1980s, Blogathon, Scifi

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

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By Roderick Heath

An eye, filmed in colossal close-up, surveys a vista of bleak and awesome grandeur, the smeared lights and spurting fire of a future age reflected upon the iris. The act of watching for Ridley Scott, as for so many filmmakers, is equated with the Torah of cinema—behold! Kubrick’s vistas of Olympian space reflected in Dave Bowman’s eye give way to a different kind of star child, looking out upon the human world, or how humans have rebuilt their world. Look upon his works, ye mortals, Ozymandias has gone hi-tech—futuristic Los Angeles, in some nightmarish alternate 2019, with pyramidal skyscrapers, refineries spitting filth and flame into a sky biblically black with pollution, and cars that fly and zip like the chariots of the new world high above streets churning with human flotsam.

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The audience views all this just like the strange, dangerous, desperate creations that come to Earth in search of the makers view it, as something new and yet remembered, a reflection of their own time turned into a scene at once debased and romantically overwhelming. After decades of digression through mutant beasts and rockets, science fiction cinema suddenly reconnected with its oldest, strongest living nerve, the dark and exultant worship of modernity that Moloch first glimpsed in Metropolis (1927). The soaring adamantine structures, the gleaming chrome-and-glass obelisks, the monuments to hubris, the dense and tangled blend of Expressionism and Art Deco in Fritz Lang’s sepia dreaming now festooned by neon and colossal billboards. Scott’s electronic graffiti bit the hand that fed him: the director made ads and knows very well revenue makes the world go ’round. Product placement is a new religion.

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The gods and kings are the genetic architects and their progeny; everyone else is now just there to make up the numbers. Nature has been exiled, killed off in fact. Animals have become so rare they’re only the impossible objects of a tycoon’s fancy. TV-studded zeppelins drift listlessly in the sky advertising exploitation of space as “opportunity and adventure” where the real work is done by synthetic beings cooked up by the not-too-distant future’s alchemy vats. Earth is a failed nation, a remnant ghetto, and L.A. is a pan-cultural massing point crammed full of people who cannot wait to abandon a sick planet for the Off-World colonies. Six “Replicants”—genetically engineered beings—have slaughtered the crew of a spaceship, commandeered the vessel, and piloted it to Earth, where their kind is outlawed. In space, they’re pimped out as warriors, whores, labourers, assassins—human simulacrums to take the edge off pioneering the cosmos. The Tyrell Corporation manufactures them; Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) lives above the squalor in neo-Roman splendour, designing minds for his quite literal brain children.

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The Replicants have a built-in failure date—a four-year lifespan—to prevent their developing emotions. But they’re also supplied with patched-in memories to help cope with the absurdities of their existence, Tyrell’s brainwave to stave off inconvenient behaviour. His greatest creation, Rachael (Sean Young), employed as PA-cum-showroom model, has no idea at first that she’s a Replicant because she inherited her memories from Tyrell’s niece. Out of the returned progeny, two are reported killed trying to break into Tyrell Corporation headquarters. A third, Leon (Brion James), is uncovered by the “Voight-Kampff” empathy test administered by Holden (Morgan Paull), a cop posing as a middle manager: Leon knowing he’s rumbled, shoots the cop and flees to join his companions, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Darryl Hannah), and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). They hide out in the fetid and decaying fringes of the city. Leon snaps photos, trying to prove his reality real, his memories more than the installed pentimento of some other failed life form.

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The cruelty of empathy is used to separate the Replicants from the other humans, so the opening of Blade Runner zeroes in from godlike heights to an interrogation, a manmade man trying desperately to understand questions that he can’t answer— no one can—except through memory. You come across a turtle. You flip in on its back. It lies there baking in the sun. You won’t help it. Why not, Leon? Of course Leon has no empathy for a turtle. Does anyone else? Turtles barely exist anymore. Humans have eradicated them. Empathy is part of the human soul, but the human soul is also murderous, the intelligent will to take possession of and conquer a living space. The Replicants, unmasked, are gunned down: they’re regarded as insensate homunculi programmed to survive but incapable of actual humanity—“skin-jobs” as the coppers call them in the easy parlance of street-level problem-solving.

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Parables immediately proliferate. Roy is charismatic leader. Their team any band of noir losers on the loose, illegal immigrants, or gang of revolutionaries. Baader-Meinhoff of the Off-World. Or are they pilgrims, come to bellow their rage at God? Either way, now on they’re on Earth, dispersed in strip joints and cheap hotel rooms. “Let me tell you about my mother,” Leon says with a hint of vicious humour before blowing away his interrogator. The Voight-Kampff test is the grim joke at the heart of Blade Runner: how much empathy do actual humans have when they’ve done this to their world? Philip K. Dick, author of the source novel, had the deepest distrust for the works of modernity. His Replicants were empty vessels, things mimicking humanity, soulless by-products of human narcissism, that he used to prod his increasingly deadened and defeated humans for signs of life. Some scifi scholars and critics initially objected to Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples revising Dick’s most fundamental point.

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Scott, a boy from South Shields, has no such New World certainty about the difference between product and producer. His childhood vistas were factories on the land and ships on the Tyne, promising new worlds of opportunity and adventure. Father Frank, a merchant marine, actually got to ride off in them, leaving young Ridley and brothers Frank and Tony trapped in the mundaneness of post-World War II Midlands England. Small wonder Sir Ridley’s films are littered with men driven by vision beyond the limits of their class and society, angry men and women pushing against snobs and fools, furious at being told constantly they are worth less than others, many doomed to create their own hells in reaching for their paradises. His Columbus reaches undiscovered countries and brings terror and slavery in his wake.

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Scott had been vaulted from salesman to auteur by his famous Hovis Bread commercial, a vision of an England at once confidently industrial and homey, fading into memory and purveyed through an advertisement in a vision powerful enough to seduce a nation. Here he sarcastically turns that inside out for a future where some company’s branding might be on your cells. As with his previous film, Alien (1979), Scott’s take on scifi sneered at the pristine, sleek, near-abstract landscapes of most ’60s and ’70s predecessors in the dystopian stakes, and merged instead the many faces of ugly modernity circa 1982—the bristling industrial landscapes of the Midlands, the fecund tumult of Tokyo and Hong Kong, the decaying grandeur of New York and Los Angeles’ art-deco structures, relics of the near past’s hymns for the near future, and the memory of cinema itself. Vangelis’s audioscapes slip between vistas of synthesiser spectacle and Kenny G saxophony denoting soulful ennui. Scott’s street thrums with the buzz and bleep and footfall of urban life stretched to the nth degree; preachers and cooks and child gangs, nuns and goggled coots and hookers, every breed of humanity mashed together and gabbling a new patois born of confused necessity. Super-skyscrapers house jerry-built offices and the jumbled paraphernalia of decades past—America has finally learnt how to recycle. The streets border dens of vice and verve, where music video lighting meets the teeming types and romantic-desolate nooks of the old Warner Bros. backlot. Police hover high above in their “spinners,” keeping a lid on things. Scott’s city functions, it throbs with life even as its fringes falls into ruin and abandonment: it is, to use that modern cliché, immersive in a way Hollywood filmmaking had scarcely been since the last giant, historical films of the 1960s. Small wonder a generation of writers, filmmakers, artists, left relatively cold by the disco-fantastic Star Wars (1977), suddenly saw their metier or were nudged toward it (or simply fell in love with its smoke-and-backlight patinas). Burton and Batman, the Cyberpunks, the maestros of 2000AD and Watchmen and many another graphic novel, Gilliam and Proyas and the Wachowskis and more, all finding a church to worship in.

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The slaves are returning here from the newer New Worlds, groping for their Creators. Hard and resentful progeny, their superiority is innate, übermenschen with disinterest in your well-being so long as they’re staring down the face of accelerated decrepitude. The Blade Runner is called into action: streetwise, whisky-sucking, gun-toting Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Blade Runner, a great title, not from Dick, but from Alan E. Nourse, whose work The Bladerunner concerned futuristic eugenics. Deckard, for all his Phil Marlowe-isms exacerbated by the voiceover prone theatrical cut, is no mere generic caricature, but rather possesses the same boding melancholy that dogged Raymond Chandler’s original (Robert Mitchum, who had recently played Marlowe, was the early casting choice), the same beggared spirit that occasionally could only crawl into a hole after seeing humans wreak havoc on each other and sink into boozy oblivion. The cop who hunts Replicants has to be damn sure whom or what he’s aiming at: he balances on a very thin edge. “If you’re not cop, you’re little people,” bullies his old boss Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh), something to be stepped on, and he’ll make a point of stepping on Deckard if doesn’t get back in the game for this most important piece of housekeeping.

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Deckard is first glimpsed as member of the flotsam, reading the paper, waiting for his place at the dinner trough and arguing with the chef. Blade Runner takes on an old genre trope—the burning-out of a man who tries not to be brutalized by acting as society’s janitor—and justifies annexing another, bygone mode of storytelling with a similar concern with a world grown chaotically, frighteningly complex with an attendant loss of moral reference. In addition, Scott’s sense of the visual lexicon of cinema has pursued the common roots of Lang’s influence on scifi and noir back to the dark-rooted Germanic traditions of Grimm and Faust and Hans Heinz Ewer’s Alraune, as much as to the Olympian references of Frankenstein, whilst the mental and moral texture is Sein und Zeit strained through an opium trance and a leftover volume of Omni.

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The powerful spell of Blade Runner, and part of the reason why it’s often proven so divisive over the years, can be attributed to the film’s prizing of atmosphere and textured emotion above suspense and action. It could almost be called cinema’s first multimillion-dollar mood piece, or work of blockbuster scaled poetry. Until key action sequences late in the movie, the pacing is deliberate, almost sedate in places. Scenes ebb liquidly into the next. Dissolves slur time and distort process. Lighting and diffusion effects crumble the hard edges of technocracy into the flaking verdigris of hallucination. A surprising amount of Blade Runner is taken up contemplating Deckard in isolation—tired, melancholy, boozy, making a path through bustling, uninterested crowds, listlessly investigating, looking for connection in the midst of throngs—or else in refuge with Rachael (Sean Young), two lost souls trying to work out if they even have souls. One of the quietest yet most thrillingly intense sequences merely depicts Deckard doing a little business in his own apartment, using a computer to investigate one of Leon’s snaps. Deckard is displayed as intently for the audience as the photo is for him, Deckard’s need for the balm of scotch just after an encounter with Rachael on which Deckard’s clumsy attempt to adjust her to her new reality falls tragically flat. Deckard peers into an artefact that suggests dimensions to his prey he never conceived, a realisation provided by Rachael’s own pathetic attempts to proffer photos as proofs of existence. The mirroring qualities of his apartment and Leon’s hotel room are easy to read. Lurking somewhere in the photo is a tiny image, the face of Zhora, another target, an eerily beautiful woman captured in sleep and reflected through the play of mirrors: Blowup (1966) meets Laura (1946) in Edward Hopper land.

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Deckard meets Rachael in Tyrell’s pyramid-palace, where she struts out of the shadows festooned in vintage Joan Crawford wear—ballooning pompadour and square shoulders. The hard edges of futurist ’30s fashion sarcastically declare Rachael’s robotic nature long before the Voight-Kampff test confirms it. Deckard’s first encounter with her, held at Tyrell’s whim, is part interrogation, part challenging flirtation. New frontiers in erotic contact await. Not that new; the Replicants have long been used as sex toys, but not with feeling. “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” is the inevitable, needling, aggrieved question never answered. Deckard’s greatest moments of professional achievement will be shooting two automata that look and sound awfully like women. No matter the social value enforced by taking down Replicants, it’s a soul-killing business for the Blade Runner. Deckard schools Rachael in the dangerous intimacy of human sexuality, edged with threat and compulsion and brittle need and accomplished with language of desire dictated, recalling Marnie’s (1964) lessons in domesticity. Is the secret to the Blade Runner’s success dependent on the same quality he unearths in Replicants? Are Blade Runners in fact Replicants themselves, faux-cops given a mission, a memory, and pointed in the right direction? Gaff (Edward James Olmos), Bryant’s emissary, aging and stooped, watches Deckard go about his business with Mandarin remove, clad in fur coat and waistcoat and armed with a cane, the gruff sensei of some lost Kurosawa time-travel noir film. He twists bits of paper into origami sculptures that mimic the stuff of Deckard’s dreams, the artisanal, classical rhyme to the grander business of Tyrell, creating bodies and stuffing the minds of others into them. Does Gaff have access to Deckard’s memories, or is it merely the common lexicon of dreams, the stuff of human identity?

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Are the human impulses in the Replicants the actual glimmerings of self-generating sentience, or are they the howls of their implanted memories, dictating behaviours, the ghosts of other beings crying out to make sense of their Frankenstein shells? Is there, in fact, a difference (pace fanboy logic and the disagreements of cast and crew) between the haphazard way they march toward sentience and the way people do? Deckard seems to feel everything, ink-pad for his age. Tyrell’s humanitarian brainwave, to supply the Replicants with transplanted human memories, is supposed to cushion the emotional agonies of his creations, but proves to be crueler; what more sadistic thing is there than establishing an identity for someone, only to be able to reveal it was fake? That’s the pain for Rachael, and also, eventually, for Deckard, for his own identity is questioned. The film’s most obvious irony is the lack of interest most people show when Deckard guns Replicants down in the street. Underlying this is a more interesting paradox: humans are at their most human when contemplating different life forms, in repulsion or joy. The innocence of animals stirs us more than the murderous extremes of homo sapiens. The Replicants, boy-man Leon with his quick panic, his grotesque child-sadist jokes (placing eyeballs on a frightened man’s shoulder), girl-woman Pris built to be a fantasy of vulnerable femininity and blessed with gifts of malevolent elegance, and the two beautiful warriors Roy and Zhora—all have been built to play parts, and they play them half-resentfully.

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The great designers are as lacking as their progeny. J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), designer of eyes for Tyrell, has “Methuselah syndrome,” helping to make supermen but stricken by the body’s incurables, so he looks at once preciously boyish and wizened. Roy and Pris are touching in their precocious, harried need for each other; love is only a step away for these beings growing as fast as they are. But they are dangerous. Armed with adult bodies and minds, they are nonetheless governed by the eruptive, tantrum-throwing instability of children. Of course, they cannot become more than children, not with their life-span, so no wonder rage and frustration pulse under Roy’s sleek skin. Pris ensnares Sebastian, as doomed to die young and terminally lonely as the Replicants themselves, entering his cavernous enclave where he lives surrounded by perverse talking simulacra like some sickly Georgian princeling left to his toys and arcane arts, all too easy a mark for the Replicants in their ultimate goal of reaching God—Tyrell—and seeking extended life. Roy and Pris get along famously with J. F. because they can play with him, but beware these playmates when they find it’s time to leave the sandpit.

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Blade Runner is a work with an unmistakable aura of heartbreak to it. Scott’s older brother Frank had died of skin cancer before production, and the feeling of the awful commute to and from his London hospital permeates the film’s overtones of romantic pessimism and ephemeral sense of both pain and pleasure as intense but fleeting phenomena. A tactile understanding of existence permeates the film’s very textures. Scott’s ever-formidable sense of technique, sometimes purveyed without great interest in his subsequent movies, here connects vitally with the material. As per Elmore James, the sky is crying throughout the film. The first of the film’s two kinetic sequences, in which Deckard pursues Zhora through the city streets after finding her working in a cabaret, starts close to comedy. Deckard assumes a fey and nebbishy act a la Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946) as an artist rights’ agent in order to approach her, and swerves into an extended, violent chase. Zhora attacks and nearly murders Deckard before fleeing into the night. Deckard pursues her and the scene becomes something of an epic travelogue describing life in Scott’s L.A. on its most fundamental level. The entire sequence is a masterful piece of cinematic composition and staging, but the very climax is perhaps the film’s high point and single greatest moment of Scott’s career: as Deckard’s bullets crash into Zhora’s body, ripping great holes in her, she stumbles heedlessly through plate-glass windows of the hermetic little worlds of department store displays, surrounded by mocking mannequins and through a cloud of fake snow, before collapsing. The swooning slow-motion photography and the squirming, mournful drones of Vangelis’ score mixed with a thudding heartbeat that throbs its way to a halt, finally concluding with Deckard standing in the midst of a fake snowstorm, contribute to this scene’s terrible, dreamlike power.

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Hero and villain, Rick and Roy, swap places at intervals throughout the drama: by the end, hunter is hunted. We see Rick’s integrity and humanity, but when we see him do his job it’s jarring and distressing. Roy performs even crueler acts as he stalks this urban jungle because he is designed to be cruel, but we see he yearns to be more. He wants to save Pris, whom he loves like a boy, even as he contemplates his doomed love with a man’s despair. He is capable of relating to Sebastian and asking for his help rather than merely intimidating him. His confrontation with Tyrell, part angry teenage son, part avenging angel representing the misbegotten, reveals him to be enormously powerful, deeply conflicted, and filled with a rage that could crack worlds. Roy’s confrontation of Tyrell comes when he infiltrates the Creator’s apartment, thanks to J. F. and that metaphysically loaded pursuit, chess. Game coordinates and genetic science are each expostulated in rapid-fire shows of genius, the speed with which Roy cuts off Tyrell’s options in the game matched by the efficiency with which Tyrell explains how all attempts to reverse the Replicant death date fail, each process reduced to one of logical exegesis that leads to death. However, son has come to punish father if not learn from him, and after a moment of almost tender regard, Roy crushes Tyrell’s skull between his hands with exacting, punitive anger that cannot be expressed in mere impersonal killing: like Commodus in Gladiator (2000), Roy must reverse the act of creation in embracing his father and sucking away his life. This sequence sits at the heart of the film and of Scott’s oeuvre, love and hate in fearsome, consuming proximity, as is its opposite, seen in the film’s very conclusion, where an act of unexpected mercy preempts the murderous carousel.

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Roy doesn’t accept Tyrell’s benediction, “You have burned so very, very brightly Roy,” though Tyrell’s statement is undeniable, because while Tyrell prescribes acceptance of death, Roy struggles like all living creatures against his limits and is particularly aggrieved when he knows how grave the limitations are, how filthy the requirements of him as an exiled warrior-whore. The alternation of hero-status between Rick and Roy resolves in Rick becoming the hunted, Roy, knowing he is dying, pursuing the little man who has robbed him of his only friend. Indeed, as he gives his crippled nemesis a chance to escape, perhaps Roy enjoys witnessing a creature’s frantic determination to live because he is experiencing life at its rawest. They are both soldiers exiled from normality by their jobs. Roy created specifically for such a purpose, has regrets having done “questionable things,” and Rick feels the same as skin-job assassin.

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Blade Runner is the rare science fiction that, in spite of borrowing its structure from another genre, belongs entirely in its genre: the imaginative background and the tropes of world-building, the motivating McGuffins and their place in the story, can each only exist in the speculative frame it engineers. Yet Scott’s many past vistas lurk within the haute-futurism, and the film is, in the end, close to fairy tale, a small myth of life and death and being: small wonder Scott was to launch himself into the even more visually ambitious, and even less successful Legend (1985). Does Deckard’s unicorn dream signify that his memories are taken from Gaff, the seedy, lame, shadow-lurking cop who seems to resent his presence? Is Deckard an able-bodied replacement for that has-been? Again, does it matter? In Legend, the unicorns lurch out of the mist, embodiments of purity, the lost character of innocence and fecundity the characters in Blade Runner are all too cut off from: like Scott’s predecessor (rank nightmare) and follow-up (outright fantasy where light and dark war), Blade Runner is essentially mythos. Hues of poetic parable all but blaze as the film slips toward it conclusion.

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The Bradbury Building, setting of storied noir myth DOA (1951) and the vital noir-scifi crossbreed in TV’s “The Outer Limits” episode ‘Demon with a Glass Hand,’ becomes the film’s hub, a decaying, septic trap of time and memory where the final, primal-accented battle will progress wildly through frames of culture, from Medieval gargoyles to Renaissance tangle to Georgian gilt to Art-Deco flare to punk grime. Roy, chasing Deckard through its bowls, similarly progresses from yowling wolf to hunter on the veldt to ironic sparring partner (“That’s the spirit!”), and finally, in his last moments, superman and then archangel. The finale again meshes references—Deckard’s dangling is Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), tötentanz starting point repurposed as awakening, whilst the chase through the Bradbury Building an explosion of Wellesian bravura while achieving its own singular, almost biblical gravitas. Roy must give himself stigmata to keep the game going, driving a nail through his hand to keep it operating, shutdown imminent but a revelation in the making.

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We witness Roy transcend his programming, both Replicant and human, in saving Deckard, who in harming Roy, deserves to die more than any number of those Roy has killed. Roy demonstrates that he has learnt the value of life and has gained that elusive fire that has been eluding him and too many others: mercy. His famous final words, his personal poetry (honest-to-god science-fiction poetry) for the passing of a soul and all its witnessing, reports back on the wonders of the new frontier with the pride of a being who now sees his value. His vistas to behold are new, places beyond the reach of the squalid Earth. The best we can say about Deckard, and what Roy probably recognized in him, is that he is an understanding witness to transcendence, and now also a real man capable of love. Gaff acknowledges that he has “done a man’s job,” Gaff watching from the sidelines, presenting Rick with the gift of certainty that Rick, whatever his origins, is a man. But is it that Deckard fought valiantly that made him a man, or that, in the end, he saw its essential futility? In any event, he skips out with his synthetic lover to whatever future— be it in Lamborghini ad as in the verboten theatrical version or to the land of Nod—Gaff’s own, last totem of mercy is understood.

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1960s, Blogathon, Western

7 Women (1966)

Director: John Ford

The John Ford Blogathon

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By Roderick Heath

This post is part of The John Ford Blogathon hosted by Krell Laboratories.

By the 1960s, John Ford might have expected and deserved a time of general acclaim as an elder statesman and artistic-industrial titan in Hollywood. The most Oscar-laden director in the medium’s history, with nearly 50 years’ worth of popular hits behind him and a legacy that for many defined the very essence of an American director as well as a whole genre, the western, Ford should have been hailed as an old master and given carte blanche to indulge his autumnal vision. He was indeed on the cusp of gaining a new kind of acclaim, one he scarcely knew how to process or relate to, as a singular hero of the auterist critical school. Unfortunately, even Ford faced the fate of too many filmmakers working in a business with little memory, only ledgers—a career that ended not in the grandiosity of a rapturously received ninth symphony or rose-piled farewell performance, but with films of decreasing budget, patronised and dismissed by studios he helped build, as an industry in a swift decline engaged in desperate reorganisation.

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Still, Ford was able to make his kind of film right up until the end—or at least he made damn sure by the time they were done they were his kind of film. If he had died after making the knockabout comedy Donovan’s Reef (1963), he would have stowed away his oeuvre with a gently rambunctious, humane fantasia about the joys of friendly fist fights and light premarital S&M, with a spirit of wryness and conciliation sneakily close to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” But his swan song was destined to be 7 Women, which saw release on the lower half of a double bill. Thus, he ended his career not with a crinkly wink, but a gob of tobacco-stained spit right in his audience’s eye.

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When directors’ days shorten, their films tend to get longer. But Ford’s final feature film clocked in at barely 85 minutes, displaying signs of harsh editing and resembling the rudely functional completeness of a piece of Brutalist architecture. Despite its length, more dramatic tensions bubble under the surface of 7 Women than many much longer films begin to approach. Ford, a director who had always played the imperious tough guy in Hollywood, keeping his sensitive, well-read streak tucked away like an embarrassing birthmark, had long been fascinated with not merely the mythos of the frontier, be it geographical or psychological, but its sociological meaning, which, for better or worse, entailed the arrival of civilisation and stability in unruly and protean places. The act of faith in all of his mature films, even the most conscientiously dogged and questioning, like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or Cheyenne Autumn (1962), assert that the better angels of human nature could win out over brute sectarianism and social prejudice eventually and find communal unity. In his more challenging works, particularly his last decade’s output, that unity might only be found on the level of individuals, as in The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Two Rode Together (1961). 7 Women offers no such clear hope. It’s closer in spirit to Samuel Beckett than Samuel Clemens,and contemplates the edge of a wilderness that cannot be tamed any further, tossing up barbarians and fanatics who destroy the sane between them.

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The most obvious break with the rest of Ford’s oeuvre is that 7 Women is about women. Female characters were rarely focal points of Ford’s narratives, though his films were littered with strong and varied ones, sometimes taunting the males with independence, but more often representing the essence of civilisation overcoming their men as both overcame the landscape. 7 Women offers an almost entirely female cast left in the kind of frontier outpost where John Wayne, Henry Fonda. or Woody Strode would have stood in their defence. This outpost is a mission school and clinic situated somewhere in the wilds of northwestern China in the mid 1930s. The mission chief is Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), the unquestioned authority, both material and moral, over a small coterie of aides far out of their psychic safety zones. Andrews’ aide is the sparrowlike Miss Argent (Mildred Dunnock), the image of a pinched and tremulously obeisant spinster. Kim (Hans William Lee) is the head of the staff of local men who help keep the mission operating.

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Andrews’ two teachers are two relative newcomers, middle-aged Charles Pether (Eddie Albert) and very young Emma Clark (Sue Lyon). Pether has his wife Florrie (Betty Field) with him, and the part at first seem a rather pathetic, misplaced pair: Pether, having harboured a desire to be a preacher, is given to proselytising to his goggle-eyed, bewildered young Chinese pupils when he’s supposed to be teaching them the alphabet. Because Pether could only make enough money for the long-term support of his ailing mother, he’s only just married Florrie, his childhood sweetheart, pregnant though she’s the same age as her husband and perilously close to menopause. The perpetually worried and hair-trigger hysteric Florrie is the mission’s raw nerve and bellwether, listening for news of dread import, with the Mongolian warlord Tunga Khan known to be ravaging the frontier and rumoured to be committing atrocities. Andrews assures her charges that the mission isn’t in danger because she believes Tunga will not attack an American station.

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The basis for 7 Women, interestingly, was the story “Chinese Finale” by Norah Lofts, who also provided the basis for the thematically very similar Hammer horror film The Witches, released the same year. Lofts’ fascination with independent women battling hostile forces, both internal and external, often encompassing the collapsing fringes of the declining colonial era, crossbreeds surprising neatly with Ford’s sensibility. A schism that commonly arises in Ford’s films between the genuinely committed and the destructively pompous is here given new context and taken to an extreme, as Andrews is quickly faced with as complete an opposite as she could expect. The mission has been without a doctor for some time, with the last two having pulled out at the last minute and Florrie increasingly worried about facing giving birth without medical care. Charles is sent to fetch the new arrival, but returns confusedly without anyone. Days later, the doctor arrives: Dr. D. R. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) turns to the camera with a sleight of Ford’s hand that calls back to the similarly great introduction of the silhouetted Ringo Kid (John Wayne) in Stagecoach (1939). Similarly, just as Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge was the new type of indomitable American hero, Cartwright is Ford’s type of woman, defined as creature of imperious action and touching the outer edges of androgyny with short curly hair, leather jacket, and boots.

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Cartwright soon reveals herself more than ready, whether she means to or not, to shake up the mission. A drinker, smoker, hard-bitten professional, and probable atheist, she quickly upsets the niceties of the mission’s social life, arriving at the dinner table with a smoke in hand and making her unfamiliarity with saying grace readily known. Real conflict between Cartwright and Andrews combusts when Cartwright, after inspecting Florrie, tells both Pether and Andrews that she would be better off in a proper hospital rather than risking birth in the mission. Andrews explains to Cartwright that each of the mission workers is “a soldier” and that Florrie will have to take her chances. Cartwright explodes at this, accusing Andrews of punishing Florrie for the obvious fact that she and her husband had sex in the mission and calling Andrews a small-time dictator. Argent tries to mollify and chastise Cartwright for disturbing the peace. Soon, Cartwright is pitched into an unquestioned, if temporary, authority when she detects signs of typhoid in refugees streaming through the mission gates, and institutes a quarantine.

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Just before Cartwright recognises the disease’s presence, the mission welcomed a group of refugees, including Miss Binns (Flora Robson), Mrs. Russell (Anna Lee), and Miss Ling (Jane Chang), three workers from a British-run mission that’s already been raided by Tunga Khan. Andrews quietly rejects their offers to lend a hand because they’re a different denomination and might further upset her little empire, but Binns has sufficient experience in nursing to aid and relieve Cartwright. The labour of dealing with the epidemic still falls most heavily on the doctor’s shoulders, whilst Pether works to exhaustion with the mission’s local workmen to burn infected clothing and bury the dead.

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Although Ford certainly didn’t mean for 7 Women to be his last movie, its motifs connect to a vast swathe of his films with a summative work’s clarity and concision, but not in a manner that suggests any kind of peace being made. The isolated setting and the drama’s compressed, playlike structure analysing a gallery of besieged characters, inevitably recalls not just Ford’s westerns, but also The Lost Patrol (1934). As with that early adventure film, a less familiar setting allows Ford to reduce the enemy “other” to something close to abstract symbol, as opposed to his increasingly fraught and empathetic depiction of Native Americans. Ford’s famously strong patriotism, religious conviction, and interest in social niceties and hierarchies were often counterbalanced by a contemptuous attitude to false versions of those faiths—prissy, empty piety was usually portrayed as a potent, but individual ill in Ford’s earlier works like Stagecoach, like the embezzling bank manager declares “What’s good for the banks is good for the country” and the women who chase Claire Trevor out of town, or How Green Was My Valley (1941), where the good minister is tormented by self-righteous parishioners. Perhaps the Ford work 7 Women feels in most immediate dialogue with is Fort Apache (1948), concentrating on an isolated locale where the little rituals that hold the civil balance are threatened by the arrival of a new figure of power, and the nature of such power is analysed in successive postures, as an increasingly irrational commander is revealed as a straw dummy whilst a cooler subordinate’s moral pragmatism can’t save the day. The dialectic of the two character types helps interrogate the difference between authoritarianism and leadership, and on a deeper level, between existential reaction to changing circumstance and adherence to unyielding codes of humanism and fanaticism. Leighton and Bancroft are cast in the Henry Fonda and John Wayne roles, respectively, with the newcomer as the voice of reason rather than that of vainglory, who exposes the whole project as a kind of sham, if perhaps a necessary sham.

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The underlying drama is given a peculiar, deeper piquancy by the half-stated competition between Cartwright and Andrews for influence over Emma. The competition and its stakes are radically different for each woman, however. Cartwright recognises Emma as a young, fresh personality who she thinks should get out of the mission life before it sucks her dry. Andrews is powerfully in love with her pretty blonde charge, an attraction made painfully clear in an early scene when she catches sight of Emma partly undressed and her face contorts with bottomless pain and longing. During the quarantine, Cartwright is awakened from a few snatched hours of sleep to treat Emma, who has fallen to the disease. A moment of exhausted communion between Cartwright and Andrews comes when both sit at the tree at the centre of the mission compound—literal and spiritual axis of the mission—where earlier Andrews had been able to briefly take hold of Emma’s hand. Andrews, in her daze and grief, speaks of burying her emotions in her work. But that’s not working anymore. The seven women of the title do not include Cartwright, but rather the missionary ladies from whom she stands apart. Yet, Cartwright is certainly the hero of the film, a distinction that is quite deliberate. Her affectations rupture every presumption about womanhood seemingly upheld by the missionaries, but more than that, a carefully laid system of assumptions about what constitutes cohesive social values and duty of care. When she gets drunk after her tending to the sick, she incurs icy recriminations around the teetotallers’ table, and alludes to the lousy career choices she faced as a doctor in the U.S. where she worked in poor urban hospitals and finally fled after a love affair with “the wrong guy.”

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Ford’s gift for realising character types with Dickensian vividness in the briefest of cinematic shorthand is apparent through 7 Women, occasionally touching the edges of camp caricature, as with Florrie’s early, quick leaps to florid worry and Mrs. Russell’s vehement reaction to Cartwright’s bottle of whisky. The casting certainly makes use of the actors’ screen personas from prior roles: Lyons, who had found brief fame acting in Lolita (1962) and then appeared in Night of the Iguana (1964), might well have been justifiably tired of playing objects of obsession for middle-aged pervs, whilst Leighton specialised in playing unstable, repressed figures, and Albert replays aspects of his role in Robert Aldrich’s Attack! (1956). But Ford and his screenwriters Janet Green and John McCormick complicate the schema with a vividness that is just as swift and precise. Ford’s visual language is deftly functional, yet always telling, usually perceiving this motley collective in group shots that survey them in a manner reminiscent of classic Dutch art’s group portraits and social studies, luminous faces amidst dark surrounds rendered by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s muted palettes dominated by shades of brown and grey.

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Close-ups are privileges and dominance of the frame in contention: Andrews, at first unquestionably at the forefront of the visuals, is forced to contend with Cartwright in squared-off, geometrically balanced shots that see the two women holding each side of repeated shots. Andrews is pushed into the background and then generally cleaved from the group as she retreats into herself. The expansiveness of Ford’s cinema at its height is nowhere to be found here. Gone are the wide-open landscapes and languorous, enfolding studies in binding social ritual, and even the comic relief of boisterous brawling for blowing off steam (a welcome excision perhaps), something that the mission’s inhabitants have, quite literally, forbidden themselves.

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The world beyond the mission walls becomes not free space, but oppressive zone of nullity, whilst its interior is dominated by narrow rectilinear shots in the shadowy hallway and dining room, cramming in upon the characters, a moral and psychological pressure cooker that quickly begins to work. Much like with Fritz Lang’s later Hollywood films, a pinched budget and lower expectation steered Ford back to a minimalist, interiorised, semi-expressionistic quality like a reflexive return to the art of the early cinema both men understood well. A nightmarish quality does permeate many moments of 7 Women, often evoked in shots staring down the oppressive length of the mission’s central corridor, where Pether retreats in agony as Florrie, locked away from the rest of the mission to keep her and her child safe from disease, shouts out to him with shrill, peevish demands; you can almost feel the mutual sense of long-cheated love turned into grinding misery. Much later, Cartwright, draped in exotic finery that entails submission to an alien, personality-erasing force that turns her into a ghost of other ages, stalks the same space with a lantern, planning death and deliverance. The social structure of the mission survives the crisis of the epidemic but cannot withstand the portents of Tunga Khan’s coming, first ominously suggested by a distant infernal glow on the horizon as a town burns. Ignoring Andrews’ angry cries, government troops flee the area, stripping the mission of protection both actual and psychological.

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Following his back-breaking and depleting service during the epidemic, the imminence of a new danger finally shocks Pether out of his nervous timidity as he decries his vain actions in dragging his wife with him to this place, and vaults him into a newfound zone of confident command. Realising the exposed position of the mission once the soldiers leave, Pether assumes a take-charge attitude, telling everyone to get ready to leave, and sets out with Kim in the mission’s single, old jalopy to find out what’s going on. Later, the sound of the car’s horn calls a watchman to open the mission gate, only to allow a band of horsemen to charge in and conquer the outpost, the horn now a detached relic of conquest.

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Kim, brought back to the mission as a captive, recounts Pether’s heroic but tragically absurd death in his first act of selfless valor—trying to intervene in a rape. Tunga Khan’s men then kill Kim at Andrews’ feet, sparking her to erupt in rage and sorrow. Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurski) has the women locked up in a supply shed, intending to hold them for ransom. Miss Ling, an aristocratic Chinese woman, is singled out for humiliation and abuse. Of course, Florrie goes into labour in the shed, still beggared by her husband’s sudden, fatal display of bravery. The reduction of space to the airless and comfortless shed precipitates Andrews’ total collapse in desperate detachment even as the others work to help Florrie give birth. Mother and baby survive the ordeal, and even Tunga Khan and his men are delighted by the arrival.

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The beauty of 7 Women lies largely in a contemplation of its characters as beings in flux, fitting a film that seems to be resituating Ford’s eternal frontier as a place of the psyche where new worlds are at stake. Ford allows each character a theatrical moment that reveals something crucial about them, but then watches as each displays different facets under intense pressure: Pether’s transformation and Andrews’ slow crack-up are the two most overt, but by film’s end, most of the characters are revealed as, or pushed to become, the opposites of what they seem at the outset. Even the pathetic and annoying Florrie gains a peculiar dignity in hard-won perspective and the calm that comes from contemplating truly difficult circumstances. Indeed, dignity is a true currency in 7 Women, valuable to those who have it, those who want it, and those who want to take it away from others. Early in the film Andrews tries to assert her influence over Emma by describing Cartwright as superficially exciting but spiritually “dead,” a proposition Emma instinctively rejects. Indeed, as the film continues, one watches the painful death of Andrews as a personality as she’s consumed by repression and loses all dignity in the name of retaining it. Tunga Khan’s main pleasure is to subjugate personalities with pride, first with Miss Ling, who is raped off-screen and glimpsed being forced to tend to Tunga Khan’s concubine (Irene Tsu) as a serving maid. Yet, when Cartwright asks her how she is, Ling replies with cool fortitude, “I’m alive.”

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By the film’s standard, Ling is the first to win the ultimate victory of retaining her sense of self in the face of trial. Cartwright herself becomes the next object of Tunga Khan’s predatory interest as her displays of fierce will and powerful personality intrigue him more than the other women, even the pretty but colourless Emma: only Cartwright, who, in her fearsome independence seems both an emissary from a feminist future but also a more ancient, uncurbed personality, an Empress hiding in riding jodhpurs, can offer Tunga Khan the unique pleasure of both robust erotic excitement and the pleasure of its submission. This desire becomes a weapon Cartwright seizes even at the cost of momentary degradation, as she makes a deal with Tunga Khan to have sex with him in exchange for better treatment of the prisoners and provisions for the baby. It’s strangely appropriate that Ford’s long career of portraying hard-drinking, asocial, highly talented professionals is crystallised in a female figure who belittles even Howard Hawks’ tough women whilst strongly resembling them, because unlike them, Cartwright isn’t just functional in a masculine world, she is, as she says herself, “better!” She meets her sleazy captor before fucking him with a cool-eyed, smoke-spouting smile that levels mountains. There’s a definite, deliberate note of black humour in the way Ford portrays the Mongol brutes, signalled first by having the gall to cast Mazurski and Woody Strode (as Tunga Khan’s “lean” lieutenant) with a straight face as their leaders, and confirmed in humorous asides until a climactic moment of death when one drops dead with the suddenness of a Loony Tunes character after ingesting poison.

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Like Lee Marvin’s eponymous thug in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Tunga Khan and his men are on hand to embody primal masculinity as wild and juvenile proto-punks who delight in assaults on the trappings of civilisation, loping not out of the real steppes but from the recesses of modernity’s nightmares. There’s also a similarity to the kinds of crude, but gentle-souled giants Wallace Beery and Victor McLaglen played for Ford, stripped of their virtuous simplicity and reduced to beasts with appetites. They rant, smash, tear, rape, pillage, murder, and give boisterous stage laughs. Tunga Khan and his lieutenant are in the midst of a silent power struggle, a struggle that mirrors the one between the women but is played out in different fashion, signalled in a series of silent postures, as the lieutenant makes a play to impress Cartwright before Tunga Khan by engaging in a wrestling match. Tunga Khan immediately recognises the unspoken challenge and strips down to fight his aide himself, quickly and brutally cracking the man’s neck in combat, whilst Cartwright watches, smoking a cigarette with sardonic fascination. Rank prostitution for a good cause scarcely bothers Cartwright, who’s probably had one-night stands in Chicago as fetid and clumsy as Tunga Khan probably is, but Andrews, when she learns what’s happened, works herself up into a glaze-eyed tantrum, calling Cartwright the Whore of Babylon and other cute biblical phrases. Soon, Andrews has lost what little respect and patience the other women could show her: by the very end even Miss Argent snaps with livid anger, “I never want to hear another word from you as long as I live!”

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7 Women stands up with a crucially similar film released the same year, Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, as the first work put out by Hollywood that feels assuredly like a metaphor for America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam. It certainly comprehends with surprising self-criticality and grimness the potential problems of an age of global reach where do-gooding blends problematically with cultural colonisation, filtered through the (then) not-so-distant past: Ford, who felt compelled to defend the war later, seems to have offloaded all of his psychic discontent here. The feeling that something is about to crack up nastily haunts 7 Women, geopolitics and sexual politics and even individual identity itself entering a no-man’s-land where all will be forcibly redefined, as if modernity is a bellows stoking every precept to white hot. The finale vibrates with anxiety and darkness as Cartwright, at Emma’s prompting and faced with the probably death of Florrie’s baby if not freed immediately, agrees to sell herself to Tunga Khan as permanent chattel to secure the release of the other women. This works, and Cartwright appears to the other prisoners now wrapped in the clothes of Tunga Khan’s concubine in a bleak gag that finally sees Cartwright forced into the part of traditional, doll-like female, and the seven women are carted away from the mission, The broken Andrews remains, awed by the spectacle of sacrifice required and given, echoing the similar self-sacrifice that defines The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

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The missionaries’ last sight of Cartwright is beautiful and chilling to equal degree, the doctor standing in her Chinese garb holding a lantern, aglow in near-darkness. Ford saves his greatest touch for a finale as memorable in its way as that of The Searchers, as Cartwright stalks the empty halls of the mission, the audience already forewarned she’s going to try something deadly and forced to watch it play out. Mutually assured destruction is the nihilistic metaphor at the heart of Ford’s swan song. Cartwright gets one of the most blackly amusing and stirring kiss-off lines in film history as she cracks her cup against the Khan’s and toasts, “Here’s to ya, you bastard!” She waits until the Khan drops dead from his poisoned drink before swallowing her own. Ford fades to black as she leans back to be embraced by the dark.

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1970s, Blogathon, Comedy

Americathon (1979)

The White Elephant Blogathon

Director/Coscreenwriter: Neal Israel

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By Roderick Heath

I’m sure you can imagine my pride and excitement in being asked to participate in the White Elephant Blogathon. How I’ve longed to be ennobled by this most cherished of institutions for the online film scholar. For this auspicious event, I was, of course, expecting half-fearfully, half-excitedly, the films I would be assigned to watch, wondering what peculiar depth of cinematic atrocity or weird and mysterious lode of forgotten peculiarity might be assigned to me. The first and most interesting-sounding one I was able to obtain from my other choices was the all-but-forgotten 1979 comedy Americathon. Directed by Neal Israel, who had previously made the fairly well-regarded speculative satire about the future of TV, Tunnelvision (1976), Americathon is not a film with a good reputation. In fact, it is considered an absolute abomination. One of my online friends told me it was the first film he ever walked out on—he was 8 years old. But still I could hope that whoever had chosen it for the blogathon wished some attentive and open-minded person could rehabilitate what they felt had been wrongly designated an infamous stinkburger.

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There is perhaps no form of bad film more troubling than the bad comedy. The bad comedy resists the usual dialogue of viewer and filmmaker that other bad movies allow, failings that can make seemingly worthless films fascinating, compelling, or just plain hilarious. When someone makes a bad horror film or scifi film, the viewer has the privilege of enjoying the disparity between intent and result—they can laugh at it. But a bad comedy is bad precisely because you cannot laugh at it. This failure inspires instead a sense of personal desperation. As jokes are mistimed and pratfalls land with a thud, bad comedy shames us. Why? Because it’s so closely related to good comedy. We wince with a sense of recognition at how before we’ve laughed at hoary gags, dusty joke set-ups, try-hard comedians desperate to be liked, and clichéd punchlines. We cringe in perceiving how thin the line is between cheeky deflation and juvenile nastiness, familiar mockery and snide impertinence. The experience stokes the worst possible association for us, making us remember those jokes we’ve told that no one laughed at, and worse, made people snort derisively at our lameness. A bad monster movie inspires a sense of fun, of camaraderie with the filmmakers who couldn’t do that much better than you under the circumstances. A bad drama thrills us with the spectacle of seriousness turned camp, the fine art of portraying raw humanity turned into the kabuki of ham glory-seeking. A bad comedy makes you want to hide from humanity.

And yet Americathon gave me some real laughs.

For about 15 minutes.

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Americathon was adapted from a stage production written by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, who had earlier collaborated on the script of Zachariah (1971), a more admired genre mash-up. Americathon has a central comic idea that could have yielded comedic dividends, and fits in quite neatly amongst a mode of screen comedy that was pretty common in the ’70s and early ’80s, a mode that seemed aimed to create the cinematic equivalent of an animated Mort Drucker cartoon, teeming with excess detail in painting vast panoramas of general zaniness. This style required brash and vivid execution, exceptional comic timing, and lashings of satire, cynicism, and a knowing, encompassing attitude to pop culture driven by a freewheeling, carnival-like sense of Americana in fecund decline. This comedy style had roots in disparate influences of ’50s and ’60s hip comedy—MAD magazine, Terry Southern, Lenny Bruce, Gary Trudeau, Richard Lester, student stage revues and improv theatre, Frank Tashlin, Buster Keaton, Luis Buñuel, Woody Allen, Tom Lehrer, Yippie street theatre, Mel Brooks, etc. The great days of this style were certainly not in the past when Americathon was released: Steven Spielberg’s 1941 came out the same year, David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ Airplane! and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers a year later. The fact that a lot of these were made by Jewish filmmakers isn’t coincidental. Jewishness was cool in the ’70s, as if all America had suddenly caught up with the Jewish take on things (that’s director Israel there with the sign in the above picture).

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The quality that makes a film like Airplane! hallowed and one like Americathon dispatched to ignominy is one of those mysteries of culture that if someone could distil and package it, would make them rich beyond Jack Benny’s wildest dreams. Kicking off with one of the jaunty songs provided for the soundtrack by the Beach Boys, Americathon deploys a vision for America’s near-future from a perspective that acutely reflects the worries and fashions of 1979, as a dystopian state is played for mordant humour. Without petrol to run them, cars have become homes, and hero Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert) sets off to work surrounded by bicyclists and joggers on highways turned into communal tides—only now does it look like a green-left dream come true.

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George Carlin narrates the film, supposedly the voice of Eric when he’s older and looking back on these events: Carlin’s wry delivery is very much the reason why I found the early part of the film amusing. Thus, according to Carlin, Jimmy Carter is quickly lynched for giving one of his infamously uninspiring TV speeches, “along with two or three of his snootier cabinet members,” in contemplating yet another energy crisis, and his successor, David Eisenhower (Robert Beer), abandons his post in favour of cavorting with a girlfriend on the beach. The country runs out of petrol in the mid-1980s and money not long thereafter. By 1998, the U.S. is bankrupt and has maxed out its credit from Native American magnate Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George) to the tune of $400 billion, who is finally calling in the bill.

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The new president has one thing in common with Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt—his name. Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) is, as Eric tells us, a graduate of “ECT, Scientology, TM, and Primal Grope Therapy,” a blissed-out New Age dim bulb who’s has moved the seat of the presidency into a rented Californian house now referred to as the West White House. Chet’s campaign promise was, “I’m not a schmuck,” but he’s having trouble keeping it. One of Chet’s cabinet members resigns to protest his awful ideas for revenue-raising, like a raffle to sell off public monuments and national treasures, only for his protest to be met with a smarmy kiss-off from Chet. “Fear is just a boogeyman of your mind,” Chet retorts to warnings of the dire situation, “I believe in taking responsibility.”

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Eric, an academic who specialises in understanding TV demographics, is called to the West White House to consult on the raffle, but Eric protests that raffles work badly on TV, comparing it to the effectiveness of telethons. Chet’s bright-eyed girlfriend Lucy Beth (Nancy Morgan) suggests that the government hold exactly that. Chet is, of course, delighted and sets the wheels in motion, giving Eric a cabinet position to run the event he dubs “Americathon.” But Chet’s advisor Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard) tries to sabotage the project at every turn because he’s plotting with ambassadors from the Hebrab Republic, an Arab-Israeli superstate, to take over the foreclosed U.S. Failing that, they have an attack squad ready to wipe out the government leaders.

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Americathon’s foresight is extremely patchy, but often notable, accurately conceiving a future China gone raving capitalist, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reconstruction of Vietnam as a resort destination, the emergence of vastly wealthy Native Americans, the further debasement of high office by the telegenic, reality TV, aspects of modern environmentalism, and even the once-unthinkable longevity of ’60s rock bands like the Beach Boys. The future China isn’t just capitalistic—it defeated the Soviet Union “in table tennis and a nuclear war,” and has become a fast-food empire. Its most popular export is the Chang Kai Chef Restaurant chain with its biggest seller, the Mao Tse Tongue on Rye. Sam Birdwater’s repeated crying-poor protests that “I have to eat, too!” in apologetically insisting on loan repayment have a ring that’s become ever more familiar in recent years from plutocrats. Nike’s greatest days were still ahead of it, but it was already well known enough for the film to spin a joke around, for Birdwater’s mighty conglomerate is called “National Indian Knitting Enterprises,” specialising in a raft of fashionable industries like running shoes and tracksuits. Whilst the popularity of sportswear and casual clothes hasn’t quite reached the point that Americathon suggests it would, where everyone wears it all the time (even the Americathon host wears a kind of evening dress tracksuit), this is one of the film’s subtler and more pervasive gags. And there are some other, rather less acute anticipations, like its vision of a great Jewish-Islamic imperial power, and its fascinating, very ’70s myopia when it comes to race and sex—the film’s portrayal of a crass and sexist future is inextricable from its own era’s fully subsumed crassness and sexism. Example: the Hebrab Republic is described as having been founded on the recognition of the Jews and Arabs of their common trait—“the hots for anything blonde with a tush.” The film’s vision of debased future TV culture involves a drag queen father (I think that one was ticked off somewhere around 1987).

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Amusingly, Americathon was part-financed by West German investors looking for a tax shelter, which sounds like a plot point from the film, and gives some accidental substance to its theme of the American bodies politic, corporate, and cultural consuming each other to the enrichment of foreigners. One underlying spur for this flight of fancy is a basic, perpetual, peculiarly American anxiety that’s coexisted with the officially optimistic national spirit since the earliest days of the republic—the conviction that it’s all going to fall apart one day, undone by sloth, decadence, and hubris. Here that half-submerged, apocalyptic quality to the American outlook is filtered through common late ’70s concerns, some of them based in quite clear and present realities, like the oil embargoes, energy crises, and the near-bankruptcy of New York, that fed general disillusionment in the wake of Watergate. Post-apocalyptic scifi and futuristic dystopias were common sights on cinema screens in the period; Americathon merely takes the same building blocks and turn them into comedy, in much the same fashion as Dr. Strangelove (1964), to which it pays homage via Eric’s last name, which calls out to Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley. Moreover, the film’s absurdism certainly has likenesses to more recent variations on the same ideas, including Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006) and “The Simpsons,” especially the episode which casts a grown-up Lisa as an assailed President. Americathon then doesn’t lack for a premise with potential.

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Nor does it lack for conceits that could readily become black comedy gold, like the performance by a superstar thrown up by the newfound fortune and popularity of Vietnam, Mouling Jackson (Zane Buzby), who specialises in songs crammed with sadistic come-ons to Yankee running dogs, performed in front of a colossal Viet Cong recruiting poster. This sequence exemplifies the film’s apparent aspiration to match Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” sequence in The Producers (1967) for transcendently provocative bad taste, or a monument to insta-camp as aesthetic value like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). However, even early Brooks had more directorial skill for that sort of thing than Israel, whose TV sketch technique exacerbates the already lingering structural weaknesses apparent in the slipshod and unfinished transposition from the stage. The songs, which I presume are also imported from the stage version, are charmless. One reason the “Springtime for Hitler” or “Time Walk” episodes in their respective films work well is because they’re great tunes, whilst the songs in Americathon are third-rate pastiche. Vanderhoff ensures that the only acts Eric is supposedly allowed to put on stage are terrible—ancient vaudevillians, most of them ventriloquists. So not only are we facing unfunny comedy in these stretches, we’re also dealing with unfunny comedy about unfunny comedy.

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Americathon’s narrative is supposed to spin out of control along with television programming as it reaches unforeseen levels of grotesquery once Eric, allowed by Chet to slip Vanderhoff’s leash, starts going for the jugular with ever more outlandish, attention-getting acts, debasing the audience even as it saves their country. But the potency here is frittered away even in the film’s already curtailed running time. Any real telethon contains more moments of lethal smarm, dropped guards, self-congratulation, exposed pathos, performative desperation, and self-satire than this film manages. Nor does it make much sense that such an outrageous and popular foreign act as Mouling is booked when the rest of the bill is supposed to be mind-numbing slop. Whilst Israel is happy enough with the free-roaming, vignette-laden silliness of the early scenes, enjoying regulation ’70s jokes like a bicycle ridden by a quartet of nuns, his capacity to film performance is atrocious, missing all the details provided by the choreographers by constantly having his camera or edits in the wrong place, as if someone has half-heartedly filmed a live stage performance. The film as a whole has a blank, dull, cluttered look, one that exemplifies the mercenary quality of lesser ’70s filmmaking, an aspect that accords well with the air of glorified television much of it has. The cinematographer was Gerald Hirschfeld, who did such a good job shooting Young Frankenstein (1974) that for a moment, Mel Brooks looked like a film aesthete. Here, Hirschfeld doesn’t seem able to assert any kind of discipline on Israel.

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Once Eric does start playing for the cheap seats, he stages the destruction of the last working car in America, a spectacle of consumer outrage perpetrated by loony daredevil Roy Budnitz (Meat Loaf), and a boxing match between a mother and a son (May Boss and Jay Leno). But he balks when the chosen host of the telethon, Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman), suggests an onscreen killing, and becomes increasingly detached from the show. Monty himself is a flailing ham who’s sunk from major film stardom to starring in that drag-queen sitcom: Vanderhoff signs off on him because he has a heart ailment and a major drug problem (he has a suitcase full of pills in every shade of the rainbow) and is likely to drop dead before the 30-day event is over. But Monty is determined to revitalise his career and power through, bitchily accosting Eric and molesting anything in a skirt on stage. Korman, so terrific for Brooks in Blazing Saddles (1974), is the arrhythmic palpitation at the heart of this film, struggling with lines that have pretences to hilarity but no actual wit, trying to invest his caricature with an edge of pathetic anti-heroism it cannot sustain. Worse, the film seems to think he has actual pathos. It’s a little like someone decided to play the Emcee of Cabaret (1972) as the empathic spirit of declining Weimar Germany rather than its septic id, or Gig Young’s Emcee from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) as comic foil. Similarly, the film can’t decide if Eric is a growing voice of wisdom and conscience, the wily nerd hero who saves the day with brains, or just another stooge, whilst his romantic subplot—Lucy, spurned by Chet, who falls instantly in lust with Mouling, gravitates instead to Eric—is mere window dressing.

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This points to one of the biggest problems with Americathon: it sets up a semblance of traditional plot and character arcs, but fails to utilise them effectively. A major “plot” point like Chet and Mouling being kidnapped by Hebrab agents is resolved via voiceover in the concluding montage, whatever comedic or thematic value it was supposed to convey unfulfilled. Such sloppiness is not necessarily a great crime in comedy, which can thrive on narrative chaos, but in a film as hard-up for coherent focal points and genuinely inspired situations as that one, it really hurts. What few laughs the film wrings out of its later sections comes from throwaway vignettes, like the kid Chris Broder (Geno Andrews) who sets out to skateboard across America to raise funds, accompanied by his strict father (“On the fourteenth day, his father finally allowed Chris to stop for lunch”), and arrives to a heroic welcome on the Americathon stage, only to get a slapping and a shove back off by Monty when Chris announces he’s collected the grand total of $32.12. Other vignettes just seem a bit desperate, like a glimpse of the now U.S.-controlled United Kingdom where Number 10 Downing Street is now “Thatch’s Disco,” and Elvis Costello is the Earl of Manchester. Costello’s brief appearance is utterly random (although snatches of the guitar hook from his “Chelsea” constantly punctuate the film at unexpected moments), as if someone kidnapped him from the airport pretending to be a chauffeur, took him to the film set, and forced him to film a cameo for the sake of giving the film some actual cool. Costello tries to compensate for his limply patched-in status by lip-synching energetically to another of his songs before some apparently entertained tourists.

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Whatever interest this film might hold today for most viewers would probably lie in its truly odd assortment of stars, many of whom are billed in TV fashion as making special appearances, like serious veteran thespian Opatashu, cunningly cast nonactor Chief Dan, a reputed Native American activist and tribal leader who had appeared in Little Big Man (1970), future faces like Leno, and stars of the moment like Costello and Meat Loaf, Cybill Shepherd as the gold-painted girl who appeals to the audience in Monty’s opening production, and the ill-fated Dorothy Stratten in a blink-or-miss role as a Playboy bunny. Riegert, on his way to becoming one of the quintessential “oh, him” faces of ’80s and ’90s movies, registers a general blank as Eric, though that’s equally the fault of what he’s given to work with. Ritter, once and future sitcom king, fares much better as the dimwit President, though his character is generally rendered too passive to be anything but a foil for others, like Buzby’s Mouling.

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I’m not really sure if Buzby is great or awful playing a pop star who comes across a bit like young Marlon Brando playing a street punk stuffed into the body of a vaguely Asian woman. But she is fun, and certainly brings the biggest and most committed comedic performance by far to the film. She all but wrestles bodily with the celluloid to wring some humour from her one-note role as a lunatic who was voted “Most Likely to Take a Life” in her high school year book, insulting and humiliating the President before eagerly becoming his lover, and karate kicking the Hebrab agents who come to kidnap her. One last gag informs us that Chet and Vanderhoff settled their differences after Mouling left Chet for Warren Beatty, and both moved to Vietnam themselves where they founded a religion around the songs of Donna Summer. Now there’s a religion I could embrace.

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So is Americathon as godawful as its reputation? Yes and no. The other tricky thing about humour is that it’s often so subjective. The flatly reductive definition many have of good comedy is, did it make me laugh? Well, I’ve seen other films that made me laugh less: on a laughs-to-running-time ratio, or even moreso on a laughs-to-budget ratio, I’d say, for instance, that several recent films, like Your Highness (2011) or The Lone Ranger (2013), delivered less. But comedy is subject to the same rules as other cinema genres: is it well made, well shot, well acted, vigorous in its use of form? In this regard, Americathon is a weak and shoddy work, a by-product from the end of a period when Hollywood was so desperate for galvanising talents, it took risks on hiring rank amateurs. Either way, the time for such cynicism was over: Reagan was a year away, and film critics were already doing some of his work by purposefully attacking dark and negative films—that sort of thing was so 1976.

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1950s, Blogathon, Thriller

Vertigo (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

By Roderick Heath

It’s a long fall into sonorous places, where fetish and film, love and murder, mind and body, disguise and internal truth are all thrown into an ecstatic flux, even as all seems composed with the finest artistic lucidity. It’s a film seemingly situated directly on the nexus at which cinema ultimately converges, in the taunting image with its charge of elusive sensuality, the obsessive hunt for visual perfection, a reconstructed reality filled with trapped moments of time, overwhelming and always intangible. It’s the height of screen romanticism, a swooning vision of emotion as a world-shaping, and world-warping, force, filled with aching emotional immediacy. It’s a bleak and nasty study in varieties of neurosis, misogyny, and folie-a-deux perversity. It’s a triumph of mythopoeic construction and exposition. It’s a thriller and a mystery that subverts most every familiar imperative of those forms. It’s Hitchcock, it’s Vertigo.

Hitchcock’s style and persona had begun generating an increasing number of imitators by 1958, and he was working out his black-witted joker side more thoroughly on TV. Many artists would start to feel thinly stretched at such a time, but for Hitchcock, it seemed to liberate something within him. Vertigo followed one of his occasional shifts of gear, with the impressive but compromised realism of The Wrong Man (1957). Vertigo swung to an opposite pole of pure expression, and represented Hitchcock’s entry into one of the most dizzying runs of cinema in history: North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964) followed. Those four films, alternately playful, ruthless, apocalyptic, and homeopathic, all to a certain extent revisit, revise, and contend with the implications of Vertigo, a work essayed in a state of dream-logic. The film that is probably Hitchcock’s most acclaimed work today, if not at the time of release, was based on the novel D’entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the bleakly witty duo who had previously provided source material for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1954), the film rights to which Hitchcock had only been beaten out for by a few hours. Whereas Clouzot had turned their patented narrative style, always cunningly morbid and usually sporting a nasty, head-spinning twist, into one his customarily icy, carefully paced studies in moral rot espoused in material terms, Vertigo embraced the mythical element of the novel’s patterning after the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, as well as transforming it into the tale of a psychological haunting. Hitchcock’s volatile, kinky, romantic streak had always been lurking in his films through the ’40s and early ’50s, where characters chain themselves to people they despise or want to possess so thoroughly that they try to exterminate them, in dances of sadomasochistic emotion.

In Vertigo, Hitchcock left himself and his creative process newly exposed: indeed, “exposed” is the word that constantly flitted through my thoughts in my most recent viewing. Hitch offered up his seminal fetish of the chic, aloof, yet tantalisingly sensual blonde as a constructed, crumbling fantasy, and deliberately hacked off familiar and reassuring resolutions for his tale, leaving only its singular, central matter at hand to be played out to the bitterest end. The feeling of exposure is acutely realised as antiheroine Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) awakens stripped nude by a man she doesn’t know in a strange place, an unclothing that precedes a process of creating an artificial version of a presumably real person, a process that rips away a veil and leaves an ugly truth all too visible. The opening, which only sports one superfluous line of dialogue, sees a criminal pursued by two policemen, one in uniform (Fred Graham), the other, Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), across the rooftops high above San Francisco, a flat plane that soon gives way to chasms over which Scottie finds himself dangling by his fingertips. The pursuit of the criminal is left off; the uniformed cop returns to help but plunges accidentally to his death, leaving Scottie still hanging, how he escaped this fate ever unclear. Instead he has his first attack of vertigo, a delirium where the bottom seems to drop out of the world, leaving Scottie transfixed by the spectacle. The film’s circular structure sees these elements repeat in the finale, and the sensation that Scottie never actually escaped, in a sort of Incident at Owl Creek Bridge variation, is neither specifically suggested nor entirely dispelled. The narrative and visualisation return obsessively to the familiar dream-state terror of falling: Scottie’s semi-crucified pose at the end recreates his dream of plummeting into hell.

Set in a San Francisco rendered as eerie and depopulated as Val Lewton’s New York, splayed out as a sharply relieved topographical map of its hero’s terribly cracked mind, Vertigo provoked audiences of the time, and still does, by shifting from an eerie mystery to a patient study in psychopathology. It reveals the destructive flipside to the romantic-idealising cocoon, essayed in the same high Technicolor terms as the contemporaneous works of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, and Vincente Minnelli; lush, aestheticized, antirealistic worlds all the better for penetrating the overtaxed 1950s psyche. Working from an uncommonly good script by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor with some help from Maxwell Anderson, Hitchcock, by giving his game away early (not that it’s hard to spot), turns the film into the very opposite of the Shyamalan-style twist, as the moment of realisation is dreaded rather than anticipated, and the trap binds both characters and audience, forcing the latter to fear what its protagonist might do when the truth comes out. As a reversal of expectation, it’s as perturbing as those in Psycho, but subtler in method and effect: just as Psycho jars with rapid alternations of protagonist and forced changes in attitude to them, so, too, does Vertigo take his hero from lost Quixote to crucified dupe to vengeful sadist.

Scottie’s early entrance into the realm of the dead leaves him crippled: physically, yes, but he recovers from that, but also mentally, his vertigo now a powerful impediment and one that demands he give up his former life. He has a pally, gregarious, but faintly uneasy relationship with former fiancé Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), first glimpsed painting ads for brassieres, crouching with pregnant boding over her work as Hitchcock dives in for an electric close-up, redolent of a later deep-focus shot of Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds, where the seemingly blasé quality of the subject is charged with painful interior intensity. The cocktail of emotions within Midge is thus encoded in one precise moment: regret over an opportunity thrown away balanced by a probing, cautious appraisal of whether this was a good or bad move, and awareness that the march of time is rendering alternatives increasingly unlikely. Scottie’s status as middle-aged flunk-out sees him facing a future without apparent purpose. He’s ripe in his phobia for the plots of former college chum Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), now smoothly ensconced in the plutocracy. Elster wants him to follow his wife Madeleine, who is supposedly haunted by an ancestor, Carlotta Valdez, destroyed by passion and misogyny a century before. Madeleine possess the allure of the unknown, of a kind of unobtainable, ethereal sensuality sheathed in an aura of detachment from the present that a man as fundamentally romantic and isolated as Scottie is cannot resist. She’s also everything that Midge, who, with her gawky glasses, her association with a tawdry, commercialised modern version of sexuality, and her curiously maternal way of holding Scottie when he nearly collapses from a bout of vertigo, is not.

Vertigo has its debts, of course: Hitchcock, a cineaste’s cineaste, was surely keeping Lewton’s films, William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jenny (1945), Luis Buñuel’s El (1953), and possibly even the film that made him want to be a moviemaker, Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death (1921), in mind. In such progenitors, the preternatural forces of psychological desperation and wilfulness warp reality, and symbols of Freudian fluency multiply. Vertigo seems to tease falsely with promises of the supernatural, from the haze of the otherworldly that hovers around Madeleine in her early cemetery visit to the green light that is the chrysalis for the reborn Madeleine in Judy’s hotel room. One of the most strange and disorienting moments comes when Scottie follows Madeleine from a back alley into an unknown building, a brief trip through a shadowy labyrinth that resolves when Scottie opens a door to catch sight of his quarry in the midst of a flower shop, a commercial space transformed into a sea of impressionistic colour outside of reality, with Madeleine a spindle of spectral grey and platinum amidst a wealth of fecundity. This pretext of the unearthly is nominally in place to pull a fast one for a plot involving very corporeal murder and conspiracy, and yet by the end, the uncanny texture has not dissipated, though the film becomes bruising in its immediacy: the motifs of haunting, possession, unseen forces, of the past’s death grip on the present, of romantic period melodramas of tragic ladies and imperious men, are all revealed, far from being remote, unreal, and storybook, as literal and dangerous.

Scottie’s attempts to play the white knight of centred male rationality to save suicidal damsel in distress Madeleine backfires, not simply in leading her to the place where death is predestined to occur, but in his incapacity to discern the way forces beyond the literal and apparent can shape people and events. The notion of individuals acting out not merely parts required for a murder plot but something far more primeval runs into seemingly obvious Freudianisms like Madeleine tracking down Scottie’s apartment thanks to the eternally phallic Coit Tower: just as Madeleine embodies a feminine archetype, so does Scottie as a man—any man, everyman. To learn the truth, Scottie has to repeat the same death-dance that Elster and Madeline, Carlotta and the “rich man” (he has no name: the rich are always with us), and, by implication, a multitude of men and women have repeated over and over, in a tötentanz. Hitchcock’s roots in German Expressionism were showing again, and there’s Wagner in the score, to boot. As the story moves in a circular fashion whilst seeming to move forward, so, too, does time and human identity: both Elster and Scottie step into the role of Carlotta’s husband in their quests, albeit for very different reasons, whilst Carlotta, the real Madeleine, Judy’s false Madeleine and Judy herself all play the maiden dancing before the bulls. When Scottie goes to meet Elster for the first time, the businessman speaks wistfully of an old San Francisco of “color, excitement…power…freedom.” These words sound like the admissions of another romantic nostalgic like Scottie, but they soon turn out to have rather different meanings, as the narrative’s spirit-guide, city folklorist and bookseller Pop Leibel (Konstantin Shayne) specifically defines the kind of power wielded by men like Elster to be the power to kick a woman aside like refuse.

This is precisely what Elster does to his own wife, the most enigmatic figure in the drama, a woman who only exists for Scottie in a purified, ritualised form, through the approximation filled out by Judy. Mirrors recur constantly throughout the film, not simply evoking the interplay of false surfaces and the act of looking, but, as Jean Cocteau also did in his version of the Orpheus myth, lending the mirrors a numinous power as portals. In one vital scene, in which Scottie spies on Madeleine in the flower shop through a slightly opened door, a mirror on the door places his face in darkness and hers surrounded by riotous blossoms, all contained in the same shot, inviting Scottie to leave behind the busy workaday world he’s just come out of and enter a rarefied realm of beauty and decay—or perhaps the opposite, as Madeleine will stumble into Scottie’s personal underworld. Later, again in a shop, as Judy begins to acquiesce to Scottie’s desire to remake her, the duo appear, locked in a twinning image as each now begins a shift in identity. As Scottie begins his pursuit of Madeleine, he is framed creeping through a graveyard, low-angle shots revealing the church steeples over his head: fate is encaging him already, as Madeleine drifts in Vaseline-infused eeriness. On top of everything else, Vertigo, now the quintessential San Francisco movie, is uniquely cunning in the way it sees Hitchcock’s usual device of using famous locales as settings for suspense here carefully rebuilding the city’s tourist-board tropes—the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio, Coit Tower, the Palace of the Legion of Honor—into stations of a private mythology, markers in a tale of desperate wanderings and the search for identity.

Everything becomes charged with a significance in this world, from the paintings that enclose secret meanings and reflect essential, half-sensed truths for the attentive, to Madeleine’s subsequent pause before the waters of the Golden Gate to crumble a bouquet into the bay, perhaps the film’s most famous image, possessing an intangible, atavistic power. Of course, in America there is no boatman for the River Styx, but rather a suspension bridge suddenly transmuted into a totem as weightless and fragile as the equally totemic petals that Madeleine casts into the waters, followed by herself. In a sequoia forest, as silent and reverential as any cathedral, Madeleine tries to measure her “past” life as Carlotta upon the rings of a sequoia cross-section upon which other markers of history passing are fixed—the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence—triumphs of the official version of history, inimical as that often is to subtler truths. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus called history the nightmare from which he was trying to wake up, but in Vertigo, the nightmare is ongoing, inescapable. Scottie’s nightmare, which precipitates his total collapse after Madeleine’s death, ends without a sense of awakening, but rather, as Scottie sits up, grief and fear afire in his eyes, it’s plain that the dream has invaded his life.

Just as individuals create chains of behaviour that result in recurring tragedy, contemporary California rests on a colonial background, an older world transposed onto new shores and almost—but not quite—smothered by the modern, still glimmering through the haze, much like the tell-tale sign that is the necklace which finally enlightens Scottie, and the small, preserved Mission San Juan Bautista becomes the crux of colliding past and present. Such motifs evoke not only the secret, mostly subsumed, yet still lingering hints of a past based in invasion and forcible claiming of a foreign land, something that’s not supposed to haunt America but does, and also of spiritual reckonings, as the ghostly black shape that looms out of the darkness that causes the very last ironic tragedy proves not to be a ghost or a killer, but a nun, incarnation of a judgement that falls on everyone.

Vertigo contains scenes that are near-unbearable to sit through, not because of any overt violence, but rather the sense of interpersonal pain and pathos they provoke. Hitchcock had long possessed the gift for creating such moments, and those here are as acute in their understanding of the potential for masochistic cruelty inherent in exposing one’s self in affection. Hitchcock had memorably worked this same note in the wince-provoking scene in Rebecca (1940), when Joan Fontaine’s heroine, expecting to delight with her dress copied from an old painting, is instead the figure of revulsion and rage. Midge’s attempt to goad Scottie by placing herself into the painting of Carlotta, an act of Dadaist satire and emotional revenge in the guise of a joke, clearly resembles that scene from Rebecca, and works similarly like nails on a chalkboard for Scottie. Inserting Midge’s clunky glasses into the lush classicism of the painting violates and desecrates the texture of romanticism and provocative sensuality radiated by the enshrined exotic woman of beauty and calamity. Midge’s self-castigating frenzy after Scottie leaves is dismaying, not simply because it’s so easy to empathise with her sense of losing her last grip on Scottie through a naked, passive-aggressive play for his affection, but also because she had a point: Scottie’s attachment to the ethereal mystery woman will destroy both him and the woman. Whilst Rebecca is often seen as one of Hitchcock’s less personal films because he had producer David Selznick’s foot on his neck, it clearly offered up motifs of inestimable power to Hitchcock. He essays many of them again here—evocative paintings, borrowed apparel, love objects both conflated and tauntingly dissimilar, vertiginous heights, the mysticism of the coast, and the half-maniacal, half-distraught male protagonist. But whereas Rebecca’s Max de Winter fought tooth and nail to prevent his lower-class, young bride from coming to resemble the deceased former idol who still haunts him, Scottie does the opposite, attempting to effect the perfect recreation, as Orpheus becomes Pygmalion. Judy, however, gives in for the same reason that Fontaine’s heroine did, as the allure and promise of transformation seems to guarantee a love that is elusive and painful, evoking in folkloric terms Hans Anderson’s original Little Mermaid, who, giving up her natural state to join the world of men and play the mate, must live with the constant sensation of knives slicing into her feet.

Similarly difficult to sit through is Midge’s final attempt to reach Scottie in the pit of his psychological collapse, and her exit from the film. The crucial last act commences as Scottie begins the process of remaking Judy into Madeleine. The essential similarity of this movement to the process of creating a movie star, and even more specifically to Hitchcock’s own attempts to mould a string of starlets into the “Hitchcock Blonde,” gives it a special pungency, but it’s hard to enough to watch without such meta-narrative concerns, in the precise interplay of Scottie’s obsessiveness and Judy’s masochism.

Jonathan Rosenbaum once persuasively reevaluated Novak’s career to point out how conscientious she was, and through her, the filmmakers who utilised her, that her aura of glamour was false, and that she had a working-class Chicago background. She let the audience glimpse the disparity all the time. Novak told a story about her first screen test where the director said to others watching it, “Don’t listen to her, just look.” It’s hard to think of an anecdote that summarises more precisely the contempt for the actual person behind the façade of beauty fetishized by Hollywood, and the tension of this lies behind Novak’s performance here as Hitchcock explores the process. Hitchcock’s later professed dissatisfaction with Novak only solidifies how apt the casting was, for he could not end up with a new Grace Kelly, but rather an actress who makes the audience conscious of her not being Grace Kelly. Robert Aldrich later used Novak in his even more hysterically self-analytical The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), in which a film director moulds her character into a precise recreation of a long-dead movie idol. Novak’s performance here is a masterpiece of behavioural acting, most acute when Judy-as-Judy first enters the film. Novak contrasts the floating movements of Judy-as-Madeleine, so apparently blithe that she can vanish when Scottie looks away, with the tigerish way Judy backs off from Scottie when he penetrates her hotel room for the first time. Novak reveals her alertness to the distinct difference between the Brahmin Madeleine and the plebeian Judy, in her physical vulnerability and the entirely different way of moving, feeling, and sensing this entails. The fatal move Judy makes in returning to Madeleine is in surrendering this sovereign force.

When Scottie takes Judy out to dinner for the first time, returning to the restaurant where he first saw Madeleine to more deeply test the accuracy of Judy’s facsimile of his lost love, the way she gauchely drains her liquor shows she is both aware of and signals her gaucheness and communicates a subtle but lethal observation: Judy can no longer be just Judy because it entails another kind of acting, playing up the pretence of being the shopgirl from the remote wastes of the Midwest, even as Judy longs to be loved by Scottie in and for herself. Now, she will always be two people, a fact finally elucidated as she becomes Madeleine again and all her mannerisms shift. Her decision to risk being found out goes beyond simple willingness to risk her life for her love, for her character has been left as permanently fragmented as Scottie’s. The final revelation that Judy is, in a peculiar way, innocent of murder even though she is complicit, gives the finale its last ingredient for tragedy. Her final rush from Scottie’s arms to ascend the fateful church steeple was a last-minute and hopeless tilt at saving them both by saving the “real” Madeleine, who Elster has already killed before he hurls her body away.

Just as Judy is not entirely guilty, Scottie becomes increasingly less innocent in his subjecting her to the ritual of exorcism by again ascending the tower, hauling her up the stairs with a savage exultancy to his anguish. Novak as Judy lets her capacious breasts hang freely under a sweater whilst her face is overly made-up to lend her a cheap and brassy ring that is nonetheless less far more earthy-seeming; Madeleine’s passively blank façade gives way to the lynx-like tilt Judy’s face offers as she wards off Scottie. Whereas in Rebecca, Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), and later in The Birds and Marnie, Hitchcock was willing to suggest, with differing amplitudes and intentions, a protean sexuality underlying the drama, here, same-sex attractions are kept out of the equation. The tale becomes rather a passion play for the way men see women and women see themselves through men, therefore ironically drawing out even more precisely the element so prized by camp aesthetics—a heightened awareness of the construction of femininity through carefully wrought signifiers.

Stewart’s career-best performance as Scottie is a thing of awful beauty, shifting his character from a neurotic, but avuncular presence in early scenes to an excruciatingly single-minded zombie in the later sequences: even when he’s oppressive and frightening, it’s still all too easy to empathise with Scottie’s sense of howling disillusionment, aggrieved rage, and still-guttering desire for a lost ideal. Like Norman Bates, a much more overtly mad and homicidal antihero, Scottie is an attempt by Hitchcock to explore more deeply a unity of opposites, hero and villain, victim and perpetrator, always constantly lurking under his variations on the “wrong man” tales. Like Norman, the battle sees Scottie reduced to a virtual catatonic, locked like a bodhisattva in a state of profound collapse, personality and perspective in total flux, and like Norman, he engages in an extended act of perverse ventriloquism for a dead woman. Unlike Norman, Scottie emerges from his crisis, but his end is scarcely any better. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in Vertigo is the brief window between Judy’s transformation back in Madeleine, and Scottie’s realisation that she was her all along and the hideous joke that’s been played on him. Scottie is at his most relaxed and good-humoured since the start of the film, and Judy is newly joyous. This idyll lasts about 30 seconds, but the pull it exerts is powerful, as it suggests that both of them have actually found the happiness they sought. Yet here Hitchcock is at his most consciously unremitting: the illusion, however gratifying, most immediately crumbles. As Judy realises where Scottie is taking her, her acute discomfort is well-founded (has anyone done a survey of the many scenes in Hitchcock’s films where people have dramatically telling trips in cars together?), and Scottie, in his moment of exorcism and revelation, becomes the animal, wolfish and savage, Judy now cowering like a rabbit until he exhausts himself and gives in to her entreaty, but fate still has its very last card to pull. Unlike his counterpart in Boileau and Narcejac’s novel, Scottie does not murder Judy to close the circle, but instead puts her in the place of the dead woman, and whilst her death is accidental, Scottie is still irredeemably tethered to Judy’s sad end and can only hover on the edge of oblivion, look upon his own works, and tremble.

Vertigo was released right at the cusp of the emergence of the French New Wave directors who would both make his influence on them a matter of international argument and interest, whilst eating away at the fundamental principles he represented with their films. Yet with Vertigo, Hitchcock created something like a new lexicon for filmmakers who would follow him. The delicate dissolves and camera dollies that tether together the stages of Scottie’s pursuit of Madeleine whilst heightening the somnolent mood; the famous zoom-in, pull-back effect that literalises the effect of vertigo; the swirling 360° camera move, complete with an apparent change in setting from Judy’s flat to the stable at San Juan Bautista, as Scottie embraces the reconfigured Madeleine, a flourish that captures the soaring rapture and reality-shattering intensity in finally embracing a lover. All these tricks and more reconfigure the quality in scenes that would usually be expressed through dialogue and performance into the purely expressive imagery, working on both physical and intellectual levels. Thus, Hitchcock finally did something he had tried to achieve throughout his career: he dovetailed narrative interest and the cinematic device into a perfect union. Hitch, for all his brilliance, had often failed to employ such effects within a cohesive whole, one reason why more suspicious and literary-minded viewers had always regarded him as a gimmick-monger. Vertigo, however, is a continent entirely sufficient to itself. Whilst he hit possibly even more powerful heights in Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie, where he wrestles profoundly with the schism between his annihilating and redemptive urges, a schism dispatched with pitch-black sarcasm here, those films are all admittedly patchier and less perfect.

Hitchcock had invaluable aid from the technical team that was working like a crack military outfit at this time, especially costumer Edith Head and cinematographer Robert Burks, whose pictures at once absorb the physical reality of his settings and yet transform them into imagistic haiku. Of course, composer Bernard Herrmann also hit the pinnacle of his cinema career here, and his score is the aspect of the film that has arguably sunk most deeply into the pop-cultural landscape. Whilst writing this review, I was listening to a British TV mystery show where a recurring musical motif was baldly copied from it. And why not, when he created a perfect tone for sustaining a sense of spiraling mystery and all-pervading, oneiric fantasy? The recent hoo-hah about the use of a passage from the score in The Artist (2011) simply highlighted its invasive, iconic power.

I’ve found that Vertigo becomes a different movie when revisited at distinct stages of life. For myself, the movie-happy teenager who first saw it after being converted irrevocably into a Hitchcock fan and proper cinephile by a viewing of North by Northwest, I found it a decent, creepy mystery ruined by a plunge into weird melodrama. Then it became a staggering and grueling study in life’s regrets: just about everyone has been Scottie, Judy, Midge, even Madeleine at some time. It’s still a film for anyone who genuinely loves cinema; it’s also a film for anyone who’s been wrung by life, both in their own expectations of it and the shifting perceptions of time.

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1950s, Blogathon, British cinema, Film Noir

Hell Drivers (1957)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Cy Endfield (as C. Raker Endfield)

By Roderick Heath

This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.

My second blogathon entry allows me to write all at once about British film noir, a favourite field for me and one that hasn’t had much attention so far, and about Cy Endfield, one of whose films we’re raising money to restore. Hell Drivers, a far too little-known, rip-roaring gem of a melodrama, is one of the best British films of the 1950s, all the more admirable these days for its galvanising mix of action and realism, and lack of pretension.

Pennsylvania-born Endfield was a magician and inventor who got into filmmaking after impressing Orson Welles with his sleight of hand and being allowed then to watch him make films. His directing career was gaining momentum when the McCarthy era intervened, and after making his last American film, Tarzan’s Savage Fury (1952), a final indignity, he took an offer of work in Britain. He made over a half-dozen films and did some TV work in his new homeland, usually under pseudonyms, in the four years after his arrival. Today, Endfield is chiefly remembered for his collaboration with Ray Harryhausen on Mysterious Island (1961) and his one epic, Zulu (1963), one of the few war films ever made that manages to celebrate courage and dedication without also celebrating militarism and nationalism. Endfield’s mixture of admiration and ambivalence for such qualities is a defining trait of his highly uneven career, which even after he’d reestablished his credibility as a director, continued to be buffeted by the problems of movie financing. His career finally petered out in the late ’60s with De Sade (1969).

Hell Drivers kicked off his five collaborations with Welsh actor-producer Stanley Baker, a rare, bonafide movie star in 1950s British cinema who’s unfortunately not well remembered — look at how Zulu is promoted these days on DVD covers and in commentaries using not Baker but Michael Caine as the hook. But Baker, who had risen as a star playing scene-stealing louts and villains to become one of the first of a new breed of more explicitly rough-trade British movie star, put a lot of effort into fostering a strand of gritty, punchy, often socially relevant cinema. This made Endfield an ideal collaborator.

1957 was something of a watershed year for British cinema after many uncertain years following World War II, with David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai winning notice for prestige cinema, and Hammer Studio’s breakthrough with The Curse of Frankenstein signaling potential for the more disreputable kind. Meanwhile Brit-noir, under the powerful influence of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949), had percolated through the late ’40s and ’50s, often in very-low-budget thrillers and sometimes edging into war movies, with distinct imagery and themes that developed simultaneously to the American variety. Endfield followed in the tracks of his predecessor Jules Dassin in cross-breeding the two strands. Whilst, like American noir, the British variety had been powerfully influenced by Expressionism and French poetic realism from before the war, it also borrowed the veracity of Humphrey Jennings and John Grierson, documenting the waning days of imperial trade and industry amongst grimy streets, depleted shipyards, bomb sites, lingering austerity, and crummy jobs. Heroes were often relentlessly hounded.

One thing about Hell Drivers that catches the eye from a contemporary perspective is the number of future stars and cult figures in the cast: the first Doctor Who William Hartnell, the first James Bond Sean Connery, Danger Man and The Prisoner Patrick McGoohan, Man from U.N.C.L.E. costar David McCallum and his future wife Jill Ireland, Carry On alumnus Sid James, and Inspector Clouseau foil Herbert Lom. Hell Drivers also maintains a spiritual link to classic Warner Bros. social realism in the guise of punchy genre stuff, especially the likes of Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940) and Manpower (1941). Endfield’s film, adapted by him and John Kruse from Kruse’s short story, commences with defeated and desperate Tom Yately (Baker) looking for a job at Hawletts, a construction company that employs drivers to cart loads of ballast gravel from a nearby quarry. Tom meets the agent who hires and runs the drivers, Cartley (Hartnell), who’s explicitly contemptuous, but seems vaguely impressed by Tom’s grit when he suggests to him, “You’re looking for a sucker, aren’t you?” Cartley is willing to turn a blind eye to Tom’s lack of credentials and self-evident status as a recent jailbird, just as Tom is willing to play the company’s game of driving heavy loads at dangerous speeds along narrow, rough, rural English roads for the sake of unusually high pay. Yately moves into a boarding house run by “Ma” West (Marjorie Rhodes) and is initiated into the circle of Hawlett’s drivers who all live there, too.

The drivers are mostly unruly roughnecks from various walks of the British working class, including Cockney wit Dusty (James), Tinker (Alfie Bass), a Scotsman (Gordon Jackson), Welshman Kates (Connery), and others. This collective is dominated by their pacesetter and foreman, “Red” Redman (McGoohan), a bristling, violent punk who keeps the team moving in the direction he wants with a mixture of physical bullying and showy, aggressively garrulous leadership. The only human amongst the drivers is Emmanuel Rossi (Lom), who, as an Italian, is stuck with the nickname Gino. A former prisoner of war who stuck around in England after the war, his essential decency is the chief reason he’s managed to snare the affections of Lucy (Peggy Cummins), Cartley’s denim-clad secretary who’s inevitably lusted after by all the boys. Once she slaps eyes on Tom, though, her affections transfer irrevocably, and Tom is equally attracted, but he maintains his distance as he becomes good friends with Gino. They form a partnership in an attempt to unseat Red as the pacesetter. There’s a reward in this effort: Red waves a cigarette case worth ₤250 in front of the crew’s noses each night, to be awarded to the man who can make more runs than Red, and Tom’s determined to be the man. With a chip on his shoulder after his prison stay, ostracised by his mother (Beatrice Varley), and hungry for self-respect, Tom wants both the cash and the glory. But he finds the odds against him lengthened when Red and the boys start a brawl at a social dance in the nearby town. Because Tom walks out on them, wishing to avoid trouble with the cops and disdaining that behaviour, Red labels him “Yellow-belly” and he faces relentless sabotage and insults from the team. This builds to a head when Gino convinces Tom to change truck numbers with him so that Gino absorbs the abuse and Tom has a clear field. Tom decides to leave town when Lucy breaks up with Gino and comes on to him, but Gino still goes ahead with the number swap, and is mortally injured when someone rides him off the road.

Hell Drivers is one of those films that feels like the beginning of something that would later gain momentum, with the emphasis on high-speed thrills that would be fulfilled in the car-chase craze of ’60s and ’70s genre films, through to the likes of The Fast and the Furious (2001). And yet it’s also the kind of film that virtually no one seems to be able to make anymore, in that it manages to effortlessly be many kinds of movie at once. It’s a pulp melodrama. It’s a character study. It’s a portrait of group dynamics, social processes, and ethical vices. It’s a neorealist, detail-driven portrait of people who actually work for a living, and those at the very fringes of modern Western society. Endfield’s angry, anti-establishment mood would prove to be the vanguard of a rich, new cultural zeitgeist. Most irresistibly, it’s obviously a vehicle for Endfield to express his outrage and frustration at the conspiracy of ostracism that chased him out of Hollywood. Whilst the story is bound up in a certain required amount of genre cliché, the deep motivations of the film, the emotional force of the underlying anger at being taunted and ridden into the ground by forces that are outrageous enough at first glance but hide an even more malevolent impetus, is palpable. Tom is blacklisted by the drivers for refusing to play along, and indeed by almost everyone else in his life. “For us it’s a life sentence!” his mother spitefully informs him when he returns home to visit her and his brother Jimmy (McCallum), eaten up by the ignominy. Notably, much as Endfield had worked under different names, Tom does, too—he first gives his name is Joe—and so is Gino, who obviously channels Endfield’s exile status.

It’s Endfield’s riposte to Elia Kazan’s squealer apologia On the Waterfront (1956) and his harder-driving, rebellious answer to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fatalistic The Wages of Fear (1953). That it was personal for Baker, too, is signaled when his character says he comes from a town in Wales named after a mountain above his own real home town. Climbing to the top of British cinema, which was still grooming its young would-be stars to be proper young gentlemen and ladies, must have indeed felt like climbing a mountain or outracing the bastards to Baker, his friend Richard Burton, and their followers, like Michael Caine and Albert Finney. Baker himself was a committed socialist. The film’s plot is explicitly about the exploitation of workers, a point that deepens when Tom finds out through Lucy that the scheme is a scam run by Red and Cartley, who is hiring fewer drivers than he’s budgeted for and pocketing the difference, and the “competition” Red inspires is to make sure the men make up for the lack of numbers. Red’s domination is due to the fact that he takes a short-cut across a dangerous abandoned quarry, and those who have tried to follow him across have often ended up dead, including Tom’s predecessor, whose “dead man’s shoes” Tom all but literally steps into. Tom’s troubles with Red and the gang commence long before he learns about the scam, however. Red’s first gesture in the film when he appears is to kick the chair upon which Tom sits out from under him. He’s committed the cardinal sin, set up as a vicious joke by the others, of sitting in Red’s place.

Red is embodied by McGoohan with bristling, oversized force. Chewing on cigarettes, sporting a sheepskin jacket when driving, and willing to do anything to maintain his bullish supremacy, McGoohan resembles some variety of Vandal or Viking strayed into the modern world, radiating physical power with his slightly hunched, apish shoulders signaling his perpetual readiness to pummel someone who gets in his road. It’s not a subtle performance, but it is a tremendously energetic, entertaining one that pushes both Yately and the plot along, and there is a truth in its vivid conflation of everything unattractive about the macho bully. Balancing it is Baker’s quietly excellent simplicity, apparent particularly in the scene in which he accepts his mother’s spurning with a momentary contemplation, and then, after a few unfussy words, leaves. He’s great playing a man who picks and chooses the battles he fights with great care, whilst refusing to let his mixture of shame and his desire to assert himself lock him into immobility. His and Red’s differing styles of arch masculinity finally, after endless provocation, erupt into fisticuffs. Yately roundly defeats Red, who puts the victory off onto some imaginary unsporting move of Tom’s. Red needs to maintain the image of the unbeatable man of action to keep the others in line. Gino, running interference for Tom during their efforts to unseat him, parks his truck in front of Red’s at one point: Red gets out and marches over in a rage to haul Gino out, only to open his door and see the huge spanner Gino is holding in readiness. Red gets a big laugh out of this challenge, even if it doesn’t disarm him in the slightest.

Around the central drama is an intricately described world, from Tom picking up a discarded spark plug from the Hawlett’s yard and kissing it like a rosary for luck, to Ma West getting Tom to do up the straps on her spine-supporting corset, to the small Catholic shrine Gino keeps in the vacant room Tom moves into in the boarding house, hiding it from the gaze of those who might laugh at him for it. There’s the seedy diner across the street where Jill (Ireland), Ma’s quiet young daughter, works. Jill’s crush on Tom is dashed when she sees the crackle between him and Lucy. Lucy is defined by an unusually determined independence, which fazes Tom, who hardly expects to be getting the hard word from a woman, least of all one his new best friend wants to marry. She vengefully stalks into the dance hall dressed to the nines and sparking the drivers to act like a pack of howler monkeys. Later, when Lucy breaks up with Gino, she comes to visit him whilst he works on his truck. Their flirtation suddenly combusts in a saucy moment as Tom kisses her neck and fumbles to put away the work lamp he’s holding, plunging them into dark. The dark is then broken, in an inspired and moody scene transition, by Gino’s lighting a match in the pitch darkness of his room in the boarding house: you can feel his solitude and humiliation, as well as the solace of the darkness. The triangle between the three is easily the film’s most superfluous element, but it’s worth noting that Lucy’s love is for Gino, much the same as Red’s cigarette case is for Tom, an illusory spur to a goal always out of reach.

Endfield’s feel for the American tradition is given away by the Western references in the storyline, from some of the occasional transatlantic slang that creeps in and character names, like Dusty and Red, that would pass in a Horse Opera, to the High Noon-ish final joust of Red and Tom. But the diner, the boarding house, the dance hall with its tacky swing band, the ramshackle Hawletts yard and the rural landscape dotted with industrial detritus, all fairly reek of the still-lingering depression and exhaustion of post-war, pre-Beatles England, a milieu that recurs again and again in Brit-noir. It’s not hard to sense why Tom, for all the reasons not to, hurls himself into the high-speed duel with Red and the system to try to win an edge, and the terse, get-on-with-the-job milieu has an unfussy honesty that feels a lot like the war is still being waged psychically. That’s especially telling on the only occasion the “officer” class appears, one of the senior managers of Hawletts, who arrives to break up Red and Tom’s fight. Tom, asked by Lucy if the rumours about his incarceration are true, retorts with refreshing honesty and refusal of pathos: “Yes, it’s true. And I wasn’t framed, and nobody talked me into anything. And the judge didn’t give me a raw deal!”

The kinetic force of Hell Drivers, introduced by a first-person camera charging along the roads in the opening credits, is quite remarkable for a film of the period. Although the under-cranking of the footage to boost the impression of the trucks’ speed gets a bit obvious in places, the pace and sharpness of the editing isn’t to be denied, and it’s also admirable that there isn’t a moment of back-projection in the film. There’s one quickly glimpsed bit of model work, but the rest of the movie is utterly three-dimensional. There’s a particularly riveting sequence early in the film in which Tom is shown the ropes by Hawletts’ old-timer mechanic Ed (Wilfred Lawson), who pulls out his stop-watch to time Tom’s run from the gravel pit to the yard. Even after Tom crashes off the road, forced to swerve by two other oncoming trucks, Ed reminds him the clock’s still ticking. If there’s a major fault with the film, it’s that the subplot about Cartley’s malfeasance and collaboration with Red in screwing over the drivers is introduced too late, and Red’s forcing Cartley to join him in his final attempt to kill Tom whilst he traverses the old quarry is a bit too convenient a way of knocking off both baddies. Also, Lom’s Italian accent is-a bit-a hard-a to take-a.

A key aide to Endfield’s rigorous cinema is cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. With his grandiose work on the likes of The Lion in Winter and 2001: A Space Odyssey still well ahead of him, his work here with Endfield sees VistaVision frames filled with islands of casually brilliant deep-focus photography, capturing shots bustling with actors and variegated source lighting, and interesting levels of action diffusing throughout those frames. When Red first appears, Endfield situates McGoohan not in the rear of a frame, or emerging into the shot, but front and centre in a deeply composed, almost painterly shot in which he lifts his head from a washtub in the back of the diner, with the dining table loaded with the other drivers and Tom seated in Red’s chair in the background and Jill and the diner owner in the mid-ground. Red turns, observes the drivers, Jill eyes Red, speaks a warning to him; Red patronisingly cups her chin and then walks over to Tom. Red’s physical potency and eye on his target are all immediately conveyed. Later, there’s an equally sharp moment in which Tom, fleeing town, stands in a phone booth, calling his brother and making arrangements to contact his old criminal pals again. In the background, Lucy enters and flurries about barely noticed for several seconds before spotting Tom and racing forth to extract him. The use of the focus here is as good as that of Wyler and Mizoguchi, confirms what Endfield had learnt from Welles, and anticipates the intelligence of the widescreen work of Zulu. Another felicitous moment sees Tom and Lucy, waiting for word of Gino’s condition in the hospital; the shot peers along the centre of the corridor, but Tom and Lucy are crowded by their own guilt and worry to one edge of the frame.

Even in the fairly regulation climax, there’s a great little succession of almost throwaway detail: Red doesn’t realise it, but he’s taken Tom’s sabotaged truck to chase him down, for Tom has gone off with Red’s. Red only just realises this a moment before his brakes fail, pitching him and Cartley off the side of a cliff, one of their bodies hurled out the windscreen as the truck hits the bottom in a lovely punitive flourish. The tension doesn’t let up until literally the final moments, as Tom revives within his own smashed truck, which is hanging on the edge of the cliff, waiting for the gravel in the tray to slowly pour out before he scrambles out of the cab. The chains of cause and effect here are both naturalistic yet intricately plotted. Endfield and Baker reunited a year later with Sea Fury (1958), where they tried and failed to repeat the elements of this film, but still came up with a strong action climax. In any event, Hell Drivers is British noir at its gamey best. It’s worth noting, however, that the British Free Cinema, which would soon rise up and displace this sort of melodrama whilst also taking up some aspects of it, would offer up characters like Albert Finney’s in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), who act in ways rather closer to Red than to Tom, starting fights in dance halls and getting wasted, and yet were the heroes.

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2000s, Blogathon, Crime/Detective, Film Noir

Miami Vice (2006)

Director/Screenwriter: Michael Mann

By Roderick Heath

This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.

In looking for a film to write about for the Film Noir blogathon, I initially felt most motivated by what I wanted to avoid. Film noir was a dark, nasty, immediate kind of cinema movement that sprang out of artistic and real-world inspirations that were crucially of their moment, reportage from the front lines of domestic landscape of the Depression and World War II eras. It was really a style more than a genre, though tropes of crime fiction have become inextricably associated with it, blended and mediated through a specific range of clichés and metaphorical niceties that were exhausted with great speed. The intervening half-century of pop culture has often threatened to render that vital and spiky cinema a powerful magnet for nostalgic fetishism and arbitrary appropriation. Thus, I began to think more about what film noir had evolved into. I thought about what could be called the noir revivalism since the ’80s, some of which, like Wim Wenders’ Hammett (1982), Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), or Brian de Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006), preoccupy themselves in recreating the tangy milieu of noir but also employs a grittier portrayal of things more tangentially explored in the older genre works—sexuality, drugs, race, the whole shebang. And there are other films that, like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), the Wachowskis’ Bound (1996), Rian Johnston’s Brick (2005), and the oeuvre of John Dahl, took the basic precepts of classic noir and played them out in a contemporary context.

Only a few current English-language directors have, however, truly kept the ethos of noir alive without a hint of retro cute. Since his debut with 1981’s Thief, the most high profile is Michael Mann. Miami Vice, a bristling prestige project that had a troubled production and proved a surprise semi-failure on release, is nonetheless a genuinely evolved noir film. Adapted from the slick ’80s television series created by Anthony Yerkovich, for which Mann was executive producer and unofficial artistic mastermind, this Miami Vice refused to be nostalgic even for the ’80s. Mann signals his take fairly early when a nightclub pulses with Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”: the song is old, the beat is new. Mann built upon the stylish minimalism William Friedkin and Peter Yates had brought to crime flicks in the ’60s and ’70s, but his fascination with pared-down, art moderne visual textures was something new: existential haute couture. Mann’s stylistic reinventions have often outpaced audience receptivity throughout his career, and many of his early films, including the now-lionised Manhunter (1986), were bombs.

Miami Vice shows quickly enough how little interest it has in going through the niceties of adapting a TV show. Mann tosses the viewer in medias res with “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell), Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), and the members of their undercover squad, including Tubbs’ paramour Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris), Gina Calabrese (Elizabeth Rodriguez), Stan Switek (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Larry Zito (Justin Theroux), busy trying to sting pimp Neptune (Isaach De Bankolé) in that nightclub. Crockett is drawn away by a frantic phone call from informer Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes), who’s charging across the city in his sports car, hoping to make it home. His wife has been taken captive by the mob of drug-dealing white supremacists after Alonzo had arranged a meet-and-greet between the criminals and some FBI agents. Alonzo spilt the beans to the racists, and FBI agents are brutally, summarily gunned down by the white supremacists’ military-level firepower. Crockett and Tubbs manage to intercept him on the freeway and get him to pull over and explain, but when word comes through that Alonzo’s wife has been found murdered, Alonzo steps in front of a semitrailer. The boss of the blown FBI operation, Fujima (Ciarán Hinds), approaches Crockett, Tubbs, and their boss Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), because they’re the only people he can now trust with a mole certainly within his own operation.

Crockett and Tubbs swing into action, using their knowledge of who’s shipping what in and out of Miami and their willingness to bend the rules. After Trudy carefully falsifies criminal records for them, they destroy the high-speed boats being used to ferry in the gang’s dope. Then, using another criminal interlocutor, Nicholas (Eddie Marsan), the duo shop themselves out to the supply end of the business, represented by arch narcotics entrepreneur José Yero (John Ortiz) and the shadowy Isabella (Gong Li) from their base in Ciudad de Este in the Brazil-Paraguay-Argentine borderlands. Both are merely senior employees for the glowering kingpin Francisco Montoya (Luis Tosar), an internationally powerful, stateless monarch whose final approval Crockett and Tubbs have to gain to run a drug shipment into Miami. They pull this off and get a second, larger contract, hoping to learn as much as possible about Montoya’s operations. Crockett enters a swiftly combusting romance with Isabella, who is Montoya’s lover but also a nominal free agent. Yero, ruthless, paranoid, and suspicious of these too-efficient newcomers, uses this affair to convince Montoya they should nullify their deal with the Americans and let their Nazi business partners take care of them.

Unlike most of the neo-noir I mentioned above, Miami Vice maintains the defining aspect of noir: the visual style is an aesthetic unit with the story’s preoccupations and the overt and covert themes. Mann’s film burns like liquid nitrogen, laying out the eponymous city as a sprawl of lights drenched in darkness and populated by swashbuckling law enforcers and monstrous villains. The film’s imagery often resembles modernist painting and varieties of experimental photography. Such affectations retain a quality that was part of the punch of classic expressionist-influenced films, retaining a definite link with the way directors like Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and many others could twist a cinematic frame so that the elements within it became somehow abstracted. Mann shoots faces, bodies, technology, and architecture in such a way that they hover in a kind of electrified, yet impersonal beauty, sometimes with a crisp distance redolent of Jeffrey Smart or David Hockney, sometimes so close as to lose all sense of proportion and form. I particularly love the glimpse of the colossal white-supremacist thug festooned with tattoos and resembling some kind of humanoid brontosaur ransacking a refrigerator, while Alonzo’s wife’s slain form lays lifeless in the background. Another, very different moment of wonder comes when Sonny and Isabella flirt, their foreground faces blurred, but the background landscape sharp, perfectly communicating the almost drug-like intensity of their attraction.

The result is one the few genuine stylistic masterpieces of modern American film. Refining the aesthetic he’d developed in Thief, Manhunter, Heat (1995), and The Insider (1999), Mann pushed it to a limit here. Miami Vice’s terse, deterministic approach to the usual beats of the action-crime genre, as opposed to the operatic prolixity of Heat, is one of the things I like most about it, but this also perhaps made it bewildering for many. Mann tries to explicate as much of the drama as possible through the behaviour of the characters rather than through what they say to each other, and he pushes the notion that action is character to a rare level. The shot in which Crockett notices that Montoya and Isabella are wearing his-and-her watches turns casual detail into revelation, opening yawning abysses of subsequent uncertainty. That Crockett and Tubbs trust in each other completely is a matter chiefly communicated through how they stand and sit together, and the later concern Tubbs has that Crockett might be falling under the spell of Isabella and the potential imperial wealth he could accrue with her is as much about eye contact as talk. At the heart of this story, obviously, is one of the oldest motifs of the crime genre: the shifting no-man’s-land between cops and criminals. One of Mann’s most distinctive refrains in his crime stories is not just the porousness of the boundaries between good and bad, lawman and criminal, but also what keeps them polarised.

A significant difference between the hazy outsider parables of classic noir, with their losers, lone knights, femme fatales, and fatalistic sense of social hierarchy (and the insidious evil of fascism always sharply remembered as a then-recent phenomenon), and the sorts of TV dramas on which Mann cut his teeth, including Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice itself, was that such cop shows drew their heroes as guys doing a job and enjoying their lives when not working. This paved the way for how most modern cop shows are more about workplace dynamics than crime and its social dimensions. Mann’s concerns since starting his film career have been more classical, repeatedly pondering how people on both sides of any border, but usually a legal one, can have startling similarities as well as telling differences. “There’s undercover, and then there’s ‘which way is up’,” Tubbs notes at one point, firmly placing the film’s concerns back in classic noir territory. The real impetus there is found in the two concurrent, defiantly now-fashioned stories of Sonny and Isabella and Ricardo and Trudy, and narrative urgency is not sourced in any tension that Sonny and Tubbs might be seduced by the dark side, but in what their dedication might cost them and those they love. The early scenes portraying the grisly fate of Alonzo’s family and the FBI agents lay out the threat as almost gothic in scope and menace, especially the startling moment in which the racists’ high-powered weapons smash apart the agents.

Eventually, of course, they have to face down the same threats, when, double-crossed by Yero, they have to first extract Trudy from the hands of the racists, who have yoked her with plastic explosive (a charged image in more ways than one), and then work out a way of extracting Isabella and taking down the baddies without getting themselves annihilated. The story is necessarily simpler than the sorts of intricately woven political, social, and personality strands in some of Mann’s later-career films, like The Insider (1999) and Ali (2001). Yet his attempts to create a modern kind of noir film encompassing global networks of information, transport, permeable borderlines between national borders and even settled ethnic and sexual identities mediated throughout the flow of imagery both extends and, to a certain extent, subverts some of the given elements in classic noir films like Force of Evil (1948), The Big Heat (1953), Underworld USA (1961), in which crime organisations became metaphors for a sinister side to Western capitalism itself. In the course of the narrative, Mann traces the colossal drug-dealing project from end to end, possibly to make up for the epic he had wanted to made about the drug trade that was forestalled by Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2001). This holistic vision of worlds within worlds makes Miami Vice a much darker, denser film than one expects.

Almost all classic noir films are about the subterranean link between mean streets and the mansion on the hill. The original inspiration for Yerkovich’s series was a story he’d read about how the seized assets of drug dealers were being employed in operations against them. Such is the reason why Crockett, Tubbs, and the rest of their team are able to live lifestyles seemingly far above their pay grade. The sheer scale of money and clout the likes of Montoya can call up, and the lifestyle they can enable, is pretty seductive. Mann is superlative at changing the tone and pace of his films with strange reversals, like the famous sleeping tiger scene in Manhunter and the coffee-drinking scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. Here it’s in a scene where Isabella, after making a deal with Crockett and Tubbs, succumbs casually to Sonny’s come-ons and gets him to take her out for a spin in a borrowed-for-the occasion speed boat. She convinces him to take her to Havana for a drink, and they speed off across the waves. It’s as if he’s suddenly driving the movie into a hazy fantasy, a high-end commercial or space-age version of an Ernst Lubitsch film where ritzy people casually do ritzy things at the drop of a hat. And yet it cleverly and seductively illuminates the film’s biting perspective on a 21st century in which money, and what it buys, has become its own continent. Where once Friedkin’s hero Popeye Doyle had stood on a corner in the cold and watched his quarries stuff their faces, Mann’s are much more comfortable. But this, in its way, proves more dangerous.

What follows is an extended romantic interlude that deliberately echoes the earlier one between Ricardo and Trudy. Both couples shower together in moments of eroticism, but the disparity between the moments is impossible to ignore. Whereas Tubbs and his girl are clearly, easily in accord on all levels to the point where Ricardo can get away with a cheeky premature ejaculation gag and it’s just part of the fun, the layers of truth and deception in Sonny and Isabella’s relationship (Is his anecdote about his roadie father true? Why is he trying to make the super-profitable deal with her?) are all too telling. Add to this, of course, the obvious, suggestive disparities—Sonny the white trash rendered slicker by experience and ambition, romancing Isabella, a Chinese woman with a Spanish name and a mother who was a translator killed in Angola. Mann’s odd, fascinating games with racial coding expresses itself in Isabella and, in less germane style, with Fujima, played by an Irishman. Such seems to be his way of both subverting the clear-cut boundaries of the original series’ drug war geopolitics and simple fascination with watching the world’s wanderers find each other. Professionalism is another of the few meaningful yardsticks in Mann’s films, and, of course, Crockett, Tubbs, and team are arch experts; but so are Isabella, Yero, Montoya, and even some of the white supremacists.

That sort of chitinous professionalism that hides a hidden psychic cost is also, of course, another long strand in noir, back to Hammett and Hemingway, the latter being one of noir’s biggest nongenre sources. Mann’s embattled individualists, searching for their own ways of living and often rejecting those that don’t smell right, certainly belong to that tradition, and his version of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) sifted out their link to an even older tradition (and notice Crockett’s name, “sonny” of another frontiersman legend). And yet some of the most fascinating moments in the film are far smaller and human, like Sonny’s care in doing up Isabella’s seatbelt in the speedboat, or the beat in which Isabella waits for Montoya to speak after she casually informs him she slept with Crockett, and he only wants to know more about what she’s gleaned of his business plans. The cops-vs.-robbers business here is traditional men’s stuff, of course, but also one, Mann repeatedly emphasises, in which modern women are more often a part. Isabella, Trudy, and Calabrese are fully engaged members of what used to be purely masculine fields of endeavour, in a modern sense, and yet when push comes to shove they’re rendered pawns by the baddies. Isabella is no traditional femme fatale, in that her purpose is not consuming destructiveness of herself and others, in spite of the fact that she’s most definitely a criminal; “She’s one of them,” Tubbs states categorically to Sonny to remind him of the demarcations of their world. But she’s really more a kind of brutally pragmatic yuppie, jetting off to Geneva when business calls. I like Li’s performance in the film in spite of her initially inelegant command of English, and in part because of it, for the way Li relaxes and responds to Farrell’s Crockett with her entire physique and manner.

Crockett and Tubbs are, finally, old-fashioned white knights, going down those mean streets. Tubbs’ first specific gesture in the film comes when, infuriated by seeing Neptune manhandle one of his young hookers, Tubbs chases after him and breaks the fingers of one of his bodyguards. Later, when Trudy is endangered, Tubbs gains a personal motivation. Perhaps the true femme fatale is Calabrese, who has what is actually the film’s greatest bit of tough-guy business. She confronts the white supremacist holding the trigger for the bomb around Trudy’s neck, and informs him how she’ll shoot him in such a way that he can’t reflexively detonate the bomb; “Fuck y-” is all he gets out before her bullet does exactly that. The scene in which Tubbs and Calabrese invade the trailer of the creeps holding Trudy—the most-low-rent end to an international conspiracy imaginable—is borderline brilliant, not only for the bit mentioned above, but also for Tubbs’ own no-bullshit handling of the situation. You know all those films where you groaned when a hero failed to stop a villain by neglecting to put a bullet in his head when he was down? Not this one. But then, the nasty twist: Yero remotely sets off the explosive, seriously injuring Trudy just at the point all seems well.

After that, naturally, comes a walloping showdown between the cops and Yero’s coalition of paramilitary enforcers and the white supremacists. Sonny and Isabella are literally caught in the middle, and Ricardo chases down and blows a hole in Yero. The action here anticipates the mix of naturalism and first-person force Mann would again muster in his follow-up, Public Enemies (2009), a film that intriguingly attempted to avoid the usual affectations of the period movies comprising much of the noir revivalist oeuvre. That Crockett and Tubbs’ ethics are at a slight remove from the strictures of their job is not shocking, but it is important, as Crockett, with Tubbs’ silent assent, bundles Isabella away from the battle scene to make her escape. Real heroism in Miami Vice is finally being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, and also to make the compromise between wish and reality. The film ends on much the same unfinished note with which it began, with Trudy merely recovering from her injuries, the standby villains defeated, but with Montoya having escaped.

Miami Vice is such an inherently visual film that it’s damnably hard to write about and demands multiple viewings, but I’ve come to love it as well as admire it. The acting is of a very high calibre, with Farrell and Foxx acquitting themselves exceptionally well; I particularly enjoy the unblinking deadpan fashion with which Tubbs asks of Yero, “Are you with the Man?”, a line that might have defeated many other actors. But it’s often the supporting cast, especially Tosar, Henley, and, above all, Ortiz, who truly galvanise the film. The result is one of my favourite films of the new millennium and one that keeps something of noir’s crumpled romanticism alive amongst the high-tech and unforgivingly modern.

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1990s, Blogathon, Drama

Amistad (1997)

 

Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

This is an entry in The Spielberg Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies and Ryan Kelly of Medfly Quarantine.

I remember wondering back in the mid ’90s if Steven Spielberg had retired from directing after Schindler’s List (1993), his colossal, uneven holocaust diorama, finally brought him the widespread admiration as a cinema artist he seemed to have been longing for, right after Jurassic Park (1992) gave him the biggest hit of all time. After all, this was the sort of feat any filmmaker had to count as the pinnacle of their career. Four years passed between Schindler’s List and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). And yet, as he’s done often throughout his career, he quickly released a moneyspinner in near-tandem with a personal, more archly solemn work—Amistad.

Amistad was the middle film of what I’ve come to think of as his “Historical Conscience” trilogy, with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998) as its bookends, and it was, for the most part, received coolly and was soon eclipsed by Private Ryan’s near-orgiastic acclaim. Amistad neglected the gloriously oversized raptures of his first two dramas, The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), and much of the self-conscious largesse of its triptych companions. Instead it was, on the face of it, a sober, talky tale that encompasses America’s greatest guilt complex, the transatlantic slave trade, in the form of a courtroom drama. The naked appeals to audience involvement and empathy that rendered Schindler’s List troublesome to some, and his overt efforts to bring a newly visceral, confrontational sense of violence that would find grand consummation in Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day opening, were both dialed back, and the horrors of the situation at hand explored more tangentially.

I’ve expected myself to reevaluate Amistad over the years, to decide it’s preachy, stagy, and minor. Nonetheless, Amistad has instead consistently remained my personal favourite of all Spielberg’s dramatic films. Whilst it doesn’t conjure anything quite as startlingly staged as the Krakow and warfare scenes in its trilogy partners, it also doesn’t provide anything as excruciating as Schindler’s List’s more stilted dialogue exchanges, or Private Ryan’s flimsy present-day frame, and its attempts at providing a kind of Socratic dialogue within itself are the most integral and persuasive of Spielberg’s several attempts at such. I take enormous pleasure in every sequence, every performance, in the deeply, physically convincing recreation of the historical milieu and the care with which Janusz Kaminski filmed it. It is fitting that Amistad gave to cinema the career of Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of our finest contemporary actors, as well as the charismatic Djimon Hounsou. Every bit as rigorous in terms of intense physical detail and production polish as his other films, it is nonetheless the most beautiful, coherent, and classical of all Spielberg’s serious works. Amistad achieves the effortless blend of the near-mythic and the intimately conversational those old-school cinema heroes the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Dieterle, and Michael Curtiz could bring to such dramas.

Some obvious statements first: Amistad’s a film that aimed to do for the African-American experience, which Spielberg had articulated his sympathy with in The Color Purple, what Schindler’s List had done for his own Jewish identity—to contextualise horrific aspects of its past, and to explicate a new paradigm for it. It’s modern in theme, insomuch as that it’s about nascent multiculturalism and self-empowerment rather than merely showing white guys being so kind as to stop enslaving black people. Or, at least, it’s not only about that. It’s also a film that clearly signals how Spielberg was willing to use his clout as a mainstream cinema hero to make films that push the boundaries of what that mainstream cinema can and should do. Only a few lines of dialogue are translated into English in the film’s first 20 minutes, and that opening relies instead almost purely on visual storytelling; later parts are purely about speaking and listening.

Amistad draws its ironic title from the vessel La Amistad, which is transporting a boatload of illegally enslaved men and women from Mendiland (in present-day Sierra Leone) in 1839. The ship is taken over by those slaves after one of them, Singbe Pieh, renamed Joseph Cinqué (Hounsou) by his captors, mounts an escape and leads his fellows in a slaughter of their tormentors. The Mende keep two of the Spanish crew of slavemasters, Ruiz and Calderon (Geno Silva and Tomas Milian), alive to steer them home. But that duo contrives to hug the American coast, and the rebels are captured by a U.S. navy frigate and put on trial in New Haven, Connecticut.

The question as to whether they’re guilty of piracy and murder on the high seas, or whether they are, in fact, merely property to be returned to their owners, is central to the trial, as several parties, including Ruiz and Calderon, the Spanish government, and the American officers who “salvaged” them, contend for the prize. Abolitionist journalists Joadson and Tappan (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgård) make the defence of the Africans their project. After an aborted effort to convince former U.S. President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), now an embittered and distracted U.S. Senator, to represent their cause, the journalists eventually hire property-rights attorney Roger Baldwin (McConaughey) to be the defendants’ advocate. He’s the only local lawyer willing to take the case, but his pragmatic reading of the issues at stake seems rather ignoble for the abolitionists. Yet his notion that merely proving that the slaves are from Africa rather than Cuban plantations will make all other points void proves persuasive; under the hypocritical, but consequential law of the time, the enslavement of free-born people was illegal, and the Africans had every right to commit insurrection in such a circumstance. Baldwin argues this case with the help of a manifest that he and Joadson locate on the La Amistad, which details how the Africans were transported across the Atlantic in an infamous slave ship, the Tecora. But with elections coming up, President Martin Van Buren (a splendidly craven Nigel Hawthorn), fearing loss of votes in Dixie, has his Secretary of State John Forsyth (David Paymer) and underling Hammond (Xander Berkeley) begin influencing the case. They have the first judge on the case (Allan Rich) dismissed and replaced by the handpicked Coglin (Jeremy Northam), whom they assume to be malleable because he is both at the start of his career and Catholic, then a handicap.

David Franzoni’s otherwise highly intelligent script leans on some familiar touches for elucidating sympathy and humour, mostly in the transformation of Baldwin from the antebellum equivalent of an ambulance-chasing douchebag into a man with a burgeoning sense of shared humanity, and the wait for Adams to come out swinging like a dry, drawling, legalistic Rocky. But such flourishes are, for me anyway, part of the film’s appeal, partly because they’re not oversold and because they establish the film’s credentials as old-fashioned, melodramatic agitprop. And they’re also part of the texture in a story that’s as much about the potential for noble institutions to be both cyclically corrupted and cleansed, depending of the mettle of the people engaging with them, as it is about the history of slavery. It’s also, of course, a film about humanity and its capacity to be both horrendous and virtuous, sometimes all at once and in fierce, virtually surreal opposition. Amistad is also perhaps Spielberg’s most sophisticated exploration of his most important recurring theme: the difficulties and beauties of communication. Revisiting Amistad to write this piece, it occurred to me that Spielberg’s career unfolded in the wrong direction. If he had made a film like this first, and then Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), he would have been congratulated for adapting his serious themes for a larger audience. Instead the cheap shot that’s always been used to attack his dramatic films has been the old “stick to making movies about dinosaurs” line.

Amistad’s opening contains some of the most vivid images of Spielberg’s career, thanks to his great find, the Polish-born cinematographer Kaminski, obscure before he provided Schindler’s List’s monochromatic ferocity. Boiling the film’s metaphysical and corporeal concerns down to a single act, the opening depicts Cinqué’s colossal, sweat-bejewelled brow as he tries to dig a rivet from out of the wooden frame of the hull, his nails scratching at the splinters and caked in blood, the unbearably slow, squeaking slide of the rivet out of its place to pick the lock on his chains. The imagery—the martyred man’s intense self-mortification, the drawing of the great spike—suggests crucifixion in reverse, and the resonances will spread throughout the coming narrative. Cinqué and his fellows emerge into a storm-thrashed night, and the hulking African warrior, every bit as terrifying as the tyrannosaurs that stalked Jurassic Park, roars with inconsolable fury as he slaughters his enemy. Later, when he tries to puzzle out Ruiz and Calderon’s deceptions, he turns the wheel of the boat whilst studying the way it affects the position of the stars: there’s something ineffably primal in the image of the aboriginal man evolving into a Copernican astronomer and seafarer. Cinqué connects to other Spielbergian protagonists who gaze at the night sky—Roy Neary, Quint, Indiana Jones, Elliott—and tried to puzzle out their place in the universe’s scheme. Whilst coming from a less “civilised” civilisation, he’s still a man, and far from stupid; on the contrary, he possesses the capacity to puzzle out a challenging, hostile, bizarre world with relentless ingenuity and determination, and he knows the stars as a map for his own world, too.

Shortly after, the La Amistad drifts past a ship on which a party of ritzy folk are dining. The immediate contrast, of the pretentious gentility of the white westerners and the fearful, frazzled Africans, is easily evident, but the scene echoes on deeper levels. Spielberg stages it with a ghostly aura that’s reminiscent of the way John Carpenter shot the appearance of the phantom ship in The Fog (1980), and like that film, it’s about angry spectres from crimes of profit resurging out of the mystic sea. The brief vision each ship’s parties have of each other seems charged with oppositional mystery and threat, as if neither belongs to the same world, each as unreal as the other. The physical nature of the scene—the dense fog, the creak of the ships’ rigging, the lilting elegance of a string quartet, the bleakly mystified gazes of the Africans and the perturbed returned stares of the whites—makes it seem like a fever dream where wildly disparate versions of humanity are as strange and irreconcilable as any men and monsters in Spielberg’s genre tales. Soon enough, the Mende find themselves locked within not only an alien country, but also an alien system of laws, letters, language, and presumptions that are almost entirely inimical to their own hitherto self-evident identity. When they’re captured, Cinqué’s determination to remain free sees him resort first to trying to swim home, and then to try to drown himself, but his will to live is finally greater.

Communication now becomes imperative, both legally and interpersonally. Amistad is a rare film, especially in modern Hollywood, that privileges words, laws, vision, and oratory on the same level as physical action and heroism. What words mean, and what they’re used for, are profoundly important things in this society, and defeating slavery and injustice is also a matter of defeating a dominant discourse. When the Mende are being escorted into prison, Cinqué and his fellows bellow in outrage and protest, and the guards treat this with contempt. Cinqué has his hand crushed in a gate by a jailer simply to get him to enter a cell. Many confrontations finish up with the hapless Africans shouting incoherently at the jailers and bristling at perceived threats and insults that make no sense to them. The problem of how to make the Africans understand their exact situation and allow them to tell their story—as Adams insists is a prerequisite for winning any case—presses upon their defenders. Here Amistad, whilst not losing its main focus, becomes a kind of screwball comedy of constantly repelled and cross-purpose communicative gambits, with the flustered Baldwin and the bemused, angry Cinqué cast in the functional roles of two potential brothers who need to learn how to speak to each other. The first translator Baldwin digs up, an anthropology professor (Austin Pendleton), fails to understand the Mende dialect and so makes up translations. Baldwin, Joadson, and Tappan have to scour the docks reciting words in Mende to dig up a native speaker, finally getting one in the form of James Covey (Ejiofor), a Mende who, after being rescued off a slave ship himself, became a sailor in the navy that saved him—the British navy.

That irony, that the nominal early enemies of American freedom actively fought against slavery in the post-Wilberforce era, is oft-repeated in Amistad. Against this is pitted mordant humour in the spectacle of Spain’s 11-year-old ruler Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin) and her patronisingly anti-democratic advisors trying to gain what they see as natural justice out of the trial. During the trial, Peter Firth makes an appearance as Captain Fitzgerald, a British officer who’s working to disrupt the slave trade and whose expert testimony is belittled by the state’s prosecutor Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite); Fitzgerald’s increasing irritation and disdain are all too obvious under the stiff upper lip, in a scene full of dark foreboding and threatening undercurrents. Covey provides the vital link between the Mende and their defenders, and Cinqué can then tell his story.

Where Amistad makes for a fascinating and intelligent extension to, and auto-critique of, Schindler’s List is in the way Spielberg goes to such lengths to unfold his story. In this way, he places the pain and necessity of remembering, the confusion of witnessing, and the difficulty of proof in a more important position. To win his case, Cinqué must recount the dreadful things that he saw and went through—being kidnapped from his home village, being kept in the slave trading fortress of Lomboko and then transported on the Tecora, and comprehending brutality that seems beyond all understanding. Whippings, rapes, and degradations. Men and women chained together and flung overboard. A woman giving birth in the huddled battery-farmlike lower decks of the ship and then promptly dying as her child is passed over the enchained ranks of slaves to its father. Another woman, suckling the baby, hurls herself and it to their deaths in the sea to escape this nonexistence. It’s a story the meaning of which Cinqué himself can’t comprehend, even as it finally contextualises his mad screams of bloodlust in his revolt. Holabird calls it a “good work of fiction,” even as Fitzgerald calmly explains the reasons for all the apparently incomprehensible acts of carnage as being merely cold pragmatism on the slavers’ part.

This notion that witnessing and testimony are vital in making society face up to shameful things is powerful and ever-relevant. It also allows Spielberg to avoid some of the problems that beset his approach to Holocaust: the fragmented landscape of atrocity in Amistad is selectively recalled and therefore free of any overneat sense of dramatic cause and effect. Cinqué’s subsequent survival and ability to speak about it are as much through chance as anything else, even if his own story is one of heroism and refusal to submit, and he holds on to his experiences like random shards of a nightmare. Overcoming the willful ignorance of a society in which the internet wasn’t even a thought and photography was just being invented, it was all too easy to ignore the truth of such situations, and this proves to be both a key to the trial and the overwhelming problem facing the abolitionists. Identity is a problematic notion. Proving who the Mende are is fraught with difficulty, and yet it’s not limited to them. Joadson, whose nightmarish experience in the La Amistad’s hold conjures his forefathers’ transportation as a perfervid race memory, is trying to come to terms with his own exceptional freeman status, and even Adams, whose own burden, that of his seeming inadequacy after his sire John Adams (“The only thing John Quincy Adams will be remembered for is his middle name!” Forsyth has previously derided), is reiterated constantly.

The process of what is known in contemporary postcolonial and structuralist studies as the construction of Otherness is seen in many forms in Amistad’s early sections, with the lack of dialogue as the key to the enforced portrait of the Africans as subhuman. There’s an intricate play on structuralist signs at work here, for the first actual subtitled line from one of the Mende is when he mistakes a black slave coachman for a chief because of his apparently exalted position on top of the carriage he steers. The Mende’s sense of the world’s signs are schematic and easily associative, full of direct meaning, which becomes all too apparent later when Covey, during a fraught conversation between Cinqué and Baldwin, explains to the frustrated lawyer that there is no Mende word for “should.” Cinqué’s friend and fellow prisoner Yamba (Razaaq Adoti) first likens Baldwin’s overeager manner to a man who was employed as a dung scraper in their village, and Cinqué murmurs that such a man might actually be what they need. Cinqué is ambivalent about the esteem his fellow Mende hold him in, for he was given preeminence as a warrior in their society for slaying a marauding lion, a feat he accomplished, he confesses to Baldwin, only by the lucky throw of a stone. The echoes of this story are clear—David and Goliath, obviously, but also, more pertinently, the finale of Jaws (1975)—thus clearly constituting Cinqué as one of Spielberg’s monster-slaying Everymen. Baldwin, too, is evolving into a lion slayer, and he has to remind Cinqué of the other lion he slew, the rebellion he led on the La Amistad, to recharge Cinqué’s sense of potency.

Spielberg’s customarily ambivalent take on religion bobs up throughout Amistad, a film which vibrates with echoes of parable. Such is particularly apparent in a lengthy, almost dreamy sequence in which Yamba reads through the bible handed to him by one of the abolitionists, and teases out for Cinqué that narrative he gleans from the engraved plates that tell Christ’s tale. This moment celebrates the power of visual storytelling as well as the potential for the beauty of faith to be easily communicated. But other underpinnings of this scene have already been suggested in moments in which the Africans are bewildered by the severe look of the Quakers who form the core of their abolitionist support that bolsters an otherwise jeering, hateful crowd surrounding the courthouse. Cinqué now sees signifiers of the hitherto mysterious religion of the Americans everywhere, even on the masts of ships, and interprets the Christ tale and the look of the abolitionists as involving a deeply morbid quality that permeates white western society that will sacrifice the Mende as Christ was when the time arrives. “That’s when they will finally kill us,” Cinqué states to Adams, when asked what will happen at the Supreme Court. This suggestion has an aspect of truth. Tappan’s tendency to reduce issues to flowery abstraction proves finally to mask an attitude to the matter at hand that’s less about saving specific lives than crusading on “the battlefield of righteousness,” or self-righteousness. He entertains the notion that the slaves are of more use to the cause dead than alive, which causes Joadson to break with him.

As much as there’s an overwhelming sense of deistic yearning, however playfully concealed, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Indiana Jones films, Spielberg’s interest in religion always centers chiefly on how it acts as social cement and form of heritage—as another form of communication for the passing along parables and legends as exemplars and embodiments of values. Cinqué reminds Yamba, “This is just a story,” but the point is that no story is just a story. Yamba’s explication is crosscut with images of Coglin worshipping in church. Far from being a reason to obey Forsyth’s wishes in the case, for Coglin his Catholic conscience is plainly part of the reason he finds in favour of the self-evident truth that the men of La Amistad are freeborn.

I’ve noted before in my commentary on Temple of Doom what an extremely musical director Spielberg can be, and that quality is subtly evident throughout Amistad. That cross-cutting between Yamba’s explication and Coglin’s worship works in a clearly contrapuntal fashion, and the sequence before that is a great example of Spielberg’s capacity to build towards climaxes and then let them fall away, in a fashion that resembles a Bruckner symphony. The scene in which Holabird grills Fitzgerald is staged as the courtroom, mostly illuminated by external ambient light, is filled with the infernal glow of dusk light as the smouldering tension between Fitzgerald and Holabird and their opposing worldviews becomes acute. Cinqué, seated in the dock, begins to silently panic as he reads the room, a plethora of tiny, insignificant details like twiddled cane knobs and the sheen of sweat Fitzgerald’s hand leaves on the wood of the witness bench, suddenly charged with suffocating meaning: he comes now to comprehend that the simple truth he recounted on the stand might still be lost, and now begins to speak his first words in fractured English (“Give us…us free!”) first in a fierce whisper and then in a righteous bellow. It’s corny on one level, but it’s also a sequence built with sublime technical and artistic care. Then it subsides again as if some random moment of humanity has somehow punctured the glaze of legal process. This is also vitally important in that it’s the first time Cinqué can make his sentiments crystal clear to the society now holding him captive. And yet this is only a small example of the many small swells and retreats in the film’s rhythm, which, of course, builds to a literally explosive climax and melancholic diminuendo.

Another aspect of the innate musicality is, as ever, John Williams’ music score, which could actually be the pinnacle of his and Spielberg’s collaboration, and that is saying something. Williams’ music, blending African themes with sweeping Copland-esque Americana, achieves aurally what the film attempts to do thematically—to draw out the common ground of disparate cultures and celebrate humanistic resistance to tyranny—with the recurring theme “Dry Your Tears, Africa” first heard in embryonic form when Adams prods Joadson about the importance of telling stories and rising with expansive heroism in later scenes. Adams finally joins the fight proper when his august expertise becomes necessary. That comes after Coglin finds in favour of the Africans. Van Buren is scared by the glowering auguries of Adams’ former vice president and slavery advocate John Calhoun (a keen cameo by Arliss Howard) that the unfavourable outcome of the case might not only lose Van Buren the election but might add fuel to the budding secessionist cause. So Van Buren has the case referred on to the Supreme Court, of which, Baldwin notes, seven of the nine members are slave-owning southerners.

Amistad was one of two prominent films of 1997—the other being Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt—to lead to a climactic argument in front of the Supreme Court. Comedian Bobcat Goldthwaite once took a sharp jab at Schindler’s List: “After making hundreds of millions of dollars, Spielberg finally decided to make a film with social content: the Nazis were bad! Wow!” In such a light, it’s not a small thing to note that Amistad is Spielberg’s most political film prior to Munich, in the sense that it is a clear assault on conservative readings of a constitution put together by revolutionaries. The nearly 10-minute final summation by Adams, a joyous piece of marathon theatrical showmanship on Hopkins’ part, is more than just a clear nod to such capping scenes in classic films like A Free Soul, Young Mr. Lincoln, Inherit the Wind, and A Man For All Seasons, but also a philosophical exegesis. Adams sets out to establish Cinqué as a man, and an heroic one at that, for both the court and the sake of conservative and phallogenocentric sensibilities that regard the struggles of black men as less immediately worthy of depiction and transmission (“If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn’t be able to stand, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about, the great authors of our time would fill books about him!”). But he also channels Cinqué’s cultural understanding of his ancestors as direct aides in his life, in a spiritual sense, into an invocation of the capacity of heroic exemplars of all kinds to be spurs to right action.

Adams, too, learns to embrace such a legacy not as a burden but an inspiration, and a challenge, memorably suggesting that the Declaration of Independence be torn up if Calhoun’s credo is to be taken seriously, and actively pits the idealistic creed of the revolution in opposition to Van Buren’s cynical real politik and Calhoun’s pretentious white supremacy. This is Spielberg casting an eye on the meandering fashion in which the precepts of the American founding documents were used to achieve great breakthroughs in the time of Spielberg’s own youth in resistance to reactionary sentiments, and also another invocation of a sense of community that is larger and grander than the conveniently individualistic. “Who we are is who we were,” Adams reports, meditatively. Such a notion of overarching stories and awareness of culture, the inescapability of the past—and that not necessarily being a bad thing—which enfolds and overlaps with our present, individual selves, also infuses the other films in the Historical Conscience trilogy.

The payoff is Cinqué’s second liberation, the manacles now finally taken off his hands in the courtroom, and then, the consummation of the carefully controlled rhythm, where the film lets slip at last and offers up the rousing thunder, as Fitzgerald’s rifles and cannons smash Lomboko Fortress into rubble, its masters lying with smoking bullet holes in their flesh and their enslaved population flowing to freedom. There’s clear visual affinity there to the kids escaping the Thugee’s caverns in Temple of Doom, the film that first invoked Spielberg’s emancipationist concerns. There’s a bit of license here. Lomboko was wiped out in 1849, eight years after John Forsyth, to whom Fitzgerald dictates a pithy letter once the fortress has been smashed, ceased to be Secretary of State. But the impact of this moment is still colossal. Yet Amistad’s final note is perhaps the most outright tragic Spielberg left off on since The Sugarland Express (1974), with Cinqué, his fellows, and Covey too, making their way back to Africa, where civil war and the decimation of his village awaits, just as it looms in the America he’s left behind. Even those who beat the odds of history must still bow to it.

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