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

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

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

By Roderick Heath

Mario Puzo was a journalist and sometime novelist who, frustrated by his lack of publishing success and tired of being in debt, set out with determination to write a bestseller. Puzo drew on his years of experience as a journalist working for pulpy magazines to present an anatomy of the most notorious branch of the American underworld which had been partly illuminated by investigations in the past two decades. This worthy ambition paid off in spades when his novel The Godfather, released in 1969, became a runaway hit and one of the most popular fiction works ever published. Puzo had sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures even before the book was done, who made it the test case for a new way of making movies that has since become the essential lynchpin of the movie business: the tent-pole blockbuster, a big-budget movie based on a popular property released with saturation acts of promotion. The rest, as they say is history.

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Although the first The Godfather film is getting on for a half-century old, the series’ impact and influence has probably never been more pervasive in pop culture. It’s passing obvious to note that, with their savvy in blending plot with strong yet unobtrusive style, and obsession with antiheroic protagonists who simultaneously compel and repel, the Godfather films stand as an essential blueprint for ambitious contemporary television more than current Hollywood film, save for a few revivalist tyros. More immediately, Coppola’s films permanently changed the look and sound of the gangster movie to the point where talents as diverse and individualistic as Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Brian De Palma, and Abel Ferrara all made their separate peace with its influence. Only Michael Mann successfully defined another path for the genre. From today’s perspective, it seems both inspiring and surprising just how many chances the studio was willing to take with their great money-spinning proposition, although the film’s production was contentious for just that reason.

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This was the Hollywood of the early 1970s, still desperately finding its feet after two decades of upheaval, trying to work out what a young audience in particular wanted and looking to young talents for the answer. One whizz-kid, studio boss Robert Evans, employed another as director in Francis Ford Coppola, because the Italian-American impresario in his early 30s could bring authenticity to the project and also would work for cheap. Coppola, scion of a cultured family as far from Puzo’s hoods as it seemed possible to get, initially balked at the proposition of making a film about the Mafia, but soon clicked with the material as a mode of exploring capitalism and the uneasy relationship of constituent populaces to power in the republic. Coppola in turn ruffled feathers by hiring the waning, industry-reviled star Marlon Brando and the barely-known stage actor Al Pacino for the two crucial roles. Evans also had the sense to assign the canny and disciplined producer Albert S. Ruddy to keep a tight leash on the production. All quite fitting for a film deeply concerned with the fraught dialogue between age’s hard-won wisdom and youthful prospect, and a study in square pegs cruelly shaved to fit in round holes.

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Puzo abandoned his more literary ambitions for his novel, offering a flatly recounting writing style that made for a quickly consumable pulp treat, but also offered up a substantial basis for dramatic enlargement, the arrival of the age where the successful pop novel was more than anything a long movie outline. Pauline Kael was rarely more accurate when she called what Puzo and Coppola accomplished with the film as alchemy. Puzo’s smarts as a constructor of grand narratives that could link the microcosmic with larger mythmaking, which would also later be exercised effectively in providing the story for Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), connected with Coppola’s interest in characters struggling to be more than the world wants them to be. These concerns Coppola had struggled with in his mainstream film debut, Dementia 13 (1963), made for his industry mentor Roger Corman, and his attempts to break out in the electric late ‘60s movie scene with the hipster comedy You’re A Big Boy Now (1967) and the melancholy drama The Rain People (1969). His one big studio excursion prior to The Godfather had been the backdated musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968). His best claim to fame however was winning an Oscar for co-writing Patton (1970), where his imagistic notions included the iconic opening scene of the prickly protagonist standing before a colossal American flag.

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The opening moments of The Godfather have a similar aspect blending theatrical directness and an emblematic quality close to what business lingo calls branding. Nino Rota’s sad and elegant trumpet fanfare heard of a stark black-and-white title gives way to funeral director Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) speaking to the camera in accounting both his faith in America whilst also requesting punitive action in an old world fashion from his feudal overlord. This stark episode of fatherly anger and yearning sees Bonasera asks Don Vito Corleone (Brando), the self-styled spiritual patriarch to a corner of New York’s Italian-American community and head of a crime family with fortune and influence far beyond that community’s borders, to punish the young American boys who viciously assaulted his daughter. Immediately the Godfather series’ essence is spelled out in the most concise verbal and visual terms. The dialogue evokes the faded theatrical tradition of the soliloquy: we’re in that exalted realm of drama detailing people who roam corridors of great power, sad stories of the deaths of kings and all that.

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The images, drenched in grainy shadows with warm fleshy tones, feel mindful of the bygone Expressionist style in cinema. But there’s also a purposeful echo back much further to old master painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, with a similar concept of the world is an inky zone of violence and pain where the human is both inescapably corporeal and spiritually intense, extremes of physical experience linked intimately with extremes of moral straits. There’s also the association with Renaissance Italy with all its surreal disparities of grim savagery in power and street life and beauty conjured for posterity. Coppola’s work with cinematographer Gordon Willis utilising underexposure created this look, and it became the defining expressive trait of the series. Amidst the darkness, warm hues, fleshy tones, bright and colourful electric lights, intimate places. The Godfather’s universe is a place of safe abodes from savagery, where the barbarians are ever at the gate.

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The trilogy charts the Corleone family’s travails from 1945 to 1979, with flashbacks to Vito’s childhood in Sicily and his fortunes in New York in the early century. Vito was chased out of Sicily by a vendetta, but rose by the end of World War II to a state of vast influence and authority. His eldest son Santino or ‘Sonny’ (James Caan) is the prospective inheritor, whilst the youngest, Michael (Pacino), is a college-educated and decorated former soldier Vito hopes will transcend the family trade. Middle son Fredo (John Cazale) is generally dismissed as untalented and dozy, whilst adopted son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), a former street kid Sonny brought into the fold, has become a shrewd lawyer and gains the post of consigliere or counsellor. Vito’s refusal of a proposal by Virgil Solozzo (Al Lettieri) to bankroll him in drug trafficking, puts the Corleones on course for war with the other heads of New York’s crime syndicates, the so-called “Five Families,” because they want to annex the political and legal protection Vito has built up as they exploit this lucrative new trade. Solozzo, with the backing of rival Dons Barzini (Richard Conte) and Tattaglia (Victor Rendina), has Vito shot down in the street, obliging Sonny to command the family whilst Vito recovers in hospital. Michael steps up and kills Solozzo along with his pet police guardian Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Michael flees to Sicily to hide out and marries young local girl Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), only for her to die in a car bombing, so when he returns to the US marries his college girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton).

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After Sonny’s brutal slaying and Vito’s death by natural causes, Michael arranges the assassination of all his foes, including his sister Connie’s (Talia Shire) husband Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), who helped set up Sonny’s killing. Michael then moves the family to Nevada to profit from Las Vegas gambling. Part II, taking up the story few years later, sees Michael’s attempts to forge a partnership with aging rival Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in exploiting Cuba as a cash cow see Roth instead try to rub out Michael, manipulating Fredo’s feelings of resentment and implicating him in the plot. The Cuban Revolution foils all plans and Michael sees off an attempt by a Senate committee to brand him as a gangster using former family soldier Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) as a witness. Michael has Roth killed and Fredo executed soon after, whilst Kay permanently foils her marriage to Michael by confessing to an abortion and is cast out of the family, leaving Michael lonely and haunted. Part III, opening in 1979, sees Michael, immensely enriched by the casino business and now legitimate, aiming to become an international force by using his leverage over the head of the Vatican bank, Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), to gain a controlling share of a valuable corporation, Immobiliaire, off the church. Michael accepts his nephew, Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent (Andy Garcia), as his streetwise heir. Vincent has an affair with Michael’s cherished daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) whilst Michael tries to make peace with Kay. Soon all of them are caught up in the ensuing chaos as rivals try to shut down the sale, including Italian political heavyweight Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti), a slyly smiling, bespectacled mandarin who lurks in the shadows, and aided by Michael’s wise elder and supposed friend Don Altobello (Eli Wallach).

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The Godfather quickly earned many comparisons to Gone With The Wind (1939) as an epic film where the fortunes of a focal family are intimately tied to progressing national history, and as its inheritor in zeitgeist-defining success. There’s obvious accord between Michael Corleone and Scarlett O’Hara, as both are the second-generation representatives of families who have prospered in the New World through willingness to exploit others, and who become determined to restore familiar fortunes through means fair and foul, but eventually decimate their private happiness to accomplish their end. Even the basic structural motif of the three Godfather films of commencing with a long sequence depicting a celebration that brings together many different players in the unfolding drama feels patterned after the Twelve Oaks barbecue sequence of Gone With The Wind. But the opening wedding scene of The Godfather is also a catalogue of Coppola’s new approach to the epic, as the scene shifts jarringly from Vito’s office to the Corleone estate outside where guests mill, musicians blare out traditional tunes, and the various players in family melodrama and subcultural conflict converge to be carefully mapped and categorised by Coppola’s camera.

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Take the way Barzini is introduced, calmly having a photographer who’s snapped his picture detained long enough to strip out the film from his camera, contrasted with the way hot-headed Sonny assaults another photographer, smashes his camera, and confronts and insults the FBI agents hovering outside the estate. The difference in temperament and method of the two men is described with perfect efficiency whilst also declaring a basic theme of the series: power and character are immediately established as unforgivingly intimate bedfellows. Other vignettes are less consequential although they speak much of the dynamics of this brood, like Sonny’s dash for a quick tryst with bridesmaid Lucy Mancini (Jeannie Linero), whilst his wife (Julie Gregg) boasts about the size of her husband’s penis to her pals but notices her husband has left and why, and Tom gives an indulgent grin as he comes to fetch Sonny. Surrounding such episodes are general, raucous scenes of celebration that manage to seem like they’re happening entirely by accident, straying into the filmmakers’ shots, channelling documentary-like energy into a film that’s actually anything but haphazard. We see the Corleones as above all an Italian-American family, obeying mores and responding to cultural cues as natural as breathing but about to be tested. Only Michael, recently returned to the family orbit after a long excursion, seems truly uncomfortable, the product of two world-views and social definitions, harbouring his store of dark lore with guilty boding.

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Michael serves as tour guide for Kay and the audience, identifying people not just by name but by function in the family apparatus – Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) is not just a heavy but a juicy anecdote. The desire to belong to the world of Corleones is provoked, and its deviant aspects have fiendish appeal – a friend like Vito at the fore, a pet dragon in the corner like Brasi, to make problems and enemies vanish with a few well-chosen words and a little firearm brandishing. Part of the original film’s success lay in its cunning at playing this two-faced game. At once the Corleones are offered as the archetype of Mafia life but also get us to root for them as the best of a bad lot, fighting to stay alive and maintain rules of engagement. Almost all of the characters killed by Corleones in the course of the first film are either foes or traitors who endanger the family’s lives: their only innocent victims seen on screen are the unfortunate Khartoum, and one woman in bed with one of Michael’s whacked enemies. Vito’s sense of morality forbids him from turning the family to the drug trade whereas he regards gambling, liquor, and prostitution as essentially honest vices. Vito has an aspect of the folk hero, an aspect even the sequel doesn’t despoil, as a man who operates in a manner not dissimilar to the way Sherlock Holmes was once characterised, as a last court of appeal operating above and beyond mere legal and government institutions. The legendary vignette that follows the wedding scene illustrates the ruthless intelligence in the Corleone method. Tom flies to Hollywood to try and convince producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) to cast one of Vito’s favourite pet projects, the singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), in a war movie Johnny thinks will revive his career. After Woltz aggressively refuses Tom’s offers because he’s furious at Johnny for seducing one of Woltz’s prized starlets, the producer wakes to find the severed head of his hugely expensive stud horse Khartoum tucked into his bed.

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Another spur of The Godfather’s success was the way vignettes like this fed public interest at the time for portrayals of systems and confirmation of hidden truths behind official facades. Puzo immortalised barroom rumours about Frank Sinatra and the like and blended it with familiar factoids about the great crime bosses, with many ready analogues, including Bugsy Siegel stand-in Moe Green (Alex Rocco), who gets rubbed out by the Corleones to subsume his great creation called Las Vegas, and Roth, patterned after Meyer Lansky. The film’s many moments of verbal and behavioural specificity and quirkiness, often bordering on black comedy in their sharp juxtaposition of normality and easy acceptance of deadly extremes, provided a plethora of catchphrases – “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” – and electric images, particularly the head of Khartoum in Woltz’s bed, all retain a similar buzz of forbidden lore. It’s easy, even essential, to be a touch cynical about the way The Godfather films walk a line between outright valorising and deploring of its criminal clan. Small wonder that The Godfather is only outpaced on the Internet Movie Database’s user-voted greatest movie list by The Shawshank Redemption (1994), another film that describes the same cherished macho fantasy, that with just a little bit of cleverness and dedicated amorality all forms of authority and impediment might be circumvented. Coppola himself, disturbed to a certain degree by popular revelry in the original’s glimpse of the underworld, worked to undercut the vaguely chivalrous aspect of the Corleones in Part II through such touches as replacing the horse’s head with a slaughtered prostitute.

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But it’s also fair to say that depicting efforts to retain something like a code whilst squirming in the muck is interesting territory to chart. Precisely this theme, this question of where and how to draw lines of fair play, drives the trilogy, as Michael is pushed constantly into new and dizzying abysses of behaviour; by the time he’s obliged to kill Fredo, the ideal of defending family has become a mockery, whilst Kay has detonated the rigid parameters of marriage. Kay’s complaint that “senators and congressmen don’t have men killed” is met by the archly cynical proposal that she’s being naïve and that all public life operates, to a greater or lesser extent, like the Corleones. Coppola and Puzo take the inherent tension between the Mafia clan’s view of society and the outsider’s view of the clan to a logical extreme in Part III where Michael finally finds himself up against the forces that originally gave birth to the Cosa Nostra in the first place, the entrenched and respectable yet utterly merciless potentates of Italian political and religious regime who posture in palaces but have their heavies in the streets too. The Godfather hardly invented the gangsterism-as-capitalism metaphor. But it did extend that notion into a metaphor for family and social life in general, describing a purely Darwinian sense of social dynamics where only the walls of the family castle stand in contradiction.

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The oft-repeated slogan that subordinates personal feeling to business is obviously ironic as business is only ever deeply, urgently, and dangerously personal in this world. Cagey old Roth gives a lengthy speech noting that he never targeted Michael for revenge after the death of Moe Greene because it was “the business we’ve chosen,” but this is coloured by both men’s awareness that Roth is trying to kill him anyway for reasons that patently have little to do with business sense and everything to do with ego and denial. Michael makes his first foray into criminality to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey nominally to keep them away from his father but also delivers, despite his protestations, some heartfelt payback for their treachery and brutality. The saga dramatizes a dynamic notion of masculine duty, onerous and inevitable, with the detectable corollary that the level of power and danger the Corleones court in some ways delivers them from having to reckon with the modern world, a world that slowly breaks in regardless. Vito is the ideal old-school, old-world patriarch, a man who’s used raw muscle and genius of a kind to arrange the entire world for the sake of prosperity and peace that shelters his loved-ones.

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Soon Michael steps up to replace his father and brother and take on the responsibility of “saving” his family. “You can act like a man,” Vito barks furiously at Johnny when he shows feelings of weakness, and soon chases it with the assurance that “A man who spends no time with his family can never be a real man.” This highlights Vito’s certainty that it’s the capacity for loving rather than brutality that makes a man, although his cruel schooling as a youth has taught him the two can only ever be entwined. But just how one keeps the living stem of one’s emotional life growing whilst nursing the gift for annihilation is a deep and abiding enigma Michael never solves as he slowly becomes his own golem. The Godfather’s story laid claim to territory mapped out by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby whilst struggling with its basic question as to whether Americanism could make good on the promise of self-invention and an ahistorical spree severing past from future (a kinship Coppola surely recognised, having penned an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s book that would become the 1974 version). The film’s release at the wane of the counterculture era perhaps gave it some of its signature punch in this regard, offering up a story where identity wins out over idealism and the promise of generational revision, as youth wearily steps up to the plate in the name of cold realism. Not at all coincidentally, modern cinema’s other great original myth, created by Coppola’s pal and protégé George Lucas, revolved around a similar terror of becoming one’s father. Michael’s semi-sheepish protestations to Kay that his father is “no different to…any other great man” has the unmistakable tone of philosophy at one hastily erected but also long-nursed as an internal reality.

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Before writing The Godfather, Puzo was saddened that his previous novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, strongly inspired by his tough mother, had gained little attention, and so he transcribed her character as Vito, finding success by concentrating on manly business. And yet emphasis on the criminal world as a redoubt for masculine dominance is subtly but steadily eroded by the choices women make, and by the menfolk’s hypocritical failings in regard to them. Vito’s wife (played by Morgana King and as a younger woman by Francesca De Sapio) is the model Mafia wife, capable of maintaining a hard and functional border between her domestic zone and the rest of it. She’s just as much the last of a breed as Vito; her reward is to be buried with the honour of an ideal, and spared seeing one of her sons kill another. Michael gets Apollonia and Mary killed simply by being close to them, and by his self-deluding desire to annex their innocence. Connie evolves from collateral damage decrying her “lousy, cold-hearted bastard” of a brother to his supporter and then a rising neo-Borgia who sets about supporting Vincent’s rise and ordering and performing hits. Connie’s assault and battery by her husband following a raging domestic breakdown is in a way the most violent scene in the first film, a searing evocation of what Michael will later pompously call the “things that have been going on between men and women for centuries,” whilst Sonny’s infuriated protectiveness conflates with his bullishly insensate streak, a trait that’s so predictable his enemies play on it to destroy him.

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By the climax of Part III Connie has bought into the legend of the Corleones on a much more fundamental level than Michael ever did, savouring opportunities for intimate punishments and righteous muscle-flexing. Even Kay reveals something of a gangster’s aim for where it hurts when she deliberately targets Michael’s family man pride by confessing to getting their child aborted, going so far as to tell him “it was a son and I killed it because all this must end!” Kay is soon cut out of Michael’s existence, not quite as finally and coldly as Fredo but with a similar act of erasure. The door he closes in her face echoing the end of the previous film, fulfilling its promise and threat, whilst also marking another step in Michael’s self-defeat, confirming the price he’s paying for his acceptance of duty is ossification. Puzo’s fondness of The Brothers Karamazov is plain in the first film, not just in the structural and character affinities with the Corleone boys mimicking the Karamazov clan’s conception as a troika of traits, but also in the distinctly Dostoyevskyian journey Michael commits himself to. The trilogy as a whole could be the closest thing cinema has ever offered a Confessions of a Great Sinner, as Michael experiences the fall in terms of several different faiths – in religious terms, of course, but also from immigrant aspiration to assimilation and prescribed prosperity, from the religion of family, from the cult of community.

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Michael breaks with each in the name of an unstated hierarchy of priorities, each nesting in another, until he finds there’s no bottom to his plunge. That plunge is ironically charted in a constant social rise until by Part III he’s angling to become a pan-Atlantic CEO, even as some people can still spot “the map of Sicily” on his face, the rough and lumpy look of someone who’s had his face punched in and his soul turned inside out by drawing his will to a hard and lethal edge for survival. The costs Michael pays and the spurs that drive him are unstintingly stated. His picture-perfect traditional romance with Apollonia ends in an instant of fire and blood. His father and brother are riddled with bullets. He stalks halls of a deserted hospital in increasingly grim awareness of vulnerability as he realises his father has been set up for another hit; nothing, not even the humdrum business of a New York hospital can ward off cosmic corruption, only two scared men pretending to be resolute centurions. Death haunts Michael’s every step, and he fights back with every tool at his disposal. Rites of passage recur: Michael getting his jaw broken by McCluskey seems to have happened to his old man at some point. Vito’s husky drawl and pouchy cheeks, both of which deepen as he recovers from being shot six times in the street, are charts of pain and rage echoing back to another land.

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Scenes of Part II depicting Vito’s rise squarely place him (played as a boy by Oreste Baldini and as a young man by Robert De Niro) in the great immigrant tradition of the United States in scenes intensely evocative of a wistfully recalled past squalid in its moment but loaned a gloss of romanticism by time and longing for dispelled certainties. Vito, fleeing ahead of murderous wrath, arrives at Ellis Island only to be quarantined because he has scarlet fever, leaving the Statue of Liberty as an emblem beyond the grill of his cell’s window, to be admired and yearned for but never gained. In a present-day episode of the same instalment, Michael is told in no uncertain terms by a WASP Nevada Senator, Geary (G.D. Spradlin), that he despises their pretensions and ethnic traits. Vito’s ambitions for Michael highlight him as an aborted John F. Kennedy figure, doomed by his background to be unable to erase his past in the same way the other war hero son of a bootlegger could. Coppola, who had ambitions to being an empire builder himself as he tried to set up his own film enterprise, American Zoetrope, surely identified most particularly with that aspect of the Corleone tale, fighting not just for a foot in the door but for his own corner of the world. The ironic brand of ethnic pride that informs the Godfather films is balanced by awareness of the limits of empathy such parochialism can instil, particularly in the gross racism members of the Mafia underworld display: “They’re animals anyway so let them lose their souls,” declares one mob boss as he proposes only selling drugs to black communities. But the films spoke to a multiplicity of outsider identities regardless, including as style guides for hip-hop’s ardour for outlaws.

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Coppola eagerly exploited the new absence of punitive censorship for depicting the brutality inflicted by and on the Corleones. Part of the first film’s particular cunning and art lay in the way he carefully varied scenes of bloodletting in the way he shot and conceived them. The slaying of Vito’s treacherous driver Paulie (Johnny Martino) in a car parked on the Long Island shore conflates hard irony and dreamy meditation, with the swaying rushes lending muffling music and the distant, looming form of the Statue of Liberty indifferent to the scene. Vito’s bulbous lieutenant Clemenza (Richard Castellano) waters the earth with his piss as his button man waters it with blood; that’s how a homeland is made. Most other ferocious scenes are more direct and confrontational. Even the non-lethal, entirely quotidian moments of violence, like Connie’s battery by her husband and Sonny’s attack on Carlo, are gruelling spectacles. The first death in the film, Luca’s, and the last, Carlo’s, both come by garrotting, a terrible and intimate dealing of death Coppola shoots with cold regard, particularly Carlo’s end which sees him kick out the windscreen of the car that’s also his hearse in his death throes. This is achieved in one, fixed, utterly transfixing shot from the hood, the revving engine counterpoint to the desperate struggle, a flourish Anthony Mann might have been proud of. Sonny’s death is an orgiastic consummation a man as strong and virile as Sonny requires and understands, his entire body a canvas of erupting blood and pain, under the overkill fusillade of Tommy guns aimed his way – his enemies need to annihilate Sonny in a way that so contrasts the more targeted and precise Corleone method.

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That method is described in all its intricacy and unforgiving force in the first film’s climactic sequence, where Coppola cross-cuts between assassinations whilst Michael is made his niece’s godfather at her christening. In quick succession Barzini, Tattaglia, Greene, and other foes are gunned down in moments of vulnerability and surprise by a foe more patient and devious than them, all the Byzantine plotting and aesthetics suddenly cut through by the harsh report of gunfire. Coppola turns this sequence into a ritual in itself, the blaring church organ serving as funerary score lamenting the whirlwind Michael unleashes in the name of revenge and security. This sequence became another series fixture. Coppola’s reaction to a yahoo streak in the first film’s reception was to play the sequel as a far more minimal exercise in violence, although there’s still some punchy moments, particularly when Michael’s bodyguard (Amerigo Tot) tries to smother an ailing Roth in his bed only to be surprised by some Cuban soldiers who instantly gun the hitman down. Roth’s eventual slaying mimics TV footage of Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing by Jack Ruby. By Part III, Coppola was back to being more indulgent again, offering up a sequence that plays in part as a miniaturised repeat of the village attack in Apocalypse Now (1979) as Zasa and his shadowy backers assault a meeting of Family heads with a helicopter machine-gunning the collection of old men, as well as a finale that turns murder into grand opera.

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Another vital aspect of the trilogy’s mystique is the way members of the little community around the Corleones is fastidiously identified, thanks to Coppola’s attentiveness to giving each a little performative space. These people fill out the margins of this created world, imbuing it with continuity and constantly rewarding the attentive viewer, and Coppola often casts people not known for acting in such parts, including the likes of Gazzo, King, and Corman, to obtain a crackle of authenticity and nail down a character quickly by exploiting a particular persona. Figures of note range from major supporting characters like the Laurel-and-Hardy-ish contrast between Vito’s top enforcers, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), down to the people who graze the family mythos like Enzo the Baker (Gabriele Torrei). Some minor but consequential characters recur through all three movies, like Michael’s resolute goon Al Neri (Richard Bright), and Don Tommasino (played young by Corrado Gaipa and as an older man by Vittorio Duse), a Sicilian crime lord and Vito’s local partner, who protects Michael during his Sicilian sojourns. When Tommasino is gunned down by the assassin hired to kill Michael in Part III, his employee Calò (Franco Citti), who long ago guarded Michael, vows revenge and sets out on a suicide mission to achieve it.

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Other characters are fated not to last through individual episodes. The trilogy’s roster of villains rarely dominate proceedings, but there’s some marvellous miniature portraits in arrogance and menace in all three films, including Rocco’s flashy and aggressive Greene, Conte’s tensile Barzini, Gastone Moschin’s strutting Don Fanucci, Vito’s quarry in Part II’s flashback scenes, and Robutti’s Lucchesi. Lettieri and Hayden make a great double act in the first film as a hood with fierce motivation who soon plainly feels the fear of someone up against the Corleones, and a vicious old coot who confesses “I’m gettin’ too old for my job.” Some of the most vivid characterisations subsist in greyer zones of motive, like the hoarse-voiced Gazzo, himself a respected playwright, as the indignant but upright Pentangeli, and Wallach’s superficially charming yet covertly serpentine Altobello. One clever aspect of the follow-up instalments is the way they generate and hinge on nostalgia for the original. A gag at the outset of Part II, as Pentangeli tries to school some musicians in playing a decent tarantella only for them to turn it into ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ illustrates how far the Corleones have drifted from the sustenance and specificity of their roots. This also taunts the audience with the same awareness: things that seemed so cosy and alluring in the past aren’t coming back. The circularity of events – births, baptisms, weddings, deaths – drag the generational frame both forward and backward in each episode, the cyclical sustenance of family and identity constantly recapitulated. The famous musical cues of the original become diegetic aspects of the Corleone legend, offered as pieces of folk music from Sicily that provoke misty-eyed longing. The climax of Part III sees Coppola intermingling shots of Michael dancing with the women in his life, Apollonia, Kay, and Mary, each one of them lost to him in one way or another.

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Brando’s turn proved an instant resurgence to respect and clout and also gave birth to one of the most mimicked and lampooned characterisations in cinema history – even Brando himself would send it up in The Freshman (1990). The remarkable thing is that his performance eternally refuses reduction despite all that. Vito’s soft and gravelly sobriety, his shows of sudden ferocity and remnant strength when he tells off Johnny and runs from his assassins, his air of melancholy and careful drip-feed of charm, truth, and affected modesty, are utterly hypnotic when on screen and register like background radiation when he’s not, even into the sequels; he is the man who creates a world and all others are forced into mere response. Brando’s careful balance of reasonable fraternity and hinted fury when assuring the gathering of fellows Dons that he won’t break the peace unless Michael is harmed, even in a seeming accident (“…or if he’s struck be a bolt of lightning, then I’m going to blame some people in this room!…”), is one of the great pieces of screen acting. De Niro had a hell of a task stepping into his shoes to play the younger Vito, almost entirely in Italian no less, and yet he also turned in a master class in performing, not just depicting Vito’s nascent mannerisms but building on them, portraying a man whose quietness and thoughtfulness register as more interesting and dynamic than other men’s frenetic actions. His Vito watches and listens, the cogs of his mind all but visible as they turn over responses to situations. Rarely were the Oscars the two men won more justified.

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But it was Pacino who was destined to become the series’ axis and mainstay, and the trilogy charts not just Pacino maturing but also finding his feet as a screen actor. I find him a touch ill-at-ease in certain moments in the first two films, although he’s never less than an obvious star and hugely talented actor. Pacino was almost entirely new to the screen – he had only been in Panic in Needle Park (1971) before, playing a squirrely addict perhaps more in his Method comfort zone – and he failed his screen test repeatedly, but Coppola kept faith in him. The slightly clumsy, theatrical feel of Michael and Kay’s rupture in Part II betrays the way both actors were still learning to project effect and manage their bodies in a new medium; suddenly we’re back in the actor’s workshop under Strasberg’s watchful gaze. But for the most part the callow hue to Pacino’s performance was a strange bonus, giving flesh to Michael’s slow evolution and accumulation of pain and air of forced and premature solemnity. One of his best moments in the first film comes as he works up the nerve to gun down Sollozzo and McCluskey, his eyes jumping about like his pupils are fleas, offering those men a façade of thoughtful attention whilst we all but feel his pulse galloping, his nerves drugged by the oncoming moment of irrevocable action. When he returned to the role for Part III, Pacino was only just picking up his movie career after a few years recalibrating following the poorly received Revolution (1985). By this time Pacino was a man in total control of his craft and the medium, whilst the struggle with disillusion he’d been through off screen gave deep conviction to his portrait: Part III is very possibly Pacino’s greatest performance. The 60-year-old Michael as a man who’s obtained something like his father’s ability to coexist in two zones simultaneously, with a certain wry and crusty charisma balancing his weariness with the ways of the world, and he sets about courting Kay’s understanding and forgiveness with a needy streak.

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Coppola was too much of a cineaste to entirely detach himself from the classic American gangster movie. Midway through the film he offers a montage of newspaper headlines and photos in a typical old Hollywood expositional ploy, predicting his later efforts on The Cotton Club (1984) to more fully immerse himself in that style. The expanse of the narrative and attempts to make a statement about the criminal’s place in the broader sweep of history had some precursors, particularly Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). But The Godfather perhaps represented the first time since the early 1930s that Anglosphere film audiences had been exposed to a major film as vitally influenced by non-English-language cinema as by Hollywood norms, through Coppola’s borrowing of effects from the likes of the Italian neorealists, particularly Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. The music score, provided by Nino Rota who had scored films for many of the major Italian directors, gave the film a haunting lustre that was also unmistakeably rooted in this cultural background. The narrative unfolds as a restless and relentless arbitration between plot and character obeying familiar Hollywood storytelling ideals, but with Coppola’s carefully worked style used to render the film an aesthetic avatar for the experience of its characters, as a hybrid of methods and sensibilities, the meditative weight of the old world influence inflect the hard and punchy necessities of American life.

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Perhaps the strongest influence, Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), dealt similarly with a Sicilian family assailed by changing times, although nominally with the social opposites of the Corleones as protagonists. If the opening wedding takes Gone With The Wind as its narrative model, it’s the climactic ball scene of The Leopard that’s the template for how Coppola shoots it. Coppola’s tendency to let his camera stand away back and allow many shots to drink in panoramic detail cut against the feverish grain of much filmmaking at the time, often placing important gestures and highly dramatic moments in the distance in his framings, like the way Vito’s death sees an out-of-focus figure collapse whilst his uncomprehending grandson remains centre-frame. Coppola’s discursive evocations of emotion are perhaps most brilliantly illustrated by the key scene in the saga where Michael realises that Fredo is a traitor. Coppola goes in for a close-up that registers Michael’s cognition of the fact, but his private squall of grief and rage that follows is then thrust into the background of the next shot.

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The context of the revelation is just as noteworthy, a ribald excursion into Havana nightlife to a live sex act with a woman “sacrificed” to a man with a colossal penis, an outsized mockery of the social dynamics of both the potency-obsessed gangland and strongman-dominated pre-revolution Cuba, and with the act of revelation itself a gag before it suddenly becomes high tragedy. Cazale, an actor who made his debut in the first film, had a potentially thankless task in his role as the family stooge, trying to make the most dispensable man in his clan a worthwhile figure. His best moment in the first film comes when Fredo fails to ward off his father’s attackers, fumbling his gun and left weeping over Vito’s bleeding form, having faced the kind of moment of truth requiring action that defines manhood in his world and utterly failed in it. But Cazale’s highpoint, and perhaps that of the series, comes in Part II when he delivers a portrait of feckless despair, as Fredo confesses his sins to Michael, at once crushed by the weight of his guilt and vacuousness but also suddenly electrified by finally expressing his resentment and frustration. His bleating protestations – “I’m smart! Not like everybody says! I’m smart and I want respect!” – become the lament for every loser in the world. Suffering utter humiliation and exile, and with perhaps the underlying sense that his days are numbered, Fredo is later seen striking up a friendship with Michael’s son Anthony, all fire doused, exhausted and acquiescent to fate.

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Coppola readily admitted to taking on the project to make money and leverage more personal work. And yet, once more in affinity with Michael, he found The Godfather was destined to remain the cornerstone of his reputation, an ideogram of his art – small wonder Part III hinges on the rude bastard offspring becoming the embraced and accepted heir. The Godfather gave his career and directorial stamp definition he hadn’t really been able to give it before that, as the material allowed him to express so many of his creative talents at once, and most of his later films are rather permutations of the various facets found here. The protagonists of his juvenilia, wayward folk seeking a place in the world and a certain sense of self, evolved through Michael into the kinds of antiheroes littered throughout the rest of his oeuvre, Harry Caul to Willard and Kurtz, Motorcycle Boy and Tucker and Dracula, titanic figures who contend with their own dark and self-consuming sides whilst chasing their illusory goals. The painful romanticism and nomadic nostalgia of Rumblefish (1983), One From The Heart (1982), and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) are prefigured by Coppola’s efforts to portray marital strife and the relentless tug of a remembered, idealised past. Apocalypse Now would take up the attempts in the Godfather films to conceive personal, psychological strife as an extension, or rather wellspring, of larger social and historical travails.

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Coppola’s most important characters experience their most cherished and transcendent truths – love, creation, loyalty – as mortifying events that torment and wrack rather than free, whilst also conceding the blessed pain of having something to care that much about and suffer for is as much part of the life drive as pleasure. As he became more of a formalist, Coppola also became more interested in the dialogue between reality and fantasy, usually worked through in the tension between cinematic artifice and raw emotionalism, although the aesthete could win out in works that are little more than rampant exercises in stylisation (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992). The dominating style of The Godfather maintained a balance: the trademark photography style successfully evoked the past through shadows and saturated colours but also allowed a fine-tip realism. The first film is dominated by the use of doorways as a constant visual motif, from Michael and Enzo taking up station at the hospital entrance to the final, famous shot of the door closing on Kay’s face with all its intimations; Coppola’s compositions so often take a squared-off, rectilinear stance in regarding buildings, facades, and corridors, that reduces the universe into two states, within and without, and correlating these to various forms of power and autonomy. Water dominates the second film with similar immersive import, the lapping waves of Lake Tahoe glow gold at night under electric light and sparkle in the sun, but become cold iron grey as Fredo meets his end out there, prefigured by the rain that sheets down the glass as Fredo makes his confession to Michael.

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The ending of the first film rings so true and plangently because it captures the way subterranean certainty underpins agreed facades. Things will be swept under the rug, silences maintained, happy illusions forcibly preserved. By contrast, Part II, for all its determined gravitas, dedicates itself to finding a new and circumlocutory way of recapitulating the old message that crime doesn’t pay in a way that cuts against the grain of the original’s indulgence of violent power successfully articulated. Michael stills wins the great game but defeats himself in the fights that mean something to him. The series obeys Thomas Hardy’s dictum that character is fate, but it could also be accused of illustrating character type as melodramatic function. Sonny’s temper and Fredo’s weakness are their broad defining qualities, scarcely complicated. Kay represents the goggle-eyed fascination and then punitive judgementalism of white-bread society. Only Vito and Michael might be called truly complex figures. The alternations of timeframe in Part II contrast father and son on both a personal level and on a sociological one. Vito’s relationship with community is organic and outward-directed, recognising that community as a group of people who, like himself, have experienced uprooting and exile and who all have, in their way, some ideal of revenge in mind, even if it’s only against a creep landlord. His charitable and amicable streaks are laced with self-serving, but Vito clearly learns how to work people as well as work with them, a quality that Michael, who tends to reduce everything to either a threat or a profit source, clearly misses, as much as he tries to act the cool and concerted businessman.

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Vito’s struggle is with the world without, climaxing when he finally returns to Sicily and slays crime lord Don Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato), who killed the rest of his family, but by then only a pathetic old cripple. Michael rather contends with the inner natures of himself and the people around him: he, Fredo, Roth, Kay, and Pentangeli all are driven to self-destruction by little voices that won’t leave them alone. Michael’s world tends to shrink inwards, sheared of context and community. The mall the Corleones control in the first film, a carefully contrived semblance of suburban normality, gives way to the walled and remote compound by Lake Tahoe. At times I’ve grouchily referred to the present-tense sequences of Part II as “Gangsters In Mid-Life Crisis.” I recognise and appreciate the episode’s attempts to make overt the tragic undertone of the saga, but I still feel a touch of frustration with it. Part II is purposefully a much less gratifying and plot-driven than the first film, but some of the knit-browed self-seriousness feels strained. It also has story elements that fail, particularly the subplot of Pantangeli, which might have had more resonance if the character had been Clemenza as originally planned, but still doesn’t really go anywhere. Michael is so often so sullen and gloomy in this episode he threatens at times to become a nonentity; only his flashes of anger at Fredo and Kay wake him up. Coppola’s recreation of the look and sound of the Kefauver Hearings as seen on television is studious but dramatically inert. The episode gives Tom very little to do except for one graceful moment of instructing Pentangeli to kill himself under the cover of an historical anecdote. The scene of Kay’s leaving Michael comes abruptly and refuses to feel convincing.

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Where Part II works brilliantly is in the exchanges between Michael and Roth – Pacino’s respect for his old acting mentor Strasberg converts intelligibly into the cautious patience of one master gamester for another – and in the downfall of Fredo, which obeys the logic of Greek tragedy. Fredo’s character, or lack of it, drives him to make stupid decisions he can’t undo, just as Michael’s drives him to make smart decisions he likewise can’t undo. The scenes in Cuba are laced with a mordant sense of gangster capitalism fused with state oligarchy, illustrated with sublime humour as Michael and other tycoons are feted at a presidential banquet where a solid gold telephone is passed around. The flashback sequences are also superlative. The burnished images elsewhere are mediated here by a slightly diffused and hazy look befitting their backward-looking sense of nostalgia, nostalgia that doesn’t fend off the same confrontation with brute forces. The scene shifts from the primal rocky plain of the first shot where Vito and his mother (Maria Carta) try to bury his father only to find his older brother slain, killed in seeking a vendetta for his father’s assassination by the malignant Ciccio, to the streets of New York that teem with human industry and life, flotsam citizens of one land dashed against the brownstone shoals of another.

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Vito’s journey sees him barely avoid being slain whilst his mother is shot dead by Ciccio for buying her son time to flee by holding a knife to the Don’s throat. When the grown Vito is strongarmed by Fanucci, and the young entrepreneur, tired of being chased off and patronised, instead resolves to fight back and kills Fanucci, setting himself on a path he can’t leave but which immediately gratifies him with power. The sequence of Vito’s killing of Fanucci, carefully ambushing his foe in a grimy tenement building whilst festivities blare out in the street, has the quality of a communal dream, and stands as one of the best things Coppola ever did. The last flashback in the film is subtler, presenting a moment of totemic meaning for Michael that also again invokes nostalgia for the first film, as Michael remembers the occasion of his father’s birthday just before he went off to war, and several long-dead and disgraced characters reappear. Sonny is infuriated by his patriotic choice laced with undertones of rebellion. Fredo congratulates him. Michael is left alone at the table, anticipating Michael’s solitude as seemingly predestined whether he rebelled or became the perfect scion because of some misaligned element in his makeup.

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By Part III Michael has regained community, as the celebration of his receiving a Papal honour for charity work sees the Corleones back in their milieu, and something like the glossy, embracing feeling of a wealthy extended clan reunited has returned, in part because the processes of time has replenished their ranks, and Michael’s actions, however troubling, have bought him years of stability. Now the intruding hoods, like John Gotti stand-in Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), are notably out of place, like members of the family no-one thought would have the gall to turn up. Young Vincent is literally that, although he soon stakes a place inside the castle as a potent ally Michael sees potential in despite a temper the equal of his father – within moments of being ushered into Michael’s inner sanctum to hash out his differences with Zasa, his nominal employer, he’s tried to bite his ear off. Given that Michael’s oldest son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) has chosen to become an opera singer rather than follow him into the family business and with daughter Mary given the task of managing charities, Michael uneasily accepts Vincent as the man who will fight off the new flock of circling crows. Eventually the scene shifts from New York to Sicily as Anthony makes his starring debut in Palermo in a production of Cavalleria Rusticana.

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In between machinations of plot Part III is preoccupied with Michael’s fumbling attempts to make some sort of peace with the past in general and Kay in specific. He gives her a tour of the Sicilian landscape and tries to give her and his children new insight into his background and motives, and even manages to strike up fresh chemistry with Kay although she realises he can’t ever escape the trap he made for himself. Part III has often been dismissed as an ill-advised revisit, with some preferring to ignore it altogether. But I’ve always liked it, and feel it resolves the saga with real punch by its end. It’s easy to agree with some common complaints, including that Sofia Coppola was unequal to her role, and that it misses Duvall’s presence – after Duvall refused to return after a pay dispute, Puzo and Coppola rewrote their script so Tom had died in the interim, with his son Andrew (John Savage) now a priest and a slick and urbane creature, B. J. Harrison (George Hamilton), now Michael’s trusted legal rep. Certainly, too, its mere existence despoils the symmetry of the first two parts. The absence of so many familiar faces is however turned into a dramatic strength insofar as it focuses most squarely on Michael, whose journey reaches a cruel apogee as he fumbles a chance at redemption.

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Another of the series’ pivotal moments comes when Michael talks with a genuine and kindly Cardinal, Lamberto (Raf Vallone), who will soon be elevated as Pope John Paul I, and offers a memorable parable with a stone in a well to illustrate the lack of Christian feeling in a land long dominated by Christianity. Lamberto talks Michael into making his confession with an unerring eye for spiritual pain. Michael catalogues his crimes, building up to admitting to killing “my mother’s son,” and it becomes clear that twenty years have scarcely offered a scab over the raw wound of the deed. The sarcastic correlation of religion and mob power that informs the series from the start, the aspect of funerary rite that defines the climax of the first film and the subsuming of the role of giver of life and death by the Dons, here gives way to a more urgent questioning of just what if anything a man like Michael can ask of his nominal faith, and whether redemption, both worldly and spiritual, is possible for him. He tells Lamberto he does not repent his actions, but still seeks a form of release as he tries to turn his fortune to good works and sets out to try and save Lamberto’s life after he becomes pope. The film’s resolution suggests that the price for such redemption might be unbearably high. Keaton keeps pace with Pacino as the older and wiser Kay keeps a wary glint in her eyes and a slight smile on her face that constantly asserts her willingness to be friends and also her utter refusal to be bullshitted again. Around them is a bravura exercise in controlled style from Coppola, if also more flamboyant than its predecessors. This time around the signature sequence of cross-cutting ceremony and violence is inflated into a cinematic movement depicting the Corleones watching and performing Cavalleria Rusticana, turning the film into a meta-theatrical event. Gestures from life recur on the stage and vice versa. Identity has become as a ritualised script everyone’s doomed to read from, a passion play constantly repeated as long as humans remain so in thrall to their base drives and desires.

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As if reacting to the Michael-driven portentousness of the previous instalment, Part III offers Garcia as a revival of some of Caan’s strident force, with a new jolt of sex appeal as Vincent flirts with Bridget Fonda’s go-get-‘em journalist Grace Hamilton, who’s trying to interview Michael, a tryst that results in Grace getting caught between Vincent and two of Zasa’s goons hired to kill him. Although Michael wants anything but a new wave of bloodshed (he coins the line that serves as emblematic for so many neo-noir antiheroes, “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!”), Vincent, with Connie’s encouragement and with Michael out of action because of a diabetic attack, whacks Zasa. This sequence combines elements of various earlier killings in the first two films, signalling to both audience and Michael that Vincent combines talents of the Corleones but also has a hunger for the down-and-dirty side of their world he never had. Like Connie, Vincent loves the Corleone mythos, remembering his forceful but foolish father as “prince of the city.” His romance with Mary swerves into an incestuous stew befitting dynastic self-propagation, but Michael successfully buys him off by making breaking off the affair the one condition for Vincent stepping into Michael’s place as commander of the family muscle. Michael cleverly uses Vincent to gain Altobello’s trust and uncover his connection to Lucchesi, and realises that the efforts to kill off the Immobiliaire deal endanger not just the Corleone family members but also the new Pope, who signs off on Michael’s deal despite, and or perhaps because, he knows all about Michael’s dank guilt.

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Sofia’s performance as Mary got a caning from many commentators after Part III’s release, years before she’d find her real metier. She was only given the part after originally slated star Winona Ryder pulled out at the last minute, although Francis wasn’t really taking such a chance on her as she’d given a promising performance in Rumblefish. It’s definitely true that her scenes with Garcia urgently lack the crackle they need to drive the forbidden romance angle. But she offers a blowsy adolescent naiveté that suits the role to a certain extent, in keeping with Francis’ casting philosophy throughout the series. The second two films extended the original novel’s annexation of pulp paperback history blended with tart probing into the proximity of politics with money. Part III revolves around popular conspiracy theories regarding John Paul I’s short tenure as Pope, supposedly assassinated to prevent financial malfeasance and organised crime ties being exposed. The infamous, so-called “God’s Banker” Roberto Calvi, who finished up hanging from a London bridge in real life, is here represented as Frederick Keinszig (Helmut Berger), involved in siphoning off Vatican funds to Lucchesi and his pals, and killed by Vincent in his retaliatory strikes. These also see Gilday shot and dropped from a great height and Lucchesi slain by Calò, who has to approach the honcho without any kind of weapon but improvises by ramming the man’s own spectacles into his throat. Connie poisons Altobello with cannoli. But these moves fail to head off the Pope’s gentle murder by poisoned hot chocolate, whilst a roving hired assassin, Mosca (Mario Donatone), zeroes in on Michael. After killing Tommasino, who recognises him on the prowl, Mosca tries to gun Michael down as he watches his son perform.

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Mosca battles with Michael’s bodyguards, managing to avoid disturbing the performance and instead taking another shot at the target as he leaves the opera house, but instead kills Mary. Coppola’s visual hyperbole throughout this sequence, like the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in Apocalypse Now, sarcastically contrasts high culture with dirty business, whilst allowing Coppola to indulge pure artifice in a more functional way than in the odes to represented reality in One From The Heart and The Cotton Club, whilst the tension between realism and stylisation extends with shots as precisely composed as any classical art hacked through by the hard purpose of Hollywood editing. The howl of pain Michael releases over Mary’s body is at once bloodcurdling and cathartic, as it seems like the wail of protest as well as pain he’s longed to release since the death of Apollonia or perhaps even since his father’s shooting, woe and infinite regret for suffering given and inflicted and over the damned inevitability of it all, all of it fated since Michael’s promise to his father in his hospital bed. The last shot, of Michael quietly dying alone in great old age, confirms he was doomed for all his works and efforts to end up a ruined and solitary creature, nursing his ghosts and sorrows like a brood of black kittens. And yet the way Coppola shoots his end, settled in a chair in what was Tommasino’s garden, a place of placid and dreamy longings for the fallen titan, gives him more grace than his father’s slightly pathetic end. Michael leaves the world in a state of peaceful reflection in a setting of personal import, his memories of people, whether they died violently or not, now all rendered equal simply by time.

 

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Scifi

RoboCop (1987)

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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriters: Michael Miner, Ed Neumeier

By Roderick Heath

Like many a filmmaker who, having gained stature and plaudits in their native land, heard the siren call of new shores, fresh stories, and better paydays, Paul Verhoeven vacated his place as the most lauded director in the Netherlands to fight for a place on the totem pole in Hollywood. His first film there, the medieval adventure Flesh + Blood (1985), hardly stirred a ripple, but the title was to prove a veritable mission statement for the way Verhoeven would heartily embrace a new career by pushing it to the max. Verhoeven’s lack of timidity as a Hollywood director who notably refused to deal in the usual pretences expected of transplanted auteurs was hardly surprising in light of the movies he had made in the Netherlands. Their number included his sex farce debut Wat Zien Ik (1972), about a prostitute’s misadventures, Turkish Delight (1974), his spectacularly vulgar take on the romantic tragicomedy, and his fetid, delirious melange of horror film, erotica, and metaphysical angst, The Fourth Man (1983). He had offered some films of more restrained temperament, including the historical class-clash epic Keetje Tippel (1975) and the Oscar-winning war film Soldier of Orange (1977). But something in Verhoeven’s overheated sensibility couldn’t be contained too long by such relatively straight-laced fare.
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So when he went Hollywood, Verhoeven went big. Where Hollywood executives told him the audience wanted sex and violence, he would serve double portions, as part of an outlandish mixture of often gross mockery, earnest melodrama, and sleight of hand in tackling Verhoeven’s deeper interest in the politics of body and soul. He didn’t appreciate Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script for RoboCop when he first read it, but his wife did, pointing out to him the barbed skepticism aimed at the emerging corporate dominance, and the theme of the Christ-like saviour. The film was destined to be a smash hit and would place Verhoeven on top for a time until he pushed his tendencies just a little too far for critics and audiences alike. But RoboCop, perhaps his greatest film and a remarkable balancing act by any measure, has never lost its cachet as a cult film sprung out of most surprising soil, standing alongside The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1987) in the holy sepulchre of ‘80s sci-fi action but also outstripping them in the force and clarity of its ideas and provocations. Great science fiction is usually part imagination, part reportage, with the best extrapolating trends of the moment of conception and projecting them into a fictional future that if done well can retain that seer-like mystique.
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Like many other movie-mad kids I watched the movie into the ground back when, and like many such relics of a misspent youth it tends to sit around, a must-own for the movie collection but also a little like part of the furniture. RoboCop hasn’t lost its pure, grade-A Columbian potency or its scabrously funny, cruelly satirical purview. Nonetheless time has changed how I relate to the movie: the general mayhem and specific blend of idealism and cynicism, so perfectly in synch with a teenage mindset, gives way to a deeper empathy for hero Alex Murphy, a family man torn away from identity and family – what does age do, but make us feel like pieces are being cut off us and remaking us into hardened things we don’t quite recognise, whilst stealing away things we love? RoboCop’s prognosticative edge seems near limitless, anticipating contemporary concerns of automation and artificial intelligence, the loss of public sovereignty over our institutions, the debasement of social discourse and the media, the unhinged power granted corporations in our lives and the grim spectre of government being annexed by businesspeople – all wrapped up in RoboCop’s shiny, sardonic shell. Even some of the film’s more dated references, like jokes related to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars project, have gained a new window of relevance, whilst others, like the indictment of a city like Detroit being first built and then trashed and then gentrified at the expense of the inhabitants according to the whims of capitalism, never stopped being immediate.
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Over and above its satirical aspect, RoboCop is of course also a gloriously unhinged pulp adventure that finds whacked-out poetry in the notion of a normal man, his body appropriated for corporate use, transformed into a Kevlar-coated knight. RoboCop’s insidious genius is immediately signalled by the use of TV news reports and ads to frame the action, Greek chorus gone smarmy and commercial: the cold opening offers Media Break, a news programme that takes the pattern of news reduced to capsules and soundbites to an extreme – “You give us three minutes and we’ll give you the world!” – filled with biting bits of futuristic geopolitical info, like the apartheid South African gone belligerent and nuclear, and the “Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform” that fouls up, at first comically and then scorching a section of California to a cinder. This device also lets Verhoeven summarise the film’s basic plot and background with sublime efficiency. Interspersed are fake ads, grounding futuristic phenomena in familiar packaging, like one for mechanical heart transplants, and sketching out a future society where the phenomena of all kinds – human, machine, news, marketing – are dissolving into a grotesque and lawless stew. On to the real show: the setting is a futuristic Detroit where the infrastructure of the working class’s livelihoods has been reduced to cavernous shells whilst a new elite of corporate overlords rule on high.
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A massive corporation with the delightful nonentity name of Omni Consumer Products, or OCP, has taken over the privatised police force of Detroit, a city that has degenerated into a rundown, crime-infested, Hobbesian hellhole. The cops are outmatched by criminals toting heavy weaponry also made by OCP who manufacture military arms, and the police are slowly being starved of resources by their new masters. OCP’s barely hidden agenda is to rebuild Detroit into the new and shiny Delta City, whilst also hoping to replace the human police with robotic workers, cheaper, easier to maintain, and utterly unquestioning of authority. This project hits a speed bump however, when OCP’s number two man Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) parades the product of his R&D lab before the company board and the company chairman, referred to only as “The Old Man” (Dan O’Herlihy). The hulking, prototype robotic law enforcer ED-209 machine guns unfortunate executive Kinney (Kevin Page) to a bloody pulp during a simulated exercise to demonstrate its abilities. Mid-grade executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), assigned to develop contingency projects in case of the ED-209’s failure to perform, steams in to steal Jones’s thunder and capture the Old Man’s interest with his alternative: his notion is to create a cyborg incorporating the brain and know-how of a real policeman.
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Morton is already busy trying to orchestrate the ready providing of a good test subject, by restructuring the police force and putting good candidates into dangerous positions. One such candidate, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), arrives for duty at Detroit’s most hazardous precinct, and is partnered up the station’s hard-ass commander Sgt Reed (Robert DoQui) with the equally tough Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The partners soon swing into action, chasing down a team of bank robbers commanded by the malevolent and ambitious Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), and pursue them to an abandoned steel mill. There, Lewis is knocked out and Murphy, after gunning down one of the crew, is bailed up by the rest and used for target practice by the gang, before Boddicker gives him a coup-de-grace in the head. Rushed to hospital, the medical team can’t save Murphy’s life, but his organic remains become the indispensible central component in Morton’s exercise in Frankensteinian public utility service.
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The savage boardroom sequence offers startling violence amidst arch mockery of corporate culture that has strong overtones of mirthful lampoons from days past like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1956) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), where young go-getters try to impress the man upstairs with wacky notions. The Old Man gives a speech of hollow self-congratulations met with applause, particularly from the eagerly brownnosing Morton, and hides his face in shame after Jones’ hiccup before admonishing him oh so solemnly, “Dick, I’m very disappointed.” The conceptual starting point is the same as Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho as the corporate world is revealed to be an arena of literal life-and-death competition, replete with cocaine orgies and blood-spattered exercises in free enterprise from these upstanding captains of industry, but it’s also a zone of slapstick absurdity, as the Old Man cradles his head in cringing embarrassment in the face of Kinney’s demise. “We steal money to buy coke and sell the coke and make even more money,” says Boddicker’s lieutenant Emil (Paul McCrane), which he holds as basic business acumen, and Boddicker and crew attempt a hostile takeover of a mob drug business.
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Street-level capitalism is soon revealed to be working in harmony with the glass citadels of corporatism, for Boddicker works under the protection of Jones, who offers him the rights to control all the crime proceeds in Delta City. “Good business is where you find it,” Jones and Boddicker both parrot, one of the many catchphrases that recur throughout the film, way-stations of commercialist mind colonisation: everyone in the film, well before Robocop first marches out to battle, is already brainwashed to a certain extent. Glimpses of television in this future are either ads, chop-chop news, or bawdy, soft-porn sitcoms, disgorging another catchphrase, “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” Not, of course, that RoboCop was so unique in terms of its targets when it was released. Corporate honchos, snotty yuppies, and government heavies were kicked about in quite a few ‘80s action films, victims of a lingering suspicion of authority, a hangover in genre film reflexes from the counterculture era but gaining a more blue collar basis in the era of the common man (a couple of years later, in Leviathan, 1989, for instance, a female corporate boss gets a sock in the face from Weller, playing one of the workers she left to die).
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What makes RoboCop so striking in this regard is the way it coherently envisions its future world. The threat of collapse into anarchy is both imminent but also manufactured. The Old Man crows about changes to taxation that have allowed corporate growth at the price of running down civic infrastructure, to which the proposed cure-all is corporate governance. Meanwhile the assailed, under-resourced, cost-ineffective police are driven to the point of considering a strike, something Reed considers utterly verboten. RoboCop is a product intended, like ED-209, to render messy human components to the system unnecessary. And yet Morton’s idea needs the human element. RoboCop’s near-future has hues of dystopia and the shining prospects of renewal on the horizon seem to promise only new dimensions in iniquity. In terms of the science fiction genre in general and in more specific conceptual terms, the entire narrative can be seen as the stage before the construction of the great city of Metropolis (1926).
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In this landscape Murphy is a plain anachronism, a competent cop with a sturdy home life and an old-school delight in the mystique of the western hero, recreating the signature gun-spinning move of his young son’s favourite TV character, T.J. Lazer, protagonist of a sci-fi western blend, and admitting to Lewis that “I get a kick out of it.” Rebirth as RoboCop ironically remakes the gunslinger as futuristic hero, but as a 21st century myth, or at least a 1980s anticipation of one, the context is infinitely more questioning about the actual meaning of such heroism – what was the Old West hero but precursor and defender of more efficient exploitation of the land? RoboCop depicts the search for freedom in immediate and gruelling detail, perceiving the entire world, never mind the computer chips and LED screen that feed fragments of corporate circumspection to Murphy, as a trap of conspiring paradigms. It doesn’t seem at all coincidental that Jones and Boddicker’s association closely resembles that of Frank and Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), hired gun and business potentate learning from each-other with mutual yearnings to be the other. The true cleverness of RoboCop, and the source of its power, lies in Verhoeven and the screenwriters’ precise feel for what to make sport of and what to take seriously, playing their hero and the other cops absolutely straight. This approach allowed Verhoeven to extend his obsession with the mysterious blurring of the sacred and profane to emblematic extremes.
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Verhoeven’s visual patterns constantly stress the act of seeing, experiencing, processing, and also the limitations imposed upon them. Verhoeven repeatedly returns to Media Brief bulletins and commercials without warning, assaulting the demarcations between standard movie narrative and meta-commentary, between movie-watching as self-evident flow and self-critical process. Point-of-view shots are a constant motif. These kind of shots were increasingly common in this brand of ‘80s sci-fi action movie, the red-drenched viewpoint of the Terminator, the infrared gaudiness of the Predator, evoking new ways of seeing the world through technological media. Verhoeven renders them more purposeful in terms of his hero’s experience. He obliges the audience to spend much time watching this world through Murphy-RoboCop’s eyes, or from those who look on at him with blends of heartache and fear. Murphy’s death and resurrection are first-person events, his viewpoint maintained as doctors try to save his life, in alternation with incredible close-ups of Weller’s glassy blue eyes. Flashback memories take on dimensions of spiritual symbolism, the sight of his wife and son waving to him from the driveway of his house as he drives away becoming a more permanent and piercingly wistful evocation of loss.
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Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop continues in this vein, experience reduced to brief snatches of online awareness, enough time to observe his creation team and overseers like Morton in all their crass and clumsy humanity. RoboCop is supposed to be a completely pliable tool, without memory or sense of self, only a series of simple and unswaying directives to guide his actions. As Murphy-RoboCop rises from his seat to the applause of the technicians and executives, his vision is pixelated by video feed and criss-crossed by targeting grids and computer read-outs, with a viewpoint that’s rigorously linear and straightforward, Verhoeven’s subtle jab at the drab functionality of much Hollywood filmmaking. But dream and memory come to disrupt the way of seeing OCP impose upon him, making the film, in its way, a new paradigm for the classic surrealist creed. Verhoeven cleverly extends the feeling of displacement and the shock of the new as the cops dash through the halls of their precinct trying to catch a glimpse of the outlandish newcomer in their midst, a gleaming hunk of technological force, a masculinised answer to the sleek robot Maria of Metropolis. One of the most logical throwaway details also contains one of its sharpest gags, as RoboCop has to consume a paste close to baby food to keep his organic parts alive, humanity at last perfectly infantilised and rationalised. The film found a way to weaponise David Cronenberg’s dank dreams of body perversion and intrusion.
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RoboCop is sent out to snare the bad guys – one of Verhoeven’s many circular motifs suggests something of Murphy’s spirit is still within RoboCop as he drives out of the precinct car park with sparks in his wake on the steep ramp. Verhoeven compresses vignettes of totemic pop vigilantism into gems of black comedy here, as he offers several hilariously hyperbolic versions of the kinds of street crimes reported breathlessly on nightly news and in cheesy movies. A stick-up man with a machine gun terrorising a market. A pair of denim-clad rapists. Disgruntled former councillor Ron Miller (Mark Carlton) holding the mayor hostage. The stick-up man is easily sent flying into a refrigerator as his bullets ricochet off RoboCop’s armour. More wit is required to take down the rapists: RoboCop successfully shoots between their victim’s legs to make mincemeat of an offending member. The hostage-taker is dragged through a wall and punched out a window (one of my favourite parts of the film is the terrorist’s list of demands to the negotiating cop outside, including fresh coffee, his job back, and a new car, and the cop’s assurance: “Let the Mayor go and we’ll even throw in a Blaupunkt.”) So successful are RoboCop’s forays that Morton’s hubris becomes outsized, crowing to the media that crime will be wiped out in 90 days and dissing Jones in the executive washroom at OCP without realising the target himself is in a toilet stall. Morton is soon assured he’s truly earned an enemy, but doesn’t quite realised how dangerous an enemy until Boddicker barges his way into Morton’s house, shoots him in the legs, and leaves him to watch a DVD of Jones gloating as a bomb ticks down to zero.
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Just prior to getting his goose cooked, Verhoeven gleefully portrays Morton and a pair of models indulging lashings of snow white and fetid sexuality, in a scene that feels eminently like the filmmakers probably witnessed such a scene or perhaps even indulged it somewhere in the Hollywood hills: “God I love to be with intelligent women,” Morton crows to the dimwit pair before snorting coke off one’s tits, summarising the mindset of the executive sexist with cruel exactitude. Boddicker and his crew, by contrast to the corporate corsairs, are a multiracial bunch of scumbags and overgrown school bullies who enjoy turmoil and tormenting, evinced as they sadistically blow pieces off Murphy, and later Emil threatens a geeky gas station worker (“Are you some kind of college boy?…Think you can outsmart a bullet?”). They’re logical end-products of a society based around dumbing things down and celebrating ruthless muscle. That process is in itself a product of the torturing dualism that Verhoeven constantly perceives in the human condition. People at the pinnacle want the seamy pleasure those as the bottom can give them; those at the bottom wish to drag everything down but then ascend in its place. By the time the cops do actually strike and leave the streets to the marauders, the crew unleash their casual destructive impulses with an impunity reminiscent of Verhoeven’s antihero in Turkish Delight, a madcap incarnation of impulse and basic organic hunger detached from all natural feeling for higher function, as well as the ensnared bisexual protagonist of The Fourth Man, who finds himself trapped between sweat-inducing desire and beckoning transcendence.
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Murphy meanwhile experiences the return of consciousness as a digital glitch, the face of his killer leering at him in fuzzy dream, wrenching him out of repose and driving him out into the night, with Lewis’ attempt to reach the man within – “Murphy, it’s you!” – ringing in his ears. Encountering Emil as he robs the gas station, mutual recognition spooks both men, and the device of recognition is, of course, a catchphrase: Murphy’s favourite quip, perhaps also culled from T.J. Lazer, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” Some of the film’s funniest jokes are also its least subtle, like the constant repetitions of the diminutive of Jones’ first name, and the key object of consumerist fancy, the 6000-SUX sports car, a car that fulfils the dream of conspicuous consumption – it nicely meets Miller’s criteria for his dream car that it give “really shitty gas mileage.” Verhoeven returns to the first-person style as Murphy for an amazing sequence where his trash satire and poetic sense of elusive memory work in perfect tandem, following the breadcrumb trail back through Emil’s arrest record through to what used to be his home. Here he finds a smarmy salesman guiding him through his house on video screens, reducing the setting of his life to a series of metrics and brand names, whilst the ghostly memories of his wife (Angie Bolling) and son (Jason Levine) loom before him, conjured out of the past and dissolving again. Murphy, in his prowling distress, punches in one of the salesman video screens, the first overt act of revolt against the overwhelming web of choking commercialism and phony pleasantry glimpsed throughout the film. Characteristically, Verhoeven eases back from the emotional crescendo with a return to comedy whilst still managing to step up the narrative pace as he makes a crash-cut to a nightclub, as Murphy hunts down another of Boddicker’s associates, Leon (Ray Wise). Leon tries to kick the cyborg in the balls but of course gets only some broken toes for his pains and the dancing denizens hoot in approval as Murphy drags Leon out by his hair.
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One of Verhoeven’s master strokes was in casting, putting actors in vividly counter-intuitive roles, like casting the eternally girlish Allen as a tough cop, Cox, best known before this as the dreamiest member of the rowing foursome in Deliverance (1972), as a raging, strutting prick, and Smith, who mostly had played cops in various TV shows before this, as a brutal bandit king, utilising his aura of intelligent authority with an extra layer of antisocial acidity, converting all his lines into little arias of cruel humour. Weller had been circling the edges of stardom for a few years before being cast as Murphy, in cultish fare like Of Unknown Origin (1983), in which he played an everyman doing battle with a giant rat, and the title role of Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984), where he played a polymath pulp hero; the diversity of such parts signalled both Weller’s skill as an actor and also his peculiar physiognomy, spindly, slightly hangdog, but equipped with soulful eyes and cupid lips. The latter feature being just about all you can see of him throughout RoboCop and so vital to his presence, some remnant of the human, the romantic, amidst the technocratic fantasia. Weller’s ingenuity as an actor is vital to selling RoboCop, in the mechanical gait of the character, the way he seems to struggle against his new form and then to use it effectively express his rage and distress as he begins to regain his memory. Somehow he manages to make all the stages of his role effectively expressive – from the all-too-vulnerable Murphy to the grimly stoic cyborg to the blank, haunted, quietly resolved remnant that emerges towards the end.
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Murphy’s crashing of a business meeting between Boddicker and a drug kingpin (Lee DeBroux) sees him wipe out a small army of hoodlums, and bash Boddicker around until he tries to warn off Murphy by telling him Jones looks after him, but it’s rather the reminder that Murphy is a cop that saves Boddicker’s life. Instead he casts him to Reed and heads off to arrest Jones, but soon finds a wicked limitation placed upon him – the incapacity to take action against an OCP employee, ingrained in his programming. In this future there is quite literally one law for the rich and another for the rest. Murphy has to elude an ED-209 set upon him by Jones – fortunately, that monstrosity, in what feels like a grand joke aimed at decades worth of impractical robots in movies, can’t negotiate the stairs – and then is almost shredded by the combined fire of ranks of cops called out to deal with the apparently rogue cyborg. Basil Poledouris’ tremendous scoring reaches an apogee here in the grand yet mournful evocation of mecha-Christ crucified over and over again. Lewis manages to snatch Murphy away and helps him self-repair and recuperate in the same steel mill where he was first shot up, and Jones sends Boddicker and crew after him, equipped with explosive shell-lobbing guns. Verhoeven, via Murphy and Lewis, dishes out nasty comeuppances to the criminals, but with a seething overlay of perverse, Looney Tunes-esque comedy: Emil, immersed in the contents of a well-labelled vat of toxic waste, is reduced to a grotesque mass of melting flesh before being run down by Boddicker; Leon is blown to smithereens by Lewis just as he whoops in triumph after trapping Murphy under some junk, and Boddicker gets skewered in the throat by Murphy’s data plug when he gets just a little too close to crow over his pinioned opponent, a deadly steel spike that also looks like an installation art take on flipping the bird.
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What holds RoboCop together is the conviction with which Verhoeven and Weller celebrate their heroes, the cops both human and augmented, even as just about everything around them is revealed to be some sort of sham. When Verhoeven would return to a similar blend of high cynicism and straight-laced thrills on Starship Troopers (1997), a lot more people didn’t, or wouldn’t, get the joke even as Verhoeven unsubtly clad his spacefaring warriors in Nazi-esque uniforms. Such a lapse that time around was due in large part because Verhoeven offered no wriggle room between the fascist precepts of his future society and the aims of the heroes obliged to live in it; on the contrary, the film unstintingly states that their qualities and desires are rather exactly fulfilled and expiated by that society, and infers a similar dynamic can seduce all of us. That quality in some ways makes Starship Troopers the more sophisticated and slyly unsparing as a ransacking of genre film, but in another sense the lack of such tension foils it; it can’t thrill in the way RoboCop can, and so isn’t as effectively two-faced. Murphy returns to OCP Headquarters to handle unfinished business, blowing up the ED-209 with quick efficiency – somehow Tippet and the sound effects team manage to turn the death reel of the decapitate robot, which collapses with a ratcheting click of its wayward toes, into a hilarious moment – before bursting into the company boardroom to brand Jones as a killer before the Old Man and all the other corporate sharks. But Murphy cannot fire, not until the Old Man delivers the true assassination according to his world’s values, by firing Jones as he holds a gun to his head.
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This conclusion offers rowdy, crowd-pleasing flourishes with a sarcasm so complete it circles right back around to earnestness, as Morton’s executive pal Johnson (Felton Perry) gives Murphy and thumbs-up, and the Old Man slides back into western flick argot – “Nice shootin’ son.” The executives, like the audience and Murphy himself, in the end desperately want and need the western hero to exist even when it completely cuts against the grain of all logic. Similarly, Murphy’s final, simple, smiling utterance of his name carries enormous power precisely because of the farcicality, the grotesquery that surrounds him, and the hilariousness of the context only sharpens the sting of Murphy’s self-reclamation. RoboCop was such a hit that inevitably it spawned sequels, but just how essential Verhoeven’s touch had been, and how smart Miner and Neumeir’s writing had been, was soon confirmed. The first follow-up, Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 (1990), proved a disastrous mess which just about everyone involved blamed everyone else for, retreading most aspects of the original but this time with the foulness turned up full and the stabs at humour and excitement utterly leaden. Weller refused to return for the third instalment, released in 1993, helmed by Fred Dekker, so Robert John Burke was cast in the role instead. This time the result swung too far in the other direction from the second entry, playing more like an extended TV pilot with goofy humour and a broad approach. Still, it did actually manage to provide a worthier follow-up. Jose Padilha’s would-be thoughtful but actually merely verbose and heavy-footed remake from 2014 tried to turn its own by-committee, brand-exploiting status into the very subject of its riff, but neglected everything else, and simply reduced proceedings to a crying bore. Some prototypes, it turns out, just can’t be reproduced.

Standard
1960s, Crime/Detective, Horror/Eerie, Thriller

Psycho (1960)

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Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenwriter: Joseph Stefano

By Roderick Heath

In the late months of 1959 and through 1960, a battery of films hit movie screens that essentially initiated modern cinema. Amongst the films made the young lions of the French New Wave and the fanfare for the Italian ‘alienation’ mode, Psycho seems in odd company, as a work of commercial showmanship rather than radical aesthetic reinvention, and made by a filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, who had just turned sixty, a well-established celebrity rather than a fearsome young gun. But in other ways it’s inescapable. Like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, it revolves around the unexpected hole left in both the lives of people and narrative film when a protagonist suddenly becomes absent from their own story. Like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, it pensively regards a coming age of monstrosities lurking behind the seemingly tawdry, shiny business of post-war life. Like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, it anxiously contemplates the bodies of entwined lovers doomed by forces far beyond their control. Like all these films it’s bewildered by the blank and artless affect of modernity and scratches at its shiny surface, seeing bleak and septic truths in places where the old darkness still crouches.
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Psycho, although not representing any great break for its director in style or subject, nonetheless offered a ruthlessly compressed and expressive ideogram of cinema form and function, so complete and effective that it forced a reorganisation of whole continents in pop culture. Psycho shocked. For a brief moment, Hitchcock had people wondering if he’d gone too far. And he had. He also dragged everyone over the line with him. More immediately, much as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) had done four decades earlier, Psycho redefined the Horror film. Hitchcock had never ventured into the genre overtly before despite occasionally skirting it, in the old dark house melodramas of Rebecca (1940) and Under Capricorn (1948) with their elusively haunting presences and literal skeletons in the closet, in the duplicitous landscapes of mind and body in Spellbound (1944), and the many sequences of intimate violence he was so skilled at portraying, pocking his oeuvre. Hitchcock had tackled the theme of the serial killer early in his career with The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926), but there had concentrated not on the killer or victims but on the elusively attaching spectre of guilt. And yet Psycho and The Birds (1963) are surely the greatest one-two punch in the genre. They’re deeply entwined in their imagery, characters, and metaphors, their anxious sense of the nomadic meeting the intractability of parochial identity in the midst of life’s violent flux.
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Hitchcock would have seen the early classics of the Expressionist movement, as his tenure learning his craft in Munich in the early 1920s fully immersed him in that aesthetic and its underpinning ideas. Whilst Hitchcock brought aspects of the style to his films, he quickly learned to mediate it through a harder, more three-dimensional way of looking at the world, and at film. Hitchcock’s world pretends to be entirely stolid, until suddenly it isn’t. When he finally strayed properly into Horror, Hitchcock helped give it something it needed, a new blueprint, a sense of connection with a real and immediate sense of danger living in the world, in a way the genre had never quite known before. In return it gave him something he needed as imitators crowded him and cinematic tastes changed: a jolt of new ferocity and aesthetic danger. Hitchcock did not expel the lingering influence of the old Expressionist style from his film, but does something more interesting, having it loom as large and weird as the Bates house over the motel, which, with its straight, flat surfaces and forms, invites the clear-lit gaze of his TV-trained crew; two modes of cinema are placed in close and incongruous conflict. Caligari and his world illustrated the workings of a pathological mind, an idea Psycho demonstrates to the audience in a more complex dance of artifice and authenticity. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Psycho revolves around the revelation a seemingly average and likeable young man is in fact insane. But the projection of his lunacy here is a worn guise rather than incarnated in the drama. Symbols are cast aside. The killer is loose.
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The starting point, of course, was Robert Bloch’s clever if flimsy novel: Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano methodically stripped out the book’s prologue introducing Norman Bates and his strange little world. Hitchcock starts instead with fastidious declarations of date, time, place flashed on the screen, as the camera turns surveying the boxes and oblongs of the Phoenix, Arizona cityscape. The precision mimics true crime reportage, whilst the visuals reproduce the voyeuristic temptations of Rear Window (1954) in miniature, camera zeroing in on a hotel room where a treat waits, a couple just done screwing. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a sexy, young, yet also already distinctly rather world-weary couple, having a quickie on Marion’s lunchbreak. Hitchcock’s rueful idea of what the rest of the world’s doing when he’s busy drawing up a storyboard. Sam, chafing under the load of debts inherited from his father in addition to a hardware store, having a quickie with his lover on one of his business trips to Phoenix. Marion, a real estate agent’s secretary who’s reached the end of her tether in regards to their relationship, and once the carnal ecstatics are exhausted solicitude takes over. Watch Marion primly tucking in her shirt as she inveigles Sam to come to her house and have dinner with her and her sister, “respectably.” The last, waning days of the old propriety and the first salvoes of the sexual revolution in the mix. Soon the old propriety will have its revenge. Sam is filled with sour bawdiness (“We send sister to the movies, turn mother’s picture to the wall.”) but also acquiesces to Marion’s aspirations. Romantic failure is economic burden – Sam is also paying alimony to an ex-wife. Everything has a cost and profit value, a transaction on multiple but ever-linked indexes, of money and morality, social and emotional.
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New starts are possible. Sam sees the possibility of economic freedom soon. Just hold the line and grit your teeth. But Marion desperately wants to make something happen now; the coffers of hope and joy are totally empty. Cravings for respectability fire transgressive impulses. Marion returns to the office, lunch uneaten (noted acerbically on the bedside stand back in the hotel room, forgotten whilst other appetites are sated). Her fellow secretary Caroline (Pat Hitchcock) is the image of Marion’s anxiety, the type of woman who took tranquilisers to make it through her wedding night unscathed. In comes her boss Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), who seems the image of a solicitous prig who’s probably in big with the local Rotary club, with a big new client, the drawling, boastful, cowboy-hat-wearing Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson). Cassidy flirts shamelessly with Marion, trying to excite her with his big wad. Cash, that is – $40,000 dollars, ponied up to buy his about-to-be-married pet daughter a house for her wedding day. No wonder Marion has a headache. Cassidy has the manner of a small boy caught drawing rude words on the school room blackboard, gleefully exposing Lowery’s promised horde of a hidden bottle. Everybody’s got their little secret. But Marion sees through Cassidy of course; a few more belts of bourbon and he’ll be trying to grab her ass, no fear. Marion’s patience snaps, along with her judgement. She resolves to flee town with the cash, head out to Sam in his home town of Fairvale, California, and get on with life.
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Hitchcock needs no dialogue to depict Marion’s choices, just the sight of her changing and packing with the cash on her bed. Just as loud is the declaration of how love and sex are entwined with finance. On the way out of town she gives a smile and nod to Lowery as he strays by, only to provoke his momentary bewilderment as to what his secretary’s doing out and about. Fear falls with the chugging, jarring strains of Bernard Herrmann’s music which mimic the panicky scuttling of her nervous system, and now Marion is citizen of a new world. Her journey across the Arizona landscape, out in the sun-baked hills and long, straight highways, becomes a big wide trap, where the oncoming headlights sting like lamps in a third degree routine and the eyes of a highway patrolman (Mort Mills) are big, black dishes of emptiness: Kafka on the range. The cop, who only stops to make sure the lady asleep in her car on the roadside is all right, gets too interested, so Marion resolves to sell her car and get one with California licence plates. Many Hitchcock characters had been wrongfully accused, victims of appearances and bad luck, sweating their way through survival situations where they must project the appearance of innocence in a state of irony. Or, if they were breaking the law, usually had a good reason for doing it – to help someone in a jam, to help a lover, to expose a hidden menace. Personal transgression in Hitchcock is a lynchpin theme, but so too is personal morality, the compass of private judgement that often points in the opposite direction to the blank regard of state authority.
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But Marion is one who’s actually committing a crime (anticipating her sister in weirdness, Marnie), and she’s not very good at it, although she has verbal wherewithal to get her through gruelling exchanges. Her attempts to fend off the intrigued cop and the friendly used car salesman (John Anderson) only drum up suspicious questions, concern and probation commingling. The toilet of the used car lot becomes a strange stage for a reckoning, Marion’s image reflected in a grimly rectangular mirror, counting through cash in a step that puts her further outside the wall. In Cocteau she might step through the mirror into a dream veldt. In Psycho the walls have eyes, but no portals. Hitchcock invites the viewer into Marion’s head to listen to her sorting through unseen scenarios as she imagines the processes of discovery and retribution set in motion in her wake. Hitchcock wasn’t usually one to use such a method, but he needs the audience identification with Marion to be deep and abiding, as well as to trick the audience into thinking such machinations might be important. Marion gets a definite kick out of imagining Cassidy’s aggrieved and hypocritical protestations (“and even flirtin’ with me!”) as she plays through such scenes in her head; she pegs California Charlie as a bag of clichés (one of Stefano’s subtler, wittier touches in how she imagines the salesman repeating his “customer high-pressure a salesman” line like a proud parent).
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Rainfall pounds down upon Marion in her car, and in the dark she accidentally leaves the highway, finishing up on a detour. Here only one light beckons, the sign of the Bates Motel, a few small rooms under a looming house. The infrastructure of modernity, the low, rectilinear, interchangeable motel rooms, underneath an outpost of Gilded Age pretence, jagged gables and ovular frames all in a Freudian muddle. Shadows passing behind the windows describe the outline of an old woman, just the sort of inhabitant you might expect to see haunting such an abode. Marion’s westward jaunt from Arizona into the California hinterland feels odd in movie lore, like someone’s finally made that last leap from heartland to west coast many a Western film’s heroes never get around to. The Bates Motel is the place where the Old West trail ran out, lost in a septic trap of time and mind, where lost souls find their rest. The improbably agreeable and handsome young owner-manager dashes down and introduces himself as Norman Bates. Norman’s apparent, cheery forthrightness counters Marion’s caginess in writing a false name in the register. Soon Norman’s inviting her come eat with him, but hesitates on the threshold of her room, before suggesting they repair instead to the parlour behind his office. This little abode sports the unnerving products of his favourite pastimes, stuffed birds peering down from vantages, the creatures Norman readily compares Marion to, if only quoting cliché, as he watches he eat.
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Marion and Norman’s conversation is the epicentre of Psycho, an epic sequence of suggestion and revelation that slowly pivots the storyline’s focus from one character to another. Most directors would slink through a scene like this in a succession of shots merely servicing the dialogue exchange, but Hitchcock turns it into one of his most symphonic displays of constant, cumulatively unsettling reframings matched to the rhythms of Perkins’ performance. The stuffed birds and dark corners of the room plucked out of obscurity and soon appear in mysterious psychic dialogue with Norman, who sits like a witness in the dock, only as the camera drops lower and moves in closer to vote him visual power. At the end of it, there’s no dissonance when Hitchcock remains with Norman rather than continues to follow Marion, whose viewpoint has dominated the film completely until now. Hitchcock forces the viewer into complicity with Norman whilst inserting a level of irony: now Norman is the one peering at Marion, through the safe glaze of a peephole that mimics the movie camera lens, the earlier invitation to gawk at Leigh in her bra turns into a needling accusation. Marion’s encounter with Norman, who seems to charm her sufficiently at first she has no qualms about inviting him into her room, if only silently, shades more into a woman’s startled and fascinated witnessing of a kind of living cautionary tale. By the end of their talk Marion is resolved on stepping out of what Norman calls a private trap, the sort of situation people voluntarily persist in for the sake of some obligation despite resenting it. Norman’s concept of the trap is sheltering as well as limiting.
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Today the specific twists of Psycho aren’t just well-known but so deeply enshrined in pop cultural lore it’s just about impossible to reckon with how sharply they landed in 1960. Hitchcock would later tell François Truffaut that it was the shower murder that made him want to film Bloch’s novel, but the narrative’s innate ambiguity must have had some appeal too, especially once the prologue was cast aside. Psycho represents a perfect and logical extreme for Hitchcock as a filmmaker who liked to tease and confound and audience as well as please it. Vertigo (1958) had allowed a similar level of opacity over genre as well as story before, but Psycho allowed Hitchcock to extend the game right until the end, as well as proving more functional in his chief business of attracting and exciting an audience. The film is a merry dance through genres and all attendant expectations, starting off in a key of everyday frustration. Sexy melodrama, before Marion’s thievery kicks off a seemingly low-key thriller with the constant, jangling threat of becoming something more. And then, the silhouetted, knife-wielding killer walks in, coming up to Marion as she has a shower, and brutally knifes her to death. One movie has collided with another, one pathology with another. The dizziness is stylistic as well as narrative. The real estate office, the sunstruck car yard, the interior of the motel are all harsh, ahistorical, antiseptic. Norman’s parlour is touched with hints of Expressionist fervour in the pools of light and dark. The house above, a Gothic emblem, derived from an image by that poet of American solitude, Edward Hopper.
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Then, of course, the shower scene. Marion fights for life but never stands a chance. The brilliant cruelty lies in the way Marion is enjoying her shower, seemingly not just cleaning her body but also a symbolic act of purifying herself following her resolution to go back and face the consequences of her crime; confession delivers salvation, an amniotic state of grace. But the spectre of punitive morality is quite literally standing behind her, Norman wearing the guise of his mother, incarnation of pious hypocrisy and stunting puritanism. Not that this is made clear yet; all that’s seen of the assailant is a black spot where the face should be and a thatch of stringy hair. The killer is the dark thing that lay in the highway cop’s glasses. Hitchcock continues to fascinate artists well beyond the parameters of his own form as well as critics because he had one, near-unique talent: performing little ballets of visualisation that creates epiphanies in the midst of more serviceable narrative cinema, without seeming to create a tension between the two forms. Precisely this ability taunted some viewers; it’s why some like Graham Greene dismissed him as a purveyor of gimmicks, exactly the same reason why the New Wave critics and others heralded him as someone who grasped the raw nerve of cinema. Psycho is filled with such touches, and of course the shower scene is the ultimate example. Hitchcock doesn’t just invent the slasher film in the course of a few seconds or bring a new edge of pyrotechnic pizzazz to editing a straightforward moment, but hacks up the very idea of the movie actor and the female body into a succession of images that are also lodestones. A huge close up of Marion’s screaming mouth, a lunging close-up of the knife grazing her navel.
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Even greater, perhaps, is the immediate aftermath of the murder, when the film stops dead in a kind of stunned and meditative regard. A colossal eye, glimpsed in a slowly gyring camera movement, a universe unto itself, an experimental photograph, a Japanese ink sketch. A long, slow, mysteriously dreamy retreat that suggests a recapitulation of the spirographs in the iris credits of Vertigo, the death plunge but played in reverse, leaving behind the secretive space of the dead eye until pausing the regard the blank, voided face of the dead woman. Marion Crane, whose fate we were utterly compelled by just a few seconds before, has vanished, leaving a hunk of carrion. Hitchcock rhymes the shot with the blood gushing down the plughole. Marion’s lifeblood is descending into an abyss. Did Marion go there too? This protean moment feels like the basis of Brian De Palma’s whole career. David Lynch’s too. Camera lifts away and slides over to regard the newspaper that contains the bundled money that brought her to this end, before moving to the the window to gaze at the Bates house as Norman’s cry rings out aghast: “Mother! Oh god Mother! Blood! Blood!” The chain of association seems blatant, and that’s also what Hitchcock uses to screen his most malicious secret. Just as the audience was invited in to experience Marion’s crime, now it’s drafted into empathising with Norman in his.
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Just as Marion was forgivable in the way she wanted to deliver herself and Sam from fate, Norman compels with the diligence of his act of seemingly selfless protection and concealment for the sake of his deranged and murderous mother. His cool, his logic, his care, all demand admiration, empathy. Marion and her car pushes into the neighbouring swamp, where it lingers with taunting buoyancy for a few moments before sinking into the murk with a satisfying plop. As original and radically reorientating as Psycho is, it nonetheless employs some hallowed genre rudiments, particularly the motif of the lonely traveller washing up in a backwater and the old, dark house that stands on the hill, clasping its secrets and surely and tidily as the musty Victoriana bric-a-brac that litters its rooms. The figure of the traveller who’s stumbled past a point of no return is an essential starting point in so many Horror tales. What is Marion but a very modern version of the Gothic Horror character abandoned at a creepy destination by the nervous coachman? Terence Fisher worked the same motif in the more traditional mould with his near-simultaneous The Brides of Dracula. It’s not hard to see why this is such a familiar aspect of the genre, and how precisely Hitchcock grasps it. Everyone’s gone for a long drive in the country or a road trip to locate some obscure place in their past or to plant down a future and felt the odd sensation of straying beyond the pale, discovering signs of a way of life you thought had vanished subsisting in stray corners of a roadside grove or fluttering field.
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Since fairly early in his American sojourn, from the time of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock had found energy and purpose in escaping Hollywood’s climes for contemplations of Americana, contemplations half-charmed and half-perturbed. Such forcibly affected normality had to hide as much strangeness just as surely as the waistcoat-wearing rose gardeners and tea-sippers of London. Norman is on the face of things an exemplar of mid-century American values, a good-looking young man who loves his mother and diligently runs his private enterprise, standing outside of but not disdaining the great national business. Norman’s strangest crime from the viewpoint of the society Hitchcock depicts is to be ignorant of money as a motive; he scarcely seems bothered by being tethered to a bare living running a tacky little motel, and never thinks to check Marion’s belongings for dough. The purloined wad of cash, that spur to offence and flight, goes in the swamp with everything else that was Marion Crane. It’s this aspect of Norman that allowed him to become a sort of antihero in a later string of sequels in the 1980s; mad and dangerous as he is, he’s also uniquely incorruptible, an eternal innocent. The force that compels him is no less universal than the desire to outdo fate. But it is in his case a far more intense and destructive struggle, an agonised wrestling match with the fact that the enveloping certainty and sense of belonging that is childhood can never be regained.
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Hitchcock certainly laid foundations for the future of Horror cinema, but also might have helped initiate a new interest in the contemporary American landscape, one the oncoming American New Wave would exalt. Psycho could count Easy Rider (1969) or Five Easy Pieces (1970) amongst its progeny as much as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Halloween (1978), through its fixation with the tension between the ensnared and the astray, the expanse of the land and the inward-turning gyre of social setting. Psycho is intensely aware of the landscape as stage, from the opening that surveys Phoenix in seeking out the right portal into a story, to the glimpses of the sunstruck countryside and the starkness of downtown Bakersfield where black eyes peer across hot asphalt. The motel and the Bates house stand in intimate theatrical relationship where spiteful conversations echo down and illusions play in the window frames, actualisations of a schizoid mind, one zone arguing with another, the grafted antiseptic well-lit boxes forced to overhear the rants of the creaking house with its memory of ancient neurosis. Hitchcock’s gamesmanship isn’t subtle, his caressing camera movements sneaking about like a rubbernecker but retreating to vantages that make a show of concealing the reality of Norman and his mother. The showmanship stops being method and becomes instead subtext, watching worlds, people, personalities collide and graze and threaten to merge.
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Meanwhile Sam Loomis sits in the office of his hardware store penning a missive to his absent lover he’ll never see again, asking her to join him, whilst an old woman in the store buys insecticide and worries whether it’s painless. Instead of Marion, Sam gets Lila Crane (Vera Miles), looking for her vanished sister, followed quickly by Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Lila, as tense and questing as her sister with an extra bolt of vehemence to her character, has to force action, to push through just as her Laurie harangued her beau in Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and for not dissimilar reasons, having to put a torch to the cause of masculine obsession. “Patience doesn’t run in my family,” she tells Sam, to nobody’s surprise. Psycho moves restlessly through a range of protagonists, most of whom are in turn also potential villains, distressing, stealing, exposing, tormenting, killing. Identities blur, opposites always hinting unity. Sam and Norman are near-doppelgangers, lanky, dark-haired American lover boys, both chafing under the lingering rule of failed and deceased parents, both defined by their different propensities in penetrating Marion’s body. Lila steps into her sister’s shoes and enacts a parody of marriage with Sam so they can investigate Norman (another prediction of Marnie). Arbogast’s face, shot in pugnacious close-up by Hitchcock as he first enters the film, echoes the looming visage of the highway cop and brings the same aura of authority incarnate in all its faintly bullying self-importance, although Arbogast has freedom of discretion that sets him apart from the lawman. Ironically, it’s only because of Marion’s transgression that Norman suffers his downfall, the reason why people are just a little too determined to pick up her trail.
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Arbogast interviews Norman, recognising Marion’s flimsy pseudonym in the register and slowly draws out Norman’s admission she was there, teasing at the discrepancies in his accounts but not suspecting him of anything except for very ordinary indiscretions like possibly sleeping with his guest, a notion that of course shocks and annoys Norman. But only Arbogast’s request to talk to his mother in case she talked to Marion ends the conversation. Arbogast reports back to Lila; the stern private eye is now empathetic, offering consolations and salves before deciding to return and try to satisfy the nagging ambiguity. He enters the Bates house and climbs the stairs to interview Mother Bates. But someone waits for him above, someone who comes out and stabs him at the top of the stairs. Arbogast slides back down the stairs and crashes to the floor, his assailant upon him in a moment with startling speed, delivering the coup-de-grace with brutal speed. A briefer, less eruptive episode of violence than the shower scene, but just as spectacular in its way, with Hitchcock’s camera chasing Arbogast down the stairs as he stumbles backwards, blood spattered on his face, arms flailing. A weird effect, one you can’t imagine any other director trying even today unless performing rank imitation, one that makes perfect sense in a mechanical sense and yet delivers an unreal effect, pushing Hitchcock’s desire for inspiring a physical effect upon the audience to the edge of surrealism. Where Marion falls to pieces in the editing room, Hitchcock’s camera pins Arbogast centre-screen, inescapable in his gruelling panic and literal plunge to earth.
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One significant disparity between Psycho and much of the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre lies in the speed with which its violent set-pieces whip by, by comparison with such displays as the concert sequence of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) or the finale of North by Northwest (1959). Psycho’s spurts of carnage are abrupt, jagged, still discomforting nearly sixty years later precisely because they arrive and depart with such speed. There’s little of the usual sense of luxury in Hitchcock’s fascination for the raw textures of cinema, no sense of delving into a dreamy netherworld as in Vertigo, although its portrait of reality is just as stylised in its way and its plunge just as deep; nor anything of the drawn-out rituals of stalking and slaying that its many progeny would soon evolve. Every shot in the film is cut to the bone in terms of declarative function. Part of this was doubtless due to Hitchcock’s determination to make the film as quickly and efficiently as possible one a lean budget, but it’s also demanded by the subject matter. Death comes on hard and fast in Psycho, and when it’s done there’s nothing left but the empty, staring eye. Psycho made the knife-wielding killer the new axis of the Horror film. The moment was ripe for this, as a new sociological awareness began to put the concept of the psychopath and the thrill killer into the popular consciousness; behind Psycho lies the well-known inspiration of Ed Gein and also his tabloid kin like Charles Starkweather.
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Serial killers had appeared in Horror movies before, but usually signposted as something bizarre and alien, played by the likes of Tod Slaughter and Rondo Hatton, presented as misshapen fiends bursting out of some usually safely locked psychic bole. Even the attempts to render more authentic portrayals usually wound up a bit absurd. Watching John Drew Barrymore just a few years earlier playing his mother-fixated whacko killer in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) with bug eyes and fever sweats that would get him arrested by a cop on general principle gives some real appreciation for just how completely Hitchcock and Perkins reconstituted the portrayal of such a character. Perkins’ intricate performance is marked out not just by for his skill in encouraging audience compassion for Norman but in also laying bare his psychopathology without either giving away the game whilst also completely avoiding any sense of winking at the audience. The closest he comes is the ever-so-slight glint of steely humour when he tells Arbogast, “She might have fooled me, but she didn’t fool my mother.” Whilst Psycho certainly gave birth to the giallo and slasher modes in the next twenty years, the films that followed in its wake would often avoid Psycho’s distinctive strategy in making its monster also its most human figure.
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Most such progeny would labour to put back on the mask of detached symbolism Bloch, Hitchcock, Stefano, and Perkins all worked hard in their ways to strip off, resulting in black-faced murderers like Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees, and the incidental, interchangeable slayers of Mario Bava’s founding giallo films. Only Dario Argento would take up the notes of gender chaos Hitchcock breached, but rarely with much interest in psychological depth, instead offering it as a specific device to assault his heroes and audience. Psycho’s approach is ironically, for all its modernity, more reminiscent of the classic Universal Horror films like Frankenstein (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941), where the central tragedy lies precisely in the fact that the tantalisingly vulnerable lies cheek by jowl with reflexive savagery, all in the same frame; men turn inside out under the pressure of the contradictions inherent in their being. Psycho aches with a sense of the state of humanity being, as Norman’s famous speech to Marion codifies, one of flailing isolation and permanent internal war. It’s a war that also afflicts societies, one that beliefs in official moralities and systems can both pacify and enrage. The film makes sport of just about every social piety in the book – the earnestness of the young man who loves his mother, the loyalty of the girl Friday secretary, the probity of the Midwestern businessman, the assurance of the psychiatrist.
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Psycho is often faulted for a segue into plummy hype that would seem more at home in an episode of Hitchcock’s popular TV show, when Lila and Sam, concerned for Arbogast after he fails to get back to them, visit the Fairvale sheriff Al Chambers (John McIntire). Chambers drops the jarring revelation that Mother Bates has been dead for years, and questions just who might be buried in her place if she’s still in her house with Norman. Certainly this moment sets up the last phase of the film with the lingering ambiguity stoked to a new high, and Hitchcock sneaks in a sideways swipe at the lore of gossip as Chambers’ wife (Lurene Tuttle) informs Lila that Norman’s mother and her lover were found dead together “in bed.” The eternal partner to transgressive behaviour is the obsessive interest in it by social guardians. There might also be a hint of satirical intent in the scene overall, just as there is more tangibly in the final summation of the psychiatrist Richman (Simon Oakland) called upon to explain Norman’s particular pathology. Such moments graze awkwardly against the terse energy of the dialogue scenes between Perkins and Leigh, Balsam, and Gavin. The infrastructure of the thriller itself is being tested throughout Psycho, Hitchcock mocking his own formula and the need for neat demarcations an increasingly TV-dominated mindset was encouraging, a mindset he had seen the potential in earlier but also knew was often at war with the spectacle of cinema that was his faith. You can almost hear the director clucking in amusement at the audience feeling like the TV commercial break should come after the sheriff’s hanging question.
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Emphatically, for The Birds Hitchcock would abandon any need to explain his invocations of chaos, and whilst he’d return to the Freudian fold for Marnie, it would be as fuel to an overtly artificial creation of a modernist-tinged, full-colour Expressionist melodrama. Psycho on the other hand turns its own black-and-white palette, harsh as any bleach or carbolic mixture used to scrub those bathroom tiles so bright, into part of its purely efficient structuring. Hitchcock makes a show of his concealments, but only to reinforce how nothing can hide. Mind and soul are slowly baking in a hot glare, the glare of the California sun, the neon light, the peering eye of state and authority, the shock of the atom bomb’s glare, exposed and helpless as naked flesh under a hard silver knife. Nothing to do but turn inwards, to seek refuge in backdated certainties, musty creeds, incestuous securities, a closed loop of experience. Post-war America has found the end of its frontier, the end of its logic, and there’s nothing left to do but spin into the drain where the monsters dwell. Horatio Alger’s nightmare. Lila and Sam’s venture out to the Bates Motel sees the duo declaring readiness for anything they might find, but no-one can ever really expect mummified corpses and knife-wielding cross-dressing psychotics amongst the bric-a-brac and dried turnips.
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Lila’s adventure around the Motel and the house make for some of my favourite moments in Psycho, for the sense not just of rising suspense as she tries to delve into Norman’s secrets whilst Sam keeps him talking, but the way the film’s sense physical and psychic landscape collide with pungent flavour. The Bates house is Hitchcock’s remembrance of the old Expressionist credo of film setting as explanation of film theme, as much as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s backdrops or Metropolis’ (1926) mimetic cityscape. Lila skirts the rear of the cabins where old car and piled detritus lie, and penetrates the house where the old-world charm is suffocating and the zones of adulthood and childhood are still rigidly demarcated. Mother’s room with its plush, rococo intimations of decadence and sensual delights, Norman’s still-occupied childhood bedroom where beloved toys sit cheek-by-jowl with purloined Victorian pornography books for useful education. The imprint of Mother’s body in her bed describes the immediacy of her influence and the literal hole left by her absence. Cross-cutting to Sam grilling Norman, until Norman realises he’s being distracted and knocks Sam out during a tussle. Lila’s use of the cellar stairs to hide from Norman leads her to Mother, as the door to the cellar beckons as the last, unpenetrated space of mystery, the deep pit of the mind-as-architecture where Mother is seemingly set up in a chair to keep her away from prying eyes.
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For good cause, Lila finds as she turns her chair and is confronted by an eyeless stare and the withered, toothy grin of death, the preserved but desiccated form of the body – the perfect one according to puritan ideal, removed of all blood, thought, passion, temptation, captive and ever true. With the twist that far from being the mother who enforces the regime of nightmarish repression, it’s the son over himself. Has a film ever encoded a spoiler so brazenly upfront as the very title Psycho? A sudden gust of revelation and action: the sight of the corpse’s face, Lila’s answering screaming, her flung hand striking a bare, scourging light bulb and knocking it into a jangling dance, and Norman’s entrance clad in floral nightgown and wig, grinning with relish with colossal knife in hand. His appearance holds a charge of bizarre comedy, but it’s submerged in the disorientating rush, perhaps one reason why Hitchcock seems determined not to linger on it. In a blink, Sam appears, grabbing Norman and forcing him to his knees with superior strength, as Herrmann’s screaming strings begin to wind down like a phonograph reaching its limit, in time with the slowing pendulum of the light, reality recomposing itself with nauseous uncertainty.
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Clinical deconstruction of the saga takes place in Fairvale’s police station, where reporters and gawkers wait outside and Richman boils down the mystery for easy consumption for Sam, Lila, the local law enforcers, and the viewer, in a broad parody of psychotherapeutic jive and the expected thriller winding-down explanations. A spare yet endlessly resonant epilogue sabotages it all. Norman, now entirely subsumed by the personality of Mother, sits alone against a blank white institutional wall with blanket drawn over his head, drawing into him/herself with the aspect of a yogi scissoring himself out of reality. Mother planning to still win a victory over the watching eyes, the delving smart-alecks, the coolly abiding cops, by appearing completely passive and peaceful. She wouldn’t even harm a fly. The psychiatrist might explain why, but can never really touch that infinitely strange and churning space that is the mind; Mother is exultant, unbound, a world-spirit projecting herself out from a cage of flesh and brick to find new psychic accords in a mad age. Hitchcock projects the ghostly image of the real corpse’s face upon Norman’s, and then dissolves to the sight of Marion’s car being dragged out of the swamp, looking a little like a decayed skull itself, covered in filth. Foul deeds will rise and all that jazz, but with the light falling upon the submerged and the repressed, out comes the stink.

 

Standard
1910s, Crime/Detective, German cinema, Horror/Eerie, Silent

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

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Director: Robert Wiene
Screenwriters: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer

By Roderick Heath

Imagine what it must have been like, to be someone who just bought a ticket to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari way back in 1919. Perhaps some ex-soldier just back from the abandoned trenches, curious to see that crazy new film someone told him about, or perhaps just in need of some cheap seat to rest a tired backside on. What reached out on a shaft of projected light and touched the cinema screen might well have seemed perverted gibberish to some or an internal landscape finally given shape to others. Maybe some later commentators were right, that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari represented a strange new psychic frontier not just in cinema but in social and political life, particularly for the battered and seething nation in which it was made, and also that nation’s challenge to the rest of the world in winning the peace with fearsome works of creation before a more sinister project took hold. More securely, the film gave birth to the movement today labelled as German Expressionism in film, and every genre and mode of cinema that mode inflected, from French Poetic Realism to Film Noir and the myriad children of Citizen Kane (1941).
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If films like Cabiria (1914) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) represented one great stage in the development of cinema, a stage defined by tethering visual technique to basic storytelling precepts, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seems to have inaugurated another in exploring how the technique of film structuring and elements placed before the camera could be manipulated not simply to feign a coherent flow of association in cause and effect, but to imply other levels to drama, to throw off the former raison d’etre for cinema, its illusory realism, and instead pursue its potential as an expressive instrument to depict more ethereal realms. States of mind. Hallucinations. Dreams. Nightmares. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also, of course, arguably the first masterpiece of horror cinema, albeit one with an unusual and contested genesis and a much-pondered legacy. Horror certainly existed on screen before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Georges Méliès had teased its outskirts with some of his fantastical works. D.W. Griffith likewise, with his Poe variation The Avenging Conscience (1914). Paul Wegener had already tried once to film the Golem legend he’d heard about in Prague, as he would again more famously in 1922. J. Searle Dawley’s Frankenstein (1910) had brought Mary Shelley’s novel to life over 16 thrilling minutes; Joseph W. Smiley’s Life Without Soul updated it with epic pretences.
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But The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari gave the genre a new and certain form and a special cinematic status, as a place where many familiar rules of movies could be suspended. It wasn’t the first film to try and transpose a set artistic style into a filmic context, either. Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s Thaïs (1917) had done the same thing with Futurism, with a similarly implied fragmentation of ways of being and seeing. Futurism’s rigid, rectilinear elements however asserted form over becoming, suggesting method and pattern under surface chaos, whereas the liquid flow of Expressionism and its associated dramatization of emotional states proved far more potent as a tool for filmmakers. Some of the value of Expressionism was purely mercenary, as shadow-drenched and highly stylised sets that required far less effort to build and dress and light were cheaper. Indeed, the makers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari adopted the style in part for just such a reason, working as they were in the anxiously straitened months after the Great War’s end. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari began its genesis when Czech poet and author Hans Janowitz and writer met screenwriter Carl Mayer, when both men were broke and flailing. Both had become committed pacifists during the war: Janowitz had served in the army, whilst Mayer had avoided service by feigning insanity and going through a gruelling examination by a psychiatrist.
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Janowitz and Mayer were left angry and disdainful of authority by their experiences, and channelled their feelings and circumstances as Janowitz provided the concept and Mayer developed it into a screenplay. Enterprising producer Erich Pommer, impressed with their work and enthused at the prospect of an interesting and provocative film that could be shot cheaply, initially hired one of the brightest young talents on the German film scene to film the script, a young Austrian screenwriter turned director named Fritz Lang. Lang did preparatory work on the project and was probably the one who invested it with a key idea that was to prove at once inspired and influential, and, eventually, controversial, in regards to the film’s accepted meaning, by coming up with a different version of Janowitz and Mayer’s proposed flashback structure, and devising a new sting-in-the-tale ending. Lang had to leave the project as he was working on his The Spiders (1919-20) at the same time, so Robert Wiene, a slightly more established director, stepped into his place. Set designer Hermann Warm enthusiastically proposed not merely stylising the film’s visuals but embracing an approach close to what was already being done on the stage, and aiming for dreamlike abstraction. Expressionism was actually something of a dated movement by the time The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made, having been founded in the 1890s and practiced by artists like Gustav Munch, whose famous painting “The Scream” gave the movement its most emblematic work in 1893, defined by attempts to describe mental and subliminal states through visualisation. Modern painting was to continue a drive towards abstraction, but Expressionism could have an outsized and more permanent effect on cinema, because it offered a clear conceptual basis for manipulating the unavoidably concrete persons and objects the young art form required to pass before its lens in order to exist.
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The actual plot of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is exceedingly simple, but its suggestions and evocations run like artesian water. For Janowitz and Mayer it was an experiment in storytelling that was also a disgusted shout of anger at the collapsed social order in Germany and the many annexes of authority. For Wiene and Warm it was to be a perfect exercise in dramatic style, allowing them to do something new on screen. The opening credits promise a film in six acts, each act announced and departed with a title card with ceremonious exactitude. The opening sees two men seated on a bench in a garden-fringed courtyard, tangled and denuded tendrils of bushes casting shadows on the flagstones and brickwork, as the older of the two men (Hans Lanser-Ludolff) begins to narrate with wide and frazzled eyes: “There are spirits – they are all around us. They have driven me from Hearth and Home, from Wife and Child—” Immediately the audience is encouraged to enter into a zone of credulity as to the possibility of the numinous as well as immersed in a mood of devastation, a place where weary and shattered survivors of mysterious conflicts are swapping accounts. The immediate horizon is entirely personal, the general outlook invoking the entire post-war mood. The other man on the bench, Franzis (Friedrich Feher), sees a young woman draped in white (Lil Dagover) strolling towards them, and fixes on her with hopeful adoration even as she passes by in glaze-eyed distraction. “That is my fiancé,” he tells the older man, and begins to narrate a tale he promises is even stranger than his companion’s experiences.
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Franzis’ narrative recalls the “little town where I was born,” the town of Holstenwall, strongly inspired by Janowitz’s native Prague and transposed into a fantastical landscape of painted buildings on a hillside in a manner reminiscent of medieval art. A carnival rolls into town, bringing with it a peculiar plague infection, in the shape of a rotund old man wearing a top hat and black coat, round glasses balanced upon his nose, an expression of grim humour usually on his lips and fanatical intent in his eyes. Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) himself. The carnival’s arrival stirs the hopes of Franzis, then a student, and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) for a bit of jollity and distraction. As they head out to check out the fair, they move through pathways that are violently stylised simulacra of real streets yet evoking the tight, twisted, somehow paranoid alleys of an old Germanic town. They pass by Caligari, who’s out seeking a permit from the town clerk to stage his peculiar entertainment as part of the carnival, exhibiting a somnambulist, or sleepwalker. He enters the clerk’s office and finds him seated high above the hoipolloi in a stall, barking commands and dismissive comments at those who deign to require his aid, and Caligari is passed on to one of his juniors to get the required permit. That night, Caligari unveils his unusual attraction to the crowd, before Wiene fades out to end the first act.
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Act II dawns upon the sight of investigators hovering over the bed of the town clerk, where he lies murdered by an unknown intruder. Meanwhile Franzis and Alan decide to attend Caligari’s exhibition, and gaze on with tantalised regard as Caligari unveils his attraction, the somnambulist himself Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a man the doctor claims has been asleep for all of his 23 years, but his sleeping existence allows him to tune into levels of existence unknown to others, allowing him to know the past and foresee the future. “Awaken for a moment from your dark night!” Caligari intones, whereupon the somnambulist’s eyes slowly flicker open, and Cesare gazes out on the audience without really seeming to see them, his gaze instead fixed upon a source of cosmic dread only he can perceive. At Caligari’s promise Cesare can answer any question, Alan enthusiastically asks how long he will live. Cesare answers him with sad assurance that he will die at sunrise. Alan and Franzis leave the fair in disquiet, and the glum mood is reinforced as they come across a poster offering a reward for aid in capturing the clerk’s killer. Their spirits are lifted as Franzis meets a woman he knows, young Jane, recognisable as the woman glimpsed in the opening, and the daughter of a prominent local physician, Dr Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger). Alan is instantly smitten as badly as Franzis already is, and the two men make a pact to stay friends no matter who she prefers as a suitor. That night, however, Alan is awakened by the sight of a stranger invading his room, and cowers in terror before the fiend, unable to fight him off as he’s stabbed to death.
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari helped define many of its cast members, including Veidt, Dagover, Krauss, and Klein-Rogge, as definitive faces of Weimar cinema. The film incidentally invented the mystique of Veidt, who would go on to gain a level of stardom outside Germany, starring in films in Britain and America. Veidt would meet an early death just after appearing in Casablanca (1942), but remains most potently identified as Expressionist film’s weird yet charismatic muse. When he helped bring the Expressionist aesthetic to Hollywood through starring in Paul Leni’s iconic The Man Who Laughs (1926), his leering visage, charged with inherent perversity and tragic stature, gave the movement one of its most indelible mascots. Veidt’s Cesare is a pale face with black rings around his eyes, a visage of phthisic, spiritually and physically famished humanity, attached to a body clad in black hose. When he goes out on his forays under Caligari’s command he’s an inky squiggle writhing upon the painted sets, hints of a mime’s precision of movement and gesture as Cesare moulds his body for a world of windows and alleys as tight as his coffin home, a shock of black hair swept over into paltry obedience. Most male horror movie villains still aren’t allowed the same charge of bizarre erotic appeal the young, rubber-limbed, intense-looking Veidt wields, as part of the films texture demands identifying Cesare as not merely the animated minion of Caligari but as the dream-self of Franzis, the lean and rapacious projection of his id out to kill his friend-rival and snatch Jane away for nefarious ends.
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Veidt and the other actors move through the sets that seem at times to twist and swim like seaweed in deep water or form to ruthless angles, the liquid state of dreaming constantly stricken with the sharp edge of the murderous will, which finds expression in the triangular edge of Cesare’s knife. The filmmakers put their set design to satirical as well as psychologically significant use. The town clerk and the policemen are all seen perched at absurd heights, looking like hunched and patient vultures waiting for a meal as emblems of tin-pot authority. Caligari targets the clerk as punishment for his brusqueness and mockery, an anarchic gesture that has an irony as one source of jumped-up egotism attacks another through the personified apparatus of the subconscious. Wiene and his creative team might have been borrowing some ideas in turn from Louis Feuillade, the French serial maker and proto-surrealist, after the war’s end allowed cultural traffic again. Feuillade delighted in his own visions of black-clad marauders scuttling across rooftops and assaulting the bourgeois order. That Cesare in his bodystocking and heavy eye makeup is similar to Musidora’s look in Feuillade’s Les Vampires, 1915-6, has suggested an intriguing edge of sexual ambiguity to Cesare, another realm of breakdown this time in terms of gender. Cesare certainly bears an odd resemblance to Jane herself, Dagover’s face a plain of pure white and black pits where her eyes live: the virgin and the monster are mirrors.
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Feuillide’s narratives were still nominally contained by the borders of the crime and thriller genres where the forces of law and order are plain heroes and the wrongdoers eventually punished. Despite of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s famous twist, and indeed because of it, the impression of order in Wiene’s film is infinitely more tenuous, threatening collapse. Amidst the stylised settings, which aim for a sense of having stepped out of an immediate liminal zone, the costuming and absence of electrical lighting and other signifiers of modernity suggests the film is set about a quarter-century before it was made. This could be for the same reason a lot of filmmakers today set movies in the ’70s and ‘80s, to escape omnipresent technology for a better sense of narrative integrity and mood. A dark-tinted mode of nostalgia is often a fascinatingly pertinent aspect of the Horror genre, a longing for the past mixed out with attempts to relive and remaster the outsized anxieties of childhood. But it also has strong implications for the type of story being told here, looking back to a time certainly pre-war and regarding the start of a subtle fracturing in society, a sense of intense anxiety in the face of an oncoming century and its threating modernity. There’s a whiff of Victorian sentimentality in the white-clad maiden and the friendly romantic rivalry of the two students, sentimentality brutally erased as the real story becomes clear. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the story of the death of illusion, of the petty comforts and assurances as well as everyday oppressions and pomposities of the pre-war life.
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Wiene’s work on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often downplayed in commentaries by comparison to its writers and designers, and the director often regarded as a one-hit-wonder. To be sure, Wiene did not become a figure of great subsequent renown like Lang and some other Expressionist directors, but he continued to try and augment his conception of Expressionism’s possibilities with Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1919), an admired take on Dostoyevsky, Raskolnikow (1923), and The Hands of Orlac (1924), also featuring Veidt. Here Wiene’s camera often seems happy enough observing his actors moving around the weird sets from a perched perspective. The immobility of the camera seems dictated by the carefully composed sets that can only deliver the intended effect when viewed from a certain, rigorous viewpoint. But Wiene’s calm and poise, his minimalist sense of how to generate a sense of dislocation and hallucinatory transience, certainly helps knit the eerie mood, attentive to the way the design presses upon the actors and warps them to a new behavioural bent. Perhaps the film’s most striking moment in directorial terms comes in a little scherzo of cuts that comes when Alan is murdered: quick close-ups of his thrusting hands trying to ward off his killer give way to the sight of the murder glimpsed in silhouette on the wall. Surely Alfred Hitchcock remembered this moment when, forty-one years later, he would shoot the shower murder for Psycho (1960), as his technique is nearly identical, only more sophisticated in delivery.
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Many more essential clichés of the horror movie, particularly those that would follow in the next twenty-five years, are sketched out here. The lurking, sepulchral killer. The murders in silhouette. The flight across rooftops. The assault on the silk-draped lady in her boudoir. The mad scientist. The twist ending. James Whale would model many scenes in his Frankenstein (1931) upon Wiene’s, although Whale’s monster is childlike and exposed in trying to synthesise a reason for existence rather than insinuatingly erotic and directed by malign will. The twisted, bizarrely canted rooftop landscapes of Holstenwall and alternately cavernous and onerous interiors would return throughout a legion of imitators in subsequent years in the likes of Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), mostly with the Expressionist mimicry offered as vaguely psychosomatic decoration. More crucially, Wiene’s oneiric setting offered up a new possibility for filmmakers, the hope of finding new expressive methods to encompass individuals and communities in dialogue. Lang would unleash an infinitely greater scale of production concept on this ambition with Metropolis (1926), in presenting a city as a living organism and product of the mind. Obtaining such a conceptual scale and breadth was to become a major ambition for filmmakers in the ‘20s including Lang, Sergei Eisenstein (although he and the other Soviet filmmakers would be obliged to swap the psychological for the sociological), and King Vidor, just as others like Paul Leni, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Luis Buñuel, and others would pursue its ideas deep into the inner world.
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The medieval landscape of the town mimics and transforms the physical architecture and social landscape of Central Europe, often regarded as quaint and attractively old-fashioned, into a threatening realm, charged with disquiet and danger as new forces sift the town’s hierarchy with the intention of attacking it. The buildings on the horizon become serrated teeth in a shapeless maw, the strasses and platzes pinched and oppressive, as if anyone walking them is a mouse in some laboratory experiment. Which is what they are, as Caligari seeks the perfect instrument to realise a cherished ambition of enacting a sick fantasy out in the world, with Cesare his tool and the citizenry the specimens. Caligari comes to town with the carnival, that vehicle of transformative wonder and alien anxiety reaching back into the Middle Ages (seed here for a bunch of Ingmar Bergman’s films as well as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes), Trojan horse for his malign project. Of course, the circus is also cinema itself, the moveable feast with its panoply of enriching and disturbing exhibits, offering the perverse thrill of encounters with monstrosities. Caligari is actually a warden of the insane, abusing authority to attempt casting a spell on a mass crowd, to infect the world with madness. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is its own monster, its own act of mass mesmerism and huckster bravura.
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After Robert’s death, the sick and depressed Franzis tells Jane what happened to him, to her dismay, and then sets out with her father to Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger), to investigate Caligari and his sleeping imp. Eventually Franzis discovers, by pursuing Caligari until he enters a stark, lonely, high-walled building beyond the town’s fringes, that he is the director of an insane asylum. The Director had become obsessed with a story he found in an old book in which a fairground mesmerist named Caligari conducted a reign of terror with a somnambulist, and awaited the time when he would be charged with an inmate with the same disorder so he might reproduce those events. The Director’s fixation with this perverse anecdote urges him to try and turn a dubious, possibly spurious event (note that it supposedly happened in Italy, long in folklore and pulp literature the land where outlandish and perverted practices always seemed to be possible to their rubbernecking European neighbours) into reality. Caligari cunningly puts Franzis and Olsen off the scent by replacing Cesare in his coffin with a dummy, so that the somnambulist seems to be secure when someone is out marauding in the town. A man (Klein-Rogge) is arrested when he breaks into a house with a knife in hand and seems to be intent on murder. Pounced on by police, the man is imprisoned and presumed to be the killer at large, but when he’s interviewed by Olsen and Franzis, he confesses to hoping to use the other killings as an alibi to commit his own crime. Still the police hold him a cell, chained up like some troll at bay.
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The Great War had cruelly torn apart minds as well as bodies through the manifold terrors of the trenches and the new and alarming phenomenon called shellshock. Such phenomena stoked angry disbelief in some quarters, including amongst leaders who could well be likened to Caligari as those hell-bent on animating the mindless, somnolent body of the pathetic citizen and shoving it to do battle on its behest. Ruined people were returning from the war, and the evolving arts of dealing with mental illness and psychological distress were gaining a new currency, implacably tests the fabric of everything about it. But just exactly what psychiatry was in 1919 was still a vaguely mythical and frightening realm for many at the time. Mayer’s brush with a headshrinker in staying out the army had provided ammunition for the script, in the suspicious sense that the new profession presented a method for the powers that be to manipulate the mind as well as the body. Like many another puppet master to follow in horror cinema, Caligari is undone by one, singular, vastly powerful force: lust. Jane, searching for her father, comes to the circus, and encounters the rotund exhibitor and his imp. Caligari plays the charming helper even as his eyes shine lasciviously behind his round glasses, but Cesare unnerves Jane. Soon Caligari sends Cesare out to steal Jane away from her house. Cesare manages to snatch Jane away and carries her away across the Hollstenwall rooftops and reaches the fringe of town, but pursuers force him to drop her, and he’s later found dead in the countryside, having burst his weak heart trying to make it back to his master.
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Cesare’s kidnapping foray proves a relative anticlimax, despite the feast of iconic images it provided to define the film ever since, and subverts a cliché even as it invents it. Other fiends snatching away maidens in the night would be made of sterner stuff in subsequent horror films, needing to be chased down by torch-wielding lynch mobs and muscular heroes. Cesare, a being without mind or will, proves pathetic by comparison, used until he breaks down by Caligari, obliged to leave Jane behind as he desperately scrambles away. Focus shifts then on Franzis tracking Caligari back to the asylum, discovering his identity, and learning about his motives. The Director is the true monster, of course. As Franzis and the other medical men working under the Director read through his diary, Wiene illustrates the fit of electrifying obsession gripping the Director as he dances about the laneway outside the asylum, Caligari’s name and cosmically dictated demands he step into the fakir’s place and obtain mastery over men flashing on screen: “Du Must Caligari Werden”, or You Must Become Caligari. This might be another touch from Lang, or one he took away with him, as it powerfully anticipates the driving notion of his Dr. Mabuse films, in which temptations to omnipotence ultimately consume individuals but also bless them with a form of immortality, transforming them into a world-spirit of mad ambition that likely candidates can wear like a cloak. When Cesare’s body is found, Franzis contrives to have the Director confronted with the corpse: the sight sends the Director off in paroxysms of mad grief. Soon the mastermind is wrapped in a straightjacket and hurled into a cell by some big strong orderlies. Tyrant is toppled, order restored.
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Except, of course, for the sting in the tale. Franzis ends his narration to the old man, and they rise from their bench, moving across the asylum courtyard where “Cesare” and “Jane” are clearly inmates, lost in their own private psychoses, just as Franzis is, his tale of Caligari and Cesare confirmed as the fantasy of a disturbed man. Franzis’s insistence that Jane is his fiancée is met by her haughty insistence that she cannot love anyone as she’s a duty-bound queen. Cesare drifts with a bunch of flowers clasped preciously to his face, floating in dreamy melancholy. Another inmate raves on in what looks a hell of a lot like a proto-Hitlerian manner, suggesting the urges of demagoguery were already plainly nascent and alarming the filmmakers. The Director appears, now a well-dressed, calm and commanding man: Franzis begins to stir up the inmates, declaring that the Director is Caligari, and then attacks him. This gets Franzis tied up and tossed into a cell in the same manner Caligari was just moments before. The Director manages to placate him, before turning away and declaring meditatively as he removes his glasses that now he finally understands the nature of Franzis’ delusion, he now sees a way to cure him. One of the first and surely the greatest of movie twists, a total upending of what movie narrative is supposed to be and a radical reorientation of all that’s been seen. But what does it mean in the face of the film before it?
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The critic Siegfried Krakauer famously penned a thesis in his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler, suggesting that Wiene’s film as it stands offered up a disturbing forecast of the oncoming fascist wave, demonstrating that post-war anti-authoritarian impulse was a sign of madness begging for a strong-minded leader to take it all in hand. Janowitz echoed the theory as he complained his and Mayer’s intentions had been distorted by the imposed framing, turning what should have been a clear-cut anti-authoritarian tale into something more familiar. Krakauer’s thesis was very attractive for some obvious reasons in providing a grand and sinister narrative for art divulging life, but commits its own crime of oversimplifying. More likely that Lang proposed his twist with a common form of distrust imposed upon fantastical material; there was a fantasist in Lang but also an ironic realist, elements that would always war in his movies, and his gift to the Expressionist credo was just such a tension. Lang probably wanted something better attuned to his instinct for moral complexity as well as sheer believability. The same touch is evinced here that would surface again in works like Fury (1936) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a sense of ordinary people undone in the face of both social evil and personal frailty.
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Part of the potency of the final revelation lies precisely in how it makes perfect sense: the story as recounted comes across much more like the ravings of a paranoid man than a likely set of events, creating doppelgangers and projecting evil intentions upon physicians. The form of the fairy tale here crashes against a cold reality, a hard and unforgiving sobriety where dream logic is at the mercy of technocrats and the new breed of psychic cartographers. Wiene hardly offers a reassuring ending, despite Caligari’s announcement that he might have Franzis’s cure in his grasp. Rather the film leaves off with the sinister suggestion we might all be as detached from reality as Franzis, writing appropriate characters to fit the faces we know and constructing narratives more soothing to our minds than reality. For a 1919 audience this ending surely would hardly have been soothing, but rather deeply disturbing, implying that the substance of knowing goes no farther than our own limited senses and awareness. Caligari’s own project of transmuting obsession into reality both resembles an act of demagoguery but also a piece of anarchic performance art, just as Franzis reorders reality to suit his own perspective. Far from cutting off the arsenal of the subconscious as a tool for attacking authority, the film ultimately confirms that possibility. Soon the anarchists of the subconscious would run amok in the cultural zone and twisting the nose of rousing beast. Just how effective a weapon was in their grasp was and remains one of the great questions of modernity.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed here.

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1980s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Film Noir, Horror/Eerie, Mystery, Romance

Blue Velvet (1986)

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Director/Screenwriter: David Lynch

By Roderick Heath
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David Lynch’s name is synonymous with a creative style close to a genre in itself. His is an outlandish, numinous, discomforting aesthetic, purveyed across several art forms, where the texture of dreams, and nightmares, can suddenly colonise an apparently stable and homey world, where humans peel apart and become separate entities coexisting in different versions of reality. Lynch has purveyed that style since his early short experimental films, and the grotesque and startling debut feature Eraserhead (1976), a film that so impressed Mel Brooks he hired him to direct the Oscar-nominated hit The Elephant Man (1980), where Lynch successfully synthesised his unique imaginative reflexes with more familiar storytelling needs. Lynch has managed to sustain a truly unique status as America’s homespun surrealist, through works like his Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart (1990) and the acclaimed Hollywood fugue Mulholland Drive (2001), as well as the various iterations of the TV show Twin Peaks. That Lynch has managed to pull off such a career against seemingly every current of contemporary fiscal and cultural impulse is in itself an achievement, but it’s also one Lynch has managed with sly concessions to, and annexations of, conventional screen culture. Perhaps the only other voice in modern American film so resolutely self-directed is Terrence Malick, and the two stand in near-perfect polarity: Lynch is as dedicated to trying to charting his sense of the tension between conscious and unconscious as Malick has been in describing his vision of the transcendent.
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As specific and perpetual as a beloved figure of the wilful fringe as Lynch seems now, there was a time in his career when he was a hot property and seemed poised for a relatively ordinary film career. After The Elephant Man he passed on directing Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) to tackle a colossal project, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel Dune. That project turned out to be dismaying experience for Lynch as it was severely recut and released to poor reviews and paltry box office. And yet the experience of it seemed to have an ultimately positive effect on Lynch, who reoriented himself with newly gained technical expertise, and looked for a new way to express himself on his own terms whilst refusing to retreat back into cinema marginalia. Where Eraserhead had taken place entirely in a dream-state filled with the furniture of Lynch’s deeply private anxieties and associative lodestones, with The Elephant Man and Dune he laboured to articulate his feel for the oneiric in coherent contexts, illustrating the awe of the Victorian bourgeoisie when faced with strangeness through a web of dreams that equated industrial grime with natural travesty in the former, and in the latter depicting the process of the human tuning into the music of the universe perfectly enough to orchestrate it.
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With his next film, Blue Velvet, Lynch began a push back in the other direction, slowly nibbling away at his own carefully falsified notion of normality and subjecting it to the perverting whim of the id, and he managed the mischievous project of remaking a subcontinent of pop culture in his own image. Lynch also pulled off a remarkable feat in relation to Horror cinema, as he found a way of making the form arty and respectable. After the days of high expressionist cinema, when it was the genre most fit for artistic experimentation thanks to the likes of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror (1922), horror films to be accepted as “elevated” horror has to offer a certain level of deconstructed generic impetus and provide carefully parsed and obvious metaphors for various worldly concerns, or apply showy visual touches. Lynch has had a lot of influence on ambitious horror cinema in this mode of late, but in other ways he remains radically at odds with it. Lynch worked to create a charge of disquiet by boiling down a nightmarish lexicon of sights, sounds, and ideas, sometimes but not necessarily desiring to link them to any clear sociological or psychological idea, beyond his certainty that to be human is to be filled with some dank and distressing impulses as well as noble and upright ones. Blue Velvet is the film on which Lynch struggled to articulate the strangely alluring gravity of the dark side, and it remains probably his finest articulation of his obsessions as well as his most controlled.
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Blue Velvet sets images at war with each-other, less any concept of the real world than of inherited ways of seeing it. The film’s acerbically humorous starting point relies on recognition of the paraphernalia of Lynch’s childhood, an idealised sense of small-town Americana, the kind celebrated in ‘50s TV shows and gently tested in beloved texts like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery books, places based around an assumption of a settled and harmonious social system and hierarchy. Lynch sets up his war in the opening scene as he offers languorous shots of well-scrubbed normality – children out of school crossing the street, waving firemen on the back of a fire truck – that aim for a hyperbolic sense of placid, wholesome Americana. A suburban father, idly watering his green lawn, suffers a stroke, collapses in agony on the grass, and lies in a writhing fit, his dog playfully snapping at the spurting hose in his agonised grip. Lynch’s camera descends amongst the grass fronds to study black beetles seething in monstrous reign over this level of existence, under the feet of the soft, pink titans of the higher. The felled patriarch is Tom Beaumont (Jack Harvey), and his son Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his home burg of Lumberton on hearing the news.
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Jeffrey is confronted by the grotesque sight of his once-strong and commanding father stuck in a hospital bed with a stern array fixed about his head to keep it still and secure, and the two men weep at the inevitable spectacle of the younger seeing the elder in such a state. Walking back homewards across an empty lot, Jeffrey happens upon a disquieting find: a severed human ear, with ants crawling over it. Lynch’s camera delves into the decaying hunk of flesh, which becomes a world unto itself as the grass did, as if it’s not merely a receiver for sonic vibrations but a source of them, soundtrack filling with echoic reverberations and cavernous drones. Jeffrey coaxes the tattered organ into a paper bag and takes it to a policeman friend of his father’s, Detective Williams (George Dickerson). Jeffrey later goes to Williams’ house to ask him if the investigation is turning up anything up. The cop is politely obfuscating, but Jeffrey then encounters the detective’s beautiful high school senior daughter, Sandy, who reports to him some of the snatches of gossip she’s managed to overhear, talk that suggests a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is somehow mixed up with the sordid business. Jeffrey talks Sandy into helping him infiltrate Dorothy’s apartment, posing as a pest control worker, and he manages to purloin a set of keys and return in the night to feast upon scenes he quickly realises no-one should have to see.
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“I can’t tell if you’re a detective or a pervert,” Sandy tells Jeffrey as he readies for his adventure, to which he responds with a crooked grin: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” The exchange is hilarious in its own, Mojave-dry fashion as it identifies the blend of bemusement and eccentricity underscoring the two young would-be heroes’ mission to do a good turn: the thrill of becoming has its own strange momentum, already dragging them both along. But the exchange also elucidates Lynch’s general proposition. Jeffrey’s desire to solve a mystery also opens up frontiers of tempting experience and the chance to escape mere voyeurism to become an actor, and quickly learning the cost of complicity such a step demands. Sandy is first a voice speaking from the dark – “Are you the one who found the ear?” she questions Jeffrey from the shadows before stepping into the light as the fresh-minted image of a certain ideal of American beauty, at once stolid and ethereal. Sandy has a football-playing boyfriend, Mike (Ken Stovitz), but she quickly falls under the sway of slightly older, slightly more worldly Jeffrey, who entices her with an adventure into illicit zones but remains plastic-wrapped as the perfect blonde suburban virgin. Dorothy is the eternal contrast, dark and mysterious, breathing out her husky strains in performing her version of Bobby Vinton’s song that give the film its title, beckoning to Jeffrey as the incarnation of mature sexuality and the allure of the forbidden.
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Dorothy hears Jeffrey in his hiding place and drags him out under duress with a kitchen knife in her hand. Dorothy is initially anxious and furious, but that quickly dissipates as she considers the handsome young man in her thrall, and in short order has him strip down, seemingly excited by having a pillar of tall and tender young male flesh at bay. Trouble is, Jeffrey isn’t the only one in thrall to her gravitas. As he hides again in her cupboard, he’s obliged to watch as into Dorothy’s apartment bursts Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), walking incarnation of the id, a violent and thuggish gangster who’s taking over Lumberton’s drug trade but seems more concerned with keeping Dorothy on a short, tight leash. Jeffrey is treated to a brutal spectacle as Frank repeatedly punches Dorothy, stuffs scraps of actual blue velvet in both their mouths, and rapes her on the carpet. Tables are soon turned as Dorothy, left alone again as if the invasion never happened, drags Jeffrey to her bed to be initiated into the nocturnal universe. Soon Jeffrey is her regular lover whilst romancing Sandy in a more familiar daylight fashion. Jeffrey makes the leap from investigator-voyeur to self-cast hero in a dark moral drama, except the morality proves slippery and the drama frightening in ways Jeffrey can’t yet conceive. Dorothy soon demands he start hitting her in bed, out of some virulent strain of masochism infecting her, in a way that erases the first few layers of insulation between Jeffrey and “people like Frank” as he describes them. Jeffrey experiences dreams in which Frank is a roaring beast of the veldt, and the fires of transgressive passion are first a flickering candle and then a roaring curtain as he taps the same vein of visceral sexuality in himself.
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The epic scene of revelation and transgression in Dorothy’s apartment sees Jeffrey dragged through one of the film’s many invisible but palpable barriers of behaviour, seeing him pass from concerned young man to voyeur to active participant in the sick drama with startling speed, and indeed, with little real choice. Lynch conflates Hitchcockian tropes at high speed – the snooping neighbour of Rear Window (1954), the wicked knife of Psycho (1960) – and then moves right past them to actively portray the stew of desire and complicity Hitchcock was usually obliged by censorship and genre parameters to only suggest. The moment where Dorothy strips off her curly wig is both wryly amusing and disquieting, a subtler but in a way more intense illustration of Jeffrey’s violation of her privacy as well as signalling the way Dorothy is forced to live out a kind of drag act, remaking herself in the image of Frank’s (and Jeffrey’s) notion of the feminine mystique. Jeffrey finds himself obliged to dole out brutal force to Dorothy in a way that threatens to upend Jeffrey’s very identity, although it’s Dorothy who later cries out, in pain and ecstasy, that Jeffrey “put his disease inside me,” perhaps the disease of youth and hope, the cruellest infection. It’s cliché to say that heroes and villains are quite often two sides of the same coin; Lynch here studies the edge of the coin. More than that, he approaches drama in a fashion that, although its draws on a panorama of modernist concepts, ultimately reveals itself to work more like ancient myth, its characters talismans for the human condition rather than psychological units unto themselves in the modern manner. Much as Heracles could be cosmic hero and bestial murderer depending on the forces enacted upon him by the universe and fighting all the while to define his true self, Jeffrey contains the seeds of hero and villain within and feels both serpents stirring and uncoiling.
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The drama about him works similarly in a system of sign-play that counts upon the audience recognising Lynch’s codes, but Lynch’s cunning in this regard lies in his understanding how common what he’s conveying is: most everyone shares some version, either personally or inherited through media saturation, of the idyllic landscape of Lumberton. Blue Velvet came out in the waning years of the Reagan presidency, and many took it for a corrosive lampoon on the kind of back-to-the-‘50s false nostalgia Reagan and his ilk propagated and which still lingers in popular discourse. And it certainly is that, although it’s hardly only that. Lynch is genuinely, powerfully fond of that lost idyll even as he seeks to diagnose the forces that make childhood and adulthood such irreconcilable states. Jeffrey is both a player in a highly specific and rarefied story but he’s also any young man who’s been bewildered by the evil at large in the world and startled by the ferocity and kinkiness you can uncover in a lover. Sandy is quick to forgive Jeffrey his transgressions in the name of love, as he acts for her in a similar way that he acts for the audience, the one sent out to report back from the fringes and give loan of vicarious thrills. Meanwhile Lynch writes preparatory sketches for the more volatile dance of the homey and the infernal on Twin Peaks as he notes Jeffrey’s mother (Priscilla Pointer) and chirpy but timorous aunt (Frances Bay) as a perpetually comforting duo about the Beaumont house, and depicts Jeffrey and Sandy sealing their romantic pact in the most traditional manner possible, at a high school dance.
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Part of Lynch’s implication here is that every white picket fence and well-swept porch is a couple forged in a similar furnace of lust and perversity, only cocooned, contained, and finally, slowly dissipated through the carefully contrived paraphernalia of normality. Suburbia is a mechanism designed to drain off and reappropriate erotic energy, like some grand, inverted William Reich invention, keeping extreme passions and lunacies at bay but with the price of leaving its inhabitants crumpling husks like Jeffrey’s father or a tense, cautious sentinel like Williams. The frontier of illicit behaviour, as Jeffrey’s mother warns him, is Lincoln Street, where the tract housing gives way to the urban colonising influence of apartment blocks: when Jeffrey and Sandy do finally stray into that precinct, Angelo Badalamenti’s scoring surges with a melodramatic cue that somehow manages to seem both good-humoured and utterly earnest. Much later in the piece the traffic is reversed, as the petty and quotidian, if by no means unthreatening, encounter between Jeffrey and Mike is cut short by the sudden appearance of Dorothy, stripped naked and covered in bruises, reminiscent of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of “Truth Coming Out Of Her Well” in her appearance as the image of a wraith at once eroticised and ghastly in reporting harsh facts, collapsing into Jeffrey’s arms and sending the Lumberton milksops scurrying for cover. Even an encounter with a guy walking his dog seems charged with strange implication through the way Lynch has the actor stand rigid as if posing for a photo as he looks back at Jeffrey: part of Lynch’s aesthetic lies in the way he seems to be trying to take a perpetual snapshot of the moment when two scarcely reconcilable realities collide.
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Blue Velvet maintains a relatively straightforward storyline and structure by comparison with Lynch’s more overtly dreamlike and associative works. But it also sets up the schismatic souls of his later works like Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, where the same person can enact a panoply of stories depending on a multiplicity of divergence points for narrative; only here and there does Lynch suddenly open up a perfectly bizarre vantage where the pull of the void seems to be invoked. Lynch’s surrealist allegiances are studiously cited, particularly Luis Buñuel, with all the infesting insect life and violated body parts, and Edward Hopper, in the careful depictions of apparently bland settings stirring with intimations of strange transformations and repressed forces: Dorothy’s apartment, with its mysteriously wafting curtains and uterine-coloured walls implies this influence in particular. Jeffrey’s brief guise as a bug sprayer calls to mind William Burroughs’ alter ego’s job as a pest controller in The Naked Lunch. Lynch betrays a powerful admiration for Hitchcock but also declares less famed allegiances. He makes nods to the likes of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place – Hope Lange, who plays Sandy’s mother, had played one of the younger characters in Mark Robson’s 1956 film of that book – and Vincente Minnelli’s films of Some Came Running (1958) and Home From The Hill (1960).
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There’s also a strong dose of a certain school of drive-in heyday cinema: stuff like Jack Arnold’s sci-fi films where monstrosities roam in disguise in the streets of small towns and shrunken men battle monsters in the basement, and his High School Confidential (1958) and similar efforts by the likes of Roger Corman and Edward L. Cahn, cheapjack myths of high school heroes and debutantes discovering the seamy side of life. Badalamenti’s justly hailed score charts Lynch’s poles expertly, shifting from beatniky jazz to surging Technicolor melodrama cues to shimmering synth-pop tones, befitting the film’s carefully smudged sense of era – the setting is nominally contemporary and yet Lumberton is littered with the paraphernalia of past eras and barely seems to have left the ‘50s. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) had to a great extent beaten Lynch to the punch, conceptually if not in execution, in realising a surrealist aesthetic in a humdrum suburban setting and unleashing destabilising forces upon both that world and the horror-thriller genre as a form. Even the basic situation is the same, a young hero combating a monstrous, barbarically humorous figure come straight out of the collective id to torment and belittle. Meanwhile Lynch seems to be battling his own bruising experience on Dune, remixing images and plot elements from that project into a radical new setting, telling the same essential myth, of a young man who is left rudderless after losing his father and is forced to battle the world’s threat alone. Prophetic dreams play a part in both, as Sandy voices her own augury about the return of robins to Lumberton will spell the end of evil influence.
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Lynch installs some relatively straight-laced thriller twists in the course of the narrative. He introduces Frank’s circle of henchmen and collaborators in capturing Lumberton’s drug trade and singers – and by implication its nocturnal economy of sensual delights. Jeffrey learns that a dark-haired, heavy-set man in a yellow jacket he sees talking with Dorothy and working with Frank is actually one of Williams’ cop colleagues, Detective Gordon (Fred Pickler), who Jeffrey dubs The Yellow Man for his jacket’s colour, with overtones of reference to old weird fiction. Jeffrey’s overgrown Hardy Boy act reaches an apogee as he manages to capture photos of Frank, the Yellow Man, and the rest of the gang associating with a secreted camera. Jeffrey manages to communicate his discoveries to Williams, and after a period of uncertainty as to whether Williams will act upon them, he drops the boom and shoots it out with Frank’s gang in an old-fashioned come-and-get-me-copper shoot-out. Except that Lynch drapes the scene in the languorous romanticism of Ketty Lester’s version of “Love Letters” – love letters having already been described by the ranting Frank as a metaphor for “a bullet from a fuckin’ gun.” This scene manages to both offer a familiar movie convention, the climactic shoot-out, but as with so much of the film subjects it to a bewildering transformation, finding lyrical pathos in the righteous violence, whilst also clearing away all distraction of nominal plot to concentrate on the ultimate confrontation between Frank and Jeffrey.
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Before reaching such an end, Lynch contrives to thrust Jeffrey into Frank’s clutches, caught leaving Dorothy’s apartment just as the gangsters arrive: at once furious and fascinated, Frank steals away the duo for a wild ride in their nocturnal Oz with his goons Raymond (Brad Dourif), Paul (Jack Nance), and Hunter (J. Michael Hunter). They speed around Lumberton’s streets, discovering hidden abodes of bohemian weirdos amongst the hollowed-out shells of the downtown buildings. Frank visits his pal and apparent partner in criminal enterprise Ben (Dean Stockwell), a creature of surface affability and fey calm who nonetheless takes pleasure in casually punching Jeffrey in the gut, and overseeing a bizarre court of riffraff, like a less overtly camp Frank-N-Furter. Ben is a hipster priest stuck away in a corner of small town America, promising silken delights and sadisms, lip-synching to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” with a mechanics lamp shining on his face, in one of Lynch’s signature sequences of bizarre pantomime and performance. Orbison’s song seems to have a peculiar totemic value for Frank, particularly the image of the “candy-colored clown,” that both salves his fury and stokes it. It seems to wield a similar power for Lynch himself, a perfect iteration of a purely American, entirely commercial paean to surreal values, delivered by one of the most eerily emotive voices in the pop pantheon, transmuted here through the self-conscious artifice.
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Lynch surveys this scene mostly in master shots with his actors arranged in rows in a manner reminiscent of the forced, flat framings of early silent film, or like hauling his cast out for a curtain call before an invisible audience of mocking deities. Old women sit apparently oblivious to the weird in the background, whilst Dorothy’s son is hidden away in a side room, driving her frantic with apparent rejection. Back out into Frank’s car again, to the town’s fringes where machinery and the waste of industry loom, and Frank taunts Jeffrey as if still trying to work out what species he has at bay. Jeffrey obliges him by demanding he leave Dorothy alone and eventually punches him, an act that stokes Frank to a gleeful fury but also impresses him: “You’re like me,” Frank grants before having him pulled from the car by his goons and held at bay whilst Frank beats him senseless. The promised violence awaiting Jeffrey finally arrives, and yet there’s a suggestion his show of pith, as well as confirming the aspects of commonality between Frank and him, saves his life, as he gains an iota of respect. In the morning, Jeffrey awakens on the ground, bruised and batted, demeaned and disillusioned, but still and alive and in one piece, coughed out of hell’s gullet as something just a little too hard to swallow.
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Part of Lynch’s shrewd humour lies in his way of conceptualising evil, no matter how inflated and perverse, as something readily understandable to a young man like Jeffrey. Frank is a school bully inflated to the nth degree, with his coterie of giggling companions, existing purely to dominate and humiliate. At first Frank might seem too wilfully extreme, too bizarre a creation to offer social commentary. But Lynch makes clear when he glimpses Frank watching Dorothy perform and when he adopts his “well-dressed man” disguise he’s capable of acting sufficiently ordinary to move amongst daylight people. Normality is a guise he puts on but for him the pleasure of, and motive for, his criminal activities is the way they allow him to mostly dispense with his own, specific veil of behaviour, the one that stands between the inner, id-driven man-child that operates through whim and appetite and what it wants, alternating cruel tantrums and displays of jarring, fetishistic neediness that manifests in the need to control. His random habit of plucking out a facemask and huffing on some gaseous intoxicant makes him look like in turn vaguely insectoid and cyborg, a creation born in the primal age and just at home in a post-apocalyptic landscape. He casts Dorothy as lover, mother, slave, and psychic ashtray, needing to know only what it takes to make her conform to his will. It’s a siren song Jeffrey experiences too, the shocking mainlining thrill of walloping pretty white flesh and watching it turn purple. Lynch never tries to state whether Dorothy’s masochistic streak is a by-product of guilt and anxiety over her family or if it’s a more intricate aspect of her nature, and perhaps it doesn’t matter; everyone is the by-product of their grazings against other bodies and wills, forming and malformed. In the end Jeffrey seems to be just as compelled to place himself under Frank’s fist as her, as if he senses pain is a profound contract with reality that must be paid one way or another.
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Part of what makes Blue Velvet so potent is Lynch’s disinterest in acting superior to his dark fantasy, as ironic as his method often seems: he really is the still-naïve Jeffrey asking why there’s evil like Frank in the world. MacLachlan does well in purveying both Jeffrey’s boyishness and the fleeting glimpses of a kinky spirit behind his eyes, and Rossellini justly made a splash not simply by stepping into a part that demanded so much exposure of her flesh but also in making the emotional extremes displayed by Dorothy so vivid. Hopper’s performance gives the film much of its unique charge of lunatic comedy, as the actor took hold of his own wild man image and used it with cunning effect, presenting not the frazzled, fry-brained hippie he’d been taken as since the early ‘70s but a kind of reptilian overlord. It’s a performance in a similar key of outsized, purposefully cartoonish spectacle as Kenneth McMillan’s as Harkonen in Dune, but more skilfully modulated, as Hopper, with slicked-back hair and snapping teeth, paints his mouth with lipstick and glares at MacLachlan with hophead eyes semaphoring the raw fury and glee of untrammelled release of the inner predatory beast.
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The film reaches its apotheosis in grotesquery as Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s apartment in seeking sanctuary, only to find the Yellow Man and Dorothy’s husband both present. The husband is tied a chair, dead, a red patch where his severed ear used to be, a tell-tale scrap of blue velvet jammed in his mouth, his brains spread over the wall behind him. The Yellow Man stands upright, still clinging to life but with a chunk of his skull blown away, portion of brain winking out at the world, nervous system twitching in blank-minded confusion. A shattered TV screen emitting buzzing white noise illustrates the utter nullity of moment and the still-firing synapses of the Yellow Man even though the station signal’s gone entirely blank. Much of Lynch’s modus operandi recalls Freddie Jones’ decrepit ringmaster in The Elephant Man, half-momentously, half-shamefully promising to show you sights you’ve never dreamt of seeing, and might wish you hadn’t after getting an eyeful; this here is Lynch’s most gruesome and startling flourish of showmanship, one Jeffrey surveys in shock but also in speedy assimilation. His rapidly evolving survival instincts immediately give him a plan and the tools to accomplish it, in making use of the Yellow Man’s gun and walkie-talkie, although he only just manages to pull himself up in making use of the radio as Frank can surely hear what he’ll be saying on it, only to realise he can use that against his foe too.
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When Jeffrey returns to the closet he was hiding in earlier, it’s no longer to gain a vicarious glimpse but escape the deadly consequences of his foray. Lynch never bothers to explain just what went down with Frank, the Yellow Man, Dorothy, and the husband. Not that it matters, as Jeffrey, like Phil Marlowe, often stumbles upon the wreckage of human activities, beggared by the results of such competing passions. Jeffrey defeats the demon by summoning his own killer instinct, but Lynch grants him the peace and ease of a lawn chair. He’s surrounded by signs of restored stability: Dorothy playing with her son, his propeller hat back on his head, an ear again explored by the camera but this time still safely connected to Jeffrey’s head, and the robins of Sandy’s dream have come to peck away at the chaos-invoking ants. It’s very tempting, and easy, to describe the concluding scenes as Lynch lampooning the notion of a happy ending. But in calling back to the childlike fantasia of falsity found in pantomime theatre in The Elephant Man, Lynch seems to me to be chasing a shrewder point, about the longing for a restoration to innocence that can only be achieved through falsifying its appearance. This falseness, the fakery, is not indicted as bad for being such; in fact Lynch seems to believe that’s what civilisation is, a well-composed system of agreements not to look at certain things, out of wise fear of where they lead.

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

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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Director/Screenwriter: John Carpenter

By Roderick Heath

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

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1990s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Film Noir

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

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Director/Screenwriter: Carl Franklin

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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