2000s, Auteurs, Chinese cinema, Historical, Romance

In The Mood For Love (2000)

Fa yeung nin wa

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Director / Screenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai

By Roderick Heath

In The Mood For Love offered something so rare and specific amidst the frenetic climes of the millennium’s pivot it had a drug-like appeal for the international film scene. A bathe in a dreamlike evocation of the past, a tale of illicit passion played by pre-sexual revolution rules, a dose of heady exotica ready to go. Wong Kar-Wai’s most acclaimed and beloved film, In The Mood For Love has also proved a creative millstone for its maker, at least in terms of his receptive audience, as everything he did after it was largely doomed to be found wanting, and what he’d done before a mere warm-up. From a slightly longer perspective, In The Mood For Love might well be Wong’s highpoint but, if not exactly an outlier in Wong’s oeuvre, certainly an obsessive distillation of one, singular aspect of it. After his debut with As Tears Go By (1987), a resituating of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) streaked with powerful hints of Wong’s emerging sensibility, the director hit his stride with the first of his studies in romantic eccentricity and ambivalence, Days of Being Wild (1990). Not for the last time in his career, Wong found himself stymied as he tried to get an ambitious work off the ground, as he struggled to make his purposefully eccentric take on martial arts melodrama Ashes of Time (1994), so in the meantime created Chungking Express (1994), a diptych of melancholy romances that gained him significant attention in the west.

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Wong quickly followed those works with Fallen Angels (1995), a darker take on a similar epic of super-modern social fragmentation, evanescent longing, and genre film caricaturing to that glimpsed in Chungking Express. Happy Together (1997) offered a more careful and considered study in a crumbling relationship with a queer twists and an international scope. Wong again found himself unable to make one film, the ambitious embarkation in metafiction 2046, and so developed a project designed to work in tandem with it, one that would ironically see the light of day first. Wong and his regular collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, had developed a specific and very influential aesthetic on their ‘90s films that they were already leaving behind on Happy Together, with Doyle’s swimming camerawork and blurred surveys of action and settings evoking a universe in a constant state of flux even as Wong’s refusal to traditionally bracket his sequences rendered the flux perpetually past-tense, at once immediate and anxiously remembered. The calmer style of Happy Together reflected a deepening concern for the pains of coupling, that attempt to fix one’s own nature by mixing it with another, whilst also taking Wong’s fascination for people compelled to wander to an extreme.

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Filming on In The Mood For Love went on for 15 months as Wong laboured to nail down the aesthetic he was chasing, leading to Doyle departing the production and being supplanted by Mark Lee Ping Bin, but the result assimilated them both, and the halting disconuity became an aspect of its style. In The Mood For Love returned to Days of Being Wild’s milieu of the early 1960s in Hong Kong, with Maggie Cheung playing a character with the same name as the one she had in that film, Su Li-zhen. Where in that film the character had been a lovelorn shopgirl who learns wisdom after burning her fingers in a romance with a callow, self-destructive womaniser, the one in In The Mood For Love is married and proper, feeling less like a mature version of that character as a different manifestation. But if there’s one notion that flows through all Wong’s films, it’s fascination for the way a human individual is often many different people in the course of their lives, changing apparel, jobs, roles, aims, lovers, even fates, often entirely reshaped by experience but with some core being unchanged. Taken on face value, In The Mood For Love is a story of romantic longing foiled by manifold forces and principles, but fundamentally, like most of Wong’s works, it’s actually about individuals trying to escape themselves but doomed to only graze against others because of forces both within and without.

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In The Mood For Love has a story, and people who inhabit it, but it’s just as fundamentally a work of incantation, resurrecting not only people but of a specific time and place, the Hong Kong of Wong’s childhood. A humdrum colonial outpost turned by tides of history into a pivot of civilisations and way-station for the dispossessed and yearning. Long before the halogen-lit markets and swooping road tunnels Wong would capture so exactingly with Chungking Express and Fallen Angels arrived, this was a place with streets of peeling paintwork and crumbling plaster, buildings packed to the rafters with human flotsam, people thrust so close together they can barely see each-other. The cheek-by-jowl romanticism of all-night mah-jong matches, basement food courts, and rain pattering on rusty street lampshades, the infestations of period kitsch, sunburst clocks and boss nova albums. The literally translated title original title, The Flowery Years, betrays the sense of nostalgic longing for a time of blooming possibility. Before prosperity would throw up skyscrapers, getting hold of a decent apartment is a matter of deep personal achievement.

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Two married couples move into neighbouring rooms, each sub-leased from the holders of larger apartments. The Chans’ room is in the flat of Mrs Suen (Rebecca Pan) whilst the Chows lives with the Koos, who like getting drunk and playing mah-jong together. We never properly see the other – better? worse? – half of the two couples, leaving us with Mr Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Mrs Chan, aka Su Li-zhen. Their partners become abstractions, variations in an algorithm, cut off from the audience’s knowing except through signs and oblique depictions. Chow’s wife is glimpsed askew manning a lobby desk festooned with postcards, gatekeeper of the world’s promise and seller of cardboard dreams. Li-zhen’s husband has a job that takes him to Japan for unstated reasons whilst she works as the secretary for Mr Ho (Kelly Lai Chen) at a shipping company. Japan is a faraway mystic land of attractive consumer goods, the ironic key to identifying glitches in the system: the goods Su’s husband brings back are shiny and desirable and give away lapses in fidelity.

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In The Mood For Love’s narrative unfolds over a long time period, weeks and months and then years, but Wong’s scene grammar falsifies immediacy and logical connection. Telling moments clipped out of the familiar texture of time and experience and assembled in a manner that makes a sort of sense. Hitchcock’s rule of cinema as life with the boring bits cut out is both cited but also challenged: the action, the big moments of drama, are largely what’s cut out. Recurring patterns, and violations in those patterns, are instead the flesh of In The Mood For Love: “You notice things if you pay attention,” Su states at one point, not long before she subtly warns her boss into changing his tie, one she knows his mistress rather than his wife bought for him. The sensitivity to detail is engrained in the film’s texture: the languorous slow-motion sequences sensitise not just to Wong’s evocation of a lost and melancholically recalled past but also to objects and dress of the period usually dismissed as decoration, but which Wong identifies as the stuff that makes up people’s lives. The consumerist fancies that Mr Chan brings back with him are totems of another, more prosperous world – rice cookers, handbags, fashionable ties – and also lodestones of personal meaning and recognition.

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Whilst Wong never shows Mrs Chow’s face, the film represents her with the recurring sight of the workspace she inhabits, and glimpses of her bobbed hair. At one point, after Su knocks on the Chows’ door when she hears voices and correctly thinks she can hear her husband within their apartment, only for Mrs Chow to stonewall her, a phone conversation between her and Mr Chan is heard as she suggests they not see each-other for a time. Wong then privileges a mysterious, gauzily shot glimpse of Mrs Chow weeping whilst showering in some hotel room. Obsession is a matter of both display and receptivity. Chow (and Wong) is mesmerised Su’s slim form clad in a series of lush cheongsams, whilst she wears them to express stifled desire and boredom as well as her own elegantly correct sense of how to live. Chow’s colleague and pal Ah Ping (Siu Ping Lam) offers comic relief whilst representing a type of human without the same kind of governor mediating between his appetites and impulses that ultimately foils both Chow and Su.

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Ah Ping brings a touch of amoral zaniness to Chow’s life with his misadventures like getting fleeced in betting on a horse and then visiting a whorehouse all after being in hospital (“You were in no shape for sex!” “I thought it would improve my luck.”), whilst his shameless but incompetent ploys in making a play for Su contrast Chow’s more gentlemanly approach but also render him something like his personified id. Ah Ping works with Chow in a newspaper offer touched with the same atmosphere of seedy romanticism as the rest of the locales in the film, a place where tousled, barely functional men work in a miasma of perspiration and cigarette haze. Place, exile, travel, all are major facets of In The Mood For Love despite most of the drama happening within one apartment block. That building itself is a kind of way-station for people who have found a momentary toehold. Chow, Mrs Suen, and others are former residents of Shanghai now crammed on a tight little island, the old Hong Kong soon to be swept away in the mad scramble for real estate in a city-state with a very finite amount of it. Wong had to shoot most of the outdoor scenes in Bangkok for that reason. Wong had gone the other route in Happy Together in portraying its fraying male lovers at loose in the world and also adrift. He would return more ostentatiously with The Grandmaster (2013) to the mythical Hong Kong of his youth as a tide pool where folk heroes and collective memories congregated and went mouldy amidst the project of survival and hybridisation.

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Mr Chan and Mrs Chow both cover their trysts easily because they travel a lot for work, with Chan often going to Japan on errands for his Japanese boss, whilst Mrs Chow’s workstation abuts a rack of postcards. Every place is exotic to some other place, particularly when you’re going nowhere. Wong’s period Hong Kong is mysterious to itself, a mythical place created by the pressures of history and human need, a place where eastern and western sensibilities don’t so much mingle as cohabit as restlessly and energetically as its people. to Wong’s eye it was a place of bygone splendours, nondescript urban architecture with the faintest curlicues of traditional architectural style here and there, the damaged glamour of a glimpse of a cracked wall and a window frame with fading paint and the glimpse into another person’s life-space, inside of which expression blooms in riots of clashing colour and teeming decoration, ringing to a meshed music of laughter and argument and work and soft radio sounds. Wong’s fastidious, usually rigid framing keeps turning portals and passages into frames within frames, with a careful conspiracy between Lim Chung Man’s art direction, William Chang’s production design and costuming, and Doyle and Lee’s cinematography helps create this lush world, half memory, half dream, part Edward Hopper, part Matisse painting, part classical Chinese scroll art. Many shots are filmed in distorted fashion, through fogged glass or using lens effects.

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Other shots are delivered with a dazzling clarity that only renders them stranger, like a shot down a hotel corridor where red curtains gently billow on a draft and the leaves of a potted plant tremble, absent any being and yet vibrating with mysterious life. The obsessive texture is exacerbated by the music cues, alternating composer Shigeru Umebayashi’s languid pizzicato string theme and a vintage Nat King Cole recording version of the Cuban song “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” musical themes that manage to denote both immobility, the sense of arrested time and foiled action, and a dance-like sense of possibilities in play that come and depart before they’re even truly registered. Echoes here of course to one of the restless heroines of Chungking Express whose constantly played leitmotif was The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming” whilst existing within a world of escalators and shoebox apartments and hole-in-the-wall businesses. But whilst there Wong remained outside of the bubble of floating insouciance she used the song to weave about herself, In The Mood For Love is Wong’s entry into and projection of that kind of bubble. Fallen Angels was an insomniac fever-dream about people who try ever more frantically to control life’s formlessness by contriving to dispense that formlessness, trying to live purposefully alienated and rootless lives, but eventually falling victim to gravity regardless.

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In Happy Together the post break-up pains of its lovers is couched not simply in the pain of losing a mate but also in the ultimate personal act for each man in confronting their own specific reactions and quirks of character that degraded the relationship, confronting the limitations and perversities of spirit that foil happiness and turn the wealth of possibility into a debit of rueful waste and costly experience. In The Mood For Love operates as its echo and amplification as well as its inversion: the portrait of characters who maintain discipline and personal integrity sees them even more thoroughly haunted by what wasn’t. Wong’s gestures and stylistics accumulate meaning as In The Mood For Love unfolds, as Chow and Su inhabit the same discreet zone by virtue of both being mostly alone and stricken with an initially confused but increasingly certain sense of wounding and abandonment. They pass each-other in their evening strolls down to the food court, waiting out rainstorms, smoking the odd pensive cigarette, swapping the odd word of greeting.

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Early in development the project that became In The Mood For Love was titled A Story of Food, and it is that, with the food the characters eat – rice, noodles, sesame syrup, steak – made a vital aspect of how their lives, habits, and gestures of affection interact. Chow and Su’s first, and for a long time only, real conversation takes place when Su visits the Koos’ apartment to borrow a newspaper because she’s keeping up with a martial arts serial story, and Chow mentions his liking for the genre, which he once made an abortive attempt to write in. Wong here nods back to Ashes of Time, which had taken on stories by Jin Yong, a real-life Hong Kong journalist-exile turned fiction writer, and translated them into one of Wong’s portraits of drifting, disconsolate people who, when separated from the romantic glamour of their prowess as warriors, are case studies in longing and confusion. The frontier post where the master warriors wait for work in Ashes of Time likewise is a kind of way-station of fate like the apartment building here.

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Part of what distinguished Wong particularly in the 1990s was that Wong was a formalist with a sense of what style could accomplish: In The Mood For Love was perhaps the most accomplished work of high style in narrative film since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and it shares certain nagging fascinations with that film, most particular its sense of dreamy melancholy and portrayal of swarming city life. Wong’s regard for genre writing, however sarcastically reflected through his resolutely slice-of-life tales, engages here with the roots of such storytelling, noting the mid-twentieth century and its wealth of creativity as stemming from people clinging on in such places, dreaming intense dreams, fantasies of power and freedom shot through with reflections of damaged humanity. Wong’s fascination for how people inhabit an urban space together but also entirely separately is here illustrated with an intensity that renders it close to a philosophy of life, depicting people who, for whatever reason, cannot ever quite leap over the divide that separates them as bodies and minds.

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Wong would deromanticise the theme with purpose when he finally got to make 2046 (2004), as he went to the opposite extreme of portraying desperately carnal relationships only to confront the same spectacle of who people who cannot surrender themselves. When Su finally invites Chow to dinner, it’s to try and get to the truth linking them through their partners, a problem that must be approached circuitously, through laughing admissions before direct statements, as when Su final notes that her husband and Chow both have the same tie despite them being bought overseas, proof that Mrs Chow bought them both. Wong’s squared-off shots, engaging both actors in profile within the crystalline perfection of the period setting with studied back-and-forth shots of the two actors heightening the sense of formal games, before a precise violation of the style when Su finally directly queries Chow about what he thinks is going on, Wong moving the camera laterally from behind Chow onto his face, depicting the queasy, blindsiding moment of truth exactly.

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The point of connection between Chow and Su is initially a kind of osmotic attraction in shared romantic desolation and the absence of their partners. The deeper one that forms is creative. Thrown into each-other’s company as people drawn together through a mildly perverse instinct to penetrate the separate psychic and physical world of the people who are supposed to be close to them but have in fact created their own distinct pocket of life, Chow and Su vow “we won’t be like them.” as they’re quickly driven to begin role-playing in answering Su’s pondering of how the affair might have begun. Wong tips the viewer suddenly into momentarily bewildering vignettes where the two flirt and make protestations of love only to then break character because of some detail that seems off or, rather, cruelly accurate, before resuming or restarting. The two set down at dinner, each eating a meal the person they’re standing in for would usually order.

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This presents a kind of method acting offering proxy introduction the tastes and personalities of the missing person for the person filling their role, and also a casting session, seeing how well the other can fit into their assigned role. “You have my husband down pat,” Su comments when Chow uses a line on her, “He’s a real sweet talker.” These odd rituals are nonetheless ones that helps Chow and Su fumble towards understanding, creating a fiction that explains reality, whilst also elucidating Wong’s interest in the similarity, even interchangeableness, of people, the recurring codes of behaviour and the finite variations that constitute individuality. They also lead to the duo beginning to collaborate in trying to write a martial arts story, a collaboration that begins as a panacea against boredom and loneliness but soon becomes a genuine success for Chow that he sometimes privileges over his journalism. Chow’s habit of hiding from life by hanging around the newspaper office at night becomes a portal of escape into dreams of a heroic past. So compelling does this pursuit become that the two consult in Chow’s room only for Mrs Suen and the Koos and other friends to suddenly return from a night out drunk and rowdy and settle down to a marathon mah-jong game that goes on for a night and a day.

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Chow and Su are besieged in their room, afraid for Su to take a chance to dash back to the Koos’ apartment in case she might be seen, so Chow covers for her whilst ducking out to bring back food, and the two keep working on the story: Chow is inspired by the sudden arrival of the blotto Mr Koo to introduce a drunken master into the story. Finally the game breaks up and Su gets to return to her room, where she strips off the high-heels she’s been wearing with palpable relief, hoist on her own well-dressed petard. The chasteness of Chow and Su’s relationship and their toey fear of being apprehended in a compromising scene gives this vignette its irony, as well the old-fashioned brand of sexual tension inherent in their situation as a couple of good-looking people in a small room, the kind that could have fuelled a classic Hollywood romantic comedy, which is indeed one of the many retro things Wong nods to. His plot has the quality of something William Holden and Nancy Olson’s characters in Sunset Blvd. (1950) might have cooked up, or provided a solid premise for a Rock Hudson and Doris Day vehicle. This misadventure also inspires Chow to rent a hotel room – numbered, with totemic import, 2046 – for a time to try and get the story finished, and also perhaps presenting to Su a locale where they can meet without being found out.

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In The Mood For Love contrasted most of Wong’s previous films insofar as those were mostly tales of characters who can scarcely control an inner drive pushing them into irrational acts, people who are conduits of spasmodic behaviour. Those urges might drive them across the world, to cling to or to cruelly spurn a lover, or face a situation of life and death, in search of something that gives shape to their lives. The torment of being inescapably themselves was often simply intensified rather than cured by gaining what they want. In The Mood For Love is instead the tale of characters who pointedly can control themselves, and yet their actions ultimately come to seem just as deeply rooted in satisfying inchoate need. It’s compulsory with In The Mood For Love to note that it’s a film about a love affair without physical intimacy beyond a moment of hand-holding, at least, not that the audience is privy to. Wong’s venture back in time also accepts the idea of two people with a sense of personal honour, a gesture that feels equally bygone in its idealism and yet still reflects truth: how many of us day in and day out rein in all kinds of impulses?

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The film’s opiated haze of nostalgia, its acceptance of the past as another country, can only be sustained as long as Chow and Su don’t give in to their romantic impulses, because once they do they become of the earth again. The very lack of any momentous significance in their relationship, its everyday and ephemeral texture as light and brief as morning frost, is precisely the quality Wong sets out to celebrate, to hold as vital to the sustenance of the world as any cataclysms. It can also be read as the two lovers sharing a trait with their creator, a dislike of cliché. Chow and Su’s resolve to keep things above board seems as much about their own embarrassment in potentially getting caught being unimaginative as immoral: it would too humiliatingly crass to reproduce their feckless partners’ betrayal, although Wong’s oblique portrayal of that verboten tryst suggest it’s every bit as complex and tortured. More immediately, Wong tries to illustrate without sentiment the fate of falling in love whilst also dealing with heartbreak, leaving his two lovers trapped in a limbo where pleasure is also painful, tender gestures constantly running the risk of mimicking another, and abandoned as they have been by their partners Chow and Su serve as stand-ins for the vanished lover, to be both cherished and also farewelled.

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A montage depicting Chow and Su’s happy writing collaboration, which is also clearly signalled to be the process of their falling in love if all their happy smiles and pleasure in each-other’s company is anything to go by, also sees Wong make a constant refrain of including mirrors, often with more than one facet, in his shots. These split his protagonists into multiple versions, each imprinted with a separate reality, some branching off to become the ones glimpsed in 2046, some uglier, some more perfect. this islet of ease ends when Su gets a lecture from Mrs Suen about being out too often and asking when her husband will return. Despite there being no hint of connection between them, Su still tells Chow they should spend less time together, a moment that despite the vow “not to be like them” nonetheless echoes Mrs Chow’s earlier warning to Mr Chan to stop seeing each-other for a time. The two drift in the course of their days subsequently, Su distracted amidst raucous mah-jong games and Chow gazing out through the newspaper office window, and when the word finally comes to meet up again, Chow comes dashing through a downpour for a confrontation that finally demands the two speak honestly but also makes a choice.

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The choice is made: Chow decides to accept an offer to follow Ah Ping to Singapore. But the catharsis of admission also finally allows shows of feeling, as Su sobs in Chow’s arms and leans on his shoulder as they ride in a taxi together and hold hands, a vignette of perfection to last decades, and Wong would indeed return to it in 2046 with just that meaning. Wong shows Chow and Su on either side of the wall that separates them in their rooms engaged in listless meditation. Finally, Chow retreats back to the hotel room and leaves a message for Su to come join him there if she wants to leave with him. Chow is seen leaving the hotel room with a look of sad but slightly wry acceptance that Su never came and he must head off alone. Su eventually makes a dash to meet him, only to finish up seated on the hotel room bed alone and weeping, suffering the hellish fate in being entrapped by unwitnessed solitude and kitsch décor.

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The film’s last act offers vignettes that refuse to underscore the drama with any kind of dramatic declaration, accumulating instead as a long grace note signalling Chow and Su maintain a long and halting sense of connection, misty-eyed memory of their time together but refusing to violate the seal of perfect imperfection about it. Chow, working in Singapore, is disturbed by something missing in his room, and finds a cigarette with traces of lipstick on it. Soon afterwards Wong offers a sequence, possibly Chow’s imagining or a flashback, depicting Su entering his room and leaving these traces, a glitch in his stable reality. When she actually does call him at his workplace, he answers, but she hangs up after a moment of silence. Later they’re both drawn in turn back to the old building where they once lived. She speak with Mrs Suen, the last of the old crowd still around and herself packing up to move to the United States to help her daughter with her kids. The moment is changing, the mood: Mrs Suen is uneasy about the political situation in Hong Kong, and so is ready to move. Su herself has a son and merrily assures Mrs Suen he’s doing well, but no more is revealed. The old balance has shifted, history’s tides are rolling on. Su chooses a return to a comfortable setting, taking over Mrs Suen’s apartment.

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Chow arrives with a present for the Koos but finds them long gone, and leaves it instead with the new tenant who agreeably lets him look around, turning a wistful glance across to the window of the neighbouring apartment oblivious to the face Su has returned there. The film’s final portion is Wong’s most allusive and subtle, as he briefly interpolates some old newsreel footage of Charles De Gaulle as French President visiting Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 1966. A final flourish of postcolonial cordiality, a last glimpse of a vanishing moment of stability. Soon Cambodia will dissolve into anarchy and genocidal tyranny as the Vietnam War spills over its borders and monsters are birthed. Chow seems to be there on assignment, but we only see him visiting Angkor wat, the ancient temple-city: Chow performs a little ritual obedient to an old folk practice he mentioned to Ah Ping, of whispering a secret into some nook and sealing it away to divest one’s self of the past. This he does in a gap in Angkor’s walls and plugs with a sod of earth and grass, before leaving the ruin which accepts all such memories great and petty. Wong ends the film with a series of slow, exhaling shots of Angkor, weaving a powerful sense of the temple as something at once desolated by time but also standing as a perpetual marker of history in a violently changing world, abiding under the early-rising moon in the waning Cambodian day.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Director / Screenwriter: George A. Romero

By Roderick Heath

Since his debut feature film Night of the Living Dead (1968) turned him from an obscure Pittsburgh TV crewman into a cult cinema hero, George Romero had first tried to avoid becoming entirely associated with Horror films. But his follow-up, the satirical comedy There’s Always Vanilla (1971), was barely noticed, so Romero made a string of stringently budgeted but jaggedly intelligent and carefully crafted Horror movies, with Season of the Witch (1972), The Crazies (1973), and Martin (1976), in which he had tried to blend familiar genre ideas and motifs with his distinctive brand of melancholy realism. Still, whilst those movies had gained attention and continued to signal Romero was one of the most interesting and determinedly maverick talents on the wild 1970s movie scene, what everyone really wanted from him was another zombie movie. Romero had no great wish to revisit the territory of his signal hit, but gained a perverse source of inspiration one day in 1974 when a former college friend, Mark Mason, invited him to visit the Monroeville Mall, a large shopping complex just east of Pittsburg managed by Mason’s employers. As the two men joked about the labyrinthine place filled with blissful shoppers, a story hatched out in Romero’s mind. When the time came to make the film, he gained an unusual collaborator in the form of Italian Horror maestro Dario Argento, a huge fan of Night of the Living Dead and eager to help Romero produce a sequel.

Not that Dawn of the Dead was a sequel in the traditional sense. All of the major characters in Night of the Living Dead were dead by its end, and Romero’s reiteration of the same basic concept spurned any mention of the first film’s apparent rationalisation of the living dead phenomenon. Romero later emphasised that he considered all his “Dead” films variations on a theme rather than parts of the same story, at least until his directly connected final diptych, Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2009). Nonetheless the first few minutes of Dawn of the Dead seem to take up almost to the moment where the precursor left off, with a zombie plague rapidly spreading and unleashing chaos. The opening scene of Dawn of the Dead, depicting the fraying nerves and collapsing sense of mission on the set of a television news program attempting desperately to keep up a necessary flow of information to the presumed audience, contains sidelong meta humour. Romero cast himself as a director who finds himself impotent in dealing with the tide of events, Romero’s ironic kiss-off to his days in television whilst also evincing his fascination with how deeply wound it was into the infrastructure of his nation by the mid-1970s, expected to provide something like narrative and enclosure to the vagaries of life.

Dawn of the Dead was an immediate and massive commercial hit that many Horror fans and critics also recognised as an instant genre classic. It soon finally vaulted Romero towards Hollywood, for better or worse. And yet Dawn of the Dead’s time might be said not to have really come until a good twenty years after it was made, whereupon it suddenly began to influence the Horror genre and a new generation of creators in good and bad ways, most immediately in inspiring a string of imitations and variations, and a proper remake from Zack Snyder in 2004. More pervasively, Romero’s template showed how to blend the base elements of Horror, with required levels of gore, suspense, angst, and more gore, with threads of satire and parable wound into the very skeleton of its storytelling so it couldn’t be written off as a pretension or affectation, an achievement that’s become ever since a grail of ambitious genre filmmaking. Where Night of the Living Dead had been, despite its implications in terms of racial and gender politics and socially ironic sideswipes, essentially a straightforward survivalist thriller, Dawn of the Dead on the other hand achieves a Swiftian sweep in its comprehensive assault on the modern way of life and its absurdist vision of human devolution.

The film’s first is of its troubled heroine Fran Parker (Gaylen Ross) huddled in the insulated corner of the TV studio’s control booth, sleeping. She wakes with a start from nightmare, although of course it might rather be said she wakes into the nightmare. Fran soon finds herself battling with the frantic producer over the crawl giving addresses for rescue shelters, because it’s plain the information is now dangerously out-of-date, but the producer insists on keeping them up because then the station, GON, isn’t providing anything useful enough to viewers to keep them watching. Meanwhile the news anchor Berman (David Early) argues fiercely with his guest (David Crawford), who tries to explain the terrible new facts of life, death, and undeath. Eventually the broadcast begins to collapse as personnel walk out or jeer the controllers, and Fran comments, “We’re blowing this ourselves.” She arranges to rendezvous with her boyfriend Steve Andrews (Ken Emgee), the station’s traffic reporter, as he has control of the station’s helicopter and wants to try flying to Canada. Departure is delayed as Steve insists on waiting for a friend, Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger), a member of a National Guard unit that’s currently engaged in a stand-off with a radical group holed up in a slum tenement building, as the radicals are resisting the Guard’s efforts to collect the dead.

Roger’s relative decency and seriousness are soon revealed as he manages to bail up the radical leader Martinez (John Amplas) and tries to get him to surrender, only for the man to insist on getting shot down, and then trying to stop one of his fellows who starts on a kill-crazy rampage through the tenement, blowing off the heads of people unlucky enough to live in the building. Here, Romero notably grazes a common anxiety in the 1970s, that outright urban warfare would break out in America’s ghettos, the “urban Vietnam” The Clash sang about in their single “This Is Radio Clash” released the same year as Dawn of the Dead, as well as finding an effective way of linking the waning Blaxploitation wave to Horror in the images of the literally repressed underclass. The National Guard ignore warnings about parts of the building that have been closed up to contain zombies in the building, and their crashing about releases the walking dead, who immediately and eagerly take great bloody bites out of anyone they get their hands on, as a zombified husband does to his wife when she embraces him amidst the panic of the invasion. Roger and a young Guardsman crash into an apartment where they find a corpse with its foot gnawed off, only for the corpse to start wriggling its way remorselessly after the young Guard, who shoots it and then himself in perfect horror at how the utterly absurd has suddenly become terrifyingly real.

Romero, who as usual with his early works edited the film himself – there’s a case to be made that his films were never as good again after he stopped – strikes a uniquely intense, frayed, off-kilter mood in the TV station scenes, the bristling, reactive hysteria, the ultimate confrontation with the fringe of genuine, proper social collapse beginning in its TV temple. This air of sweaty intensity intensifies to a maniacal extreme as he segues into the frenetic four-front battle between the nominal representatives of stability and order and their rogue members, the radicals, and the living dead. Roger is first glimpsed sarcastically anticipating his commander’s attempts to talk out the radicals, whilst his fellow Guardsman eagerly awaits the chance to blow away all the “lowlife” ethnics. Roger soon finds himself flung into the company of Peter (Ken Foree), a tall, stoic, intense black Guardsman who guns down the crazed racist comrade, and the two men strike up a quick friendship as they take a moment’s downtime from the carnage to have a smoke. An aged, one-legged black priest (Jese Del Gre) appears and comments with baleful simplicity to Roger and Peter, after alerting them to a cache of bodies being kept in the basement, that “you are stronger than us but soon I think they be stronger than you.” Descending to the basement, the two men find most of the dead there revived and mindlessly gnawing on pieces of other bodies in a nightmarish survey, and they begin shooting each zombie in the head, the only thing that seems to permanently put them down.

There’s thematic overlap here with John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which itself took some licence from Night of the Living Dead. Romero finds emblematic perfection in his illustration of his ideas as the Guards bash at an improvised barricade only for dozens of discoloured hands belonging to what were denizens of this suppurating corner of the body politic suddenly thrusting into view, before breaking loose and overwhelming the lawmen. As characters Peter and Roger are strongly reminiscent of the heroes of The Crazies, who were also members of the National Guard whilst being very ordinary men fighting for survival, although their position is at least never as self-defeating as their precursors. One essence of humanity, Romero quickly suggests, is our tendency to treat the dead with respect because they still resemble what was alive, and this crashes headlong into the urgent and gruelling necessity of abandoning that feeling, to turn ruthless and unflinching violence on these caricatures of being. Even men as tough and trained as David and Roger find themselves jittery and almost overwhelmed by the zombies, although the creatures are neither terribly quick and are certainly not smart, but simply because they keep coming on with single-minded purpose when they smell warm, moist, living meat.

Romero had hit upon something original and shocking in Night of the Living Dead as he introduced the concept of zombies as cannibalistic rather than simply murderous. Here he took the concept a step further in the gleefully obscene sight of zombies taking bites out of former loved-ones and tearing out entrails from people still alive to watch. Roger and Peter extract themselves from the hellish trap of the tenement and dash to meet up with Fran and Steve, who have their own troubles when they try to fuel the helicopter only to encounter some cops engaged in looting. The cops debate taking the helicopter, but decide against it, and flee in a speedboat. Roger and Peter arrive and, after giving Peter curt introduction, they take off and start northwards. Just before taking off, they do a stock-take on people they’re leaving behind: “An ex-husband.” “An ex-wife.” “Some brothers.” As the chopper lifts off Romero lingers on a haunting shot of the lights going out in a skyscraper in the background: will the last person to leave civilisation please turn out the lights. Dawn of the Dead offers curt reiteration of the climax of the previous film as the fleeing quartet fly over National Guards and volunteer shooters roving the countryside having the time of their lives gunning for zombies, turning the end of the world into a kegger where nobody has the same scruples as the slum dwellers when it comes to shooting down the formerly respected dead.

Landing to take on fuel in the morning, the cobbled-together gang of mutually reliant survivors soon discover what they’re up against, both from zombies and each-other. Attacked by zombies including an undead child that tries to maul Peter and a zombie that tries to clamber over some boxes to get at Stephen as he fuels the chopper only to get the top of its head sliced off by the whirling blades, the team barely survive a relatively mundane task. The jittery, inexperienced gun-user Stephen almost shoots Peter in trying to save him, sparking Peter’s anger, pointing his own gun at Stephen: “Scary, isn’t it?” Shortly after taking off again, the foursome spot a large shopping mall in an area where the power is still on – Peter theorises it could be coming from a nuclear power station – and land upon the roof. Although the mall proves to be crawling with zombies, the survivors recognise a chance to stock up on supplies. “Some kind of instinct,” Stephen theorises when Fran wonders why the zombies are there, “Memory – of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

Part of Dawn of the Dead’s then-unusual approach to the horror genre was its relentless pace and rolling set-piece structure, closer in many ways to the emerging blockbuster style than to traditional Horror cinema’s slow-burn of disquiet and tension and with bloody pyrotechnics rather than explosions. Romero, of course, was repeating strategies from Night of the Living Dead in quickly thrusting characters defined by their ordinariness into a siege situation that becomes a pressure-cooker of survivalism, and would again for the last of the classic trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985), where the action would play out in a nuclear bunker. Dawn of the Dead’s first two-thirds depict the heroes escaping the city, finding the mall, and labouring first to raid it and then take it over and fortify it when they recognise it could be as good a bunker to wait out the crisis,  if that proves at all possible, as any other. The mall, like the besieged house in Night of the Living Dead, becomes the defining locale for the drama and an extension of its symbolic dimension. The house in the previous film encapsulated tensions between old and new America and city and country, as well as provided a crucible for the social tensions between the survivors within where different ideas of home and security came into fatal misalignment.

But the shopping mall, by contrast, offers an illusion of embrace that quells and quashes all such tensions, its offer of consumer paradise a beckoning zone of nullification, and where Night of the Living Dead was happy to suggest its sociological and metaphorical aspects through self-evident aspects, Dawn of the Dead is more overt in presenting its ideas, turning its central situation into the lodestone of meaning. Romero melds quasi-Eisensteinian editing and sick screwball comedy as he cuts between the zombies, reeling in time with the corny muzak Peter and Roger incidentally start piping in as they turn on the mall’s power, and shopfront mannequins, interchangeable simulacra of a commercially glamorous ideal. Peter, Roger, Stephen, and Fran collaborate to at first merely trying to strategize a way of getting supplies out of a department store within the mall to their own makeshift hideout in the mall’s administrative and storage areas. Then, as the temptation of the place claims them, they establish boundaries, going through an elaborate process of fetching trucks parked nearby and parking them in front of the various entrances to the mall, trying to reclaim a toehold in a world rapidly losing any sense of place for the merely human. Then, they clear out the zombies within and establish themselves as rules over plastic paradise.

This reads like a smooth process on paper, but things go wrong. As they become less automatically distressed by the zombies and come to understand their physical abilities and lack thereof, Peter and Roger begin to enjoy defying, tricking, trapping, and “killing” them, and for a spell the mission of defying and expelling them from their reconquered little corner of the world becomes a lark. Stephen and Fran are reduced to watching out for them, Stephen from the chopper, Fran from the mall roof. The sense of fun is however coloured by macho hysteria, chiefly afflicting Roger, who becomes increasingly reckless in the course of the fortifying operation. He almost gets caught by zombies as he tries to hotwire one of the trucks, with Stephen, seeing his predicament, obliged to use the helicopter to alert Peter to his plight because the noise drowns everything out. Roger gains an apotheosis of enthralled disgust when Peter shoots one attacking him, spraying blood all over him. Roger’s desperate attempts to retain his sense of bravado finally proves his undoing as he gets bitten by the zombies, and the other three members of their little band are forced to watch helplessly as he wastes away, doomed inevitably to succumb to the mysterious force animating the dead. Romero might have been taking cues from the self-destructive behaviour of the would-be mighty hunter Quint in Jaws (1975), both films certainly sharing a critique of the action-man ethos in the face of blank and remorseless existential threat. Peter waits in a sullen vigil for Roger to die and revive before shooting him in the head.

Dawn of the Dead followed its precursor but also did more to lodge zombies as the coolest and most malleable of movie monsters, both victims of and perpetrators of hideously gruesome violence, both mauled in physical form and mauling. The punishment doled out to them throughout confronts the problem of killing things that are already dead, immune to physical force except for blows directly on the head, annihilating the last spasm of guiding intelligence. In some of his later films Romero would begin granting them something like the sympathy saved for a life form, however devolved and diseased. Here, their sense of threat and edge of comedy both stem from their single-minded and ravenous will matched to limited physical capacity for seeking it out, dangerous when taking humans by surprise or in large numbers, but, as Peter and Roger find, easy to fend off and outwit, giving them a slightly overinflated sense of their own viability. Fran is momentarily arrested by the disquieting sight of a zombie, recently a young man, settling down to watch her through protecting glass with some kind of bemused fascination. But the zombies just keep coming, constantly beating at the doors of the mall. The first time any kind of conceptual link between Romero’s living dead and the voodoo tradition of zombie is evinced when Peter muses on his grandfather, a former voodoo priest in Trinidad, and his prophetic comment, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

This totemic line, which is also the closest the movie comes to explaining the plague, gives the film a sense of connection with other works of its era in the Horror genre and beyond, with the disaster movies popular in the previous few years as well as the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Such films were preoccupied with a sense of decay and destruction befalling the modern world for all its Faustian bargains. Like its precursor, Dawn of the Dead draws on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, and also this time its film adaptation The Omega Man (1971). Dawn of the Dead amplifies the mockery of lifestyle upkeep and consumerism in a post-apocalyptic environment in The Omega Man, as well as taking licence from its trendsetting blend of fantastical aspects and action fare: where The Omega Man’s hero holed up in an apartment he made a trove of retained civilisation, here the mall becomes the world in small for its heroes, even burying Roger in a small patch of earth in an arboretum in the mall’s heart. The difference in these variations on a concept is The Omega Man’s hero had made his own home into a strongpoint and repository, where here the protagonists lay claim to the bounty of goods, useful and not so much, but also the wealth of wasted space and conspicuousness that ultimately undoes them. Anticipating the possibility of other survivors penetrating the mall, they disguise the entrance to the office and maintenance sectors where they hole up and forge a kind of home for themselves.

Part of the specific power and weird beauty of Romero’s early films comes from their pungent sense of place enforced by the low budgets and local-to-Pennsylvania focus of his efforts. He recorded and found a sense of mystery and drama in zones of American life in the 1970s far from the usual focal points of mass media. He mapped landscapes from decaying ethnic suburbs and bourgeois housing tracts in Season of the Witch and Martin. Here he captures the blinking bewilderment of the shopping mall as a tacky-plush environ offering deliverance from the mundane and run-down, where everything is shiny and plentiful, landing like a great oblong UFO in the midst of the Pennsylvania hinterland, a world that’s entirely palpable and workaday, albeit suddenly devoid of people. The fringe atmosphere is enforced by the total lack of name actors. Stephen’s status as an extremely minor kind of celebrity – one of the thieving cops they encounter recognises him – and Fran’s behind-the-camera job give them a degree of familiarity and contact with the infrastructure behind media authority, and yet they’re more keenly aware than anyone how paltry a defence that becomes right away. Stephen, setting up a TV in their hideaway, manages to tune into an emergency broadcast show where a scientist, Dr Rausch (Richard France), and host (Howard Smith) keep on arguing in much the same way the pair at the beginning did, the scientist eventually reduced to murmuring “We must be logical…logical…logical” over and over whilst the sound of Peter’s coup-de-grace on Roger rings out with tragic finality.

Where in Night of the Living Dead the luckless Barbara became the avatar for the ordinary world completely shocked out of all function, Fran is a very different figure, cut from ‘70s feminist cloth: she is obliged to be the film’s most passive character in many respects and yet she’s also its flintiest and more frustrated. Revealed some time into the film to be pregnant, she presents what would be in another kind of movie a spur to gallant behaviour by the men, but here she has to fight her own depressive and recessive streak as well as her companions’ tendency to skirt her presence. Fran is almost caught and killed by a zombie that penetrates the hideout whilst the men are running around having a blast, an experience that shakes her profoundly but soon underpins her to demand inclusion and to be taught enough of the arts of survival the others have to stand a chance alone, a demand that’s also a prod to herself to keep functioning. She is nonetheless more saddled with the status of Madonna for a new world than anointed: what her pregnancy means, can mean, in such a moment remains entirely ambiguous throughout. States of sickly and inescapable physicality are contrasted as Fran vomits from morning sickness whilst Roger wanes and withers. Fran most closely resembles the detached and forlorn heroes of Romero’s previous three films, not stricken with a murderously dualistic nature like Martin but like him responding with a certain degree of realism to her lot.

Fran’s alternately loving and strained relationship with Stephen at first blossoms and then becomes disaffected as the couple get to live out a magazine lifestyle but constantly confront the void beyond it. Romero manages to annex Antonioni-esque anxiety and evocation of existential pain within the frame of a gaudy genre film. After Roger’s death the remaining trio form a momentarily stable community, the two lovers and their solicitous pal – notably, where Stephen cringes at Fran’s demand for inclusion, Peter coolly acknowledges it – who play within the mall. Stephen and Fran practice their shooting on store mannequins set up on the ice rink where Fran also sometimes cavorts alone, shattering the plastic visages with high-calibre rounds as if executing the old world even as they can’t escape it. But Fran also takes the chance to make herself over as a plush matinee idol, albeit one clutching a revolver with a mad glint in her eye. Peter plays chef and waiter entertaining the couple with a swanky dinner, a last hurrah for civilised dining and a romantic ideal. Peter excuses himself and goes to pop the cork on a champagne bottle over Roger’s grave. This marvellous vignette, one of the warmest and saddest in any Horror movie and indeed any movie, also marks the zenith for the trio’s deliverance from the nightmare without. But the zombies are still trying frantically if pointlessly to penetrate the doors, their flailing, mashing physiques matching the fulminating disquiet that quickly enough poisons the heroes in their remove.

The vision of the mall as microcosm of the modern consumer society works in part because of its obviousness: the film is free to engage or ignore it when it feels like it because it’s so omnipresent. Orgiastic violence before the J.C. Penney! The heroes are engaged and motivated when fighting for it, adrift and dejected once they have it. The basic notion likening the mesmerised victims of capitalism the zombies is obvious to the point of being, generically speaking, a truism today. In this regard Dawn of the Dead’s influence has become a bit trying in giving tacit permission for would-be Horror filmmakers to present visions that most definitely stand for this-that-or-the-other. That Romero’s vision doesn’t collapse as a moraine of pretence is due to his finesse in moving between tones and stances as well as piling on galvanising thrills. The frantic, overwhelmed feeling apparent in the film’s first act and the intrepid, sometimes borderline larkish middle third as the foursome take over the mall, unfold with a real-feeling sense of the characters and their mission, giving credence to their motives and choices. Romero puts a sense of process and detail front and centre, presenting them with challenges to overcome. Romero charts the way seemingly benign situations can become fights for life and vice versa, giving weight to everything from the amount of time it takes to close and lock some shopfront doors to the exploitation of a car set up on the mall floor for a lottery prize as a fun and zippy way of traversing the space within when it comes to the survival process.

Indeed, Dawn of the Dead is as much farce and adventure movie as gory fright-fest, with Romero allowing an edge of outlandish hyperbole even in horrific moments, from that astonishing zombie beheading to the sight of a zombie Hare Krishna stalking Fran, a dash of satire not that far from Airplane! (1980) in the wry depiction of 1970s subcultures and general weirdness. The zombies come in all shapes and sizes, just like people, from bulbous to gnarled and barely hanging together. The scenes of our heroes merrily plundering the shops and turning the mall space into a private playground are reminiscent in their way of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at play in the department store in Modern Times (1936). When the characters raid a gun shop to put together an arsenal and wipe out the zombies inside the mall, Romero’s carbolic sense of humour and skill for editing highlight the fetishism for the shiny, deadly weapons and the claimed mantle of empowered heroism – Peter claims twin revolvers to hang from his belt and eyes zombies through a rifle scope with pleasure – through his rhythmic jump cuts. The gun shop’s paraphernalia, replete with stuffed animal heads and elephant tusks and African tribal music on the loudspeakers, promise a romp across the savannah on safari shooting whatever moves, oiling up racist macho fantasy. It’s a scene that’s only come to feel more and more relevant and biting in the intervening decades.

The film’s signature touch of sarcastic ruthlessness is the playful muzak theme that blasts from the mall’s loudspeakers, repeated over the end credits as a jolly soundtrack to perambulating zombies. The score, provided by Argento and his band Goblin, is one of the odder assets of the film, veering between straightforward suspense-mongering with propelling, atmospheric electronica, and a spoof-like take on B-movie music, particularly in the finale. Romero takes up where Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964) left off in contemplating the apocalypse as a space where lunacy reigns with its own strange wit, mocking the forces mobilised to deal with the disaster as symptoms of the problem. Romero even dares take up Stanley Kubrick’s discarded pie fight intended for that film and incorporate it in the delirious climax, when a gang of bikers and lowlifes who seem to have formed a mobile pirate fleet attack and invade the mall. This gang ironically has achieved an equally viable way of surviving the zombie apocalypse through open embrace of mayhem and savagery that makes the zombies in their fashion look tame, careening down the wide spaces with their grunting motorcycles, loosing off rounds from Tommy guns and swinging down sledgehammers on the zombies. They’re attracted to the mall when they catch sight of the helicopter hovering over it, actually Stephen teaching Fran how to fly it.

The devolution of what we see of humanity apart from the core protagonists, from the redneck gun-nuts, who at least seem vaguely amenable to public service, to these neo-barbarians, is Romero’s sourest meditation. Dawn of the Dead is still alive in every respect but its ferocity is certainly rooted in its moment, its evocation of cavernous dread and contempt for the state of America in the post-Vietnam, post-counterculture moment, the mood of dissociation amidst the lingering hangovers of a frenetic cultural moment and the promised birth of Reaganism: nowhere else was Jimmy Carter’s diagnosed “malaise” illustrated with such brutish, vigorous force. As he did with Martin, Romero shows how smartly he was plugged into the boondock zeitgeist and understanding the emerging punk ethos in pop culture with its love of mayhem, force, and violence as cure-alls for a forced and phony culture. The biker-vandals storm the shiny temple of mammon and unleash pure anarchy. Amongst their number is Tom Savini, the Vietnam veteran turned actor and makeup artist who also first laid claim to becoming a Horror cinema legend by providing the film’s gore effects.

Savini’s gift for creating convincing atrocities with the help of some latex and offal helps Romero achieve wild catharsis in the climactic scenes as the biker invasion devolves into a three-way battle. Stephen shoots back at the raiders: Peter joins in reluctantly but soon finds satisfaction in driving off the attackers. The raiders enjoy unleashing carnage on the zombies, but when their pals flee several are left to be trapped and consumed alive by the dead, cueing gleefully gross visions of gouged entrails and torn limbs. It could be argued that it’s a wonder the raiders have survived so long being so stupid and reckless, but then again their approach to the apocalypse is perhaps as valid as any other going, getting high on their own violent prowess. Romero’s frenzied editing ratchets up the descent into utter hysteria in a sequence that stands a masterpiece of the demented. Perhaps Romero’s goofiest joke is also a black comedy piece-de-resistance, as one of the biker insists on trying out the compulsory mall blood pressure machine only to be attacked and eaten, leaving his arm still in the strap. Stephen is wounded by the wild bullets of the raiders and then bitten by zombies drawn by his blood, and finally he emerges from an elevator as a zombie, his remnant instinct this time leading other ghouls through the false front towards the hideaway. Peter guns him down, but the act feels like an embrace of ultimate nihilism.

Romero had originally planned the end the film with the suicides of Fran and Peter, but changed it whilst shooting. It’s not hard to see why, as such an ending would have been as glum as hell but lack the specific kick of Night of the Living Dead’s more ingeniously cruel and pointed ending. The one he chose instead sees Peter, resolving not to live anymore in comprehending what’s become of the world after shooting Stephen, encouraging Fran to leave in the helicopter whilst intending to remain behind and shoot himself before the zombies can get him. But Peter’s fighting instincts kick back in at the last second, forcing him to fight his way out and join Fran in flying away in the dawn light. An ambivalent ending for sure, sending the two off towards an unknowable fate that might meet them an hour or a decade hence. Goblin’s scoring as Peter resurges manages to be vaguely sarcastic in its sudden heroic vigour but also genuinely pleased the life impulse still means something. Moreover, it’s an ending that suits Romero’s theme as expressed throughout the movie, underlining the entire point of the experience in the mall. The act of fighting is life itself; everything else slow death. The departing duo leave behind the mall now filling with zombies inchoately pleased to be back in their natural habitat, wandering the aisles, shuffling gently to the jaunty muzak. Truly a fate worse than death. Despite intervening decades of imitation, Dawn of the Dead remains without likeness, one of the singular masterpieces of the genre.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Fantasy, Historical

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Director: John Milius
Screenwriters: John Milius, Oliver Stone

By Roderick Heath

Conan the Cimmerian was created by Robert E. Howard, a Texan writer who committed suicide at a young age after writing a string of stories about his ancient warrior hero, mostly published by the fabled pulp magazine Weird Tales in the early 1930s. Howard took inspiration from the rugged landscapes of his native state, particularly around the Rio Grande, whilst his vision of a primal champion in Conan was synthesised from a stew of classical and scholarly sources and anthropological theories of dubious worth and validity. His Conan roamed the vast spaces of Eurasia in an epoch, as the memorable opening narration of the film puts it in slightly paraphrasing Howard, “between the time the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas,” battling not just other warriors but also monsters, sorcerers, sacrificial cults, and many a tyrannical ruler. Rising from an obscure background as the son of a village blacksmith to become a famed pirate and mercenary and eventually capturing his own kingdom, Howard’s Conan was nonetheless also an intelligent and chivalrous figure, a figure who, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, condensed both stubbornly evinced humanity and instinctive natural potency into a singular frame, inhabiting two zones of being at once.

Howard’s stories retained a cultish following amongst sci-fi and fantasy writers, with talents like Poul Anderson, Robert Jordan, and L. Sprague de Camp all writing their own stories featuring the character. The famous cover art Frank Frazetta supplied for such extensions to the mythos helped keep the cult alive, soon backed up by comic books in the 1970s. The success of Star Wars (1977), which fused science fiction with fantasy and captured the imagination of a generation, sparked a brief moment when producers and studios became interested in fantasy films again. This resulted in some lovably cheap and inventive emulations like Terry Marcel’s Hawk the Slayer (1980) and Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster (1982), and a pair of truly great entries in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and Conan the Barbarian. John Milius, the most notoriously eccentric, intense, and intransigent member of the Movie Brat director generation, chose to take on the challenge of bringing Conan to the big screen after shooting his plaintive surfing tale Big Wednesday (1978), and he talked entrepreneur-producer Dino De Laurentiis and the rights owner Edward R. Pressman into joining forces to produce it. An equally intense and wilful, if politically rather dissimilar young Hollywood talent in Oliver Stone, fresh off his breakthrough success writing Midnight Express (1978), had written a script for Pressman. But his purportedly post-apocalyptic take was potentially far too expensive, and Milius fought to revise it.

When it came to who should play the lead, the filmmakers faced the problem of finding someone who could physically inhabit the role of a brawny ancient warrior and act well enough to carry the film. Pressman had kept one man in mind since watching the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron (1978), an Austrian immigrant who had taken out the Mister Universe title four times, and projected unique charisma despite his thick accent and mouthful of a name – Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conan the Barbarian, a big hit on first release that soon spawned its own wave of imitations and rip-offs, has retained despite critical sniffiness its own, special, seemingly ever-growing cult status. One particular, elusive aspect of Conan the Barbarian’s appeal is the way what seems to be its faults prove eventually to be part of its unique power. Rather than offering a straightforwardly action-packed, campy fantasy-adventure, Milius set out to create a movie that plays essentially as a fantastical bildungsroman, an attempt to encompass a hero’s growth from small boy to a man gaining full maturity in the sense not only of physical strength but also mental freedom and moral choice.

This puts Conan the Barbarian in a zone with other great works of fantastical metaphor, like Tolkien’s alternating visions of individual and communal questing and the original Star Wars trilogy’s portrait of adolescence giving way to adulthood: Conan the Barbarian has a very similar motif, but goes further in following its protagonist into the consequences of that adulthood. Milius was certainly assimilating aspects of his friend George Lucas’ hit, borrowing the voice of Darth Vader James Earl Jones to play another dark father figure to his emerging hero, albeit one tweaked to Milius’ sensibility. One accidentally self-imposed hurdle Conan the Barbarian has to surmount is that its early scenes are so vivid in their soaring, violent, operatic evocation of prehistoric lore and drama the rest has a hard time living up to them. The opening narration, voiced by Akiro (Mako Iwamatsu), later revealed as a wizard and eventual helpmate of Conan’s, makes like an ancient storyteller with his throaty voice heard over a field of pitch black, beginning his account of the great hero’s life in “the days of high adventure.”

The opening credits, scored by Basil Poledouris’ designedly awesome main theme “The Anvil of Crom,” portray Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a sword, as his wife (Nadiuska) and young son (Jorge Sanz) look on and help work the billows, in a scene bathed in the light of furnace flames and molten metal. The glowing blade is doused in snow at dawn and the last artisanal features added to complete a masterpiece of craftsmanship, at least by the standards of Conan’s Cimmerian tribe living snowy folds under soaring mountains: the sword is creation not merely of martial artistry but a nexus of cultural and communal expression, implement and totem, tool and artwork. One rite gives way to another as father imparts the lore of their tribe’s god Crom and the Riddle of Steel to his son as they sit on a mountain peak, boiling clouds rushing overhead. The Riddle of Steel, supposedly a piece of arcane wisdom left on the battlefields of ancient gods after some grand Titanomachy, actually has nothing to do with metallurgy and everything to do with humanity, and grasping the answer is the process of a lifetime, immediately setting the terms of Conan’s life, even as his father advises the only thing he can ultimately trust is a good sword.

This lesson proves timely as Conan is about to lose all contact with his roots. A band of mounted raiders, led by the mysterious warlord Thulsa Doom (Jones) and his henchmen Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven-Ole Thorsen), riding out of the wintry forests and attack the Cimmerian village, slaughtering all in sight, including Conan’s father, mauled to death by dogs after being wounded in the battle. Conan’s mother readies to defend her son, but Thulsa pacifies her with his oddly limpid, empathetic-seductive mesmerist’s gaze before, in a uniquely shocking moment, casually decapitating her, her headless body swaying away from Conan’s grasp before the boy even realises what’s happened. Conan is taken in chains with the rest of the village children and sold into slavery, driven across the frigid landscape and into a vast, craggy desert region where they’re chained to a huge wheel driving a millstone and forced to keep it turning day in and day out. Milius simply and brilliantly conveys the passage of time in montage as the number of slaves pushing the wheel depletes, whether dying from exhaustion or sold off, but Conan remains and grows, ironically refashioned from a small orphaned boy into a hulking, powerful man through his captors’ cruelties, until he’s pushing the wheel alone.

Here we gain our first glimpse of Schwarzenegger, lifting his shaggy-maned head as he stoically pushes the machine. Conan is bought by a gladiator trainer, Red Beard (Luis Barboo), who pitches him into death matches with vicious duellists for the pleasure of raving audiences. Conan’s great strength and instinctive fighting talent quickly turns him from combat grist to beloved champion, but Conan lacks any sense of his existence beyond the pleasure of victory and the crowd’s cheers. Soon Red Beard takes him east to be trained in swordcraft, and there he’s also introduced to less immediately practical aspects of life, including reading and being given slave girls to impregnate. Conan seems to be forged into the perfect weapon for service to other warriors, glimpsed sitting chained and cross-legged in the camp of some Mongol warlords, a tamed beast perfectly annunciating a blunt and brutal warrior credo. But Red Beard soon takes him out of camp and sets him free, for reasons Akiro in voiceover can only speculate over, as if his owner sensed something untamed, despite his pet status, residing yet in Conan, demanding freedom even without knowing it.

Fleeing wild dogs across the wilderness, Conan falls into a hidden pit and finds himself in an underground chamber, part of some lost ruin of a fallen civilisation, possibly Atlantis, where a long-dead king still sits on his throne, patches of skin and bone still attached to dusty bones. Conan takes the king’s sword and finds it, despite its caking of dirt and age, far superior to any other sword he’s seen, able to cut the shackles still on his ankles away. This long introduction, taking a half-hour to unfold, is particularly notable in managing to convey Conan’s stages of early life whilst playing almost as a silent film. Only a few scattered lines of dialogue and passages of Akiro’s narration are heard, and even those are essentially unnecessary. Milius displays total mastery over cinematic storytelling, creating the mystique of Conan and his family and conveying the nature of the tragedy that comes upon them on an iconographic level, everything rendered larger-than-life and classically vivid. The spur of Thulsa’s raid, his desire for steel weapons, registers in the crucial gesture of Rexor gifting him the sword Conan’s father died wielding, the same one he was forging at the start, whilst his gifts of supernatural power are evinced in his act of murderous mesmerism. Conan’s growth on the wheel and schooling in a cruel, combative life in the gladiator pits is as close to perfect as visual exposition gets.

Whilst the simultaneous emergence of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and the first Harry Potter films finally made fantasy film a powerful pop culture mode befitting the age of blockbusters and prestige television, it was long a notoriously difficult genre to sell. Ever since the monumental sets, huge battles, and amazing steam-puppet dragon featured in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), it was plainly a genre fit for expansive cinematic visions armed with big budgets and significant production values. But fantasy was also a fairly esoteric genre rarely embraced with great passion by mainstream cinema audiences to a degree where producers and studios felt much confidence in making such epics. Occasionally major works like The Thief of Bagdad (1940) were made, whilst scattered international entries drew on various local mythic traditions like Alexander Ptushko’s versions of Russia folklore and Japanese films like The Birth of Japan (1958), but for decades Ray Harryhausen’s beloved stop-motion movies drawn from legends and the Italian peplum genre offered one, epitomised by Mario Bava’s Hercules at the Centre of the Earth (1961), with fervently colourful visions achieved on low budgets, were the only regular examples seen by mass audiences. But this sustenance came at a price, ghettoising the genre for a long time as a zone of wooden musclemen, cheap sets, and tacky monsters, made chiefly for very young audiences.

Conan the Barbarian stood for a long time as one of the few, true examples of a well-produced, highly ambitious fantasy film, and one that represented a rather more mature, or at least more pubescent, wing of the genre at that. Where on the page works like Tolkien’s great sprawls of mythopoeic imagination, built on the example of writers like Lord Dunsany and E.R. Eddison, epitomised the loftiest reaches of the High Fantasy style, Howard’s early Conan stories helped codify a fierce, weird, violent and sexually aware variation, the so-called “Sword and Sorcery” style. That style would eventually inspire eccentric riffs like Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné tales, and birth more recent, sophisticated and morally complex works like Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher cycle and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, with their emphasis on vast world-building, cruel realism mixed with familiar tropes, and slatherings of sex, violence, and satirical humour. With Conan the Barbarian Milius managed to perfectly reproduce and amplify the visual lore of the early Sword and Sorcery style presented through illustrations from the likes of Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, one where scantily-clad musclemen and amazons clad with glowing bronze skin battle dragons in strange and teeming landscapes, amidst a mythical past replete with orgies, dancing girls, musclemen, concussive combat, and all the other paraphernalia of macho onanism.

Milius and Stone’s efforts with their script nonetheless took Conan some distance from Howard’s original concept. Some characters are amalgamations of those found in the stories, like Valeria, who assimilates many aspects of the pirate queen Bêlit, and Thulsa Doom was borrowed from another of Howard’s properties, the King Kull stories. Howard’s Conan was never enslaved and maintained his liberty jealously, whereas the film essentially concerns itself with Conan relearning a sense of his own identity and mission after being schooled in ruthlessly pragmatic things. Milius’ portrayal of Conan as sometimes callow and crude, essentially an overgrown boy on an emotional level, once he’s actually let loose in the world, sits somewhat at odds with the character’s gallant and sophisticated streak in the books. There is a creative reason for this in terms of the film’s overall design, of course, as the journey towards full manhood is Milius’ subject here: Conan is becoming himself, complete as a fantasy projection as a certain ideal of elemental manhood. Milius remakes Conan in the image of his own protagonists, including the hero of his screenplay for Jeremiah Johnson (1972), who thrives beyond civilisation and learns to survive terrible losses, and the surfers of Big Wednesday, who similarly discover the pain of aging is necessary as they leave behind their immature traits and rise to the state of mystic kings in their battle with nature. As in Apocalypse Now (1979), Conan embarks on a mission to bring down a self-appointed messiah. Like the title character of Dillinger (1973) and Sheikh Raisuli of The Wind and the Lion (1975), Conan becomes at once outlaw and a momentary manifestation of the eternal romantic hero, creations out of time that only manifest when history and societies have entered a state of flux.

Conan’s path begins to take shape when he comes across the hut of a solitary witch who seems to promise knowledge that can guide him, demanding her price of having sex with her. This seemingly easy price proves rather more steep when at the point of orgasm she transforms into a vampiric creature: Conan manages to hurl her into the hearth, whereupon she becomes a fireball that flees into the night, her cackling laugh heard all the while. Before her transformation she directs him to the city of Zamora, “crossroads of the world.” In the morning Conan finds a man chained up behind her hut, Subotai (Perry Lopez), who claims to be a great warrior but fell for the same trap as Conan. The two men are fast friends and allies, becoming thieves to live whilst Conan pursues his quest to track down Thulsa Doom through his twinned snake symbol. Eventually he learns this is now the emblem of the Snake Cult of Set, a rapidly spreading religious cult attracting young adherents but with a reputation for foul rituals and nocturnal murder. Conan and Subotai decide to break into one of the cult’s towers hoping to rob the jewels kept within, and meet up with Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), another thief, and they quickly make an alliance. The trio successfully rob the sect’s treasures whilst one of the female cultists is prepared for sacrifice to a huge snake living in the tower’s basement, which, unknown to Conan, is supervised by Rexor. Conan is forced to kill the snake rites before he and Subotai flee whilst Valeria runs interference, with Conan pausing to snatch a medallion emblazoned with the cult’s symbol. After escaping, Conan and Valeria become lovers.

Woven in amongst the high and elemental drama are flourishes of humour that keep the film from becoming too onerous whilst resisting feeling shoehorned or removed from the rest of its finite texture. One of Conan’s swordmasters, after slapping his face in censure for a poor move, suddenly swivelling and kicking another trainee in the testicles for grinning at Conan’s humiliation. Later, Conan and Subotai wander about Zamora, stoned on “black lotus,” recalling the heroes of Big Wednesday in their foolish-innocent exploration of the world, and in a gag pinched from Cat Ballou (1965) Conan groggily punches out a camel. “Success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary,” Akiro dryly notes in narrating as the three thieves use their riches to indulge hedonism until Conan faints face-first in his soup, a jokey moment that nonetheless reasserts the basic preoccupation with Conan’s story as a journey through life. More immediately, indulgence robs their keen edge, leaving them easy targets when some guards sent by the King of Zamora, Osric, come to round them up. Osric, played in in a peach of a seriocomic cameo by Max von Sydow, seems to be berating the captive trio but actually wants to congratulate them: Osric loathes the snake cult and is happy the thieves have offended its mysterious leader and his minions. With his own daughter (Valérie Quennessen) recently seduced into the cult’s ranks and their assassins sowing havoc, Osric offers Conan and company his fortune simply to travel to the cult’s base, the Mountain of Power, and kidnap his daughter back. Valeria and Subotai want to run away with their riches, but Conan sets out alone in the belief he will find his nemeses. And sure enough, he does: quickly found out as he tries to infiltrate the cult, Conan is brutalised and brought before his foe.

The intoxicating fantasy allure of Conan and his world is, of course, the dream of unfettered freedom and perfect self-reliance. Milius’ shots of Conan and Subotai running cross vast landscapes, driven on from locale to exotic locale by the sweep of the photography and Poledouris’ romantic strains combine to create the kinds of cinematic visions it’s easy to want to live within. Similarly, Milius distils Conan and Valeria’s love affair into a series of wordless shots that see them moving from first gestures of tenderness – Conan caresses her palm with a huge jewel stolen from the temple – to sexual pleasure, happy companionship, and finally a crucial image of Valeria gathering Conan’s head to her chest, making it perfectly plain that they’ve fallen deeply in love through her look commingling ardour and shock, the surprise of two lonely, hardened souls finding each-other, a moment counterbalanced by the forlorn sight of Valeria awakening to find Conan gone. The quality of warmth and good-humour connects Conan and his small but growing band, and imbues the relished violence and gaudy trashiness with more than mere ornamental amusement: the essential isolation of the characters in a lawless, careless world is a constant refrain, and the assailed likeableness of the heroes is vital.

If The Terminator (1984) would fully cement Schwarzenegger as a movie star by cleverly exploiting his formidable and alien side, Conan the Barbarian nonetheless gave him his starring break. Whereas in The Terminator the façade of Schwarzenegger’s body would be peeled to reveal steel and mechanics, an illusory construct betraying the breakdown of natural reference points in a specifically modern fashion, Conan the Barbarian shows us rather the perfect body being built, woven in muscle and sinew, as the product of subjugation and adversity, a fantasy ideal of masculinity beheld in its primal cradle. And yet Schwarzenegger’s casting was most canny in comprehending his potential appeal was based not simply in his honed physique and stature but in the almost childlike aspect to his persona. The boyish enthusiasm he expressed even in talking about adult things in Pumping Iron, and which would later make him beloved to young fans for which he represented a sort of cartoon vision of their own ideals of adulthood, informs his Conan on a fundamental level. The character retains a quality of innocence amidst bloodshed and depravity, the violence of his severing from his roots and the segregation of his life from the common run in maturing leaving him bewildered by the world at large, his driving need for revenge long defined by the distraught and immoderate quality of an orphaned boy.

The potentially discomforting scene when Conan is given a slave girl to breed with by the swordmasters is marked by Conan’s appeasing gentleness in calming the fearful girl and wrapping her in a blanket, a gentlemanly act that ironically makes her entirely pliable, and Conan’s expression of curiosity slowly becoming lust reveals some of Schwarzenegger’s nascent skill in gestural acting. The quality of innocence returns at crucial intervals, particularly during his affair with Valeria, plain in that key moment of mutual recognition and also in Valeria’s sorry appeal to Conan not to go after Thulsa, confessing all her feelings of longing whilst surviving alone: despite their strength and guile as survivors, they’re both eternal exiles. Conan gains another oddball friend when he encounters the wizard Akiro (who wouldn’t be named on screen until the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, 1984), living in a haunted, deserted burial ground of ancient titans on a stretch of coastal plain. Conan and Akiro’s point of bonding is found when the wizard tries to ward off his hulking visitor with warnings of his supernatural power, only to earn Conan’s sceptical laughter, and they connect in their mutually sarcastic sense of the absurd.

Akiro explains he keeps the spirits inhabiting the mounds company with his mystic arts in exchange for the peace and solicitude he gains from living in a taboo spot where even Thulsa Doom won’t bother him. When Conan takes leave of him, he poses as one of the cultists heading to the Mountain of Power. Here Milius indulges some satire on hippiedom and religion in general with the dippy, flower child-like cultists and empty mysticism. “What do you see?” one monk asks him he as she directs him to look into a sacred pool: “Err – eternity!” Conan replies, to the monk’s slightly bewildered approval. An uglier edge to the satire manifests as a male monk tries to seduce Conan under the cover of spiritual ministry. This vignette courts homophobia, but also makes a lucid point about exploiters and abusers hiding within officially benign and beneficent organisations like churches. This idea is reiterated on a more ambitious and crucial scale as Thulsa Doom emerges as the head of the cult, preaching an embracing but apocalyptically cleansing faith to the young cultists he attracts, whilst actually practising foul and egomaniacal arts behind the scenes.

The cult of Set is revealed to be an apparatus designed to snare vast amounts of wealth, power, sexual partners for his core enclave of followers including Rexor and Thorgrim, and human foodstuff for Thulsa who proves something not exactly human. In this portion of the story Milius nods to his steeping in noir sources, including something Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse, in presenting the cult as opportunistic gangster sleazes, mixed with likeness to manipulative faux-gurus like Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Conan and friends’ rugged individualism and practicality provides the only firm counterbalance. Milius opens the film with a popular quote from Nietzsche – “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – which might be gilding the lily a tad, but it’s also an idea it certainly weaves into its texture, most literally in the mill wheel montage and connecting the rest of the story and its characters. The Riddle of Steel, as Thulsa eventually explains it when he and Conan finally meet again, is connected to this: “Steel isn’t strong, boy – flesh is stronger…What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” Thulsa illustrates his point by encouraging one of his slavish adherents to jump from a cliff face to her death, the power of the mind to convince itself that reality isn’t real when gripped by a powerful idea from without, exposing the deepest nerve of Conan’s formative trauma and the ultimate end goal of his journey as gaining sufficient strength of mind to threw off Thulsa’s mesmeric control, and the things it represents.

The vignettes within the film, which gift titles to Poledouris’ compositions, have a symbolic specificity that signals a sense of the stages of life enacted through Conan’s journey. The wheel of pain. The gift of fury. The tree of woe. Wifeing. All feel like places we’ve all visited from time to time – tiring labour to survive, spurs to strive, pains to be shed, intimate happiness to be gained. Thulsa nominates himself for the role of Conan’s true, spiritual father and Darwinian mentor in forcing him to grow into a powerful man. Thulsa, finally coming into proper focus during his confrontation with Conan after his capture, gives Jones his chance to deploy satanic majesty in the character’s outsized charisma and air of enigmatic potency, shifting with musical precision from note to note as he admonishes Conan like a teacher chastising a naughty student, beams in conspiratorial glee at Conan when he proposes answering the riddle of steel and then exulting in his own strength as a controller of minds and bodies, before finally condemning Conan to be crucified. Jones’ voice, muffled in his famous work as Darth Vader, here gets to resound in all its plangent dimensions: who else could pronounce the words “Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe” so well? Conan’s ordeal on the tree, which sees him snapping a vulture’s neck with his teeth when it stars gnawing on him, is a desperate passage that almost costs him his life, stranded on the twisted bough on a stark and baking plain. Finally he’s saved by Milius’ love for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), that is, by Subotai appearing in the distance and nearing at a run that still feels painfully slow, and Conan starts a febrile laugh that conks out as he falls unconscious, at the very limit of his reserves.

Like all his Movie Brat alumni, Milius had a private roster of beloved movies he would repeatedly reference, wound deep into the texture of his films. This aspect of Conan the Barbarian is particularly notable as Milius tries to create a film sustaining the same self-mythologising texture as certain outsized and legendary epic films like Lawrence of Arabia, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). The millwheel sequence nods to Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), another film preoccupied with the nexus of physical and moral strength. Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) with its intensely rhythmic and stylised evocation of the past is also repeatedly nodded to (Prokofiev’s score for the film was actually used in Conan the Barbarian’s teaser trailer), and Milius directly recreates some shots from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) whilst taking licence from its basic plot of a sundry band of outsiders battling a malignant army with modest but lethal craft. Of course there’s also the assimilated legacy of every sword-and-sandal flick ever made, as well as many a Western, Sergio Leone in particular.

Another, less expected but insistently referenced touchstone is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964). Whilst Kobayashi’s stylised and artificial approach to evoking the past was contrary to Milius’ attempts to conjure a vivid and three-dimensional world, nonetheless something of the same aesthetic runs right through Conan the Barbarian, most specifically in the way Milius shoots Conan’s encounter with the witch woman, signalling transformation in the same way as the “Yukionna” chapter with a shift to a cold blue light, and more direct reference comes later when Akiro paints Conan’s body all over with sacred symbols a la the “Hoichi the Earless” chapter. Some part of Conan the Barbarian’s more singular achievement lies is Milius’ rigour in trying to convey a sense of landscape and setting as concrete and palpable, almost a living thing in its own right, delivering in a manner fantasy cinema had long deserved but never quite received before. The film was shot in Spain by Jeremiah Johnson’s cinematographer Duke Callaghan (with some work by Gilbert Taylor, who dropped out of the production), a cliché locale to film fantasy and historical landscapes by that point, and yet Milius managed to make it feel unfamiliar, a place ripped out of some dark Jungian bole.

From the jagged, snowy mountains of the opening to the sun-baked plains and zoom shots across a wind-tossed sea into the setting sun, Milius made great use of Spanish locations, where ancient Roman and Moorish structures readily supplied Cyclopean ruins, helping deliver the ambience of a world perched between an unknowable legendary past and something more familiar, an ambience that is fascinatingly crucial in much fantasy fiction because past civilisations so often felt just as haunted by their ancestors as we do ours. Conan the Barbarian’s sense of grandeur and galvanising physicality is worked through Milius’ visual language, mostly purveyed through wide and master shots so as to better drink in the athleticism of his actors, with little of the kind of cheat editing used today to make actors look like great fighters. And to give them context in their surrounds, both the locations and the detail and solidity of Ron Cobb’s sets, with a sequence like the heroes’ crashing Thulsa’s orgy unfolding in a painterly fashion, replete with odd, did-I-really-see-that? touches. Watching the film back in the days of VHS and TV-cropped prints was always to lose something because of Milius and Callaghan’s use of deep-focus, widescreen framing.

One of the few others films I can think of to conjure such a rarefied sense of a fantasy landscape as Milius’ film is Ronald Moore’s The Silent Flute (1979), which was adapted from a project begun by Bruce Lee trying to illustrate spiritual concepts inherent in the kind of Zen philosophy attached to martial arts. Milius’ themes are of course earthier, his rugged individualist and Libertarian ideals illustrated in the only kind of setting where they’re vaguely tenable. Part of Conan’s journey is learning how necessary his allies are after his obsessiveness almost gets him killed, saved by Subotai because he and Valeria followed him, and Akiro does his best to keep his soul and body together with mystic healing, whilst warning that the powerful spirits living amidst the mounds will try to claim Conan. Valeria and Subotai literally fight off death in the form of the creepy animated spirits that flock around Conan and try to make off with his body, until his eyes flicker open in the dawn light after a long, dark night of magic and terror. Valeria’s promise to Akiro that she will pay the toll for keeping Conan alive to the spirits later prove to have very real consequences.

Milius chose his lead performers because the film needed physical types, including Davidson and Thorsen who were taller than Schwarzenegger and looked intimidating enough to be threats to him. Bergman, a dancer who had appeared in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), earned a few more fantasy roles thanks to her part here, including the villain of Red Sonja (1985) and the title character in the bizarre She (1985). Her acting limitations quickly became clear, but she’s still nonetheless one of the great elements of Conan the Barbarian, first appearing out of the shadows and squaring off against Conan and Subotai with a sinuous sense of the sword and immediately presenting a potent, female kind of toughness linked with a depth of feeling that’s still rather rare-feeling in movies. She saunters through the rest with her virile physicality, bouncing off walls during sword fights and leaping from the top of the Tower of Set with a laughing cry of joy in impudent survival, and eyeing two opponents and slapping her sword against her palm like a scolding mother. Despite a couple of flat line readings she’s mostly excellent at inhabiting Valeria as a character, with her unconventional, lived-in beauty and expressive eyes full of feeling in her love scenes, her flashes of deep passion and fearfulness running under the warrior. Lopez, a professional surfer and pal of Milius, was saddled with having much of his dialogue as Subotai dubbed by another actor to stilted effect, a touch that ironically helps the film keep touch with its peplum and spaghetti western forebears, and also unnecessary as his real, not inapt voice can be heard in a crucial late scene.

As with many of Milius’ works it’s easy to fetishize the many instances of bluff machismo: lines like Conan’s statement about what is best in life to the Mongol warlords (actually a variation on a historical quote from Genghis Khan) have achieved a free-floating life in the annals of awesome cherished by fans with varying degrees of irony. But also as ever in Milius’ work there’s also a uniquely elegiac streak, flashes of intensely romantic poetic feeling throughout. Of course, the outstanding support he gets throughout comes from Poledouris’ score, which is one of the best ever composed for a film. Poledouris was another surfing buddy of Milius’ and one who had studied under Miklos Rosza. He rose to the challenge of providing Milius with a score to provide the connective tissue for his dialogue-light film. His big, Rosza-esque score is wound deeply into the film’s intensely rhythmic structure, like the two long sequences where Conan, Valeria, and Subotai infiltrate enemy lairs with sneaky art before all hell breaks loose, and the incredible twinned sequences of the raid on Conan’s village and the build to the final fight.

Conan’s recovery from his ordeal is signalled when he returns to exercising with his sword, and soon he and his friends prepare to snatch away the Princess, who has become Thulsa’s glaze-eyed and monomaniacal priestess, officiating at his ceremonies with hands wrapped in snakes a la ancient Minoan art. Sneaking into the underground lair beneath the Mountain of Power, they witness scenes of gleeful depravity and sleaze: Thulsa’s henchmen lounge in an orgy pit amidst acres of pliable, slavish flesh, whilst the acolytes are served up stew filled with body parts, whilst Thulsa, the Princess seated at his feet, transforms into a serpentine creature as if all the better to lord over the mortals and indulge his appetites. Milius and Poledouris turn this scene into an odd kind of dance number with the actors moving in choreographed fashion as Conan, Valeria, and Subotai nimbly creep round the edges of this spectacle before attacking, whilst the scoring provides a bolero-esque rhythm offsetting the sick glamour of the bad guys doing bad guy things. When the time finally comes the invaders hack up guards and grab the Princess, Thulsa in snake form slithering away before Conan can attack him. The heroes fight their way out successfully, but Thulsa, using one of the snakes he has such mystical affinity with as an arrow (!), manages to plant one in Valeria, and she dies in Conan’s arms.

As if in recognition and salute, the spirits of the mounds allow Conan to light a fire where usually none can burn for Valeria’s funeral pyre, the pyre erupting in a spectacular fireball that signifies Valeria’s annunciation even as it certainly also gives away their location to Thulsa, so Conan, Subotai, and Akiro begin preparing for the inevitable fight when Thulsa and his warriors come for them. Valeria’s death and funeral, channelling Bêlit’s in the stories, also echoes the death of Jeremiah Johnson’s wife as a moment of crucial loss that signifies Milius’ hero is condemned to forge ahead alone on the most fundamental level but still retaining her memory as a source of strength, signified most literally in the climax when Valeria appears as a glittering Valkyrie long enough to save Conan from Rexor who almost overwhelms him. Anticipation mounts as the heroes build their traps and defences around the mounds, smartly mediated with a meditative pause as Conan and Subotai muse on their exiled, rootless, violent lives and Conan recalls the fresh wind of spring in his homeland.

Poledouris’ music surges to ridiculously awesome heights in a sequence patterned after the charge of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, as Thulsa’s mounted raiders appear on the horizon and charge in for battle, their looming, steel-clad forms and thundering steeds intercut with Conan making a memorably pithy appeal to Crom to grant him revenge: “All that matters is that two stood against many…and if you do not listen, then to hell with you!” Fortunately, Crom seems to be the kind of god who helps those who help themselves. The waiting Conan and Subotai, with some clumsy but effective aid from Akiro, manage to evade and bring down most of the henchmen in a bloody tumult, Thorgrim finishing up skewered upon a mantrap and Rexor finally broken, along with Conan’s father’s sword which is still his weapon of choice, by Conan with the Atlanetean steel, after that timely interruption by Valeria’s shade.

Thulsa, standing off from the fight manages to lose not only his best men but his most loyal adherent when he tries to kill the Princess with one of his snake-arrows only for Subotai to stave off the shot. Her faith dashed, the Princess allies with Conan to lead him into the Mountain of Power and help him cut his way through what’s left of Thulsa’s guards. The ending is anticlimactic in a way in lacking any further explosion of action, but it deals a subtler kind of power in stripping Thulsa’s aura of power, rather than offering a last blast of action, whilst also sharpening to a point the story’s similarities to Apocalypse Now and setting the seal on Conan’s journey as he must destroy a wicked priest-king who’s set himself up in a zone of atavistic non-reality, and resist the temptation to supplant him. He sneaks up on the evil sorcerer just as Thulsa is ordering his adherents to go back to the world and unleashed an orgy of self-sacrificial destruction and slaughter, a touch extending the interesting likeness to known cultish dynamics.

Thulsa attempts to stall Conan’s revenge by arresting him with his mesmeric power and appealing to him as his spiritual son, only for Conan to catch himself on the brink of falling under his spell and immediately hacking Thulsa’s head off, tossing it down amongst his followers like so much garbage, finally breaking the grip of awe Thulsa had on him from childhood. Whereupon the cult disbands, tossing their candles into the mystic pool, leaving Conan and the Princess alone. The Princess bows down to him, ready to accept him as replacement god. Conan elects instead to burn down Thulsa’s temple as a final statement not simply in destroying Thulsa’s legacy but in claiming agency for humankind. The final glimpse of Conan anticipates his canonical ascension to kingship in his own right, “destined to wear the jewelled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow,” in his future, a fated end that also signals his eventual shift into the second and most burdensome part of his life journey, something like fatherhood.

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2020s, Auteurs, Comedy, Drama

On The Rocks (2020)

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Director / Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…well, sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dressed To Kill (1980)

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Director/Screenwriter: Brian De Palma

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hour of the Wolf (1968)

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Vargtimmen

Director/Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman

In memoriam: Max von Sydow 1929-2020

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Driver (1978)

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Director/Screenwriter: Walter Hill

By Roderick Heath

Night and the city. Sulphurous hues of street lamps and luminous neon hieroglyphs. Clammy sex in fetid hotel suites. Feverish gambling in the small back rooms. Bloody battles in grimy alleys and warehouses. Walter Hill’s filmography most readily calls to mind such textures, although he just as often ventured out into the dusty west or into the iron and concrete jungles of prisons. Hill seemed set for a major film career as he rose up the ranks as a screenwriter, penning films like The Getaway (1972) and The Mackintosh Man (1973) for classical hard-asses Sam Peckinpah and John Huston. Hill debuted as a director with Hard Times (1975), and scored big hits with The Warriors (1979) and 48 Hours (1982), as well as producing and penning instalments of the Alien series. Hill resembled some other filmmakers who emerged around the same time, including Michael Mann, John Carpenter, and John Milius, in his range of inspirations and stylistic reflexes, his love for old-school storytelling virtues and a love of tough guy mystique contradicted by an urge to search for instability behind the façade, mediated by an attempt to mate such reflexes with a sense of updated immediacy and realism, and a near-anthropological interest in people on the fringes of society. Hill loves tales of people trying to survive hostile landscapes be they rural or urban, exploring that theme overtly in The Warriors, Southern Comfort (1981), and Trespass (1992), often limiting the scope of his action to a brief and concentrated timespan redolent of classical drama: even Aliens (1986), although realised by James Cameron, took an essential Hill template for its story.

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The Warriors, almost certainly Hill’s best-known and most-loved film, manages to seem at once palpable and stylised, mating myth-history and comic book aesthetics with a pungent sense of place and physical immediacy in sustaining its own little cordoned world. Hill’s love of the textures of ‘50s noir and rock’n’roll flicks eventually drove him to make Streets of Fire (1984), a film conjured almost entirely in an argot of retro tropes. Despite what seemed to be Hill’s commercially amenable fascination with pulp fiction mores, he proved at odds with the increasingly fantastical tone of the evolving action blockbuster, rendering his box office touch scattershot. Like some of his fellows, Hill stumbled in the late 1980s. He made ill-received attempts to expand out of his genre comfort zone with the comedy Brewster’s Millions (1985) and the rock musical Crossroads (1986). Hill’s turn towards revisionist Westerns in the mid-1990s, with Geronimo: An American Legend (1994) and Wild Bill (1995), was also met with general apathy, but they were interesting and textured works that informed Hill’s later role in creating the cult TV show Deadwood. His attempt to reunite Yojimbo (1961) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with their American roots as Last Man Standing (1996) was unfortunately a distressingly dreary entry, and his first two films of the new millennium, Supernova (2000) and Undisputed (2002), were dumped in release. But Hill’s sporadic late-career efforts Bullet to the Head (2012) and The Assignment (2017) have their virtues as self-consciously trashy sketches of auteurist humour.

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Hill’s The Driver, his second film, sits at the intersection of filmic avenues, a gritty, terse, nasty chimera, part movie-brat assimilation of old film noir and westerns, part quintessential study in 1970s streetwise verisimilitude. In many ways it’s Hill’s most restrained and minimalist film, like its hero operating on a high-band wavelength often bordering on the subliminal, and it was met by general critical and audience bemusement upon release. But it’s become enshrined as an inescapable influence on subsequent neo-noir cinema. The Driver made an immediate and unmistakeable impact on Mann’s style as purveyed in his debut Thief (1981), and echoes in labours by filmmakers occupying the crossroads of independent and genre cinema, including Jim Jarmusch, Jeremy Saulnier, and Quentin Tarantino’s LA crime films, particularly Jackie Brown (1997). It’s received overt homages in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017), and some of its visual imprimatur can also be detected in films as disparate as Repo Man and The Terminator (both 1984). The Driver’s failure to connect in its day must have felt especially bitter and ironic given it seems to designed to at once ride the wave of popularity for action films built around car chases, borne out of the popularity of Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), and to provide a sharply different approach to and anatomisation of the mystique of this certain kind of movie.

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Anticipating The Warriors in depicting the flotsam of a nocturnal existence engaged in primal battles the sunlit world never knows, The Driver also retained Hard Times’ portrayal of exile-in-society antiheroes, whilst moving beyond the immediate sway of Peckinpah and Huston. The Driver saw Hill emulating Jean-Pierre Melville and his particularly Gallic brand of crime movie with its glaze of existential cool and alienation chic as exemplified by Le Samouraï (1967), and his inclusion of French actress Isabelle Adjani tipped a hat to the influence. It made sense then that just about the only film market The Driver initially scored a hit in was France. Hill’s efforts in marrying high-powered chase action with a spare, existential, rather European vibe had also been strongly anticipated by Richard Fleischer’s The Last Run (1971), but Hill brought the style back home and rooted it firmly in a bracingly intense and intimate feel for the seamy backwaters of Los Angeles and the traditions of American underworld portraiture. Often it feels as much informed by the likes of Nelson Algren and Edward Hopper as classic noir. The first glimpse of the film’s antihero, known only as The Driver (Ryan O’Neal), comes with a mythopoeic note, as we see him rising out of the underworld – riding an escalator up into a car park where he selects a car to break into with a specially-made key, and drives out into the Los Angeles night.

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Hill cuts to the interior of a casino, a space of phony-plush cool where Adjani’s character, known as The Player, plays as the dealer in a card game with an expression of intense ennui, waiting out the night’s games with fellow gamblers seeking the elusive charge of fortune but currently only receiving static. These two disparate citizens of the nocturnal world soon prove to be linked, as a pair of masked hoodlums (Nick Dimitri and Bob Minor) burst into the casino, assault a security guard, and make off with the bank. The Player, leaving the casino, hovers near the rear entrance and seems to fix on The Driver as he sits parked and waiting, having already smashed through a wooden barrier to access the rear of the building. The robbers dash out and climb aboard with The Driver, who begins a dash through the LA downtown, streets close to deserted in the wee small hours save cop cars that come blazing out of the shadows and give chase. The Driver’s innate genius is proven as he eludes, outruns, and wrecks his pursuers, as well as his bullish refusal to be cornered or intimidated, as he charges headlong at a pair of oncoming cruisers, defying the bullets that glance off the windscreen, and forces them to swerve and crash, much to the chagrin of his charges. After being sure of their escape, The Driver dumps the stolen car in a car graveyard, and curtly informs the thieves, after they’ve given him his share of the loot, that they won’t be working together again: “You were late.”

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The Driver’s latest escapade stirs the city’s most fearsome hunting dog out of his kennel: The Detective (Bruce Dern) is first glimpsed playing pool by himself in a tavern, itching for an opponent worth of his mettle. The Detective scarcely conceals his delight when he finds The Driver has left behind his fashioned key as a taunting calling card: “Cowboy,” one his partners notes, to The Detective’s reply, “No shit.” The Detective knows well who The Driver is and his desire to nab him ratchets up to an obsessive register: “I’m gonna catch the cowboy that’s never been caught.” The Detective has The Driver brought in and shown off to witnesses from the casino: most state they didn’t get a good look at him, except for The Player, who states categorically that he isn’t the man. The Player, it soon turns out, was specifically courted to play the misdirecting witness by The Connection (Ronee Blakely), The Driver’s agent who finds him jobs, and The Driver breaks with his usual hygienic protocols to pay The Player off personally, perhaps because he’s attracted to her but also perhaps sensing she’s to play some unknown role in his looming battle with The Detective.

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This link seems to be confirmed by the Fates as The Detective comes to call on The Player in her upscale apartment whilst The Driver is speaking with her. The Detective leans on The Player, knowing full well what her function in the game is, and rattling her cage when she defies him with all her languid cool: “Of course there was that one little scrape. That kind of nasty one. The one that got swept under the rug?” True to the roguish proclivities of the 1970s zeitgeist (and now?) as well as to Hill’s efforts to blend schools old and revisionist, Hill offers The Driver as an admirable figure despite his criminal profession, a man who operates definitively according to a silently enforced code of behaviour both in himself and expected of others, whilst The Detective is a ripe bastard in representing law and order. O’Neal’s inhabiting of a stern, taciturn, rigorously professional persona is pitted against Dern’s depiction of a man who likes talking, if to specific effect. The Detective’s pleasure in goading and provoking and showing off his mastery manifests with sadistic concision as he tries to fracture The Driver’s hard shell by tossing hot coffee on his hands whilst they converse, and then daring his foe to punch him at the cost of two years in prison. The Driver’s bone-deep self-control asserts itself and he pulls back from landing the blow.

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The Detective has two partners in his roving crime squad, the ‘Red Plainclothesman’ (Matt Clark) and the ‘Gold Plainclothesman’ (Felice Orlandi). The former is a relative newcomer to the team who feels uneasy when confronted by The Detective’s methods and attitude, making plays at challenging The Detective’s confidence and assurance as it becomes clear the senior cop will contemplate breaking rules and laws to achieve his objective as well as abusing and humiliating people. The Detective responds to Red’s weak resistance with a mix of disdainful amusement and friendly-aggressive mentorship: “You’re a loser. But I think you’d like to be a winner.” The Detective eventually decides the best and most efficient way to catch The Driver red-handed is to set up a bank robbery himself. He fixes on a pair of sleazy stick-up men, ‘Glasses’ (Joseph Walsh) and ‘Teeth’ (Rudy Ramos), whose most recent job was robbing a pharmacy, and are in need of a new getaway driver because their current one, Fingers (Will Walker) has become erratic, despite having once been good enough to have been in on another job with The Driver as his back-up. The glimpse Hill offers of Glasses, Teeth, and Fingers in action together summarises their essential natures and potential dangers in deft strokes: Glasses loses him temper for little good reason, Teeth shoots out the windows of the pharmacy to make a big noise and intimidate for equally little reason, and the rattled Fingers speeds away in crazed style, almost careening into an oncoming truck and sideswiping a parked car.

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The Driver neither entirely adheres to old-school generic niceties nor strains to deflower them in the manner of something like Chinatown (1974). The characters operate according to their natures and functions, signalled by their reduction to systemised generic titles rather than names and the disinterest in defining them according to their biographies. But are ultimately all forced to confront the hollowness of their actions. Not for the last time in his oeuvre, Hill’s characters here resemble honed metaphors for life as an on-the-make Hollywood creative. Plotting colossal projects and living transfiguring dreams whilst subsisting in ratty apartments, trying to retain maverick ethics whilst surrounded by sharks and lowlifes, to smuggle through personal statements under the nose of authority. Hill’s most recent film The Assignment tweaked the figuration to offer the mad scientist villain as the easily bored and maliciously talented artist figure, but here The Driver’s ethic as a practitioner of a rarefied art accords perfectly with Hill’s method in his, trying to hone every shot, word, and gesture down to a pure and essential form. Most of the characters and their interactions embody Hill’s screenwriting precepts. Relevant information, no chit-chat; gestures and skills mean more than words. The Detective’s privilege is indicated as the relative spendthrift with talk, although his use of them likewise has a sense of effect.

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A year before Werner Herzog cast her in his remake of Nosferatu, Adjani seems present in a different kind of vampiric drama and similarly cast for the almost hallucinatory quality of her beauty rather than the volatility that had made her an instant star in Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975). The Player, like The Driver, is someone entirely immersed in a hardboiled world although she occupies a higher end of the scale for the time being, her apartment a sleek and pricey abode that seems to hover high above the LA night, albeit one just as sparsely furnished and almost shell-like as any of the dives The Driver inhabits, signalling she’s another one ready to flee at a second’s notice. The first glimpse of The Player, dealing in a poker game in the casino, registers her as both an uncommon presence and one utterly bored, compelling the eye and deflecting it at once. The Player explains her motives for getting mixed up with his business to The Driver when he visits her with casual, almost fatalistic concision, stating that the apartment is paid for by some occasional high-roller lover but “lately the cheques haven’t been so regular.” Her and The Driver’s relationship is transactional in stated terms, as The Detective’s threats oblige The Player to push The Driver in turn to make sure he can make it worth her while to maintain his alibi.

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But some arc of attraction seems to also spark between the pair, sufficient to draw The Driver to her and vice versa in risky ventures, each cognisant of the other as both a danger and also a bird of the same feather, intense and disinclined to large gestures, speaking language through their piercing gazes instead. “Cowboy music,” The Player notes as she visits The Driver’s seamy flat: “Always tells a story. Drunks, whores, broken hearts.” Hill’s thumbnail for the appeal of genre storytelling, a certain brand thereof at least, one preoccupied by the losers and outsiders amidst American life. The Driver, despite being in a lucrative line of work who’s been working heavily, subsists in the crummy grandeur of cheap hotel rooms with inexpressibly hideous peeling teal paintwork. It’s a lifestyle The Detective notes with a certain level of approval as a sign of The Driver’s dedication and intelligence, living in a manner that offers no hint of secret wealth or indeed any signs of actual life: “Boy, you’ve got it down real tight. So tight there’s no room for anything else.” Despite his seemingly unswerving realism and professionalism The Driver nonetheless eventually reveals motives fuelled by something more elusive, including a belief in a run of luck – “I’m riding a wave” – that must be followed to its end as if he too is a gambler, one playing his game with the universe.

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The criminals The Detective selects to play out the necessary roles in his master plan immediately irritate The Driver when they try to commission him, seeing in them the precise qualities The Driver disdains. “How do we know you’re that good?” Teeth demands when The Driver names his high price when he meets with them in a car park. The Driver immediately and vengefully demonstrates to them his quality by taking over the criminals’ Mercedes and driving it pell-mell around the car park, slamming it against walls and columns, terrifying his passengers and leaving the car a battered wreck, before turning down their offer. The Driver’s antagonism with Teeth ratchets still higher when the criminal turns up on the landing outside his apartment, brandishing a massive revolver to bully him into signing on. The Driver nonetheless remains profoundly unimpressed, at first challenging Teeth to pull the trigger and then, after meeting his gaze for many moments in a staring contest, socking him in the jaw and throwing him down the stairs. “I just wanted to talk,” Teeth groans to The Driver’s cold reply, “You did.” Glasses goes to meet with The Detective to confess failure in obtaining The Driver’s services, whereupon The Detective calmly sets about arranging it himself by visiting The Driver in his apartment and challenging him to engage in the contest, even returning to him his lock pick.

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This key confrontation sees the two characters conversing in hard glares, the stakes and connections unspoken and yet stated through semaphore of body language and attitude, with The Driver signalling his acceptance of the game by taking the key. O’Neal had emerged as a major star with the success of Love Story (1970) and he followed it up with hits like What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), and stretched himself to great effect with Barry Lyndon (1975). O’Neal had a peculiar screen persona, appearing very much the blandly handsome everyman imbued with a limpidly romantic cast, contradicted by eyes that harboured a hue of wounded animal ruefulness and shrewdness, blended qualities that informed his best roles and performances. Hill had written one of O’Neal’s earlier vehicles, The Thief Who Came To Dinner (1973), and The Driver plays in a fashion as a more self-serious iteration of that film, and suggests Hill saw unrealised dimensions in the actor. Although he signalled a move in that direction with A Bridge Too Far (1977), O’Neal wasn’t associated with tough guy parts, and after The Driver’s failure no-one would again. Which was a real pity, as O’Neal’s career was left with no place to go, and yet he inhabits the part of The Driver perfectly, with his squared-off poise and air of physical competence held on a tight leash of hard-learnt restraint, and when The Driver resorts to direct acts of violence it’s both blindsiding and convincing.

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The air of caginess, of some private reserve O’Neal was keeping locked away from the world, became a potent reservoir when it came to projecting The Driver’s borderline maniacal commitment to a private ethic and project of asocial resistance. The Driver seems less motivated to engage in criminal activity for money but to thumb his nose at people who live by less concerted ways, an aspect of his character The Detective readily grasps because it’s an attitude he shares, if whilst expressing and actualising in quite different ways. Dern, by contrast, had almost become synonymous with a certain kind of role, callow creeps and unstable outcasts, like his Vietnam veteran-turned-terrorist in Black Sunday (1977) and his infamous part as a psycho who kills John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972). Hill readily tapped Dern’s ability to play galvanising assholes but also showed cheekiness in making him the representative of authority. The Detective compares his own approach to his job as one rooted in the same presumptions as newspaper sports results – points on the boards neatly demarcating all players as winners and losers, the nominal task of upholding a public responsibility and enforcing community laws subordinated to the needs of ego and simple equations of power.

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The Detective sees himself as the winner in a job for a society that values only winners, a proto-Trump figure in extolling an exclusively Darwinian sense of the world where the rules are only incumbent upon those not naturally chosen for success, for status, for the right to self-identify with the spine of the establishment. On the other hand The Driver is contrasted by Glasses and Teeth as well as the two stick-up men he taxis at the outset, bandits who almost by definition will possess or foster traits that work against The Driver’s professional sensibility as well as his distrust of violence as people quick to temper and irresponsible. Glasses seems like a reasonable and steady captain for gangland activities in comparison to Teeth, who The Driver immediately pins as a potential hazard with his attitude and delight in violence and provocation, and soon gets all the evidence he needs to back up the assessment. Glasses eventually proves to have his own explosive and duplicitous streak. The Driver’s habit of talking a hard line with flaky colleagues despite not carrying a gun is a test he liberally applies, quickly revealing hotheads and reactive fools, a point of character that feels reminiscent of some Western heroes like Barry Sullivan’s character in Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957), presenting the truest tough guy as one who can maintain a pacifist demeanour but doesn’t flinch from speaking cold truth and laying down the law, or from action when absolutely necessary.

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And as in such a model, this trait makes antithetical characters underestimate The Driver, something Teeth learns when The Driver easily disarms him and beats him up. Glasses falls into the same trap. When The Driver eventually takes on the job, he demands that Teeth sit out the robbery, so Glasses uses Fingers as his accomplice, only for Fingers to foul up during the heist and allow an alarm to sound: Glasses is so infuriated he guns Fingers down. Once The Driver delivers him to their rendezvous point in an empty warehouse, Glasses points his pistol at The Driver and makes it clear he’s going to kill him too, mocking him for not killing a gun, only for The Driver to suddenly swing up a pistol from where he’s nursed it out of sight and blow Glasses away. A great, jolting surprise that again obliges both viewers and characters to revise their understanding of The Driver, one reminiscent in a way of Tuco’s “shoot, shoot – don’t talk” quip from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), but without the lilt of black humour, instead striking a bleak, rueing note in confirming The Driver, despite his dislike of guns and violence, knows damn well he has to be good at both in his world. Glasses’ attempt at a double-cross relieves The Driver of any burden to split the take and he heads off to arrange with The Player to swap dirty money for clean.

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Hill’s infusing style on The Driver mimics his writing in trying to film and frame to an essentialist credo. Relatively little of the movie takes place in open daylight, and when it does this is clearly offered as The Detective’s realm rather than The Driver’s, The Detective and his crew hovering around backstreets and rooftops and car parks awaiting calls to action just as The Driver and his ilk parse away time in dim, interior, almost claustrophobic environs. Hill often frames The Driver in relation to faded and battered artworks and fancily framed mirrors on walls in hotels and bars, hinting at the tattered romantic textures lurking behind his life-hardened façade. Cinematographer Philip Lathrop’s photography unfolds in earthy tones of grey, brown, and green, usually only broken up by odd flashes of bolder colour like a cop car’s lights or the balls on a pool table, and relatively colourful locales like the various taverns and the casino have their gaudier colourings muted. The Driver’s visit to pay off The Player at her glitzy, modernist apartment complex feels particularly vital as a thumbnail for Mann’s aesthetic. The duo meet in the sickly greenish glow of fluorescent tube lighting along a blank concrete catwalk that looks like infrastructure for a space centre, and ascend by elevator to hover high above the gleaming cityscape, lowlifes become astronauts by dint of living amidst but not as part of modern American life.

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The inherent visual tension helps draw out Hill’s backdrop thesis regarding American success as release from relationship to history and environment, whereas the losers in The Detective’s parlance must persist in spaces where such things reign over them. Hill’s expect use of Lathrop’s widescreen pictures nudges the edges of Hopper-like abstraction throughout, often moving in for flashes of action and then returning for deadpan medium-long shots scanning corpses and wrecked cars with the equanimity of a classical landscape painter. Hill had to make his driving action scenes feel novel and distinct from famous precursors. It’s been said the template Hill hit upon has proven particularly influential on video games, presumably in the smooth and gliding sense of speed and motion he captures in the key chase sequences, getting close enough to generate immediate intensity but avoiding chaotic freneticism through excessive editing. Often his camera stands relatively aloof from the vehicles, noting their arcs of motion, straining against earth and gravity, so their lines of motion become dance-like, and often framing O’Neal and his passengers, including Adjani in the climax, in a manner that clearly shows them amidst the action. The fact that most of the chase scenes take place in the very early morning allows Hill to let the cars rip with little to stall or frustrate them, instead turning the chases into contests of pure driving skill, tearing through downtown avenues and seamy factory spaces.

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Hill also spurned any music accompanying the chases, employing Michael Small’s mostly electronic scoring with its eerie drones and squiggles strictly for brief passages of atmosphere. Blakely, contrasting her best-known role as the beloved but damaged diva in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), plays The Connection with a veneer of tight-wrapped proficiency, breathy voice and bright red lips contrasting her rather asexual dress style, a fitting partner in free enterprise for The Driver and one he seems tight with, and yet she keeps a wary distance, making clear to The Driver she has no intention of getting killed for his sake when he gets her to dig up a fence for the cash. Hill’s more ruthless brand of humour shades into horror as Teeth corners The Connection in her apartment and makes her reveal where the money handover is to take place by inserting the barrel of his huge pistol deep in her mouth. The Connection quickly coughs up the required information and tells Teeth she told The Driver she wouldn’t die for him, only for Teeth to push a pillow over her face and shoot her through it, as if delivering his own, cold punchline to a cosmic joke. The brutal, quasi-sexual violence here renders the games of dominance throughout the film at their most palpable and disturbing extreme, underlining for Teeth as Glasses’ killing of Fingers did for him that he’s truly dangerous, like a rabid animal that must be put down, and the hard lesson The Connection doesn’t live long enough to learn its no-one can stand neutral from the fate of their allies in such a world.

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The climax is set up as The Driver has The Player meet The Exchange Man (Denny Macko) at Union Station only for Teeth to pounce and snatch the purse containing the key to the locker containing the clean money. The Detective chases down the fence and shoots him as he tries to elude the cop on a train rolling out of the station, whilst The Driver, with The Player in tow, chases after Teeth and his new driver ‘The Kid’ (Frank Bruno) in a careening duel of speed and skill, with The Driver behind the wheel of a sturdy pick-up truck he’s stolen opposed to The Kid’s flashy muscle car, which just cannot shake him. Hill’s choice of vehicles in this scene works both as a visual joke inverting marketable images, the streamlined and fearsome lifestyle accoutrement unable to outrun the boxy and utilitarian machine, and as a metaphor for Hill’s preference for plebeian solidity over flash, and with The Driver and The Player remaining perfectly pokerfaced throughout. The battle resolves in a warehouse where the two vehicles stalk each-other before The Driver’s nerveless way with a game of chicken causes his opponent to crash spectacularly (and finally cracks The Player’s stoic veneer), and Teeth finds himself beaten again, this time more finally, as the contest between him and The Driver winnows down to the more elemental and classical art with a gun, an epic moment that gains a moment of salutary humour as The Kid hightails away, happy to survive his first and probably last tilt at the criminal big leagues.

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This battle seems to finally anoint The Driver as the Western hero reborn, chasing down varmints, equally accomplished on his steed and at the draw, existing outside civilised norms but imposing cohesion on a wild landscape through sheer force of will and discipline. There’s one last part of the game to play out, however, as he and The Player return to Union Station to retrieve the money only to find The Detective and a line of cops ready to nab him. The bag he takes out of the locker proves however to be empty, part of a rip-off intended by the deceased Exchange Man, leaving The Detective without the necessary evidence to arrest The Driver. The Player and The Driver both stride in their separate directions, dissolving into the dark, whilst The Detective finds himself the butt of a droll and queasy gag as he’s quite literally left holding the bag. A denouement that deflates multiple balloons, validating neither the lawman nor the outlaw, official and rebellious perspective each found wanting, at least on the scoreboard level The Detective so eloquently extols. But The Driver, having ridden his wave to the end and come out clean, has emerged with a more rarefied form of capital, his creed fulfilled, his body intact and free, even if perhaps destined only to continue on his sharklike way a few more nights.

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1930s, Auteurs, French cinema, Political, Thriller

The Shanghai Drama (1938)

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Le Drame du Shanghaï

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Director: G.W. Pabst
Screenwriters: Alexandre Arnoux, Léo Lania

By Roderick Heath

Georg Wilhem Pabst’s run of films of the late silent and early sound cinema eras remain essential viewing for movie lovers and scholars, and the director himself synonymous with that moment in European film culture. Pabst, born in Roudnice in what was then Austro-Hungary, studied engineering but drifted into the theatre, already experiencing a successful transatlantic career as a stage director before World War I broke out. After spending the war in a French internment camp, Pabst took up filmmaking in his late thirties, and emerged as a major talent with his fourth feature, The Joyless Street (1925). That film, featuring Greta Garbo before her jaunt to Hollywood, also marked the beginning of his reputation for making or amplifying female stars at crucial junctures. After making the first film to explicitly tackle Freudian theory as a subject, Secrets of a Soul (1926), Pabst directed two movies touched with legendary lustre with Louise Brooks, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929). White Hell of Piz Palü (1929), which Pabst directed in collaboration with Arnold Fanck, scored a huge popular hit and kicked off a craze for mountain climbing films. Pabst’s war film Westfront 1918 (1930), humanistic disaster drama Kameradschaft (1931), and Expressionist musical The 3 Penny Opera (1931) were hailed as some of the most vital moviemaking achieved in the early days of sound.

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And yet, after the early 1930s, Pabst falls completely out of sight as far as most cineastes and critics are concerned, although he would keep making movies for another twenty years. The reasons for his erasure are laced with bitter ironies and ambiguities. In his glory days, Pabst was feted for the determined blend of social critique and psychological investigation apparent in his films as well as their artistic vigour, informed by his leftist allegiances. His sense of style modulated degrees of realism and stylisation, veering from careful, Erich von Stroheim-esque detail to heightened Expressionist effects in trying to describe the physical and mental landscape of his age, and how one created the other, with a penchant for vivid, often antiheroic female protagonists. Jean Renoir hailed Pabst as an influence with his capacity to “create a strange world whose elements are borrowed from daily life.” Pabst had already moved to France to work even before the Nazis came to power in Germany, but his exile proved one of anxious wanderings. In his first years in Paris he ventured into splashy science fiction-fantasy with L’Atlantide (1932) and a well-regarded adaptation of Cervantes, The Adventures of Don Quixote (1933), which sported a pointed jab at Nazi book-burning. But Pabst’s sojourn to Hollywood to make A Modern Hero (1934) proved a rude comedown for a director known for his tight creative control as he clashed with Warner Bros. He soon returned to France, but could not regain his standing.

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Pabst was caught in Austria as World War II broke out, and found himself under the thumb of Joseph Goebbels, who obliged him to make a handful of movies during the war that had nominally safe historical themes, including The Comedians (1941) and Paracelsus (1943): the latter film has been studied with some interest as evidence of Pabst’s artistic resistance with its theme of the heroic title character trying to counter mass hysteria with rationalism. Nonetheless many former fans and fellow leftists held Pabst in disdain for his collaboration, and some accused him of returning to Nazi-held territory because he preferred the stature he would supposedly have retained working there to following other figures of German cinema to Hollywood and subsist in the studio production mills. Pabst didn’t help his reputation by offering fuzzy explanations as to why he was in Austria and never explicitly apologising for bowing down. As if making aesthetic rather than rhetorical riposte, after the war’s end Pabst reverted to his sharply critical mode as he tried to illustrate historical anti-Semitism with Der Prozeß (1948), but he struggled afterwards, sojourning to Italy to make some poorly received comedies. Returning again to Germany, he tackled the chaotic waning days of the war with The Last Ten Days (1955), with a script co-written by Erich Maria Remarque anticipating Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004) in portraying Hitler in the Bunker, and It Happened on July 20th (1955), a depiction of the July Plot assassination attempt. Finally advancing Parkinson’s Disease impacted his ability to continue directing, and many felt he had long since lost his specific creative fire.

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Watching The Shanghai Drama, a product of Pabst’s virtually forgotten late ‘30s output, in the light of what was behind and ahead for Pabst is then a jolting and salutary experience. The Shanghai Drama engages the moment of its making, Pabst’s sense of socio-political context blended with his customary fascination with characters emerged in seedy locales and battling to retain any trace of their spirit and identity against forces of social and psychological evil. The Shanghai Drama, adapted from a novel by Oscar Paul Gilbert, has some echoes of Andre Malraux’s famous novel Man’s Fate in describing the fractious political and civic state of China in the 1930s and the European expatriates and emissaries crammed into a cosmopolitan toehold. The material also sees Pabst negotiating with the style of highly fatalistic drama popular in France in the late ‘30s in the poetic realist style, a style he likely influenced, including films like Pepe Le Moko (1936), to which The Shanghai Drama has some similarities as a portrait of desperation in exile. In other respects it resembles a rather common kind of “exotic” melodrama of its time Hollywood was making often, fare like Josef von Sternberg’s films with Marlene Dietrich as well as The Shanghai Gesture (1941), B genre movies like Think Fast Mr. Moto (1937), and even Casablanca (1942), in revolving around criminals, exiles, and sordid nightlife. Like many such movies Pabst’s depicts the “White Russian” population that accumulated in Shanghai after the Bolshevik Revolution and formed a much-mythologised bloc of transplanted Europeans before World War II. The emphasis on the protective instincts of a mother likewise closely anticipates the kinds of maternal melodramas Joan Crawford would become synonymous with.

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Nonetheless Pabst’s acidic intelligence and artistry permeate the film and transform it into something close to unique. The film opens with a number of teenage girls, daughters of the colonial ruling class, graduating from their private school in Hong Kong. The school is an islet of transplanted Englishness complete with phony Elizabethan architecture, clinging vine, and militaristic regimentation as the girls forming up to listen to the headmistress’ (Gabrielle Dorziat) address, before they’re dismissed and erupt in proper adolescent glee. Vera Blonski (Elina Labourdette) is one of the girls, overjoyed at the thought of being reunited with her mother in Hong Kong, evoking the heroine of Diary of a Lost Girl in her aura of doomed and coddled naiveté about to be rudely despoiled by the big bad world. One kind of asylum for young women is supplanted by another: the Olympic, a Shanghai nightclub run by “Big Bill” (Dorville), who runs his gaggle of dancers with a ruthlessly exploitative hand knowing full well he’s the only source of legitimate employment for many of the young White Russian women in Shanghai. “Big Bill looks like a convict,” notes the robust and dedicated journalist André Franchon (Raymond Rouleau), visiting the club with a friend, but “these poor dancers look like they’re the ones on a chain gang.” Pabst pauses to note the grossly ritualised humiliation and cold-blooded nature of Bill’s regime, avoiding all hint of bawdiness as he presents Bill smacking his dancers’ backsides, leering over one young recruit, and sacking another for talking back, an act both know is tantamount to utter degradation if not death.

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The central character is privileged by comparison: Kay Murphy (Christiane Mardayne) is the headline performer at the Olympic. Her real name is Maria Blonski, a White Russian and Vera’s mother. Kay sits in rigid and cold-eyed remove from her circumstances whilst feted by her audience and hosted by local plutocrats, muttering her signature incantation of disenchantment: “Once I could have been an artist. Instead I’m only a star.” Pabst seems to be touring his own experience of filmmaking, evoking his own lot as an exile and ruing encounters with abusive producers and actors happy to sell out their talent for success. Kay lives with her aged governess Niania (Suzanne Desprès) and the thought of Vera’s imminent return and the possibility of leaving Shanghai. But Kay soon finds the past catching up with her, as her husband Ivan (Louis Jouvet) suddenly reappears. Ivan, scarred from a deadly encounter he feels where her attempt to rid herself of him, represents the Black Dragon, a conspiratorial cabal operating on both a political and criminal level trying to achieve total dominance over the Chinese government, and other countries too by implication. The Black Dragon have one immediate, specific irritant they want to silence, the nationalist activist Cheng (Linh-Nam) who rails against both foreign exploitation and domestic cliques hindering his country’s development, and has gained a great following, with sufficient power and appeal to unite the many factions in Chinese life. Ivan has been assigned to force Kay into helping deliver Cheng into the Black Dragon’s hands.

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One aspect of The Shanghai Drama that makes it feel far more modern than a lot of English-language films like it from the time is the absence of any Caucasian actors playing the Asian roles. Portions of the film were partly shot in Vietnam, or French Indochina as it was then, and this provides verisimilitude in the sense of place as well as casting, in the scenes depicting Cheng’s political agitation in the streets, although the film was mostly filmed on a French soundstage. Alexandre Arnoux and Léo Lania’s script works in some humour to alleviate the darkness of the plot: “Bastard!” Franchon calls Big Bill, and when Bill answers to the insult, Franchon notes, “Ah, I see, that’s your family name.” A dash of risqué humour as a sailor is asked for his ID by a military policeman but accidentally hands over a fondly kept snapshot of a topless woman. The Shanghai Drama plays as a spiritual continuation to several of Pabst’s earlier films, offering Kay as something like the older, life-wrung person Louise Brooks’ characters might have become, weathering loss of home and the moral quicksand of surviving in the wilderness. The underworld governed by its own eccentric laws of The 3 Penny Opera is now entangled with the motifs of cooperation and people power found in White Hell of Piz Palü and Kameradschaft.

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Pabst pushes many of these retained elements into new ground in considering them in immediate relation to one-another, explicitly linking forms of abuse and oppression on an individual level with the political. The finale echoes the ending of Pandora’s Box but unifying two characters from that film this time into the single, tragic figure. The Black Dragon seem at first like close relatives of the romanticised underworld figures in The 3 Penny Opera, but quickly come to more closely resemble in turn one of the covertly powerful factions found in Fritz Lang’s films like Spione (1928) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932). Indeed, Pabst goes further than Lang usually dared in not only presenting his cabal as manipulators but international political operators too, embodiments of gangster capitalism and reactionary politics, carefully and remorselessly plotting methods to extend their power, even going so far as to spark war to ensure the success of their plans. Ivan proves to be one of their most dedicated agents, and through him has also bound Kay to them, in making common illiberal purpose.

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Pabst initially presents the Black Dragon potentates, including their cold-blooded and perfectly maleovolent mastermind Lee Pang (Valéry Inkijinoff) and their most recently elevated member Madame Tsé (Foun-Sen), who just happens to be Cheng’s sister, amidst the splendours of an estate garden. The romantic Chinoiserie lustre of roses and tranquil lily-crammed ponds contrasts the machinations and politicking. One old mandarin recommends to Tsé she help neutralise her brother and clips a rose flower from its stem to illustrate his point. “He’s the wave of the future, and we’d like to wipe out that future.” After Ivan’s return Kay finds herself imprisoned by Bill in the nightclub, as Bill is also subordinate to the Black Dragon, forcing her to stick around until she can play her part in the cabal’s plot to kill Cheng, and unable to go to the docks and meet Vera off her ship. Franchon, who has struck up a friendship with Kay and knows she was expecting to meet someone, heads to the harbour and encounters the confused and fretful Vera who knows nothing about her mother’s circumstances in Hong Kong. Franchon doesn’t connect them until Vera recognises a song he whistles, overheard at the Olympic, as one of her mother’s favourites. Franchon takes Vera to Kay’s apartment. Meanwhile Cheng comes to the Olympic on invitation with some of his political comrades, only to find themselves trapped in a most genteel way, whilst Kay is assigned to draw Cheng upstairs where the Black Dragon bosses await.

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Pabst sharpens his political parable to a point in the build-up the attempt to kill Cheng. The Black Dragon’s chief interrogator and executioner lays out the tools of the torturer’s trade in a folding satchel, a selection of glistening instruments for visiting pain, but selects for Cheng a hypodermic needle to give a lethal injection to make his death look natural. He invites in a pathetic coolie and offers him a silver dollar to allow him to perform an experiment on him. The coolie beams in rhapsodic pleasure at the gleaming coin in his hand, the symbol of all earthly wealth as far as he’s concerned, as the executioner gives him the injection, and the coolie promptly twists up in agonising death. Pabst here manages to reduce his understanding of both economic and political exploitation to one, singular, grotesque vignette, and underlines his portrait of the Black Dragon as a not-so-subtle reflection of fascism in its outlook. Later, faced with Cheng’s intransigence and the potential unification of the country behind his effective leadership, the Black Dragon decide to try and provoke a war between China and another country – unnamed, but clearly supposed to be Japan – through false flag operations. “War is not a method, it’s an end. I don’t believe the people want war,” Tsé protests, to another gang boss’s riposte, “It isn’t the people who want war, it’s countries. All they need is a pretext to start a war.” The Black Dragon have their own prisons where they imprison people who have crossed them, and start picking up political opponents, torturing and executing them.

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Pabst reiterates the parity of gender and political subjugation as Kay finds herself brutally forced to remain at the Olympic by Big Bill, who works for the Black Dragon and refuses to believe her appeals about her daughter’s arrival: Pabst dissolves from Kay’s face with her look of desolate and impotent rage to Vera’s young, forlorn visage as she surveys the dock for her mother. The central sequence of the Black Dragon’s attempt to kill Cheng sports an increasingly, ironically nightmarish tone as Cheng sits amidst the brightness and gaiety of the Olympic but he and his companions become aware they’re trapped and will only stay alive as long as they remain exactly where they are. His comrades volunteer one by one to head and risk assassination to try and bring help, only to be stalked and slain by killers in the street, until Cheng is left alone. Cheng begs Kay for aid in escaping the club over the rooftops, and she leads him up to the seedy, shadowy attic, right into the hands of the Black Dragon honchos and their executioner, awaiting him with pinched, relishing smiles. Cheng and his enemies swap tense and sardonic courtesies as Cheng realises there is no hope for escape. But Franchon manages to save the day when some military police enter the club. Aware of what’s happening, Franchon stirs a fight between sailors and civilians. The resulting riot and crackdown forces the Black Dragon to release Cheng, who calmly departs with Franchon. Kay, branded by Cheng as a dangerous woman, returns to her home and finds Vera waiting for her there, but her daughter senses the self-loathing within Kay, and hugs her photo more urgently than her actual mother.

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Pabst takes swipes at the institution supposed to hold power to account, the press, as Franchon works under an editor, MacTavish (André Alerme), whose cynicism towards the idea of political progress in China – and by extension anywhere else – puts the young French journalist at loggerheads with him constantly. MacTavish is glad to accept stories fed to him by Tsé painting Cheng as a dangerous radical and sacks Franchon for refusing to toe his political line, and blusters when Franchon brings him news of war breaking out with the complaint that war isn’t really war until it’s properly declared, likening it to deciding an election before people have voted, to which Franchon ripostes you can if someone’s stuffing the ballet box. This declaration leaves MacTavish utterly speechless, and Pabst acerbically performs a slow dissolve from MacTavish’s beggared face to shots of tanks and soldiers mobilising. “The foreign press mustn’t be allowed to criticise our victory,” Lee Pang instructs his underlings as the organisation make its move to crush Cheng. By contrast, Pabst offers up Cheng as the embodiment of political heroism, first seen giving speeches to an excited crowd, and the depiction of his political movement carries overtones of the recent Front Populaire movement that was reshaping French political life in the years before the war.

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Pabst contrasts the larger political drama with the paltry humans who are victims of such machinations, with Kay the archetype of the stateless person who tries everything in her power to escape and keep her daughter safe but finds herself trapped thanks to Ivan throwing in with the Black Dragon, and eventually reaches a snapping point when Ivan threatens to induct Vera into working as an agent for the organisation’s ends too. Pabst digs into the lot of the political exile, balanced between points of nostalgia that can be more merciless than comforting, and sharklike survivalism. The past is literally another country, the lost Russia evinced by the keepsakes Niania shows Vera like a mythic fantasy, narrating her parents’ story as if it was a fairy tale only to admit soon enough it certainly isn’t one. Kay’s blank, almost mesmerised affect in the early scenes suggests a lampoon-cum-tribute by Pabst of Marlene Dietrich’s brand of ironclad nightlife survivors – Pabst had originally intended to cast Dietrich in Pandora’s Box but dropped her in favour of Brooks, a choice Dietrich later mocked him for – before Vera’s imminent return rouses her hope again. This is immediately dashed by Ivan’s reappearance as close to literally back from the dead as possible, wielding his own personal brand of astringent disillusion. When Ivan visits Kay in her apartment, holding the fake American passport she’s tried to purchase to get herself and Vera out of the country, he plays the unremitting voice of Fate, cold and merciless and immune to all appeals of paternal feeling.

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Ivan and Kay almost become two halves Pabst’s arguing personality in this regard, one trying to hang on to a sense of courage and purpose in facing up to a rootless lot, the other ruthlessly enforcing his concept of cold truth and obeisance to larger forces as embodied by the Black Dragon. Pabst and his screenwriters give Ivan the lion’s share of memorably scathing lines as he spots a picture of himself when he was a young Tsarist officer, a picture she was showing Vera moments before: “My morals were elegant, now my clothes are.” “We grew up together,” Kay says, to his reply: “We decayed together.” After listening to Vera trying to chart a life for herself away from her parents through desperate alternatives, Ivan mocks her affectation of worldly grit, “Sad songs are a poor memory when times are hard.” A peculiar vignette with a near-mystical sense of poetic import comes as Ivan holds his photo up to compare it with his middle-aged face, as a breeze penetrates the room and sets the chandelier to tinkling, light reflecting off the glasswork and casting a star-like pattern on the wall that slowly fades out: a last, totemic gasp of their lingering memories of youth and freedom. Ivan seems to recognise this as a final epiphany and takes a breath before ripping his photo in half and getting back to business, provoking Kay with his cold intent until she pulls out a gun shoots him dead rather than let him suborn Vera. “Why?” Ivan demands in his death throes as Kay bends over him: “Why didn’t you do it fifteen years ago?”

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The Shanghai Drama betrays some uncertainty in tone and style that suggests the movie Pabst finished up making might have been some distance from what he was supposed to make. The film pauses repeatedly for Kay’s song numbers – Mardayn, like Pabst an Austrian, was best known as a singer – and doesn’t entirely reconcile familial melodrama with political thriller until Ivan’s fateful scene. There’s something just a tad trite about Kay’s idealised sense of Vera. Despite having contributions to the cinematography by Eugen Schüfftan, one of the most talented and influential film technicians of his time, the film is generally more neutrally lit and distanced in framing in comparison to Pabst’s Expressionist heyday, and great visual touches, whilst plentiful, are also fragmentary. Pabst chases a spare, borderline abstract feel to the set decoration and misé-en-scène, as if drawing on artists like Edward Hopper for a breath of the dreamlike in the otherwise solid. Ingenious and arresting visuals keep arriving at the same pace as the unexpected jolts of baleful political meaning. Like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, Pabst kept a rigorous plan for what he would do on set and shot as little film as necessary to prevent studio interference as much as possible. His close-ups of his actors often aim for an impression of sculptural intensity, particularly of Mardayn with her translucent eyes and adamant jaw, perfect for playing a character at once haughty and wistful, Jouvet with grotesque V-shaped scar like the mark of Cain on his brow, the face around it honed by hard experience to a mask of bleak tidings, and Inkijinoff rubbing a glass ball along his serpentine cheek in savouring its texture against his face whilst ordering men executed and plotting world domination.

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Big Bill’s demands to see a young would-dancer’s legs sees both Bill and prey framed together in mirrors, viewer and viewed mutually encaged. One of Kay’s song numbers sees her wearing a flaring headdress that glows when backlit, and Kay stalks towards the retreating camera, framed by jazz musicians, as if taking on the role of a warbling Vestal priestess or lamenting world-spirit, whilst Pabst pens a rough draft for effects common in 1980s music videos. Kay finds Ivan lurking in the shadowy reaches of the Olympic’s attic, as if that space has become the septic id squatting upon the gaudy pseudo-civilised nightclub, containing its particular devil. Many of Pabst’s images retain the quality of silent cinema in their attempts to present pictures charged with carefully crafted symbolic intensity, as when the Black Dragon honchos settle around a circular table with champagne glasses in their hands only to place the glasses on the table where they rest in strange symmetry, figures of power suddenly rendered abstract and impersonal, deliberate nonentities in a world filled with nobodies trying to somebodies. Ivan after being shot by Kay collapses amidst the white drapes at the window, forming instant shrouds, the dislodged and silhouetted hanging frames at once resembling a sarcastically lowered crucifix and the X motifs Howard Hawks used in Scarface (1932) to similarly mark out the pathetically exterminated. When Kay pulls the false passport out from his jacket, she finds it penetrated by two bullet holes with Ivan’s blood seeming to seep from them.

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Kay’s killing of Ivan gives the Black Dragon an excuse to imprison her and Vera, tossing them into a basement prison with the rest of their captives, and Franchon finishes up with them after he tries to confront and intimidate Lee Pang with the threat of press attention only to find him unafraid. Lee Pang maintains the same devilish cool as Cheng begins to assemble a huge crowd to lay siege to the Black Dragon headquarters, promising the first real shots will drive them away. Pabst finally counters the dark and suffocating depiction of omnipresent evil in the rest of the film with images of people from all walks of Chinese life, from street vendors and labourers to society women marching abreast, converging into a mass and becoming Pabst’s one and only answer to the spectre of criminal authority, an irresistible movement. Confronting Black Dragon heavies who wait for the crowd with guns and shoot down at them, Cheng cries for them to join him, and the appearance of a flight of enemy airplanes over the city gives provides the perfect common cause to point to, to the point where even his sister Tsé, fronting the Black Dragon goons, advances to Cheng and embraces him. Even as such a tide of humanistic power rises, Kay gives in to utter defeatism as she, Vera, and Franchon sit in the prison: “What does it matter if I die here or somewhere else?…Shanghai holds me in its claws.”

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As Cheng’s mob invades the Black Dragon headquarters, the prisoners are freed. Pabst pauses for another of his eye-catching flourishes as he suggests Lee Pang’s death either by suicide or execution by the patriots with the evil overlord hiding his face behind a slowly unfurling Chinese fan before a gunshot is heard. As the prisoners are swept out of the dungeon by their rescuers, even Kay is beaming with the delirium of the delivered, but one of Lee Pang’s assassins, under orders to kill her in any case, still tracks her in the crowd and stabs her in the back. Kay, eyes wide and brilliant in pain and mortification and soon blank in death, is still carried along by the cheek-by-jowl crowd, just another casualty of history carried along by its irresistible impulse, her passing unnoticed either by those jammed about her or Vera and Franchon ahead. An incredible moment that stands easily with Pabst’s best work and a vignette Hitchcock or Lang would’ve been proud of. The coda offers an uneasy sense of at least Vera and Franchon grasping a happy ending as they sit on the deck of a French destroyer with other refugees being taken aboard by Western nations. Pabst notably refuses to give any sense of reassurance on the larger scale, fading out on authentic shots of Shanghai afire and being bombed. Even if it’s intermittent in its best touches and ideas compared to Pabst’s towering silent classics, The Shanghai Drama nonetheless stands as a film deserving far more attention, a desperate and occasionally ferocious attempt by a great director to declare devotion in both his art and his political faiths before fate crashed upon him, and everyone else.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Italian cinema, Western

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

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Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo

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Director: Sergio Leone
Screenwriters: Agenore Incrucci, Mickey Knox, Sergio Leone, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

In Memoriam: Ennio Morricone 1928-2020

A grand panorama of dusty hills and parched riverbeds under a desiccating sun, a vast amphitheatre fit for primal drama burned clean of life, a place palpable yet dreamlike. A face suddenly and rudely thrusts itself into view, ill-shaven, dripping sweat, nostrils and eyes and nervily twitching cheeks, utterly corporeal and void of apparent sentience beyond fixated and predatory intent, deadly serious in affect and yet mysteriously comical, welded to the earth like infestation but immediately invested with the same evocation of startled awe as the landscape. In John Ford’s heroic landscapes the rock forms stand in silent regard of the dwarfed figures, demanding humans grow to their size; get real, says Sergio Leone, only a face gives meaning to the dirt. A bounty hunter, Elam (Al Mulock). An objective: a ramshackle outpost of civilised pretence out here on the edge of reality, stray dogs nosing the scraps, two riders on the approach to join the man in his quest for some sort of reckoning, be it justice official or not, and beginning a slow, dead-eyed march towards the buildings. They pause on the threshold by a disfigured ‘Wanted’ sign, and ready for a gunfight, before plunging within. Shots erupt, and another man comes crashing out through the window, a Tex Avery animation given human form: Eli Wallach’s Tuco, a shred of his interrupted lunch still between his teeth and a pistol in hand, fleeing with his enemies left holed and sprawled. Humanity in all its base reality existing upon a disinterested sphere, engaged in little myths of life and death, enacted largely by characters often too dumb to realise they’re only collateral damage in someone else’s legend. Sergio Leone’s aesthetic in a nutshell, charged with sickly humour and invocations of cosmic absurdity.

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It really wasn’t that long ago when the Italian-made Western was still largely considered an absurd and comical wing of pop culture. Whilst Leone’s films quickly gained cult status, champions, and emulators, they were still often touched always with a reputation for silliness connected with a specific, verboten trait: foreignness, daring to infiltrate the clean-cut expanses of the traditional Western, with its mighty Aryan heroes reforming the prairies, with insidious baroque and lips that refused to quite curl in time with dialogue. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) didn’t invent the “Spaghetti Western” but it did forge an endlessly imitated style, suddenly remaking minor TV star Clint Eastwood’s career and transforming the director, who had only directed one film previous in the well-made if conventional peplum The Colossus of Rhodes (1962) into an international figure. Leone’s fourth feature film as solo director, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly has journeyed from an emblem for disreputable pleasure in cinema to become regarded as one of the great works of the form. Ennio Morricone’s score long since shed even the film as a chrysalis, to become instantly evocative and self-explanatory. Who knows how many times I heard the famous title tune as a kid long before seeing the movie, and I knew almost from the first what images and situations to associate it with, coming as it always did with lampoons of gunfights and mockeries of Leone’s visual syntax with huge looming faces and expansive backgrounds.

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The story of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly’s journey says much about trends in pop culture and film aesthetics. Now, if one were to take a random poll of both the general swathe of film lovers and critics to identify what might represent for them the living nerve of film, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly often ranks high alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and a handful of other works. As films they have obvious differences, but also unavoidable similarities. Both channel the ancient Homeric tradition into a modern pop culture artefact and dispense with many customary dramatic values. Both sustain long, stark, wordless sequences meditating upon acts of violence and seeking, managing to seem at once atavistic and futuristic. Both distil epic reaches of experience and space down to a singular system of images, utilising the expanse of the screen frame to the utmost, moving past the limits of fallible language and instead becoming ideograms. Both were released when cinema was already shrinking to meet the aesthetic and compositional needs of TV screens, and yet such works let themselves loose on the vastest scale, and still provoke real filmmakers to try and match their spectacle.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly rounded off what’s come to be known as “Dollars” or “Man With No Name” trilogy after A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More (1966), the films Leone and Eastwood made together in which the American actor played three similar wandering, mercenary heroes. These were conflated into a single archetypal figure for advertising, taking inspiration from the way The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly concludes with the film’s iteration, known only as Blondie, eventually donning the signature poncho Eastwood’s characters had worn in the previous two films. Those characters with their mix-and-match garb summarises the synthesis within Leone’s approach, exalting the Western hero and yet offering him not simply as supergringo but a figure birthed by the blurred world between North and Latin American cultures, a pancultural creature, hinting at the way the Leone gunfighter was simply one incarnation for a figure encompassing every culture in every land, echoing back to Gilgamesh and Achilles. Of course, Leone had with A Fistful of Dollars quite happily filched from Akira Kurosawa who in turn had mimicked John Ford and so on and so on back to Homer, an internationalist chain of emulation and homage.

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Far from rendering his movie a hodgepodge, however, it’s this aspect of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, the sense of happening everywhere and nowhere facilitated rather than hampered by a finicky sense of period detail and tactile immediacy, that’s helped it achieve the renown it has. By this point Leone had a production team, including Morricone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, entirely attuned to his thinking. Leone began developing the film with his screenwriting partner on For A Few Dollars More, Luciano Vincenzoni, although Vincenzoni and he were beginning to quarrel. Leone also hired comedy writers Agenore Incrucci and Furio Scarpelli to work on the project , although Leone and others later reported they contributed little. Actor Mickey Knox wrote dialogue for the English-language version. The opening credits channel some of the pop-art derived flavour of the James Bond films, with an added dimension of historical pastiche and artistic perversion. Stills from the film are glimpsed through gritty haze to make them look like vintage photos, then painted over in hallucinatory, comic book-like colours. The second member of the title trio is Lee Van Cleef’s “Bad,” known only as Angel Eyes, the knowing counterpart to Eastwood’s “Good” Blondie, who Angel Eyes describes as the “blonde-haired angel” looking after Tuco. Both are most accomplished in making angels, and Angel Eyes name in the Italian dub, “Sentenza,” carries with it the hint of harsh judgement from on high.

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Angel Eyes’ first appearance comes as he arrives at a hacienda, invested with such mysterious intensity and tensile presence he obliges fear, deference, and hospitality without needing to speak. Angel Eyes has come to kill Stevens (Antonio Casas), a Confederate deserter who’s retreated to live quietly with his Mexican wife and son. Stevens goes through the forms of hosting with Angel Eyes as if trying to mollify death itself, resulting in a long, pregnant delay as Stevens doles out food and the two men sit eating in silence. Stevens finally takes a more direct approach and tries to offer Angel Eyes something like a bribe in putting him on to a fortune in gold stolen by his compatriot Jackson, a robbery both Stevens and the man who’s paid Angel Eyes for his death, Baker, were involved in. Angel Eyes calmly accepts Stevens’ counteroffer to assassinate Baker and takes payment before confirming to Stevens he always completes a job he’s hired for, necessitating he kill Stevens anyway, as well as gunning down his son when the lad tries to intervene with a shotgun. Angel Eyes returns to Baker and reports the job completed, before then doing what Stevens paid him for and killing Baker too.

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The pitch-black sardonicism apparent here presents Angel Eyes as a killer who adheres to a certain, discrete code of ethics even as he deals out death, even honouring a deal with Blondie later despite knowing it could backfire on him, although he makes sure only to allow himself to be cornered by such ethics unless he sees a way to make them work for him and clear a path. Leone would revise the sequence at Stevens’ hacienda in a more conspicuously operatic fashion for Frank’s attack on the family in Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), complete with the same brutal punch-line of gunning down a kid, and with a similar depiction of the villain as very willing to exterminate anyone but not doing so unless specifically motivated. Ancient myth is invoked in Stevens’ act of hospitality, the violation of which by Angel Eyes is a crime so deadly in such myth the abuser may find themselves cursed by eternal forces. The sound of the earthenware and wooden spoons and lips smacking in consuming food is lingered over with a sense of import in such transitory acts, Angel Eyes charged with relished good-humour in challenging Stevens to find new ways to expand his portion of life by a few more seconds.

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Leone’s attention to the space of Stevens’ home, the open sprawl of rooms and arching doorways, sees Angel Eyes as a silhouetted intruder upon first entrance, a state to which he returns as he walks back out only now with two corpses lying behind him in rude geometry, the statistical stability of which disintegrates as Stevens’ wife finds the bodies and the camera reels in impersonating her dizziness before fainting away in horror. As a sequence this has resonance far beyond mere plot, recreating as it does the feeling of inevitable visitation by Death invested with a dimension of parable, and also connection with many a continental European film about World War II, like Rome, Open City (1945) and Come and See (1985). Films where the war isn’t a vast spectacle of armies jaunting about but a clammy, nightmarish experience of ordinary people constantly awaiting the knock of fate on the door, indicted by some small offence or twist of luck and left naked before power, the call of the Gestapo whisking citizens away to cells or aboard trains bound for concentration camps.

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Leone avoided World War II as a subject up until the movie about the siege of Leningrad he died whilst planning. And yet the war and the way it utterly severed present from past for people of his generation and invested Leone’s sense of landscape as a theatre of carnage becomes unavoidable in thinking about his work, reaching an apogee with the wholesale slaughter of rebels and downfall of tyrants depicted in Duck You Sucker (1971). The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, set in the midst of the American Civil War, had its partial genesis in Leone’s desire to portray war as pointless and grotesque regardless of token causes, a note of humanistic cynicism reflected by many of his characters including Tuco and the hotelier Pardue (Jesús Guzmán) who mutters insults about occupying Confederate soldiers before hollering “Hooray for Dixie!” for public display, like Leone’s own take on the dirty old man from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The land in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly swaps the grand but neutral moral amphitheatre of most Westerns for a sense of the entire world given up to chaotic forces as the Civil War is waged across its length and breadth. Most importantly, Leone’s characters live their lives in a state of war, at once titanic in their independence and rodent-like in their survival craft.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly revolves around the twists of fate that will eventually draw Angel Eyes, Blondie, and Tuco together in the course of hunting down the stolen treasure, threading a path between the clashing Union and Confederate Armies, their own, private, modestly scaled dance of death contrasted by great slaughter and chaos. During Tuco’s attempt to punish Blondie for deserting and robbing him by leading him through desert to suffer and die, they encounter a carriage where everyone on board has been killed by Angel Eyes, save the mortally wounded Jackson, who expires leaving Tuco and Blondie each with part of the key to finding the hidden treasure. Tuco takes Blondie to recover in a monastery headed by his brother, Father Pablo Ramírez (Luigi Pistilli). Angel Eyes disguises himself as a Union sergeant in a prisoner of war camp, and when Blondie and Tuco are brought in as captives, having donned Confederate uniforms for the same ends, he has Tuco beaten until he coughs up his part of the secret. Angel Eyes, deciding he won’t achieve the same with Blondie, instead forces him to join his criminal gang and they set off, whilst Tuco is left to the mercies of the law. Tuco manages to escape, and he and Blondie join up again, wiping out Angel Eyes’ gang in the midst of a town under bombardment. Finally they work to blow up a bridge being fought over by the two factions in order to remove the last obstacle before their destination, which proves to be Sad Hill, a military cemetery where the gold is hidden in one of the hundreds of graves.

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Leone saw the possibility in a dark inversion of Van Cleef’s previous performance for him in For A Few Dollars More, where he played the gentlemanly hero and prototypical Leone romantic-nostalgic, Colonel Mortimer. Angel Eyes is like an alternative universe version of Mortimer, corrupted and deadly, shorn of his idealistic reflexes and given up purely to anarchic purpose, much the same as Blondie offers a slightly less ambiguous take on A Fistful of Dollars’ Joe and For A Few Dollars More’s Monco. Leone wasn’t the first Italian genre filmmaker to offer up pseudo-sequels closer to variations on a theme: the horror maestro Riccardo Freda had made Il Spettro (1963) as a nominal follow-up to his The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock (1962) with characters sporting the same names but revised in nature for the sake of a new storyline. Van Cleef, with vocal cords that sound crusted with quartz shards, plays Angel Eyes with an aspect of brutal humour, a hyena grin never far from his lips, as if he’s standing slightly apart from the narrative, author to the weirdness and sadism and regarding it with amused interest in how all the pathetic creatures he torments will make their stand and how long it will take them to break: the villain as artist. The only person he doesn’t try his luck with this way is Blondie, sensing well he comes from another realm.

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Blondie’s introduction as “the Good” doesn’t present him in a solitary vignette as the other two are, but revolves specifically around his initial partnership with Tuco, which sees them constantly tempting fate in repeating a profitable game. Blondie sells Tuco to the law to collect bounty money, and then uses his sublimely good shooting to interrupt the necktie parties the lawmen throw for Tuco, rescuing him and heading on to the next town to do it all over again. Blondie is immediately defined by the way he stands between life and death for Tuco, so good with a gun he can actually use it to save life rather than just take it, mordantly invested in Tuco’s survival but soon driven by his partner’s bitching and intransigent resentment, as well the imminent probability of him losing his worth, to break up the act. Blondie robs Tuco at gunpoint and leaves him facing a long and thirsty trek back to civilisation. Blondie’s abandoning of Tuco has an aspect of calculated punishment: like Angel Eyes/Sentenza, he delivers punitive judgements, but his seem more like goads, challenging Tuco to find a way of living without his guardian. Tuco’s response is to stumble into the nearest town and, in an ingenious vignette, visit a gun seller, disassembling his stock of revolvers and piecing together a single, perfect instrument for killing.

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This scene, as well as deftly illustrating Tuco’s professional smarts as a man who knows a gun to its finest spring and pivot – “Every gun makes its own tune,” Blondie notes later – also encompasses Leone’s method in picking and choosing aspects of the Western and other narrative forms he likes and spurning the leftovers, creating an unholy chimera that’s also a smoothly functioning device for delivering mayhem. The sequence also mimics in more comic fashion Angel Eyes’ intrusion upon Stevens as cues are given wordlessly and the turn of the meeting’s meaning from hosting to criminality is likewise cued by unspoken realisations. Tuco loads and tests his new weapon and then easily bests the storekeeper in a game of power, the authority seller wields over buyer in the mystique of the petit-bourgeoisie not just reversed but actively and exactingly avenged as Tuco shoves the shop’s open/closed sign in the shopkeeper’s mouth. Tuco is the first of Leone’s Caliban-like creatures, not quite of the human world but rather representing it in all its srambling cunning and frustrated need, certainly not inhabiting spheres of archangels and lord demons like Blondie and Angel Eyes. The Ugly would be move to the narrative centre in Duck You Sucker and Once Upon A Time In America (1984). Tuco might also be the most thoroughgoing anarchist in a movie, save perhaps Harpo Marx, and prefiguring Rod Steiger’s Tuco variant Juan in Duck You Sucker, who robs, strips, and rapes the bourgeoisie.

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The tension between Tuco’s rambling alternations of nervous bonhomie and blazing spite and Blondie’s taciturn demeanour is the engine of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Tuco drives Blondie into the desert in revenge, taunting his former partner from horseback with relished water as Blondie is burned terribly by the sun and collapses in dehydration, and Blondie seems doomed when the carriage pulled by stampeding horses heaves into view. Tuco manages to halt the vehicle and finds it carries a load of corpses, save one man with an eye-patch who is close to death: Jackson, using the name Bill Carson, proves willing to give up the secret to his treasure with his dying breath simply for water. The marvellous breath of the dreamlike in this sequence hinges on the way Leone follows Blondie and Tuco through the desert in a relatively conventional system of dissolves with oddball details added for effect, Morricone’s giddy music accompanying the sight of Tuco protecting himself from the sun with a lady’s pink parasol, whilst his friend becomes a walking rump roast. When the carriage appears, curtains fly like shrouds for the crew of the dead on this ghost ship in the desert, a vision that might have been conjured by Boecklin or De Chirico in painting mysterious dreamscapes and emblems, even as it serves a straightforward plot purpose. The underlying comedy in Blondie and Tuco’s relationship surfaces again as Tuco makes a play at convincing Blondie he’s dying once he gets him to the monastery. Tuco plays the anguished pal and mourner, to get him to cough up Jackson’s last revelation, only for Blondie to toss a cup of water in his face and set their game back in motion. But soon Blondie is moved enough by witnessing Tuco fighting with his priest brother to offer a small sign of fraternity in offering Tuco his cigar, a gesture that despite their occasional attempts to kill each-other shows Blondie and Tuco are well aware each is the closest thing either has to a brother, as eternal citizens of the wilderness.

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A greater part of the affection, bordering on relieved joy The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, often stirs resides in the near-complete avoidance of overt moralism and few traditional niceties of dramatic stakes. Leone spurns swerves into romance or other discursions that might soften or detract from the elemental nature of the characters and their quest, offering instead a chain of blackly comic gags dressed up in action movie garb involving the incongruity of the characters’ travails and the general arbitrariness of the world. Many of the vignettes revolve around gamesmanship both enacted between the characters to see who is the most accomplished warrior, and the director and the audience, presenting variations on familiar Western movie scenes and melodrama cliffhangers and finding brazen ways out. This is at its most overt perhaps when Tuco seems to have Blondie at bay in a hotel, forcing him to enact his own hanging, only for a stray Union shell to crash into the building and shatter the structure, delivering Blondie as if protected from on high. The one aspect of traditional character shading lies in the brief portrait of Tuco’s uneasy relationship with his brother Pablo, a relationship that nonetheless scorns the usual portrayal of the saintly priest stirring pious feeling in his bandit brother’s heart as in so many old-school gangster movies. Tuco instead fiercely turns on Pablo and decries his posturing and affectations of superiority, condemning affectations of virtue and superiority that refuse to consider how the world makes people what they are, as Tuco reminds Pablo they only had two choices as boys to escape the grinding poverty of rural Mexico, through the church or banditry, and Pablo didn’t have the balls for the latter profession.

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Despite the official amorality, the film works as a burlesque-cum-appropriation for the morality play, as inherited from medieval theatre. Tuco is the emblematic man in Leone’s thinking, a creature out of Rabelais, crude, cruel, reactive, scrambling, debased, clever in a low sort of way, but also capable of flashes of mad passion, vision, and pride that elevate him above the animal. He exists suspended between the Manichaean extremes of Blondie and Angel Eyes, Blondie acting as his guardian angel and Angel Eyes his tormenting demon, a status underlined in the final fight where he seems to add a new edge of danger and unpredictability to the ritual gunfight, even if he turns out to have been rendered impotent by Blondie. When Tuco first enters the monastery, Leone wryly frames him peeking out from under Jackson’s appropriated eye patch with a painting of Christ on the cross in the same frame, and Blondie himself is correlated with Jesus as he lurks behind a carved statue whilst listening to Tuco and Pablo have it out. Easy to take such touches as curlicues on Leone’s pervasive baroque, of course, more sarcastic commentary on the notion of religious parable than example, which doesn’t necessarily discount the constant, ironic nudging of symbolism throughout. The characters literally follow a trail leading to a graveyard, a great orchard of death where they must duel to see which of these mighty individualists must join most soon the community of fallen.

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But the evocation of spiritual pain in Tuco is specific and needling, the anger he unleashes on Blondie in part a rage against God, The Fates, nations, systems, what have you, for making him such a wretched and spasmodic creature, the pure flare of his hate and hunger the closest things to reasons for living. And so Tuco must wander from confrontation to confrontation, game to game, rage to rage. Leone considered the three characters to be a schismatic exploration of himself, Blondie as the methodical and conscientious portion, Angel Eyes as the most coldly professional and venal, and Tuco as the reactive, very human part. Or, superego, id, and ego. Tuco’s first attempt to corner and kill Blondie after emerging from the wilderness comes as he chases him to the hotel, having hired killers go in the front door to give Blondie a target whilst he comes in the window, a viciously amusing piece of tactical legerdemain worthy of his foes. Blondie’s lucky escape demands Tuco track him across the countryside, plucking his signature cigars from his campsites, testing to see how hot they are (a motif pinched from Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, 1930). Eventually he comes upon Blondie in the middle of reforging their old partnership with a new bandit. Tuco, with malevolent deliberation, refuses to allow Blondie to save his new partner: “Sorry Shorty,” Blondie murmurs in regret as the wretch writhes in the noose. Such is life.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is about greed of course, but greed is almost treated as a transcendental value alongside revenge and love in Leone’s universe, aware of its most corrosive aspect but also ruefully attuned to the way it provides basic motive not simply to current and liminal goals in the characters but to the entire life function. The hunt for money is emblematic of the hunt for so many other things, the need for stature, place, security, power, sex, the very things these characters lack. In this regard The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly might even be described as a revision of one of its strongest inspirations, John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), insofar as where Huston allowed just so much sentiment as to present ways its protagonists could find such recourses without money, Leone refuses that much concession: the choice is either to engage in the ruthless sport of acquiring capital or to remain so much human dogshit. Tuco celebrates having something Blondie needs, water, during the ordeal in the desert, a figuration Leone offers as motivating human society at its most basic and ugly: it’s not enough to have, but to have when someone else does not. The spectacle of the war initially has little meaning to the protagonists beyond complication: the story of three men trying alternately to enrich and save themselves amidst utterly trying circumstances that represent the normal world merely raised to a slightly more zany and trying pitch.

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Behaving in accord with such a presumption, Blondie despite his angelic associations is just as immersed in the squalor of the world and its problems as Tuco, accepting the extremes of life and death with stoic demeanour and lightning draw. His relative decency is glimpsed in his sidelong gestures of mercy – sparing rather than killing Tuco when he know well what strife it might entail, offering up a drink to a wounded warrior, spreading his coat over another and giving him a puff of his cigar. Blondie is offered as a neo-Spartan, laconic in speech, refined in arts of war, confident in battle, not a heroic blank and hardly superhuman. Many a filmmaker good and bad has tried offering up their own “Man with No Name” variant over the years and most often fail, usually misapprehending how Eastwood’s characters like Blondie present the ultimate iteration on the strong-and-silent type: Leone discovered and depended on Eastwood’s capacity to embody rather than simply play, to be the still centre of the whirlwind. That’s what lends weight to the way he registers events large and small, alarming and shocking, with minute intensifications of his habitual scowl like registrations on a Richter scale, describing the inner landscape of a man who’s seen everything twice and knows the way of the world, and has settled for merely affecting outcomes in the small pocket of it around him, offering succour when he can even as he readily expects the world to start shooting lead at his head a few seconds later.

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Angel Eyes’ evil is marked out by his ruthless employment of expedience and brutality as both the best tool for obtaining swift results and a source of energy in itself, sadistic power granting godlike pleasures. Angel Eyes pummels Jackson’s prostitute girlfriend Maria (Rada Rassimov) as he tries to make her give up his whereabouts, shoves a pillow over Baker’s face to muffle the blasts of his gun, and directs the abuse of prisoners in the prisoner of war camp. Leone heavily hints that decency in the world can only accumulate in the world in the way Blondie parses it out, although bad can metastasize far more quickly than even Angel Eyes can commit it. Maria is first glimpsed being tossed from a carriage after being mauled by some men, and although she’s only a momentary player in the film, Leone grants her one of his most dramatic camera gestures. He zeroes in on her face to register her offence as she berates one lot of bastards, before encountering the even more menacing monstrosity that is Angel Eyes in the shadows of her lodgings. Angel Eyes’ regime in the POW camp is sustained by taking advantage of the crippling illness of the actual camp commander, Captain Harper (Antonio Molino Rojo), but he finds ready helpmates in the bored, mean, greedy underlings in the camp to torture prisoners into handing over secreted valuables, skills turned on Tuco as Angel Eyes seeks his part of the secret. The sounds of torment are masked by a guard forcing an orchestra formed by the prisoners to play a languorous ballad, “The Story of a Soldier.”

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Leone pulls off one of his most singular sequences here working in concert with Morricone, the syrupy emotionalism of the song, which seems a burlesque on something like “The Green Leave of Summer” from The Alamo (1960) and other faux-folk pop songs used as leitmotifs in Westerns, offered with a taste of ash in the mouth in the way the stirred wistfulness is entirely earnest but can only work when offered in counterpoint with intimate brutality and perfect cynicism. “More feeling,” insists the guard conducting the orchestra, as the musicians play with tears streaming down their faces in full awareness what use their talents and sentiments are being put to, whilst Angel Eyes’ preferred heavy Corporate Wallace (Mario Brega) threatens to squeeze Tuco’s eyes to pulp. It’s as affecting and disturbing a counterpoint of emotional textures as any in cinema, and the crux of Leone’s cinema both literally – it comes halfway through the middle film of his oeuvre – and metaphorically, his essential theme of longing for some other realm, the past, an idyll, in alternation with the ruthless present, the inescapable brute fact, distilled to its essence. Leone’s quick success and capacity to work on an international scale spared him having to labour in many other genres unlike compadres like Mario Bava and Sergio Corbucci. But flourishes here and there in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly represent the closest he ever got to making a horror movie in Bava’s fashion, in the way Angel Eyes attacks people in their darkened rooms, the clashing primary colours in some night shots, and the gothic décor hovering around Pablo’s monastery. Whereas Bava’s most fitting tip of the hat back at Leone would be not one of his own, rather half-hearted Westerns, but the Viking saga Knives of the Avenger (1966).

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The blankness of the central trio’s names, noms de guerre won through being reduced to avatars for prodigious capacities that ironically grant them more specificity, more identity, than more familiar names, contrasting the names heard elsewhere that tend to actually be pseudonyms or attached to enigmas, to the point where they seem almost totemic, linked to mysteries and cosmic forces. Bill Carson. Arch Stanton. Names attached to faceless men, dead men, ciphers. Part of the mystique the film weaves around itself results from the way it deftly avoids showing key events. The actual robbery of the cashbox is legend, and the coincidence that draws Blondie and Tuco into the drama is the direct result of Angel Eyes’ actions but is presented as an act bordering on divine provenance. Tuco’s savagaing at Angel Eyes’and Wallace’s hands comes in part for stepping into the shoes of “Bill Carson.” Representatives of authority have a similar aspect of insubstantiality: Harper, the commander of the POW camp, and Captain Clinton (Aldo Giuffrè) who commands the Union side of the forces battling over the bridge, both finish up flat on their backs, trying desperately to impose something like morality and sanity upon situations that instead obey a logic stemming purely from the basest precinct of human experience. Blondie and Tuco’s shootout with Angel Eyes’ gang of hired guns comes in a town left as a ruined and deserted shell by warfare. As if to literalise the threat of a random and hostile universe, Leone has artillery shells explode around the ghost town sending up clouds of dust, as the two factions stalk each-other in the gloom, providing both obscurity and cover and the threat of instant annihilation, a sneak preview of the nuclear age for the roaming, pistol-packing Dons Quixote. For the moment the gunslingers are in their element, shooting down snipers and taking out goons left and right, Blondie and Tuco a perfectly lethal combination even if Tuco does pause to cross himself after taking out enemies.

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As potent as the trio are in terms of their specific talents, they’re still absurd figures closer in many ways to the knockabout victim-heroes of silent film comedy like Chaplin and Keaton, and the beloved Italian comic Toto, actors who often played men trying to hold down a tenuous place in the universe and satisfy primitive needs whilst straining to retain a sense of themselves as dignified men, dealing with conspiracies of chance and unruly objects, with roots in the Commedia dell’Arte as well as their highfalutin’ modernist counterparts in the Theatre of the Absurd. Given that the film’s working title was The Two Magnificent Tramps, the connection doesn’t feel far off Chaplin or Samuel Beckett. However limited the input of Age and Scarpellito, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly still often feel like it has one foot planted in a slapstick tradition about hapless people trying to do a job of work despite all ridiculous obstacles. The characters must negotiate trials and challenges with all their wits in a manner that resembles slapstick comedy’s exacting sense of cause and effect, as when Tuco, chained to the hulking brute Wallace, has to come up with a means of escape, a ruse that begins with asking to piss off the side of the troop train they’re riding, begging for a little privacy. Tuco jumps off the train, taking Wallace with him, beating his torturer to death against a rock and then arranging the handcuff chain over a rail so another passing train can sever it. Smart. But: “God’s not on our side because he hates idiots also,” Blondie mutters when he and Tuco are caught in Confederate uniform by Union troops, because Tuco mistakes them from a distance for Rebs as their blue suits are caked in dust. Later Blondie takes pot shots at Tuco as he tries to break away from him and get to Sad Hill first, firing a cannon at him with the same laidback, reality-rewriting precision Bugs Bunny might have tormented Elmer Fudd with.

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Leone repeatedly distils visual humour and narrative velocity from the way his framing reflects the tunnel-visioned obsession of the characters. Variations on this motif include Tuco and Blondie riding headlong into a Union camp, in the climax when the men are so preoccupied the don’t notice Angel Eyes sneaking up on them, and the mordant punch-line where Tuco finally cradles the retrieved gold in joy only to look up and see a noose Blondie has readied for him. The best-known and greatest variation on this game of concealment and revelation comes when Elam, missing an arm from the opening battle with Tuco, finally catches up with his foe as Tuco is acting on a chance for a bath in a war-shattered and deserted city, sinking into a metal tub amidst foaming soap bubbles. Elam’s long, relishing preamble to shooting Tuco in the tub is cut short as Tuco’s pistol erupts under the soap bubbles. Of course Tuco even bathes with his gun; of course Elam would underestimate him again. “If you’re going to shoot, shoot – don’t talk,” Tuco advises the twisted corpse of his would-be killer, a unit of curt black humour that’s both iconic in and of itself – look how Die Hard (1988) offers a variation on it – in lampooning that old movie cliché of the overly-talkative villain, and also a flash of foreshadowing humour in relation to the finale. There the three antagonists are arrested in a long, uncertain pause before the gunfight as the odds of combat and the traits of character are weighed and winnowed, both shooting and talking impossible until some infinitesimal tipping point is reached.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is absent the tragic-nostalgic fantasias that provide the ethereal backbone for most of Leone’s other films, where the key characters subsist in the present but truly live in their memories of lost loves, friends, and kin. Characters like Duck You Sucker’s Sean who floats in dreamy reminiscences of the long-lost ménage-a-trois he lived in with his best friend and their shared girl, or Once Upon A Time In America’s Noodles, whose reminiscences are at once treasure troves of bygone delight and grimly and inescapably connected with his awareness of his despicable actions and self-delusion. Leone understood a great truth about such tendencies, that the darker and more nettled the truths abutting such fantasias are, the more intense the pining for innocence and the full leaf of summery possibility, an awareness that also underpins the fulsome and ardent yet mysteriously ironic texture of Morricone’s scoring for Leone. Once Upon A Time In The West hinges upon another such double-edged memory as it reveals antihero Harmonica’s spur to revenge as a moment from his childhood touched with immense horror and strange beauty. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly only hints at such a dimension in Tuco’s fraternal love and anger, which he covers for Blondie’s benefit by boasting of knowing there’s always a place where he’ll be welcomed with a bowl of soup.

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Otherwise, Leone shifts his elegiac quality with its aura of gnawing loss and tragicomic meditation onto the more immediate spectacle of the war, most obviously in the “Story of a Soldier” scene, which hinges on the way the musicians seem to be yearning for their own lost pasts and offering a salving echo of it for Tuco as he’s tortured. The trio’s adventures constantly bring them into contact with surveys of grinding suffering and human waste. The monastery is crammed with wounded. Angel Eyes does business with a veteran who’s lost both his legs and ambulates around on his hands. A Confederate army is swept out of one town and chases Union troops from another. A Confederate spy is glimpsed tied to the cowcatcher on a locomotive. The ultimate symbol of war’s futility is the bridge, which Clinton encourages Blondie and Tuco to destroy to release the two opposing armies from their vain arm-wrestle. They’re the only ones who can do this on the level of both plot, not being soldiers and so not beholden to orders to keep the bridge intact, and the symbolic, as renegades from another age of history who haven’t yet surrendered their sovereignty to authority and regimentation. Whilst still precise in the historical detail, Leone makes the battle seem like a premonition of World War I with forces ensconced in hivelike trenches, girded by great firepower, charging out to fight and die in lunatic melees. Leone’s obsessive sense of detail helped create a concrete sense of his recreated Old West milieu – is there any other filmmaker who has made the sun seem so hot, sweat so pungent, dust and wood and metal so alive? – even as he nudged that milieu towards the edges of the surreal. That edge is most apparent when Tuco and Blondie succeed in blowing up the bridge and the encamped forces immediately vanish like so much battlefield smoke, ghosts released from the place they haunt.

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Leone had Morricone write his score from the screenplay so he could build his sequences around the music, and played it on set to help define the rhythm and style of the movie. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is then utterly inseparable from Morricone’s music, standing with Prokofiev’s work on Alexander Nevsky (1938) and a handful of other scores as one of the great achievements in uniting the two arts. The opening title tune sports choruses alternating coyote-like shrieks and grumbling chants, plaintive whistling from the bowels of the Earth, flutes fluttering in deep space, sardonic harmonica punctuations, lashes of spacefaring electronica, and lines from an electric guitar that spin and dart like an epee blade. This last aspect, a flourish of anachronism, nonetheless seems perfectly attuned to the film’s period fantasia, a touch of rock’n’roll influence just as alien and verboten as the idea of Italians making Westerns and yet instantly creating its own continent of influence. So familiar is the score it’s easy to forget just radical and strange it was in cinema at the time, with Morricone deploying his experimental training to forge sonic textures that risk inanity yet accumulate truly epic power. It almost goes without saying that as nonchalantly as directors might insert Leone’s pieces into their own movies now, nothing even remotely as innovative and ostentatious would get commissioned today.

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Crescendo of both film and score comes when Blondie and Tuco, having finally destroyed the bridge and gained the land beyond, gaze out upon Sad Hill Cemetery. Tuco becomes increasingly frantic in running around the circles of graves, the presence of fortune at once tantalisingly close and maddeningly veiled. Morricone unleashes his immortal “Ecstasy of Gold” as Tuco’s frenzy grows, music surging to heights of perverse grandeur as Delli Colli’s camera spins ever more dizzily, the zoom lensing longer and longer collapsing space and motion into visual delirium, the landscape seeded with the dead promising bounty as if in ridicule of the living. Thundering drums, clanging bells, an operatic voice reaching high thrusting notes, and none it seems too much. The game, of course, has reached its final stage, but the end can only be gained when one more grave is filled, as Angel Eyes appears like a great dark bird and Blondie decides the stakes of the last throw of dice, promising to write the name of the grave containing the gold on a stone, to be the prize for the man who emerges from the inevitable shootout. The three men retreat to points around the dial of a circular plaza at the heart of the cemetery.

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Leone was both repeating himself here, having already offered a gunfight in a circle designed to evoke a bullfighting arena at end of For A Few Dollars More, but also consciously outdoing himself, reaching for the definitive iteration. The idea of a gunfight evoking a bullfight was inspired by Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), which in turn borrowed the way the besiegers at the Alamo supposedly regaled the besieged with bullfighting music. Leone presents the notion this time with total embrace of the mythic, a duel in the centre of a great graveyard, sun raw overhead, the great dream of life and death played out in a zone where the black wood of the grave markers could be the wings of ravens to carry a soul off to the netherworld and the blazing sun the pitiless promise of another day above ground, scourging skin and soul free of all sin. Morricone’s music again intensifies the informing spirit to the nth degree as his vast and sonorous banks of trumpets accompany Leone’s close-up shots of the gunmen as they shift attention from target to target. Fateful mental calculus unfolds behind squinting, flicking, parsing eyes whilst bodies remain rigid and poised. When the moment of truth arrives it comes in a blink, both Blondie and Tuco firing at Angel Eyes but only one man’s bullets hitting, as Blondie has long since pilfered Tuco’s bullets.

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Even the awesome drama of the shootout is then riddled with deception, illusion, and an edge of the ridiculous, though the threat from Angel Eyes was no fake, indeed too real to even allow the possibility of another factor. Blondie offers sardonic punctuation, firing shots that flick Angel Eyes’ gun and hat into the grave with him, a gesture that somehow splits the difference between a show of a victor’s disdain for the failed contender, and a last gesture of respect for the felled foe, sending off to Valhalla with his sword and armour. “There’s two kinds of people, my friend,” Blondie declares, summarising the entire matter for Tuco’s education in the ultimate inversion of the desert scene, “Those with loaded guns, and those who dig.” The ultimate joke sees Blondie granting Tuco his share of the treasure, but forcing him to earn it once again through the existential trial that was the crux of their old partnership: a man, balanced between sky and earth, life and death, hoping the aim is true. Of course, Blondie pulls off his best shot yet. Tuco’s last cry of profane protest is drowned out by Morricone’s coyote yowls and the roll call of types recurs, each now in his appropriate place. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly might not even be Leone’s greatest film – Once Upon A Time In The West, Duck You Sucker, and Once Upon A Time In America all have equally good claims to the title, certainly richer in terms of their human drama and each taking his stylistics further by degrees. But it remains Leone’s most singular moment of connection with his audience, with the iconography he created only to eventually feel caged by, and with the unique power of his art form.

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1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Political, Thriller

Zabriskie Point (1970)

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Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenwriters: Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Tonino Guerra, Clare Peploe, Sam Shepard

By Roderick Heath

History often moves in cycles of irony, and sometimes this rewards movies. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point was dealt harsh dismissal by both critics and audiences at the time of its release, and spent intervening decades regarded largely as an oddity and by-product occasionally revisited by omnivorous wannabe filmmakers, aging hippies, and scattered auteurists, only to slowly gather a fresh reputation amongst some as one of Antonioni’s major achievements. These past few years have made Zabriskie Point feel immediate again, for its evocative description of disconsolate anger and disgust with aspects of modern life, with institutional power and the fragmenting of shared reality. Antonioni had been vaulted to international filmmaking stardom thanks to his string of cool, allusive tales documenting people squirming within their environment and sometimes committing perplexing acts of destruction on self or others, or simply vanishing from their own lives, in a style commonly dubbed ‘alienation cinema.’ Antonioni initially charted this terrain in relatively modest works like I Vinti (1952) and Il Grido (1957). L’Avventura (1960) met an initially divisive response but quickly became the definition of art movie chic along with its follow-ups in a loose trilogy, La Notte (1961) and L’Ecclise (1962). Red Desert (1964) saw Antonioni reaching the heights of his artistry but also dividing viewers once again in achieving a register of expression near-subliminal in suggesting cognitive stress and injury through systematised exterior signs.

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The surprise box office success of Antonioni’s first English-language film, Blowup (1966), opened up great new vistas for him as Hollywood came knocking, although some critics would accuse him of exporting his cinematic style more as a brand than an artist, looking for venues to make the same works over and over. That wasn’t true: Red Desert had broken new ground and Blowup was a very different film in story and method to Antonioni’s previous four films, even whilst maintaining a distinct aesthetic. But Antonioni faced a genuine problem with his art, one that would soon see his once-titanic cinematic will freeze up. After Zabriskie Point he would only direct another three films in the next fifteen years, before a stroke he suffered in 1985 left him severely crippled, although he did manage one final work, Beyond the Clouds, in 1995 in collaboration with Wim Wenders. Part of the reason behind Antonioni’s wane might simply have been the problem of money: Antonioni’s films were hard to make without the muscle of intelligent and interested producers behind them, and these became scant as his moment in fashion ended. It might also have been a product of his own evolving artistry, which eventually reached a point of psychological and spiritual negation with The Passenger (1975), one he could not move beyond without betraying some vital part of himself.

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For Zabriskie Point, MGM gave Antonioni a big budget and free rein to turn his eye on America. Antonioni took his theme from a newspaper story he read about a young man who stole an airplane and was shot by police when he tried to return it. In the months after the incredible success of Easy Rider (1969), a flailing Hollywood desperately wanted to reproduce such a feat with the countercultural youth audience, but contended constantly with that audience’s cynicism over official attempts to replicate their zeitgeist, as well as rapid shifts in general audience mood, which quickly went back to wanting stuff like Airport (1970). Antonioni had tapped hip interest in artistic games with perception and social commentary with Blowup, and his distaste for the plasticity of post-war life in Italy found ready analogues beyond those shores, And yet his sensibility remained crucially at odds with the earthy and idealistic aspect of the counterculture. Antonioni tried to tap a compensating authenticity by casting non-actors in crucial roles. For a male lead he cast Mark Frechette, a fiery young man often in trouble with the law but blessed with movie star looks, when Antonin saw him engaged in an argument on the street.

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For the female lead he chose Daria Halprin, a former anthropology student and bit-part actress. It proved a rather fateful pairing: Frechette and Halprin became a couple after making the film, and moved into an experimental community. After they broke up Halprin married Dennis Hopper. Desperate for funds to keep the community going, Frechette joined other members in staging a bank robbery with unloaded guns. Frechette was sent to prison and died there, in a peculiar weightlifting accident. This tragic piece of Hollywood folklore now is an aspect of Zabriskie Point’s strange aura, the feeling that it charted some underground river most people didn’t or couldn’t follow. The script passed through several hands, including Antonioni himself and his regular screenwriting collaborator Tonino Guerra, and some young Americans writers, including the up-and-coming actor and playwright Sam Shepard. Working on the film was particularly consequential for Shepard, who would revisit many of its images and ideas in later work, including the script he would write for another fusion of European and American sensibilities, Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984).

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Zabriskie Point opens with a lengthy sequence depicting student radicals engaged in debate over an upcoming student strike, with some black activists (including Eldridge Cleaver’s wife Kathleen) presiding. One young man, Mark (Frechette), listens to the boiling arguments and conflicting perspectives and leaves after declaring he’s willing to die for the cause but not of boredom, and begins looking for more applied and practical actions to take. When he tries to bail out a friend who’s arrested on a demonstration and nags the cops a little too forcefully, Mark finds himself arrested and roughed up as well: Mark mocks the cops by giving his name as Karl Marx, and the charge officer doesn’t cotton on. After they’re released, Mark and his friend decide to buy guns. Hearing on the radio that the police have vowed to clear out the striking students on campus, Mark drives to witness it, only to see a cop gun down a black protestor when a colleague thinks he has a gun. Mark pulls out his pistol with a clear intention of shooting the cop responsible, only for someone else to beat him to it. Mark flees the campus and, after a brief spell of fraught indecision steals a light airplane and flies inland.

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Antonioni alternates Mark’s experiences with those of Daria, a woman of the same age but detached from the radical scene, one who works only when she needs money. Daria temps at a real estate company and encounters the middle-aged executive Lee Allen (Rod Taylor), who seems taken with her, and eventually asks that she head out to his house near Phoenix, Arizona, to be his secretary whilst he tries to finalise a major deal, a new estate his company, the SunnyDunes Development Co., has built in the desert. Daria heads out into the desert but before going to Lee’s house wants to visit the hamlet of Ballister, out in the Mojave Desert, because a friend of hers recommended it as a great place to meditate. The friend is trying to build a refuge there for troubled youths from Los Angeles, and Daria encounters a gang of those imported hellions wandering around the sparse Ballister surrounds. Driving on, Daria is repeatedly buzzed by Mark in the stolen plane, dropping a dress he found in the cockpit to her, before coming in for a landing. The two wander around the environs of Zabriskie Point, a lookout spot in Death Valley and the lowest point in the continental United States, where they quickly form a bond and become lovers.

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Zabriskie Point took four years from conception to release, a fatally long amount of time for a movie trying so crucially to tap an urgent and rapidly evolving socio-political moment. And yet, against all the odds, Antonioni and his screenwriters achieved from today’s perspective the rare task of taking on a such a specific moment and yet locating essential issues that continue to dog modern America and beyond. Listening to the lengthy opening argument of the student radicals is nonetheless today a surprisingly vigorous and revealing experience, as the same issues, divides, and points of contention are still prevalent, particularly in the online world: the only thing that’s missing is the sense of palpable immediacy and communal experience that defined the period, the clamour of voices in dialogue supplanted by the click of a million keyboards. Even Mark’s irritable rejection of the meeting highlights another eternal problem – it’s much easier to talk tough and jockey for moral high ground than actually achieve a political goal. The barbed comments of the black activists, who claim a leadership role because they face systemic oppression that obliges them to be revolutionaries rather than turn to it out of radical chic, lay down an axiom, and one of the white student girls raises the question, “What will it take to make white people revolutionaries?”

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Zabriskie Point proceeds to try and answer that question in the case of Daria, the more ordinary of the two pivotal characters. Daria is presented as a free spirit type intrigued by hip concepts and lifestyles, but detached from the politically engaged world Mark is all too immersed in. Her appeal to Lee as she breezes past him in the SunnyDunes office building is plain, represents something that’s profoundly absent within the confines of his daily life, and he becomes highly solicitous towards her, perhaps out of desire or simply to have someone so young and energetic around, a force from beyond the boundaries of his known world. As familiar as jabs aimed at corporate culture seem now, Antonioni did his admirable best to try and avoid the more obvious reflexes even whilst delivering it some cruel shiv wounds. Antonioni films Lee in his office, the LA skyline and a flapping American flag framed in glassy, commercial-like brightness behind him, as he tries to get in touch with Daria by phone, a sense of glazed and waning torpor slowly registering as the imperial trappings around him become monumental and immoveable. Meanwhile it’s signalled Mark himself comes from well-to-do circumstances, waving to a woman in a sports car he says is his sister, “a girl from my long-gone past.”

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Mark’s decision to stop being passive is articulated as he decries that he’s tired of “kids rappin’ about violence and cops doin’ it,” and contemplates meeting the authorities’ violence with his own. Antonioni indulges some sidelong vignettes that score satirical points, as Mark and a friend talk a gun salesman into waiving the usual legal niceties by explaining they live in a rough neighbourhood and “need to protect our women.” A college professor who’s been arrested at the protest with his students and the cop processing him puts his occupation down as clerk because it’s shorter. The plot, such as it is, is motivated by Mark’s readiness to commit violently to his cause only to rediscover joy and affection before becoming the target of the same cold and punitive force he tried to escape and transcend. The question as to whether he dooms himself in taking up arms or in failing to commit properly to the choice lingers on. Antonioni courts the paranoid echoes of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the key sequence of the campus shootings, with Mark’s vengeful intention to shoot beaten by another sniper somewhere in the bushes – a collection of gun-wielding radicals has already been noted lurking nearby. This also revisits the enigmatic assassination of Blowup. At the same time Antonioni’s long-simmering affinity with Hitchcock is nudged again as Mark, gun in hand and innocent in deed if not mind, recalls the schmuck hero of North By Northwest (1959).

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Antonioni’s protest scenes lack the still-potent immediacy of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) and the film as a whole resists that work’s air of livewire exposure before the tumult of the age, at least in its superficial action, even as the opening scene betrays a great interest in its rhetorical texture. Antonioni regards both the square and countercultures as momentary figments of a much greater and longer drama than they know. Antonioni’s exacting sense of visual context as a means of communication is as much in evidence as it was in Red Desert and Blowup, but in a different key: where the first film pivoted on the heroine’s sense of a poisoned mindscape matched to a poisoned environment and Blowup saw its hero chasing his ideals of truth captured into a dissolving mass of film grain, Zabriskie Point maps out a drama of freedom and entrapment rooted in the way social values and psychic space battle upon the American shore. Environs rendered in pale cream and grey hues and dully prismatic glass are broken up by electric patches of blood red and bright green, elements in the psychic drama of omnipresent conformism disturbed by eruptions of violence and nature worship.

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Antonioni near-obsessively charts the omnipresence of advertising and garish décor around the city, at once dazzled and mortified. Antonioni contrasts Mark and a comrade and Lee and his fellow executive (G.D. Spradlin) as the two polarised duos drive through the city: Antonioni stops paying attention to them to film modernist structures and advertising billboards in zooms shots that collapse space and image into a diorama of capitalist messaging disguised in pretty colours, as pure in their way as the renaissance sculptures of Italy in conflating function in declaration with form, the stamp of the new doges upon their republic. Painted visages instruct the onlooker in what normality looks like. In a more overtly satirical and surrealist manner, Antonioni has the SunnyDunes executives gather to watch an advertisement for their new development, in which the roles of the people enjoying their idyllic new lifestyle are filled by mannequins, glimpsed in colourful and rigid approximations of the supposed suburban dream, starkly contrasting the later vision of polymorphous flesh emerging from the earth itself.

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Once Mark takes off in his stolen plane, the film becomes a remake-cum-lampoon of the closing minutes of How The West Was Won (1962), inverting the triumphalist flight in keys of Cinerama and Manifest Destiny to the coast and out to sea, this time turning away from the sprawl of LA’s infrastructure to the vast, rugged inland and contemplating the refuse of the pioneering dream. The glittering rooftops and cyclopean highways, all are viewed on high with a sense of punch-drunk wonderment, the geometries of human design and the primeval patterns of geological upheaval revealed in distant perfection. The visual texture here is the essence of the film, working up a near-hypnotic glaze of attention to the shape of the world and Mark and Daria as entities within it. Daria’s visit to the desolate township of Ballister is a delicately strange and eerie vignette, as she encounters an assortment of old-timers, including the manager of a roadhouse (Paul Fix) who complains about the imported problem cases her friend has imported to the town (“He’s gonna ruin a piece of American history.”), and a couple of incredibly old men at the bar, one of whom introduces himself as the middleweight boxing champion of the world in 1926.

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The other is an aged cowboy who sits calmly and silently in solitude as Antonioni’s camera gazes at him in profile with painterly pretence, turning him into living iconography, as Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” warbles nostalgically over speakers. Somewhere out in the desert’s deep reaches the old America subsists on its last nerve of memory and muscle, whilst the inheritors flail. Stones through the window glass cause the manager to dash outside and bellow at the marauding tykes. Daria sees them hiding behind a hunk of refuse, their eyes glimpsed through gaps. These the manifest spirits of a discarded quarter of the nation, one plucking on fractured piano innards to make sonorous music, another demanding “a piece of ass.” “Are you sure you’d know what to do with it?” Daria questions, unfazed, before fleeing these fine young cannibals. Travelling on, the lonely old grey car sliding along a ribbon of blacktop below attracts the white-winging plane, and Mark sets down in the midst of a great salt pan to meet the fawn-legged traveller after buzzing her a few times with bratty glee. Here Mark and Daria are, in their way, artists engaged with landscape as much as Antonioni himself, at spree in air and earth, with inevitable symbolic dimensions, Mark with his lofty ideals and exile from society forced to meet Daria down on the ground.

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One irony of Blowup’s success was that it hit big with an audience it teased and parodied – hipsters, artists, bright college freaks, recreational drug users, and vicariously thrilled normies. The Swinging London vibe Antonioni nailed down so well was painted in bone-dry sarcasm, as he surveyed London’s boles filled by barbarian rock bands and rooms full of stoned posh bohemians with a sense of curiosity grazing disdain, seeming to diagnose it all as a further symptom of, rather than cure for, the anomie and cultural ossification he analysed. In turning to the American wing of the youth movement he was nominally seeking out a genuine resuscitating force, and he even seemed to be trying to avoid the problems Easy Rider and Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969) had analysed, the blind spots that would narcotise it. Blowup had proposed the ultimate dissolution of reality in the age of technology whilst Zabriskie Point’s interiorised, neutral tone invokes not the outwards-directed energy of bohemia but the problem of the interior self, one reason why the film’s twinned, key sequences are, crucially, moments of imagined psychic liberation. Whilst avoiding any of the ways of portraying psychedelic experience that became so quickly clichéd in films of the period, Zabriskie Point nonetheless attains a dreamlike sense of space and texture, as if the characters are both inside themselves and watching themselves.

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And indeed they are, because all young people tend to be doing both. Mark and Daria are deliberately nebulous entities because Antonioni feels that’s a basic description of youth itself, individuals reacting to stimuli and opportunity to accumulate character. The basic narrative pattern also returned to the motif of Il Grido, in following a character who describes a great circle during the course of his wandering, fleeing his life in one place only to arc back to a virtually predestined end. Il Grido, a fascinating if overlong and grimly slouchy work, had mediated Antonioni’s steeping in neorealist concerns and those of his mature artistry. One important difference in Zabriskie Point is that when he chooses to fly the plane back to LA and face consequences it’s an act of hope, returning as jester of the skies with the plane he, Daria, and an old-timer of the desert painted in lysergic colours and jokes. Daria suggests to Mark he simply abandon the plane and ride with her to Phoenix, but he tells her, “I wanna take risks.” A death wish might lurk within Mark’s makeup, but his determination to actually experience existence as a profound phenomenon, not coddled or swerving from all the echoing consequences of being born, represents one of the few positive gestures of consequence any character makes in Antonioni, even if it’s ruthlessly punished.

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At the heart of Zabriskie Point are the two fantasy episodes, both perhaps projected out of Daria’s mind. The first comes as she and Mark screw in the desert sand under Zabriskie Point, whereupon other lovers, some couples, some in masses of three or more bodies, seem to well out of the ground and start copulating passionately, bodies swathed in dust and sand, wet lips and caked rumps squirming in the parched soil. Authorities purportedly dogged the shooting of this scene, which utilised performers from a radical theatre group, ready to swoop in and arrest everyone for shooting pornography. As it was the orgy was simulated, but it’s still a startling interlude to see in such a prestigious Hollywood film, and one the least neurotic and purely celebratory erotic scenes in mainstream cinema. Passionate bundles of flesh viewed only with a friendly sense of sexuality in many forms, but achieved again with a strong note of surrealism, these dust-born creatures evoking Biblical myth as they fuck en masse. Most vitally for the film’s driving theme, it offers the sense that Mark and Daria aren’t alone even when they seem to be at their most separated from the rest of humanity: their experience connects them to the species as a whole. The sexual high quickly gives way to a brute reminder of actuality as Mark hides from a patrolling cop car whilst Daria goes to chat with the officer, shocked when she realises Mark lurks with his gun ready to shoot the cop. Antonioni delivers one of his visual cues as Mark hides behind portable toilets painted screaming red, blazing synapses of distress in the midst of an ahistorical zone.

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The chief stymie in appreciating the film stems ironically from Antonioni’s push for legitimacy in casting Frechette and Halprin. That might have seemed a move in the great tradition of neorealism, and as a filmmaker Antonioni never seemed greatly focused on his actors, observing them more as studies in behaviour than in a traditional dramatic manner. But Antonioni had made very deft use of star performers like Monica Vitti, David Hemmings, and even Steve Cochran, and would so again with Jack Nicholson, leaning on actors who could readily suggest and transmit the yearning and existential unease of their characters, using their descriptions of distress and foiled energy to lend specific gravitas to his psychologically inferring shots. By contrast, the two young stars of Zabriskie Point instead seem blandly emblematic, although Halprin handles the late scenes depicting her character’s disconsolate state effectively. The air of turbulence that made Frechette appealing to Antonioni translated on camera to deadpan aloofness, ironically proving more plastic than any number of young ingénues might have seemed. That said, their blankness at least resists any feeling of calculation either, offering themselves simply as people within Antonioni’s world, not extraordinary embodiments of human and Hollywood bravura.

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Despite its initial failure, Zabriskie Point’s influence has proven deep, particularly for foreign directors shifting their attention Stateside, with images and strategies referenced and recycled in films like Paris, Texas, Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993), Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Café (1988), Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), and Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2007). More recent native surveys of the period like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) and the TV series Mad Men have made it a significant point of reference, as well as more contemporary takes on its preoccupations like Fight Club (1999). American New Wave filmmakers internalised aspects of Antonioni’s vision: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and All The President’s Men (1976) all betray the imprint of Antonioni’s textures, his contemplation of fractured personality amidst sensory bombardment and the isolating glaze of modern architecture. More profane genre fare from Vanishing Point (1972) to Thelma and Louise (1991) took Zabriskie Point and mined it for more familiar variations on its ideas. Even the likes of Mad Max (1979), as a tale of renascent barbarianism hinging around grandiose destruction fantasies and desolate spaces, bore the imprint. George Lucas, who had clearly shown himself to be an Antonioni acolyte on THX 1138 (1971), repurposed the theme of youth rebellion and destructive catharsis for Star Wars (1977).

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Nor was the traffic to sci-fi one way, as at least one critic has noted: Antonioni’s lexicon had much in common with the alien desolation and domestic unease Jack Arnold had often evoked in his 1950s works like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956). Such oddball children point to the way Antonioni managed to dig to the essence of something about the nature of modern society, locked in a state of forward motion and clinging to familiar things, perpetually poised between order and a will to anarchy, constantly provoking people to jarring psychic leaps from peace-seeking to eruptive destruction. Which might well point to the artistic problem Antonioni eventually fell prey to. Antonioni had begun as a filmmaker interested in case studies illustrating social and psychological quandaries, trying to bridge the great chasm between the systems of Marxism and the vagaries of consciousness, and Zabriskie Point had been conceived in the same vein. The protagonists of both Zabriskie Point and The Passenger halt at the edge of the desert but fail to go forward and so are destroyed by the social forces pursuing them, although one is felled in making a hopeful gesture and the other reaches the end of his will. To go into the desert, literal and figurative, would be to enter the realm of the mystic, something Antonioni felt himself too hard-headed to contemplate, even as his films constantly urge towards a sense of the sublime. Or, rather, whether he was or wasn’t, that would demarcate the edge of his own concern, which was the problem of modern western society and the individuals who comprise it.

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Tellingly, following Zabriskie Point, Antonioni went to China to make a documentary about the nation at it was just starting to step back into the world at large to contemplate possibilities for other methods of social organisation, whilst his last handful of films would be much-mocked for their copious and regressive sexuality, but perhaps that was the only place he could retreat to. Mark’s flight back to LA is met by waiting cops, and when he tries to take off again they start shooting, a bullet hitting Mark and killing him. Daria, still driving eastwards, hears the report of his death on the radio and pulls over in shock. The report suggests another cruel sarcasm, that Mark wasn’t wanted for killing the cop but for stealing the plane as an “attempted hijacking”: Mark was punished not for his attempt at political violence but for an imagined one. Daria reaches Lee’s modernist mansion, perched on the side of a bluff amidst the grand desert surrounds. She wanders around the chic, elegant, yet impersonal forms of Lee’s house, the very bastion of smugness, experiencing each portion of the building as a trap goading her grief, and even Lee’s solicitous greeting rings hollow. Daria finally leaves the house.

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Cue the famous final scene, one even detractors of the film find brilliant. Daria stares at Lee’s house, imagining the executives and their inane wives inside, and envisions the house exploding, shattered to millions of shards of wood and stonework. The explosion occurs again and again, from different angles and distances, the sheer pleasure of destruction as an act charged holy awe. Antonioni then gets closer to the issue as he films the explosion of various household items in the house. A TV shatters into a shower of misty crystal. A refrigerator disgorges foodstuffs in a mucky shower. Books flap open like flowers blooming in time-lapse or jellyfish squirming through water. Violent spectacle becomes languorous, beautiful, protoplasmic, Dali-like in the depiction of hard commercial material rendered liquidinous and weightless, the act of desolation containing discovery, mesmeric dolour that also bespeaks the clarifying of the senses.

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The eruption resolves in a huge mushroom cloud of smoke billowing up into the blue sky, clarifying the relationship of Daria’s private revenge fantasy with the overall anxiety in the world, the threat of nuclear war, perpetually poised to erase the settled bourgeois life. Given Antonioni’s cinema had long suggested an intense distaste for modern architecture as the environmental signature of the age of alienation, the fact that he acts out his apocalyptic fantasia on it makes for a fitting, rather bratty coda, a moment of seeming potent rejection of a material world that is actually onanistic fantasy. Antonioni doesn’t offer any shot of the house still intact and boding after the fantasy is done, refusing intrinsically to castrate Daria’s newly potent and angry willpower. Instead Antonioni has her ride off into the sunset to the elegiac strains of Roy Orbison. Like the often misinterpreted ending of Blowup, which actually depicts the birth of a true artist, the ending here sees Daria heading back into the world armed, if not necessarily for destruction, but certainly with great power. A revolutionary of the mind born.

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