s career, is the lovingly orchestrated climax of the film’s first movement, when the visiting scientists catch their first, amazed glimpses of one of the dinosaurs in a dance of reaction shots, deft little dollies, and careful control of information that makes the act of seeing something as important as what’s being seen—Spielberg’s hotline into the unconscious of his audience at its most precise. Alan and Ellie are instantly plunged back into their own childhood fantasies of communing with the beasts they’ve made the subjects of their adult studies, confronted by a sprawl of saurian species straight off generations of museum dioramas and picture books illustrations instantly recognisable to any dinosaur-mad kid. Amazement gives way, inevitably, to curiosity, as Alan, Ellie, and Malcolm break out of the controlled limits of Hammond’s contrived theme park tour to look more closely at the science and the machinations behind the facades. Curiosity leads to knowledge, and that’s when the expulsion from Eden begins—or rather the dragons in Eden start to slither out of the underbrush. The scientists voice their concerns to the point where Hammond is left bemoaning the fact that the only person unequivocally on his side is Gennaro, “the bloodsucking lawyer,” who represents the purely fiscal mindset at a slight remove from Hammond’s creative vision. Small wonder the film of Jurassic Park inverts the novel’s fates, where Gennaro became a mild hero and Hammond died, consumed by his own creation.
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Spielberg’s empathy with Hammond is vital to Jurassic Park, the filmmaker’s identification with the character’s desire to thrill and provoke people to wonderment mediating the myopia and incidental arrogance that created the park and leads to tragedy. Hammond is initially presented as a Venn diagram for Willy Wonka, Colonel Sanders, and Richard Branson, welcoming the innocent into his land of treats where the dangers are in full view. But Jurassic Park constantly correlates the experience of movie-going and its attendant paraphernalia with the world Hammond has engineered, and Hammond’s pride as a man who built himself up from the humblest of backgrounds—his first piece of showmanship was a flea circus—to become a maker of marvels. If a film like John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) depicted its maker’s increasing sourness and frustration with a zeitgeist he could never quite connect to and felt increasingly alienated from in scifi form, Jurassic Park is revealing of Spielberg’s point of view as somebody who had known success and yet had seen it careen in unexpected directions, throw up hazards, and stir worry he might be losing his way. Jurassic Park lampoons the idea of commercialising creative fruit even as it exemplifies the notion. The park is presented as the ultimate version of the Universal Studios tour where Spielberg’s man-eating shark regularly leaps from the water several times a day—except that the dinosaurs aren’t animatronic and will happily bite you on the ass. Spielberg gets to work through his ambivalence at the idea not just of seeing private inspiration become public circus, but the distance between art and reality above all. This motive comes as another indelible image, when a velociraptor painted on a wall is suddenly contrasted by the shadow of the real thing—wriggling, sniffing, hungry for living meat.
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This moment exemplifies another enriching aspect of Jurassic Park, one that goes a long way to explaining the longevity of the film and the franchise it spawned: Spielberg’s ability to envision the dinosaurs not simply as threats and effects but as animals, with wilful, irrepressible natures, whether they’re brutal carnivores or boding vegetarians. The explosion in special-effects sophistication that allowed CGI to be paired with animatronics helped articulate this idea better than most variations on this idea had managed before, from the triceratops whose sleeping bulk captivates the scientists, to a brachiosaur that sneezes over an appalled Lex, or the sort of Heckle and Jeckle pair of raptors who stalk the kids through a kitchen in all their flitting curiosity and twitchy, predatory nerviness. Jurassic Park understood well the sway dinosaurs hold over people, particularly kids, avatars of a way of seeing the world as both hazardous, but also potentially splendid. The tyrannosaurus that is the film’s antihero encapsulates this understanding, progressing from demonic spectre that terrorises the heroes to engine of almost paternal vengeance that defeats the all-too-human velociraptors. The escape of the tyrannosaurus from its pen is the film’s core set-piece and another vignette of Spielberg’s skills at highest pitch, recalling the charge of Jaws as the monster is glimpsed in awful suggestions—a gory chunk of goat falling on top of Lex and Tim’s car, a pair of massive jaws closing in the flash of lightning—before the beast breaks through the fence left vulnerable by Nedry’s conniving and terrorises the kids, building to that most nightmarish moment in the Spielbergian universe: the object of awe and fascination looks right back at the beholder and decides it wants to eat it. The humans must reach into their most instinctual, primal facets to survive.
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This sequence still thrills for relatively straightforward reasons that nonetheless completely elude so many of the filmmakers with pretensions to working in the same mode as Spielberg: he achieves the Pavlovian ideal of popular cinema, that for a few minutes you’re utterly convinced of the urgent reality of what’s happening. Spielberg creates the feeling of being someone small and vulnerable with the image right out of nursery room nightmare of a black and scaly monstrosity with butcher-knife teeth bearing down upon you, and yet the sequence is entirely logical, even mechanistic, as a series of unfortunate events where an animal’s hunger, the fear of some kids, the concern of two men, the panic of a third, and a broken-down moving part of someone else’s dream provide the elements of a chaotic ballet. Each moment, each gesture, each mistake, each fumbled attempt at recovery creates the context for the next, perfectly illustrating the concepts Ian has tried to expostulate unheeded. The initial note of nascent dread is signalled, like some Buddhist parable, by ripples in a cup of water—the same water, vitally, Ian had earlier used in teaching chaos theory to Ellie. By its climax, Alan has been forced to play Spielberg’s superhero Indiana Jones to save himself and Lex, Malcolm almost gets himself killed helping others, and Gennaro finishes up as lizard food, plucked off a toilet in the most horrible fashion in reward for his cowardice. Alan is left leading his two battered charges through the park, whilst Malcolm is recovered by Ellie and Muldoon moments before having to outrun the tyrannosaurus.
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For all the showy thrill-mongering, much of the pleasure and quality of Jurassic Park comes as Spielberg enjoys his cast and characters interacting and treating the storyline’s conceits with both a sense of revelry and droll suspicion. The latter element is chiefly supplied by Goldblum’s Ian Malcom, whose persona is smartly contrived as the antithesis of the old-school cliché egghead, strutting through the film as leather-clad cool kid and dryly scornful voice of reason, violently contrasting Alan’s shabby, testy earthiness, Ellie’s pleasantly nerdy pluck, and Hammond’s pixilated bonhomie. Malcolm interestingly serves in contrast to one of the classic genre story patterns in which the figure of rationalism is portrayed as the cold arbiter of unfeeling precepts; Jurassic Park is, in part, the tragedy of everyone failing to listen to his Cassandralike omens. The scientists here are the bridging and communication points between the furore of nature and the human desire for order and domain. Muldoon (expertly played by the ice-eyed Peck, who sadly died not long after) evokes another archetype, the rugged bush tracker in slouch hat who sees the ruthless intelligence at hand in the raptors, but who finally proves no luckier than Jaws’ Quint when it comes to taking on his monstrous foes, outsmarted in the underbrush by tactics Alan had anticipated earlier. Alan and Ellie’s introductory scene sees Alan mischievously terrorising a snotty brat hanging around his paleontological dig site with tales of velociraptor acumen and savagery. Alan is basically a big kid himself, and another of Spielberg’s identification figures as the guy who likes stirring reactions in people and the man who fears taking the next step in his life as husband and father.
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The bipolar aspect to Spielberg’s career was still fairly unrecognised when Jurassic Park came out. The mean and mischievous Loki of Jaws, 1941 (1979), and the first two Indiana Jones films, as well as the portraitist of cruelty and anarchy in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, was still dimmed to most eyes by the joyous Peter Pan of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Like most of his fellow generation of “Movie Brats,” Spielberg had personal motives invested in his cinema but no problem plying his work for as big an audience as he could muster. Yet, for such a “big” work, many of the best moments in the film are virtually inconsequential—Ian and Ellie flirting up a storm, Alan beaming with boyish pleasure as he listens to a sickly triceratops breathing, Hammond expressing his quiet loathing for Ian’s taunting cynicism—nonetheless somehow manage to speak of the film’s essential theses of life in all its tumult, brutality, and empathy. The two children of a sundering family along for the ride provide surrogates for the younger audience and fill out one of Spielberg’s already-familiar pick-up families, as Alan grudgingly evolves from childphobic to burgeoning father figure. Early sequences are lengthy and surprisingly talky, prizing conversation, expostulation, the give-and-take of ideas and ways of seeing. The seed is here for Spielberg’s handling of this motif in ostensibly more serious fare, like Amistad (1997) and Lincoln (2012), just as the sequence when the visitors speak with Hammond and Muldoon at the raptor cage sees Spielberg try out a different way of shooting a scene—holding back, allowing multiple dialogues to take place at the same time—that signal an evolving aesthetic.
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It’s chiefly the sense that the filmmaker is in his element that that gives Jurassic Park kick even as the storyline plays out in a predictable and, yes, somewhat slapdash fashion. I’ve never been an uncritical fan of Jurassic Park as a whole, although I’ve come to like it a lot more with time and clearer insight into its genuinely excellent aspects and elevating flourishes. But significant flaws also remain clear. Whilst Spielberg’s animated gamesmanship is always fun, the second half never succeeds in generating a sequence as intimately scary and thrilling as the tyrannosaurus break-out, and many of the situations feel frustratingly basic, failing to build to the kinds of crescendos Spielberg manages in his greatest action-adventure films; that’s one reason I actually prefer his sequel, the gleefully nasty and happily frivolous The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), which is essentially a series of Spielberg set-pieces striving to satirise and outdo earlier Spielberg set-pieces. The difficulties and budget-soaking cost of developing the film’s groundbreaking special effects whilst the script was still a work in progress (the writing was eventually credited to Crichton and David Koepp) shows through in the patchiness of some of the action. The film’s visual palette is relative bland, with Dean Cundey’s photography sometimes emphasising a surprisingly cheap, even TV-movie-like look. Nedry and Gennaro are reduced to crude, very ’90s stereotypes when I usually expect better from Spielberg. Casually killing off Gennaro and Muldoon left the film bereft of one of the book’s more enjoyable aspects, a lack that feels telling in the second half’s rather basic romp-and-chomp chase scenes that never, ever feel as urgent or compulsive as anything in a not-so-dissimilar monster chase movie like Aliens (1986).
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Still, Spielberg continues to pull off great moments. The shock of the raptor attacking Ellie right after she manages to restore power is one of his finest pieces of timing and malicious nerve, whilst the sudden reappearance of the tyrannosaurus at the very end as deus-ex-machina is ridiculous on some levels, but tremendous on others. Moreover, the loose, rolling structure of Jurassic Park allowed Spielberg and his team to cram the film with throwaway touches until the film is as textured with jokes and visual flourishes as a MAD Magazine page. The tyrannosaurus’s yawing mouth glimpsed in a rearview mirror with the message, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” Nedry disposing of a handful of shaving cream on a piece of apple pie. Strands of DNA code projected onto a marauding raptor’s face. Hammond crowing, “We spared no expense!” as perpetual B-movie actor Richard Kiley’s voice emanates as tour guide from speakers. Hot starlet sprawled on a zebra skin embodying the call of the wild and Robert Oppenheimer puffing a pipe with warning warring for attention around Nedry’s computer space. The little dance of action Alan performs in trying to escape Tim’s yammering enthusiasm. Repurposing the Woody Woodpecker cartoon from Destination Moon (1951) as explain-it-all short of the Jurassic Park ride experience—a deep cut of referential wit as well as a perfect expository device. Lex with a spoonful of jelly starting to shake like the proverbial when she spies an interloping raptor. And, of course, that capstone flourish of the roaring T-Rex with a poster reading “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” ribboning before the beast’s all-too-genuinely renascent power.
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The achievement of Jurassic Park, both devious and ardent, is that it litters such touches around with abandon and feeds up a significant portion of its cast as dinosaur chow, and yet still manages to close out with a feeling of the sublime. The final frames offer a feeling of conciliation, acceptance, and still-bubbling curiosity rather than fear and retreat, as Alan gazes out at gliding seabirds with a new sense of life in its value, both his own and the kids he’s learned to care for, and the overall continuum that defines species and evolution. John Williams, who provided one of his best scores here, dusts proceedings with a sense of grandeur, even a hint of the elegiac, fleshing out this grace-note that suggests it’s precisely what terrifies us that often draws us back in deeper curiosity and need for understanding. This pivot of comprehension, moreover, backs up an aspect of the tale represented by Malcolm and his cautions against arrogance, and Alan and Ellie’s inquisitive and celebratory mindset. Jurassic Park is a tale of forces inimical to human conceit and the dangers of unfettered experimentation, and yet it finally manages to affirm the yearning spirit and the act of scientific inquiry as one of personal conviction. For Spielberg, it allowed him to tether his light and
dark sides together with ease and pointed the way to the future.

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1990s, Blaxploitation, Crime/Detective, War

Dead Presidents (1995)

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Directors/Coscreenwriters: Albert and Allen Hughes

By Roderick Heath

In the 1990s, following the lead of Spike Lee, a small wave of black filmmaking talents, including Carl Franklin, John Singleton, Kasi Lemmons, Bill Duke, Mario Van Peebles, and the Hughes Brothers, edged their way into Hollywood. Their careers have proven for the most part patchy and their works uneven, but all managed a few strong and significant movies to the extent that the period now looks like something of a renaissance nobody noticed that endured through dogged appreciation and fandom on video. Although many of these filmmakers would resist being pigeonholed to a great extent, all of them to an equal extent tried at times to describe realms of black experience that hadn’t been studied much in the movies. If a film like Van Peebles’ Panther (1995) wasn’t really very good, at least it was a desperately needed study of a vital moment in modern American life. Some of these directors leaned towards the ragged glories of genre film, particularly Duke’s loping, waggish crime flicks and Franklin’s cool and well-honed entries in the same genre, and Singleton’s punchy melodramas like Higher Learning (1995) and Rosewood (1997) that recalled Warner Bros. issue dramas of the ’30s. The Detroit-born brothers Albert and Allen Hughes made their name with 1993’s Menace II Society, a film some preferred to Singleton’s more widely lauded Boyz N the Hood (1992), and its follow-up three years later, Dead Presidents. The brothers’ career has moved in fits and starts since, with only their sadly defanged adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell (2000) and the biblical scifi parable The Book of Eli (2011), whilst Allen went solo in making the initially compelling but overplotted political corruption drama Broken City (2013). Dead Presidents, however, still stands as one of the best, most interesting and coherent films from this period for the scope of its ambitions and the visceral portrayal of things often left out of other takes on its chosen era and milieu.
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Dead Presidents’ title conflates street argot for cash and a sense of history in flux and revision. The opening title sequence concentrates on images of cash burning, all those patrician faces and elegant scripts ablaze and drifting on the wind. The film encompasses a common narrative portrayed or alluded to in a lot of ’70s blaxploitation films, and the Hughes reference that mode of filmmaking throughout at a time when it wasn’t yet cool to reference: indeed, Dead Presidents is not just an homage to the blaxploitation creed, but an update of it, looking to the sociopolitical reality of the moment rather than merely its tropes. The scope of the narrative can be described as The Deer Hunter (1978) meets The Killing (1956), although for a real likeness of a narrative that encompasses the experience of a complete epoch, you have to look back even farther to the likes of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). The focus is on a returned black Vietnam War veteran confronted by a changed social scene at home—an idea that recalls not just blaxploitation films like Jack Starrett’s Slaughter (1972) and Fred Williamson’s Mean Johnny Barrows (1976), but also Marvin Gaye’s classic statement album What’s Going On.
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The Hugheses start off in a key of funny-melancholy portrait of youth before going off to war: black teens Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) and Skip (Chris Tucker), and their Latino pal Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), have just finished high school and are looking at a leap in adulthood with different ambitions. Gabby, cynical Skip wants to be a pimp, whilst Anthony is being steered toward college like his older brother (Isaiah Washington). But Anthony chafes in the embrace of his relatively middle-class family and craves action, the kind of military action his father (James Pickens Jr.) and his employer, Kirby (Keith David), once saw. Kirby, who runs a pool hall and operates a low-grade numbers operation on the side, clearly favours Anthony like a surrogate son. Kirby employs him as a runner and lets him hang around the pool hall even though he’s underage.
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The film’s first third has a loose, nostalgic feel and a quality reminiscent of many a coming-of-age tale, laced with the grittiness of a very urban life demanding quick learning skills and a witty gift for adaptation and a tone often verging on black comedy, like Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers (1979). Anthony loses his virginity with his girlfriend Juanita Benson (Rose Jackson) in a sequence of wry, bawdy honesty, and defies his parents as he announces his intention to join the Marines. Juanita lives with her nurse mother (Alvaleta Guess) and her plucky, flirty younger sister Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), who has put up with the sounds of the teens’ lovemaking when their mother’s on the night shift. Anthony’s education also includes a scary encounter with Cowboy (Terrence Howard), one of the sharpies who hangs around Kirby’s pool joint, who mocks Anthony for his age but then accepts Kirby’s suggestion they go head-to-head for a game. Anthony wins the game, but Cowboy refuses to pay the whole stake; when Anthony complains, Cowboy assaults him and cuts his face with a knife before Kirby and a pal can intervene. Kirby enlists Anthony as a driver when he goes to shake down a guy who owes him money, and standover violence takes on a slapstick edge: Kirby tosses his mark out a window whilst the man’s wife waves a gun at him. Kirby snatches the gun and knocks her out, whilst her husband tries to trip up Kirby by grabbing his leg, only to have Kirby’s prosthetic leg come off in his hands. Kirby finishes up rolling on the ground with the gun stuck up his quarry’s nose, and later stows his false leg on the dashboard and groans that he ought to go back and kill the guy because he made him lose his pack of cigarettes.
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The brothers pull off a few terrific stylistic pirouettes through these early scenes. A tracking shot through an apartment where all the young graduates party, glimpsed in vignettes of passion, dancing, drinking, smoking, vomiting—all the follies and pleasures of young adulthood—is aestheticized to an extreme in hues of red and blue. There’s a strong Scorsesean influence here, but also an identifiable quality as a survey blending panorama and enlarged human detail of black artists like Archibald Motley. Later, trying to flee the Bensons’ house before being caught by their mother, Anthony makes a dash through neighbouring yards, leaping over fences and dodging barking dogs, filmed on the fly by the Hughes’ dashing camera, and then suddenly cutting to Anthony again on the run, but this time through the jungle in Vietnam surrounded by fellow soldiers in the midst of battle. This touch recalls the great smash cut that separates the homeland and ’Nam sequences in The Deer Hunter, but given a clever, kinetic makeover, and jarringly describes the distance between the comedy of Anthony’s arrival into manhood and the cruel reality of surviving the version of it his aspirations have plunged him into.
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Vietnam movies had all but expended their moment of cultural status by 1995, but the Hughes actually managed to bring something new to the well-worn clichés of the subgenre here by pure dint of both their grittiness and their impassive approach to it. Far from the delirious atavism of Apocalypse Now (1979) or the operatic moralism of Platoon (1986), the Hughes war zone is a place of ferocious, devolving violence that its characters merely treat as a shitstorm to be survived, in whatever fashion they deem fit. With Jose drafted into the Army, Skip joined up with Anthony, and now the two watch each other’s backs in a rough-and-ready force recon outfit, skippered by Lieutenant Dugan (Jaimz Woolvett), and including Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), the son of a minister who’s turned himself into a rampaging devil for the duration of the war, and the ill-fated D’Ambrosio (Michael Imperioli).
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The visions of the war zone, including Cleon hacking off the head of a VC and keeping it as a steadily decomposing good luck charm and D’Ambrosio’s capture by the VC, who disembowel him, castrate him, and jam his penis in his mouth, but still manage to leave him alive, contemplate the most terrible aspects of the war with a kind of reportorial immediacy that eschews excess or self-congratulatory zest. Anthony and Skip lean on each other for sanity and support, but the unit has its own embracing camaraderie built around their status as the dudes who brave the hairiest situations under Dugan’s wily direction. Cleon only gets rid of his totem at the insistence of Dugan and the rest of the unit when its stink gets too much, but warns them all that they’ve just thrown away their luck. Anthony passes another, awful hurdle in his education as he obeys D’Ambrosio’s begging to kill him by injecting him with a morphine overdose. Later, the unit is ambushed in a firefight. Skip freezes up and is badly injured, whilst Dugan is killed trying to grab him, forcing Anthony and Cleon to save Skip and fight a rear-guard action before they escape.
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A year later, Anthony returns to a home that looks familiar, but soon finds the magnetic pole has shifted. Skip is now an addict living on benefits and suffering from the after-effects of Agent Orange. Cowboy is now a friendly neighbourhood drug dealer. Jose, who was drafted and served in demolitions, lost a hand during the war. Delilah has become a leading figure in a Black Panther-like revolutionary group called the Nat Turner Cadre: she greets Anthony’s arrival with “Welcome to the Revolution,” which, by the way she kisses him, includes the sexual as well as the political kind. But Anthony already has a role mapped out for him as father and provider, because Juanita gave birth to his daughter whilst he was away. He lands a steady job as assistant to a kindly old Jewish butcher, Saul (Seymour Cassel), who strikes up a rapport with Anthony over his name’s ironic similarity to actor Tony Curtis, who, as Saul points out, was another young American busy hiding his roots. But when Saul retires, Anthony finds himself jobless and quickly running out of options. Rubbing his increasingly raw nerves even sorer, Anthony learns that during his absence, Juanita was a part-time girlfriend to a gangster, Cutty (Clifton Powell), who displays outright contempt for Anthony and continues to slip cash to Juanita. When Anthony insists he stop, Cutty sucker-punches him and jams a gun in his face, taunting him in the same way Cowboy once did, except with an even scarier weapon. As Anthony’s feelings of entrapment and castration escalate, he soon begins to think seriously about a robbery plan Jose has proposed, targeting a federal shipment of worn-out currency destined to be burnt.
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The Hugheses confirm allegiances with several visual and thematic references to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), although whereas that film was concerned with an individual veteran completely adrift in his society who sees himself strangely plugged into its moral fate, here the Hughes concentrate on Anthony as an avatar of a common experience who maintains connections with other similarly damaged people but is dogged by his inability or refusal to become radicalised. Delilah offers Anthony the chance to find a place amongst the Cadre and the nascent possibility of black brotherhood. But Anthony insists on maintaining an allegiance to ideals of manhood and country that prove illusory, one setting him up to try to live a life that the other can’t or won’t give him. Twisting the usual screen portraits of ’Nam vets as nobly pained or bugfuck crazy, the Hughes brothers offer this motley crew of vets simply as guys trying to endure whatever landscape they’re placed in, facing constantly shrinking options that fit the ways they’ve been trained to survive. The narrative’s inspiration came from a book, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, compiled by Wallace Terry, and specifically, the experiences of Haywood T. Kirkland and his recollections of people he knew. Indeed, in spite of its moments of melodrama and conflation, Dead Presidents maintains a feeling throughout of memoir, something the brothers underline with gruesome piquancy in their war sequences and episodic structuring—the various passages of time are denoted through fades to black and back again and titles giving time and place—and their refusal of any kind of catharsis at the very end.
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The Hugheses capture the atmosphere inscribed in Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America” whilst remembering the time when it seemed the revolution might or might not be televised. Dead Presidents’ willingness to study both the milieu of black radicalism and its context in the Vietnam era, and to ponder the relationship between crime and such extremism, is certainly one of its important aspects. Rather than actually present Anthony with an alternative politicised path, Delilah readily signs up with his intended criminal enterprise, lending the operation the faint lustre of a revolutionary act even as it devolves, once again, into mere disastrous bloodletting. Perhaps it’s as good a mission of social anarchy as any other, as well as a play for riches and a focus for violent impulses. Delilah is perhaps the most original character in the film, the character who marks both the disorientating social shift Anthony is faced with once he comes back from the war even as the link between Delilah’s sassy, tomboyish disdain as a kid and her hard, radicalised intent is also signalled: she’s the one who greets him when we first see him go to the Benson house, and the first again when he comes back from war. Her status as the one real militant amidst all these clapped-out soldiers in the narrative suggests an element of dilettante posing found in much of the radical movement, although she proves her willingness to actually use deadly force. Delilah’s downfall is her unreciprocated crush on Anthony, an emotional attachment that, like Anthony’s to Juanita and his other loved ones, dooms him to a course of action that seems inevitable. When Anthony and his cadre actually embark on their robbery mission, they do so pointedly done up in dramatic, visually striking whiteface make-up that evokes Baron Samedi of voodoo lore, the embodiment of the perverse dichotomy of the slave society, the dualistic mix of black and white, owner and owned, command and slavery, eternity and death.
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Similarly surreal in his mix of impulses is Cleon, who, since his return from war, has followed in his father’s footsteps and become a preacher, the head-hacking shaman he was in the bush seemingly cast off like a second skin. Nonetheless, Anthony and company approach him to join in their operation: Cleon, to their surprise, readily signs up with vague altruistic hopes for the cash he can net, although he worries Skip might freeze up again and go useless in a tight situation. The robbery, when it comes, is a ferocious sequence of pummelling Peckinpah-esque violence where nothing goes right, except for shedding blood. This climax is particularly good not just in the concussive, gory intensity of the action, but also in the Hughes’ sense of character as fate, which finds precise expression here: Delilah springing out of a dumpster with .45s in each hand blasting away cops with an expression that blends warrior rage and anguish just before getting iced herself; Cleon proving the one who’s unreliable when he can’t shoot down a fellow black veteran turned cop, forcing Skip to shoot the poor guy in the head; Anthony, stung by loss and releasing his rage on the coppers who insist on fighting back, eventually reduced to beating one with his gun when he runs out of bullets; Joe howling with laughter after his explosive device made to blow open the armoured car instead turns the vehicle into a giant ball of fire. There’s a touch of absurdism to this last moment, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of The Italian Job (1969), capping a robbery staged by people more used to violence than they are to planning and executing such a difficult mission. The Hughes present horror and comedy as two sides of the same coin, the result of things spinning far out of anyone’s control, and chaos, as on the battlefield, grips everyone in a ruthless logic.
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Dead Presidents finally falls a few rungs short of real greatness, if for relatively subtle reasons. The Hugheses display more discipline here than Spike Lee often has, but lack his and Scorsese’s gift for turning anxiety into an aesthetic key, and the result doesn’t quite annex the realms of truly savage urban warfare in the way a precursor like Across 110th Street (1973) manages. Casting is a bit of a problem, with the supporting players generally more convincing than the leads. Tate is a very likeable actor, and he’s fairly good here, but often seems too lightweight and boyish to inhabit a figure as prematurely grave and seething as Anthony after he returns home, whilst Jackson never quite feels convincing when trying to put across Juanita’s blend of ardour and anger, which means scenes depicting the disintegration of Anthony and Juanita’s relationship don’t blaze with a sufficient sense of mad and inchoate emotion. David is as sourly marvellous as always. The sight of young Howard blazing with mean charisma and punkish swagger in his scenes as Cowboy tantalises with what the film might have been if he had played Anthony, whilst Wright shows real poise and potency in her scenes: in some alternative universe she might have become a real star. Tucker did start on his way towards becoming something of a star, and here his gift for zippy verbal comedy is tethered effectively to his portrayal, as Skip’s confidence in his breezy humour before war and his jittery attempts to maintain it after depict concisely how ruined he is.
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In spite of its flaws, Dead Presidents stands as a fascinating, intermittently powerful journey that treads into territory I wish more filmmakers would take up. The disaster of the robbery sets the scene for the steady collapse and defeat of the crew, who manage, in spite of Joe turning the van into a fireball, to get away with a decent haul. But Joe is quickly chased down by police and killed when he shoots the driver of a cop car dead, but the vehicle slams into him. A crumbling Cleon brings down the heat when he starts handing out his cut of the loot to random beggars and people in the street, and squeals when he’s inevitably arrested. The police crash into Skip’s apartment only to find him dead from an overdose, his fish-eyed corpse lying grotesquely before his TV, which broadcasts a jaunty Soul Train performance. Dead Presidents was criticised upon release for its ending, as Anthony is sentenced to a long prison term by a white judge (a cameo by Martin Sheen), a fellow veteran who rejects the idea that the man in the docks deserves clemency for his service and brands him a disgrace instead. Anthony goes berserk in court and is shipped off to prison. This conclusion does have a peculiarly offhand quality, although I suspect that effect is deliberate, as the Hughes brothers fade to black as they have after each episode, only this time there are no more consequential chapters in Anthony’s life. Anthony isn’t granted the kind of glory a shootout like Raoul Walsh’s allowed to his antiheroic gangsters, or the sort of tragic stature filmmakers sometimes choose to extend to the likes of Bonnie & Clyde (1967) or Blow’s (2001) George Jung. He is instead doomed, like another modern Prometheus, to be gnawed at by the decimation of his community and the ambiguity of his own lot, the question of whether he really was a man without choices or the agent of his own destruction. Shit happens, and it just happened to Anthony Curtis.

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