1970s, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Night Moves (1975)

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Director: Arthur Penn
Screenwriter: Alan Sharp

By Roderick Heath

When Bonnie & Clyde (1967) proved a hit, Arthur Penn became the first real hero of New Wave Hollywood desperately trying to reinvent itself. Penn’s sad, savage, ambivalent portrait of outcasts and authority at war during a rare moment of desperation for the American outlook took critics and studios equally by surprise but hit the mood of an elusive, generally young audience with a cultural bullseye. Penn’s early film works after graduating from television, The Left-Handed Gun (1958) and The Miracle Worker (1962), marked him as a forceful dramatist who, like generational fellows John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet, brought the aura of stark, sober seriousness found in the cross-pollinating zones of ‘50s stage and television drama to bigger screens. But Penn’s Mickey One (1965) saw him moving beyond the brittle demarcations of that style, attempting to mate trends coming out of European art film with the argot of Hollywood. The Chase (1966) confirmed his fascination with outsiders and the dark side of the national communal mind, and whilst the result was largely dismissed as a failed exercise in prestigious muckraking, it clearly signalled Penn was trying to get at something. With Bonnie & Clyde Penn opened the door for a great raft of subsequent talent, and yet Penn’s career was doomed to register as a disappointment in many ways, trailing off with a couple of straightforward if well-made genre films and a long twilight.
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Penn’s first follow-up to Bonnie & Clyde was Alice’s Restaurant (1969), a brilliant seriocomic examination of the counterculture in the light of history’s sprawl of yearning and horror. This aspect of Penn’s cinema, a search for truth and spirit in the American project, connected his wayward career until it ran out of the fuel in the ‘80s, coupled with a broad project of revising basic film genres according to his peculiar internal compass. Little Big Man (1970) and The Missouri Breaks (1976) were distortions of the western just as Bonnie & Clyde had played about with the familiar imperatives of the gangster thriller. Night Moves, penned by Scottish novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp, was an assimilation of the private eye flick that is as much sardonic, metafiction-tinged commentary on that subgenre as it is classical tale of mystery and danger. Today Night Moves stands as both an apotheosis of Penn’s filmography, and a quintessential product of its time. Night Moves crucially reunited Penn with Gene Hackman, who had first gained real attention in Bonnie & Clyde and since hit the big time with The French Connection (1971). Hackman had become the prototypical ‘70s star. An earthy-looking, world-weary, balding guy over forty, Hackman nonetheless was gifted at projecting livid aggression and a physically potent presence to a degree that could make just about anyone else on screen with him look pallid, with an edge of unexpected intelligence to boot.
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Hackman was clearly fascinated by characters undercut by their own blind spots and the shifts of a world they don’t entirely comprehend, often playing cops and other authority figures who find themselves out of their depth. Hackman stretched this type when he starred as the alienated romantic and lone wolf professional at the centre of Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). In Night Moves, he plays Harry Moseby, a former professional footballer who has taken up private investigating as a profession. Other characters, like Harry’s wife Ellen (Susan Clark) and casual lover Paula (Jennifer Warren), mock him repeatedly for his obsession for solving mysteries in a time where there’s a near-omnipresent mood of disregard, and awareness that facts aren’t quite the same thing as truth. His attraction to this line of work seems in part through a quixotic attachment to allure of the job, its aura of self-sufficient, swashbuckling individualism, and also out of a direct, personal motive. The skills he’s acquired in the job helped him to track down his father, who abandoned him when he was a small child. This aspect of Harry’s character suggests the irresistible allure of the material for Penn and Hackman as well as a personal touch on Sharp’s behalf: he had been adopted as a boy by a religious dockworker and his wife, and had fantasised that “Humphrey Bogart was me dad and Katherine Hepburn me mum.”
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Night Moves is in part a work of sarcastic cinephilia where the mystical fathers of genres past, like the private eyes flicks where Bogart turned his collar up to the rain and got on with a dangerous job, are both fetishized and pulled to pieces. And yet as a film it completely resists any air of pastiche. Night Moves’ settings include the affluent hinterland of California where Harry is losing his bearings along with his wife to the cult of upmarket sensitivity and Me Generation permissiveness, the storied rapacity of Hollywood given new, arch licence, and the free-and-easy loucheness of beachcombing dropouts. Like Phil Marlowe and Lew Archer, Moseby hovers around the edges of LA’s freaky scenes and film industry, and then takes a swerve down the waterfront world of Travis McGee, where the beachfront lifestyle seems initially healthier but proves to have just as much iniquity and heartache lurking in the shadows. As a homage-cum-deconstruction of the private eye mythos, Night Moves followed Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) into release, dimming some of its lustre. Being dumped by an uninterested studio didn’t help. Penn’s film had been shot in 1973, its release delayed by two years as Penn worked around cast member Melanie Griffith’s age, and its release proved an afterthought.
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Harry’s friend and professional rival Nick (Kenneth Mars) wants Harry to join his larger PI agency, and sometimes farms out spare cases to him. The latest of these sees Harry engaged by a former, minor Hollywood starlet, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), whose 16-year-old daughter Delly Grastner (Griffith) has gone missing. The oft-married Arlene had Delly with her studio magnate first husband and lives off the income paid out by his estate. Delly went off with her mechanic wiz boyfriend Quentin (James Woods) to a movie set in New Mexico where he was employed to maintain the vehicles used in the filming. She stayed just long enough to have it off with the film’s chief stuntman, Marv Ellman (Anthony Costello), a former lover of her mother’s, who beat up Quentin in a jealous brawl; Harry meets Marv and through him the film’s stunt coordinator, Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns). Harry, working on the theory Delly has a plan to seduce all of her mother’s lovers, heads down the gulf coast to see her second husband, Tom Iverson (John Crawford), who runs a charter boat along with girlfriend Paula; just as he hoped, Delly is staying with them. On a night swimming excursion, Delly is horrified when she comes across a wrecked plane with a man’s corpse still in the pilot’s seat, unrecognisable from being lunched on by fish. Harry spirits Delly back to Los Angeles but she dies soon after, killed whilst appearing as an extra on the film in a car crash with Joey, who survives.
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Night Moves’ peculiar mystique is generated by the permeating feeling that it isn’t about what it seems to be about. Despite the genre games, it’s also like most of Penn’s films a work of reportage recording the psychic tenor of the moment, contemplating people who find themselves at once exemplifying their times whilst also being trapped outside of them. It’s easy to characterise Night Moves as one of the key Watergate-era films, a winding trip up a path to oblivion by way of conspiracy, disillusionment, and corrupt authority figures. One line from the film is often taken as a pure epigram of the period zeitgeist, when Ellen asks Harry who’s winning the football game he’s watching on TV, he replies, “Nobody is – one side’s just losing slower than the other.” But it’s really more a work of sociological rather than political pensiveness, as Harry finds himself confronted by new religions where everybody’s acting on their unruly appetites and trying to work out who the hell they are when familiar demarcations are in flux. Harry’s no former radical or dropout, but he does maintain a version of independence that bespeaks his desire to retain a certain retro ideal of American masculinity, an ideal other men he encounters also try to maintain in varying ways.
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Harry’s also a married man facing a personal crisis. Glimpsed early on in a playfully randy attitude with his wife, who deals in antiques, Harry goes to pick her up from a movie she’s seeing with her gay employee Charles (Ben Archibek) only to see her driving off with another man, Marty Heller (Harris Yulin), and kissing him. Harry avoids confronting Ellen immediately, and instead visits Heller, an artfully wounded intellectual who knows all about his rival because Ellen’s told him all about her husband: “I was trying to describe you to myself,” Ellen tells Harry in fumbling explanation. Harry and Ellen are both intelligent, sophisticated people, but Ellen is nonetheless frustrated with Harry’s determination to maintain a passé self-image and resistance to change when everyone has given themselves up to a protean tide, signalled both by his shying away from working for Nick and also by his refusal to live up to his intelligence. Harry’s penchant for playing and studying chess betrays his cerebral side. The film’s title is a pun based in the game, as Harry demonstrates for her an infamous chess match one player lost when he might have won with three moves of a knight. The theme of marital discord is set up through a cineaste’s joke, as Harry declines to go see Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969) with Ellen with the much-quoted jibe, “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.”
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This refusal turns out to be one Ellen was counting on, and one that signifies her frustration with Harry, who’s no fool or philistine but simply wants to fancy himself as precisely the kind of guy who’d blow off seeing a French movie about relationships. The more allusive twist becomes clear as Harry soon finds himself plunged into a strange netherworld where minute cues of behaviour and motivation rhymed to politics of desire prove equivocal and misleading much as they do for many of Rohmer’s bourgeois miscreants: Harry’s distaste for ambiguity in art leaves him unable to deal with it in life. This quip also pays heed to Penn’s career efforts to unify the storytelling verve and immediacy of American film with the more open-ended, personally observant tenor of European cinema, a goal common to many New Hollywood talents. Night Moves is one of the tautest and most intelligent products of that aspiration, delivering a film that obeys all basic genre precepts whilst also making brutal sport of them whilst covertly offering a character study. Penn had landed the job of making Bonnie & Clyde where its writers originally hoped Jean-Luc Godard might direct it, but he proved to have exactly the right kind of touch the material required, wielding a quietly stylised blend of bleary nostalgia with a raw, utterly present-tense portrayal of physical action, pitting two modes of experience as well as cinema against each-other.
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Penn’s preoccupation with outsiders had been plain from The Left-Handed Gun, a preoccupation accompanied by a grim sense of reckoning about what happens when people lash out against the world and the world lashes back. Alice’s Restaurant took on the then-topical question of the counterculture’s viability whilst also considering it as one manifestation of an ancient urge towards new mental and spiritual landscapes, whilst Little Big Man set its hero loose upon the expanse of history to finish up as stranger amongst and repository of memory for two warring communities. Harry Moseby doesn’t seem, on the surface, to be much of a rebel or social exile, but he is an abandoned native son like so many of Penn’s protagonists. Raised by relatives after being forsaken by his parents, Harry has tried to settle into an identity that suits him, only to run into a zeitgeist where looking for one is all the rage. Harry’s visit to Heller’s seaside apartment sees the PI confused and angered when Heller proves to know all about him, to learn that he’s an enigma his wife and her lover have been trying to puzzle out the same way he works cases. Heller seems at first glance like Harry’s opposite, the man Ellen wishes he was – an intellectual who carries a cane because of a limp, a guy with lots of books and art rather than sports memorabilia on his walls – but quickly seems more like another version of him, one that walked down a different road.
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Harry’s initial avoidance of outright confrontation with Ellen, trying to get the measure of things by talking with her lover instead, sees him applying his professional method to his own life, much as, it’s revealed, he did with another aspect of his essential identity, when he tracked down his father. Harry again comes to Heller’s house after returning from an excursion to surprise him and Ellen in bed, straining to be polite and good-humoured but letting the simmering aggressions show here and there, particularly when Heller speaks about him in the third person – “Harry thinks if you call him Harry again he’s gonna make you eat that cat.” Harry and Ellen’s problems exist in counterpoint to the main drama but eventually also become bound in with it, as Harry spends the night with Paula during his brief surrender to the illusion of escape. Meanwhile Harry’s hunt for Delly sees him encounter the gangly, insolent Quentin, the arrogant cock Marv, the saucy but wounded Arlene, the world-weary Joey, the wary Paula, and the sleazy Iverson, all of whom prove connected in both professional and personal ways and who have things the others want, usually between their legs. Above all Delly, the beautiful jailbait sylph slipping through the Caribbean brine. “If everyone gets as liberated as her there’ll be fighting in the streets,” Paula quips to Harry.
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Penn creates a deliberate linkage with Alice’s Restaurant, which had prophesised the decay of the hippie movement through being exploited by people acting in sybaritic self-interest. Crawford as Ivarsson echoes James Broderick’s performance as Ray in that film, spluttering awkwardly as he admits to having sex with young Delly: “I mean there ought to be a law,” he declares, to Harry’s hard reply: “There is.” Harry’s arrival at Iverson’s feels jaunty – Michael Small’s jazzy score, cool and atmospheric for the most part, turns sarcastically like a TV ad for a Caribbean cruise at this juncture – and an appealing lifestyle seems laid out before him, one of sea and salt wind and easy sex, as he gets to flirt with Paula and play the noble adult for Delly. Even this life, however, has intimations of something hard-won, as Paula tells Harry about her apparently fancy-free but actually cheerless, gruelling past. The happy-go-lucky skipper is a paedophile. The whole thing is a front for a smuggling racket. Harry, and Penn, recognise Delly not as a rogue but rather an innocent whose wantonness disguises a desperate search for the same thing Harry himself looked for: a father. Harry becomes something like one for Delly as he counsels her after her gruesome discovery of the crashed pilot.
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Harry’s journeys skirt various idylls of lifestyle – Arlene in her Hollywood house, with her glistening pool, Iverson’s beachfront bungalow and glass-bottom boat – that are also small empires of the egocentric. The people in them often act monstrously but have their aspects of pathos and foolishness, as Harry discovers when he tries to deliver a righteous harangue at Arlene for failing Delly, only for her to recall her own youth as a mistreated teen starlet and order him out. Almost every life Harry encounters is a ledger of corruption received or paid out, usually both. Penn often depicted exploitation and appropriation, often of the young by the old, but also tended to see it as an inevitable by-product of the way too many people feel cheated of what they need, whether by something natural like age or a social imposition. Harry proves himself heroic by the general standard about him by cheating with the worldly Paula rather than Delly. Paula hovers at just at the end of Harry’s reach, cool, knowing, with a backbeat of wounded pathos, someone who’s glad to have the safe harbour she has whilst grasping full well what compromises it demands like everything else in life. Her memory of her first erotic encounter with a schoolkid beau – “The nipple stayed hard for nearly half an hour afterwards. Don’t you think that’s sad?” – sees Paula casting herself as another sad seeker in a world full of them. But she’s also, like the film around her, a clever method actor, blending craft and experience to present the version required to hook Harry. Meanwhile Harry comforts the nightmare-plagued Delly and gives her a salutary jolt of the sort of wisdom no-one else around her is honest enough to offer: “I know it doesn’t make much sense when you’re sixteen…but don’t worry…when you get to be forty, it isn’t any better.”
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Harry the professional has his day as he delivers Delly back to her mother, only to get an earful of Quentin’s haranguing him for dumping her back in a situation he doesn’t understand, quickly escalating into a full-on domestic quarrel he turns his back on and drives away. Part of Harry’s urge to reengage with the case when he’s discharged such responsibilities well from a reflex of parental outrage after Delly’s death, especially when he suspects that he had a positive effect on her. The returned Delly was a more mature and collected person. Delly defends herself from Harry ironically when he first reveals his purpose in tracking her down by telling a waterfront heavy that “this old creep keeps flashing on me,” playing on the same dichotomy of protective urge and lust she tends to stir, sparking a brawl Harry wins quickly and efficiently, proving he’s certainly tough enough for his job. If only that was all it took negotiate such labyrinthine ways as Harry begins charting. An obsession with antiques, totems not just of value but of a suggestively prostituted promise of legacy and identity that everyone seems to crave, connects Harry through Ellen to the mystery he stumbles upon. The McGuffin at the plot’s heart when revealed eventually, a huge, arcane Aztec sculpture smuggled from Yucatan piece by piece, seems to embody the deeper concerns of the story. Looking like some kind of sacrificial altar, it’s carved in the form of a lizard with a huge phallus lying on its back, a sign that the young have been dying to restore the potency of their elders and communities since time immemorial.
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Penn and Sharp’s self-referential play is enriched as the film Joey, Quentin, Marv, and Delly are involved in making is a retro cops-and-robbers drama resembling Bonnie & Clyde, and the shoot is the nexus of a criminal enterprise; a most ‘70s version of crime, where everyone’s trying to bolster their lifestyle. Tellingly, those characters are all to grunts in the great project, those who put their bodies on the line to make it happen and nuts-and-bolts people tasked to make the engine run smoothly, and like Bonnie & Clyde or Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Night Moves regards a landscape of would-be escapees from society who find crime the only likely way to leverage such an escape. Arlene, survivor of a slightly earlier era in corrupt debauchery, her looks insufficient to win over the movie world but enough to carve off a slice of the pie in return for glorified prostitution: “When I was her age,” she boozily retorts when Harry accuses her of ruining her daughter, “I was down on my knees to half the men in this town. I’m sorry the poor little bitch is dead.” Penn makes fun of himself and his business and indicts its more obnoxious precincts in manner more subtle than, but not really so different to, that of Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), perceiving everyone as living in a movie in their own head to some extent and trying in whatever way they can manage to write an acceptable end for it. Human transactions in such a setting can too easily become based in degrees of self-delusion in service to rapacious self-interest. Joey, the closest thing to a mover-and-shaker in the film, is at once its most patently empathetic figure and its secret villain.
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Fake crash becomes very real tragedy. Perhaps the most piercingly sad moment in Night Moves comes when Harry forces himself to watch a documentary crew’s record of the crash that left Delly a blood-smeared mess, whilst Joey, who was driving the car, retreats in shame from the screen room. Harry’s adoption of a heroic role in his own life as movie likewise finds itself beholden to the proliferating mess of existence. The one time he tries to get in on the general roundelay of gratification sees him fall victim to a performance – Paula seduces him to distract him whilst Iverson heads out to cover up the crash. When he and Ellen reunite and recover their sexual and emotional accord, they find a new zone of intimacy. Harry can finally confess the real climax to his search for his father, where he didn’t speak to the shambling old wreck he saw in a park. His life quest proved to be a long journey to an answer not worth learning; it was rather the quest that proved who Harry was, and the quest is still ongoing. Harry is right to insist that his job means something as bad things really are happening and a young girl really has been murdered. In this regard he maintains integrity lost to the other characters in the film, but also prefigures his ultimate destruction, because to care means to risk something.
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Night Moves is one of the best-shot films of the 1970s, if not in a showy way, and not just in terms of attractive pictures, although it has plenty of them. As Altman and Polanski had done, Penn and his director of photography Bruce Surtees worked against the traditional style of film noir by shooting much of the drama in the clear Californian daylight and with naturalistic intimacy. But Penn had demonstrated on Bonnie & Clyde a talent for infecting general authenticity and immediacy with patches of the elegiac, even the surreal. Here he aimed for a seemingly clear-eyed yet ever so slightly cryptic evocation that proved subtly influential, and helped the evolving neo-noir mode gain definition. The cool colour palette and use of environment to create a hazy sense of reference, verging at times on abstraction, anticipate Michael Mann’s systematisation of such a style; likewise Mann would take up the film’s incidental fascination with flashy, chitinous machinery as yardsticks of modernity matched to eruptions of primal violence. The crisp, metallic hues and linear confines of the urban zones Harry bestrides, a world cut into cubes by the hard angles of modern architecture, contrast the glittering shoals of the seaside and the lucid glimpse into corrupt depths upon discovery of the wrecked plane, building to the incredible vistas of the sunstruck, blood-caked finale.
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Penn’s images play constant games with how Harry sees, through reflections in mirrors, through flyscreen, through water and celluloid, a dance of things he’s not supposed to see and the things he fails to, culminating in the final, vital revelation of the finale, where Harry is reduced to audience of suffering even as he solves the case. Not for nothing is Iverson’s boat is called Point of View, its glass bottom the portal for terrible discoveries and revelations. Eventually some of the haze of mystery burns off, albeit only once Harry decides to close down his agency and move on: clarity only comes to those not so busy looking. Delly’s death and Quentin’s flight from Harry’s questions makes him realise that none of the coincidences he’s grazed have been coincidences. Iverson and Paula were engaged in smuggling. Quentin and Marv were in on it. Marv is the corpse in the ocean. Delly knew and had to be silenced. Only one player hides in plain sight. Quentin flees Harry’s questions only to turn up dead at Iverson’s. Harry battles Iverson whilst Paula berates them for their absurdity in playing their roles to the bitter end. Harry wins the brawl and Paula takes him out to witness the raising of the great Aztec relic.
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But a seaplane comes flying over, its pilot wielding an Uzi that puts a hole in Harry’s leg. The pilot lands and tries to run down Paula as she swims back to the boat, an easy chance to tie off a loose end. Her scuba tank explodes as the float hits her, driving the plane against the floating statue, causing the plane to crash and sink under the boat. Dede Allen’s editing here rises to the most extraordinary pitch in organising cause and effect to the finest millisecond whilst still conveying the beggaring quality to the rush of action. Everything goes right until it suddenly doesn’t, and then everything goes to hell. It’s the film’s entire thesis inscribed in pure visual effect. The mysterious pilot is Joey, identified by the plaster cast from the car crash on his arm. Harry watches him as he tries to escape the sinking plane, screaming in silence. Even revealed as killer and mastermind of a criminal conspiracy, Joey still comes across like the same hapless, life-battered, football-loving schlub Harry liked, pathetically consumed by his own master plan. Harry tries to get the boat started, but his injury is too painful, leaving him sprawled in despair as the boat chugs in a sorry circle, as Surtees’ camera retreats into the clouds, the scene of violence and its players dissolving in the gleaming sea. Penn and Sharp pull off their last, nimblest desecration, at once solving the mystery and capping the tale with perfect economy, but leaving their hero to a vague fate. Such refusal to deliver an answer would drive Harry mad if he were watching it, but it delivers him a strange grace when he’s the victim of it.

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

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

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

…and then there was Tarantino.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Standard
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
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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2010s, Auteurs, Film Noir, Thriller

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

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Director/Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Glasgow-born director Lynne Ramsay gained international repute with her impressionistic debut narrative film Ratcatcher in 1999. Ramsay cemented her status as a filmmaker to watch with her portrait of crisis adrift, Morvern Callar, in 2002, and her American film debut, the 2011 adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. Ramsay’s cinema is distinguished by her visually dense and allusive approach, applying the style she developed in early experimental shorts to films that try to convey the interior perspective of deeply troubled and alienated characters who subsist within bubbles of disorientation. Ratcatcher was the tale of a poverty-stricken boy who nonetheless sustains an extraordinarily vivid sense of the world about him, alive to fleeting moments of imaginative transformation and eye-catching serendipity. Morvern Callar depicted a young woman eddying in a stab at self-realisation following her author boyfriend’s suicide, her recessive and childlike personality allowing Ramsay a natural zone to annex after her debut, before arriving at the would-be worldly antiheroine of We Need To Talk About Kevin. Morvern Callar was one of the most interesting films of the early 2000s, but I intensely disliked We Need To Talk About Kevin, which struck me as facile and more than vaguely exploitative in its approach to parental guilt and school massacre. It was also the kind of debacle only a director of great talent can conjure, showcasing Ramsay’s visualisations, and its general success greatly raised Ramsay’s profile.
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Ramsay’s career has been marked nearly as much by the projects that have fallen through for her over the years as the ones she’s managed to get on screen. Her attempt to film Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones proved abortive, with the project eventually proving a fiasco for Peter Jackson, and in the past few years Ramsay wasted a good chunk of her new fame in an abortive attempt to work with Natalie Portman on the would-be feminist western Jane Got A Gun, which saw the light in 2016 helmed instead with stultifying lack of imagination by Gavin O’Connor. You Were Never Really Here, an adaptation of Jonathan Ames novella, marks a startlingly vigorous resurgence for Ramsay that also might be counted as a little revenge on her part, conjuring the film Jane Got A Gun might have been, taking on familiar generic canards with a fiercely quirky method and coming up with a hallucinatory neo-western blended with noir drama unfolding in the contemporary New York cityscape. Joaquin Phoenix is cast as central character Joe: he’s a figure perfectly suited to both the actor playing him and his love of playing damaged, semi-articulate screw-ups, and to the director, as another of Ramsay’s lost and childlike protagonists, subsisting in a hall of mirrors generated by his damaged psyche even as he brings potent adult anger and capacity for violence to bear upon the world.
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Ramsay quickly announces her peculiar aesthetic as the film kicks off with a vision of bubbles swirling in dark water and two distinct voices counting down to zero, as well as the ritualised chant Joe recalls from childhood insisting that “I must try to be better.” The film slowly composites into definite form as we’re given peculiar visions – a young boy’s face, a mouth writhing under a sheet of plastic, a burning photo of a girl, a bloodied hammer, possessions on a bed scooped into a bag. Joe exits what appears to be a room in a hotel, and descends to the lobby, only to retreat at the sight of cop cars outside. He exits instead into an alley, where an assailant tries to beat his head in with a blunt object, but Joe shrugs off the blow and easily bests the goon. Joe gets into a cab, the livery of which tells us we’re in Cincinnati, and catches a bus back to New York. He enters a house there, which proves to be his mother’s home. His mother (Judith Roberts) is elderly, infirm, and a little confused, but still can pull off a joke as she pretends to be asleep only to surprise her son. Soon enough Joe is lost again in the minutiae of his idea of a ordinary life, like mopping up the bathroom after his mother, singing along with her whilst polishing silver, or reading books backwards and tearing out pages he doesn’t like, whilst occasionally seeming to debate suicide.
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Joe’s carefully prophylactic work method, we learn, is designed to keep a layer of insulation between his home life and his current profession as hired muscle. He’s so particular about this he uses a grocery store owner, Angel (Frank Pando), as a middle man contact between him and his usual employer John McCleary (John Doman), and he decides to dispense with Angel as contact because his teenage son Moises (Vinicius Damasceno) has seen him entering his house. McCleary himself a mere agent for hiring guys like Joe to pull off nasty jobs, often hiring Joe to rescue girls kidnapped into sexual slavery: when he comes to visit McCleary’s office, Joe finds it filled with flowers sent by the florist parents of the girl he rescued in Cincinnati. McCleary hires Joe for another job, this time one that promises to be very lucrative, as a Senator named Votto (Alex Manette) needs Joe’s special talents. McCleary is happy, boasting he can finally get his yacht out of dry dock and promising to host Joe, but Joe’s too distracted by digging for green jelly beans. Joe meets with Votto, who wants him to rescue his daughter Nina, who’s run off from home and an anonymous tip has told him she’s being kept in a brothel for high-roller paedophiles located in downtown Manhattan.
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Usually when contemporary artists try to complicate the basic template of the lone avenging hero, they choose to load up the hero with quirks and neuroses that muddy up the white armour. Ramsay takes a different approach: although Joe is unstable and possesses a perturbing readiness to unleash punitive ferocity, he’s essentially an innocent, a small boy in a man’s body. Ramsay mimics Joe’s unmoored sense of time and focus with her filmmaking, latching on to random impressions and patinas, odd little details and fleeting spurts of conversation: attention deficit as a cinema aesthetic. Any sight seems charged with some semaphore of fate, like a girl staring at Joe from behind a pillar on the El. The reasons for Joe’s mental state are suggested in spasmodic flash cuts conveying the intrusive memories that can compel him at any moment of the day. A foot twitching in sand, a hazy face in a burka, two soldiers in uniform dancing in the midst of the desert, a candy bar handed over through fencing wire. These prove to be attached to specific, deeply disturbing moments in Joe’s life – one kid shoots another for the candy bar. When Joe is asked by some Asian schoolgirls to take their group picture, Joe recalls a truck filled with asphyxiated corpses of Asian women. The association so upsets Joe he goes to buy the wares of a drug dealer to lose himself in a chemical daze, and socks the guy for arriving late.
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Joe seems to have served as both a soldier and a cop in his life (Ames book makes it clear it was an FBI agent), and the awful sights harvested in such roles have left him damaged, but they’ve also clearly also conjoined with traumatising memories from his childhood. Ramsay offers flash sights of Joe’s childhood efforts to drown out domestic rows between his parents by wrapping his head in plastic – a habit that seems to lie behind his current habit of doing the same thing to control strong emotions. Joe also recalls his mother hiding under a bed and a man, surely his father, sitting in the living room and stalking the house with a hammer. Small wonder Joe is now so protective of his mother, and this slowly past biography also gives grim totemic import to his weapon of choice in dealing with the miscreants his job throws his way, caving in their skulls with a hammer. When Joe sets out on Votto’s mission, he parks outside the old brownstone and waits for a young man who works inside to come out; Joe apprehends him, ties him up, pumps him for information, and then ventures inside.
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Ramsay depicts Joe’s entrance into the den of depravity with the coolest of viewpoints, shooting his marauding through the security cameras around the brothel, in which he appears like a haggard ghoul lurching out of the shadows, smashing in the heads of the brothel’s guardians, leaving their bodies sprawled in his wake. Joe finds Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) on a bed, engaged in the same practice of counting down Joe uses in his anxiety control. Joe takes her in hand and leads her out of the brothel, pausing only with advice to her to close her eyes as he hammers a patron who stumbles into his path – Nina continues to watch with cool regard. Taking refuge in a car park, Joe has claw the girl off him with the assurance “You don’t have to do that anymore,” and then wait for her as she pisses on the bare concrete. Ensconced in a hotel room, Nina turns on the TV only for the news to reveal Votto is dead, supposedly through suicide. But it seems more likely that powerful enemies eliminated Votto for daring to claim his daughter back: two cops appear at the door of Joe and Nina’s room, blow the brains of a hapless bellboy across Joe’s face, and snatch away Nina. Joe manages to tackle one of the cops and kill him before fleeing, but he soon realises everyone in his chain of business contact is in danger. Sure enough, he soon finds McCleary in his office dead, having been viciously tortured until he gave up Angel, and Angel in turn is glimpsed being forced to watch his son being shot to pry Joe’s location out of him.
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The theme of a rogue veteran out to help a sexually exploited girl invites ready comparison to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), complete with cracked hero and invoked junctions of street life and political climes. But Ramsay’s radically odd approach to such a plot better recalls a mode of filmmaking little-seen since the late 1960s and ‘70s, films like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), aggressively deconstructing the usually steely certainties of genre filmmaking, as well as art house benchmarks like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Muriel, or, the Time of Return (1963), that tried to comprehend a sense of personal reality as a liquid state where past and present are always in dialogue, and the post-traumatic transience of mindstates mapped out in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, with its kamikaze cuts to memories of bleak suffering. The emphasis on a hero experiencing the various stations of the cross constituting his life in the midst of exterior action that mimics existential crisis is reminiscent of Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971). Ramsay seems to nod to Boorman’s film at one point as Phoenix’s shabby, spacey hero nonetheless gains the impetus of mission and she shoots him marching forth, shoes crunching loudly on gravel, much as Lee Marvin’s Walker strode with purpose towards his reckoning. A scene of Joe pulling out a shattered tooth in nauseating close-up recalls Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997), confirming she’s well aware of the lineage. The atmosphere in You Were Never Really Here is radially paranoid in a fashion that also feels rather fit for that era’s cinema, although it’s also starting to feel very apt again for ours as it contemplates a landscape of greedy potentates and human wreckage.
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But Ramsay has so completely coalesced such influences, as well as the familiar touchstones of a thriller plot – the lone hero, the bad guy in a mansion on the hill – into her own peculiar sensibility that the whole deal emerges not as a compulsive work of suspense and catharsis but as a bad dream from which both the heroes and the viewer are trying to wake. Ramsay joins a body of filmmakers in this who have been essaying what’s starting to feel like a new subgenre, the dreamscape thriller, including Nicolas Winding Refn with Only God Forgives (2013) and Claire Denis on Bastards (2014), where traditional thriller imperatives are diffused through a sense of fractured and punch-drunk perception. There’s also a certain similarity to the works of the Safdie brothers, whose Heaven Knows What (2014) and Good Time (2017) similarly unfold with a quality of delirium and submergence with moments of sharp palpability, although not quite as overtly hallucinatory. Johnny Greenwood’s pulsing electronic score also recalls some of those film, calling to mind another cinematic realm, that of the down-and-dirty ‘80s thriller. Ramsay’s visual textures occasionally flirt with cliché – lots of hosepiping shots of freeways and cityscapes at night – but serve a coherent purpose in reinforcing a sense of bleary, blindsided experience. Ramsay uses Joe’s tale less to recount a traditional good-versus-evil narrative, but to explore the mental processes of the severely traumatised: Joe engages in his worldly action for much the same reason Ramsay takes up his story, searching for immediate avatars and ways of explaining to himself his compulsive and volatile experience.
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Ramsay contemplates a network of insidious evil diffused through a surreally dense layering of perception. Ramsay’s dedication to exploring the mental landscape of her characters overrides familiar impulses here, as Joe’s travails become as much a catalyst for unearthing his own deep lode of distress as a call to arms. Joe and Nina seem to be linked on a subliminal level, threatening indeed to become the same person: although she’s the child and nominal damsel in distress, she’s also like the more coolly functional part of Joe, cleaved off from the great part of his being. This fundamental sense of recognition compels Joe to move beyond his own losses and track down Nina again. Ramsay is clearly fascinated by the close proximity of caring and violent urges contained within Joe, the sense that he’s carefully fashioned himself a lifestyle that allows him to unleash his potential for savagery at a great distance from the one person he cares about. His choice of the hammer as a weapon signals he’s well aware on some level that he’s dogged by the same brutal instincts as his father, who haunts his life, but also that he’s fighting with all his remnant sanity to turn it to a protective purpose, however debased compared to serving as soldier and cop. It’s a question that often compels filmmakers who tackle this kind of fare, feeling out the edges of humanity in extremes and wondering whether the faultlines between the very human states of anger, fear, wrath, revenge, and conditions like psychopathy can be accurately charted. Joe’s overt peculiarity finds its distorted mirror in young Nina, who like him drifts in a dreamy space after her rescue, regarding the rain-smeared windows of the car and the passing lights as if processing everything from a slightly different vantage on reality.
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Whilst Morvern Callar conveyed the clammy sensation of intense grief, it adopted its heroine’s viewpoint rather than tried to describe her rather inaccessible thought processes, perceiving her travels in a state of bemused wonder. The technique Ramsay turned on We Need To Talk About Kevin successfully portrayed the blur of terrible memory dogging its main character. Here Ramsay blends techniques, alternating between Joe as distorting lens upon the world and as catalogue of sensations and recollections. It’s a high-wire act, aesthetically speaking, and yet Ramsay keeps walking that thin line with success just Joe must tread a bleak trail of carnage. The sight of his own blood mixed in with the white milk he pours for his cat sparks an alarm that drives him out to check on McCleary, only to find him dead, and he know soon killers will be at his own house. When Joe gets home and sneaks in through a window, he finds his mother already dead, shot in the face through a pillow. Joe hears the men responsible (they seem to be more cops, this time plainclothes detectives) and ambushes them, swiftly gunning them down. One of the killers (Scott Price) crawls into the kitchen with a bullet wound through his belly; Joe, in a vicious mood, catches him and presses the soul of his boot against the man’s back to wring information from him.
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The killer reveals to Joe the even sicker truth behind the mission Votto sent him on: Votto and political confederate, Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola), shared paedophile tastes and liked to swap favoured girls, with his daughter offered up like some kind of bond-deepening pledge, a pledge Votto decided to pull out of at his peril. Ramsay pulls off perhaps her most bizarre twist on a familiar thriller moment here. Joe can’t really sustain the Dirty Harry act, slipping his bested foe a painkiller to help him die without too much agony, and lying down on the floor beside in him grief and exhaustion. The two men listen to the sounds emerging from his mother’s radio, still playing the chirpy sounds of an easy listening oldies station, and begin to raggedly sing along to, of all things, Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me,” whilst holding hands. It’s the sort of scene a director needs a hide of armour plate to pull off, but Ramsay swings it, in very large part because it feels like the essence of the film. The banality of a kitschy old hit is suddenly transmuted into poetic commentary on the knight in cracked armour and the emissary of an evil king both malformed into things they don’t like by life and longing to be children again; it’s Ramsay’s achievement to evoke the quality of empathy nascent in the most sordid situation.
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By comparison, the actual climax of the film is a more muted affair, with Ramsay carefully sabotaging any hint of standard suspense as Joe tracks William to his house. In between, Ramsay follows Joe as he takes his mother’s body out to a lake in the woods, and prepares to sink her into a lake, intending to join her as he fills his pockets with stones. Ramsay turns this scene into her most surreal and gorgeous visual aria as Joe submerges himself in the lake with his mother and then releases her, allowing her willowing form to sink into the darkness, farewelled in a state of pure, liquid diffusion. It’s the most fantastical moment in the film but also the most sharply composed and executed. Joe however fishes the rocks from his pockets and resurfaces, following the shaft of light falling upon him. Why? Because he’s still got a job to do, fired up by the imagined – or psychically shared – scene of Votto serving his daughter up to Williams, and the sight of his mother’s sinking body transforming into Nina’s, a likeness of broken humanity demanding action.
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Joe travels to Williams’ mansion in all its piss-elegant stature, where an eyeless statue hovering in the shadows seems animated by malignancy. You know Joe’s path by the trail of the head, leaving security guards with smashed-in skulls in his wake. Ramsay’s camera zeroes in for the excruciating sight of Nina’s blood-caked hands working polished silver cutlery to pick at food at the dining table, an equally gory razor close by. Nina, Joe finds, has beat him to the honour of slicing Williams’ throat, a discovery that proves cathartic for him in delivering him, ironically, from the need for further violence. Ramsay’s talent for inspecting the aftermath of violence is just as keen as ever here. Only right does Ramsay seem unsure what note to strike. She depicts Joe seeming to shoot himself in a diner after freeing Nina, only to reveal it’s another of his dreams, as Nina comes to wake him up and lead him off to whatever life they can find. There’s a point to this of course, even if the style suddenly feel heavy-handed. Joe will still long for oblivion even as he gains a new responsibility to fend it off, although just who’s taking care of who seems strangely blurred, as if Joe’s mother has been reborn in Nina, in a great chain of incarnation, parent to son to child, fending off the monsters. You Were Never Really Here demands admiration on many levels, for its blithe lack of concern for commercial niceties and ready audience participation, and yet still managing to be perfectly lucid in describing a state of mental and spiritual confusion.

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1930s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Erotic, French cinema, Mystery, Romance, Short Films, Thriller

Night at the Crossroads (1932) / A Day in the Country (1936)

La Nuit de Carrefour / Partie de Campagne

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Jean Renoir

By Roderick Heath

Sometimes a famous name can be a boost or a burden. Or just a name. As the son of one of the most lauded Impressionist painters, Jean Renoir’s attraction to cinema gave the young art form an aura of matured sophistication, but might well have also lifted a few eyebrows in sceptical intrigue. If Jean ever seemed oppressed or dogged by the challenge of proving himself an artist in his own right, he never showed it in his films, which evinced only sublime freedom of form and spirit. In spite of his father’s schooling of all things visual and Jean’s initial interest in sculpture, Renoir was deeply attracted to the theatre, and film offered him a chance to blend two separate artistic realms and better refine a new one. Although today enshrined as one of the quintessential cinema masters, Renoir was too restless, droll, and politically tinted an artist to always be readily accepted in his day, although many of his works found swift and great favour, like the antiwar tale La Grande Illusion (1937), which managed the feat of getting nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, a first for a film mostly not in English.

But Renoir’s association with the Front Populaire, the progressive and radical coalition that briefly came to power in France before World War II, made him a target for the right, and his best-regarded film, The Rules of the Game (1939), released on the cusp of conflict, stoked public ire despite being merely a tart ledger accounting bourgeois tomfoolery, subtly indicting the country’s self-congratulatory upper classes of detachment from their countrymen and blithe indifference to oncoming reality. Renoir himself had been the product of a gloriously unfettered childhood and had fought with distinction as a young man in World War I. His sharply diastolic worldview was formed then with a gift for depicting both the elating absurdity and gnawing distress of the human condition, his surveys sometimes acerbically critical, often warm and indulgent; even his regulation wartime propaganda film This Land is Mine (1943) champions communication above action. Renoir started making films in the mid-1920s, collaborating on Une Vie Sans Joie (1925) but really finding his feet with an adaptation of Emile Zola’s tale of an actress turned courtesan, Nana (1926), starring Renoir’s wife Marguerite, a first his cinematic muse and then indispensable collaborator.

Renoir’s shoots were virtual family affairs and relied on a tight-knit team of collaborators. After acting in his movies Marguerite started editing them, whilst his nephew Claude would begin as a camera operator and eventually become a lauded cinematographer, whilst Jean himself and his brother Pierre acted in several. As he moved into the sound era, Renoir turned out a string of corrosively funny, brusquely intimate portrayals of squabbling class avatars and human frailty, like the hapless clerk and Sunday painter who gives himself up to life as a wandering hobo after killing his grotesque mistress in La Chienne (1931), or the fellow vagrant who refuses to be domesticated in Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932). In the midst of the Front Populaire’s heyday, Renoir made several films including the proto-neorealist effort Toni (1935), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), which portrayed the murder of a sleazy capitalist to allow a successful experiment in a worker’s cooperative to continue, and La Marseillaise (1938), a recounting of the French Revolution’s most fervent hours, which bore out Renoir’s simultaneous capacity to embrace radical new causes whilst also extending sympathy to figures caught on the wrong side of epochal tides.

It feels right to look at Night at the Crossroads and A Day in the Country in concert because they’re both relatively short fruits of Renoir’s great period, and that diastolic sensibility is plain from their titles on down. Both films are set just beyond the outskirts of Paris, at locales serving the passing trade and beset by a mood of isolation and transience. They share a quality with Shakespeare’s pastoral plays of being thrust out beyond the usual norms of civilisation and forced to improvise a different moral order. The day/night schism erected between the two works begs for a clever artist to render them porous, and the undercurrents of pining disappointment that finally defines A Day in the Country is mirrored by the final sense of new chances in life that comes with the dawn in Night at the Crossroads. Both films take on material adapted from highly regarded authors. Renoir made Night at the Crossroads specifically to honour one of his favourite then-contemporary writers, Georges Simenon. A Day in the Country was an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant, a friend of Jean’s father and the other Impressionists, and an artist who shared with them a certain gruff and zesty dedication to reflecting on life as he saw it.

Night at the Crossroads has a certain legendary cache because it was very hard to see for a long time, and even today supposedly still has a reel missing. One reviewer compared it to Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) for being an ostensibly rational mystery that still feels imbued with a nocturnal and numinous atmosphere even after the fade out. It was also the first adaptation to feature one of the most famous detective characters of all time, Simenon’s cagey, calm, modest but unrelenting hero Inspector Jules Maigret, played here by Pierre Renoir. The film’s first image, under the title card, is of a blowtorch at work on a safe in otherwise pitch black, an introduction to the mode of inky darkness and troubling illumination the tale unfolds in, the sense of forces at midnight working like termites at the fabric of the stable world. The movie proper kicks off with a series of sociological jokes as a motorcycle cop pulls in at a service station at the crossroads, in a drab semi-rural locale. The gang of workers who labour at the station mockingly read out society engagement announcements. The bourgeois couple in one of the neighbouring houses, the Michonnets (Gehret and Jane Peirson), note the behaviour of ostensibly rich people who also pay on instalment plans, and instantly accuse their neighbours, a Danish brother and sister, of stealing their car when they notice it missing.

The Michonnets lead a posse into the Danes’ yard and break open the garage, but get more than they bargained for, as the car is inside with a corpse sitting up within. The dead man is a Jewish diamond dealer from Brussels named Goldberg. The Danish man, Andersen (Georges Koudria) is arrested and grilled over the course of the day by Maigret and his assistant Lucas (Georges Térof). Renoir conveys the passage of time during the interrogation by cutting away to a newsstand where the developments in the story are reported in the day’s newspaper editions – the morning’s fresh news becomes the sludge being swept up by a street cleaner in the gutter – and then returning to the ever more crowded and smoke-riddled inspector’s offices as the interview continues, the smoke from the anxious coppers growing thick in anticipation of the fog that looms about the crossroads. Finally, Maigret is obliged to release Andersen, but decides to travel out to the scene of the crime to try and get his bearings.

The idea of disorientation is realised on a cinematic level by Renoir as he unsettles and fatigues the eye with his oblique framings, peculiar edits, and frustrated viewpoints. Information feels random and broken-up. Far from impressionism, Night at the Crossroads takes place in a cubist trance. Physical objects – gasoline pumps, cars, house interiors – seem imbued with a form of life, as they’re shot in a way where the human characters are glimpsed through frames or behind looming imminences, or seen darting through scantly lit patches of ground. The branches of the roads that link at the titular crossroads fade off into murky night or boiling fog. A sequence in which Goldberg’s wife is driven to the crossroads only to be shot by a lurking sniper takes place in oceans of dark punctuated again by small pools of light, his rifle-wielding killer looming as a vague silhouette, a nocturnal monstrosity. Renoir’s customary, breezy use of location filming, one aspect of his cinema that made him a precursor to the neorealists, avoids the imprint of the expressionist style that was waning in its native Germany but gaining new use in Hollywood, even as Night at the Crossroads succeeds in feeling as rarefied and odd as the first Universal horror films.

Elsewhere Renoir’s camera mimics Maigret’s incisive, quietly registering method. A little vertical tilt of the camera follows Maigret’s gaze as he takes in the appearance of one of the station works, registering the dissonances. A close-up of a cigarette packet tells the Inspector of visits to unlikely quarters. The little world Renoir creates here is solid, tangible, sensuous, at once torpid and agitated. Exploring the new possibilities and practicalities of sound, Renoir utilised on-location recording. Scenes are filled with the din of passing cars and bustling activity, and occasionally there are disjunctive matches in the noise from shot to shot, an aspect that seems crude at first but also helps reinforce the overt mood of dislocation. Renoir shows a more exact sense of how to exploit sound as he utilises a tune heard first on one of Else’s records and then on the accordion played incessantly by the station workers to tip the detective off to the hitherto unexpected link between the two camps. One sequence, in which Maigret interviews the garage men, is loaded with Renoir’s mischievous sense of behavioural quirk as one man idly flips a jack handle and then begins sawing away on a machining job purely to aggravate the Inspector during one of his interviews.

Night at the Crossroads is a beautiful time capsule of a slightly grubby, wayside corner of pre-war France, one that seems to have had a powerful impact in some Hollywood viewers, like Howard Hawks, whose The Big Sleep (1946) feels particularly under this film’s spell in parsing the harshness of the crime film through a thin veil of the otherworldly. Indeed, much of the poetic realist style’s fascination for characters on the margins of gritty, industrial France and the later film noir mode’s obsession with femme fatales and troubled antiheroes might well have flowed from this well. Here the perverse temptress is Andersen’s supposed sister Else (Winna Winifried), who seems the incarnation of the narcotising pall that hangs about the crossroads, languorously rolling upon cushions as Maigret tries to interview her, flashing her gartered thigh, or caressing her pet tortoise, perhaps the most amusing apt pet in film history. Else is actually Andersen’s wife, but she’s really in thrall to her former husband Guido (Manuel Raaby) who is hidden amidst the coterie of criminals that hides in plain sight about the crossroads, who utilise the service station as the base for criminal enterprises including robbery and drug smuggling. Else is used by Guido as general purpose concubine to keep his gang in line, with Andersen, who married Else in the hope of elevating out of the squalid criminal universe, tied fatefully to her. Soon the criminals try to murder him to keep him quiet. The criminal alliance that spans the crossroads becomes Renoir and Simenon’s sarcastic cross-section of French society, eventually building to the inevitable punch-line that they’re all in league to pull off something crooked in a twist reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express.

The workers in the garage who do the dirty work, the sniping, readily offended Michonnets who act as fences, and the lurking aristocratic duo in the big house, all share nefarious motives – even if things prove a little more complicated. The collective of criminals feels like an ironic precursor to the workers’ cooperative in The Crime of Monsieur Lange. Renoir considers Balzac’s maxim that great fortune is always the product of a great crime, and seems to wonder half-idly if the path to a socialist society might lie down the same path. Although nominally a femme fatale, Else feels like a rough draft for the hero of Boudu Saved From Drowning, a self-confessedly lazy person who exists as a project of betterment and/or exploitation for others, but who eddies amongst her own thoughts and whims, barely aware of the niceties of civilisation. Winifried is a fascinating presence who was Renoir’s find for the film, reminiscent of the German star Sybille Schmitz in her aura of languorous eroticism, but made very few films. Anderson looks like a characters strayed out of a Fritz Lang film with one lost eye concealed behind a black monocle lens, a touch that makes him ineffably odd, a creature of proto-science fiction, human and mechanism coming together. And yet he turns out to be the one well-motivated character save the policemen. Andersen is a prototype for Erich von Stroheim’s Von Rauffenstein in La Grande Illusion, a sad remnant of a figure, damaged, mechanism-aided physique, fallen from his station and adrift in a mean and grubby present.

I suspect the reason cinema beckoned so irresistibly to Renoir over art forms was the promise of movement. Renoir’s films vibrate with peripatetic energy and a sensibility close to a pantheistic feel for the landscape as a living organism in itself, and a concurrent contempt for the stifling immobility of civilised conventions and quotidian social structures, unnatural forms with no flexibility or dynamism. The urge to movement is often literalised in his characters who, if they have no place to go but also no reason to stay put, give themselves up to the logic of flowing rivers, speeding trains, open roads and anxiously inviting frontiers. Renoir actualised this anxious, liberating joy found in surging speed by often including a shot from a camera affixed to the front of a car or train, precipitous images of racing speed. The stuck-in-the-mud mood of Night at the Crossroads belies this motif to a certain extent, but then gives way as Lucas chases after the criminal band, laboriously catching up with the vehicle and swinging about with giddy speed as the villains loose shots at their pursuers. Renoir might well have been thinking back to Louis Feuillade’s serials when he took on Night at the Crossroads, but the surrealist spirit of such models is dovetailed here into a seedier, more mundane yet just as untrustworthy reality. Another great joke conjoined with a surreal affect comes when a doctor is called in to treat a wounded man; the doctor (Max Galban), called away from a night at the opera, arrives in full eveningware, complete with top hat and white gloves, like he’s about to play Master of Ceremonies for walpurgisnacht.

Love and sexual passion are usually privileged in Renoir’s films to a degree that almost seems to ape the stereotyped French affinity for romanticism. The titles of both Night at the Crossroads and A Day in the Country contain the seeds of an obfuscating joke, associating both locations with aspects of opportune erotic adventure; the dejeuners of the later film face, and leap into, dalliances which Maigret spends a great deal of his story avoiding, as Else constantly tries to provoke the detective, the ever-attentive copper refusing to be drawn but clearly on occasion having a hard time of it. If A Day in the Country sees Renoir exercising the theme at its most apparently blithe and freewheeling, Night at the Crossroads finds lurking neuroticism and pathos as Maigret becomes a distraction to Else’s ultimate choice of between Guido and Andersen, who suffers for his love with a bullet in his back. Else herself seems to mildly prefer Maigret himself, and the very last frame sees Else grasping the detective from behind. But of course he’s one of the most famously married law enforcers in pop culture and moreover he’s the stern guardian of social structures. So Else makes a final, dutiful trudge up to see Andersen, at least rejecting Guido and his poisonous influence over Guido’s howls of protest, which might be amour fou or mere petulance from the Apache chieftain that his suzerainty is finally ending.

When Renoir would return to tales of murder and smouldering jealousy, he would however dispense with the safe and generic mediating figure of the detective; his Emile Zola adaptation La Bete Humaine (1938) would again take up the theme of two men attached to one woman driven to acts of inchoate criminality and passion, but viewed from within that vortex, and the key image of headlong flight into modernity glimpsed from the viewpoint of Jean Gabin’s ill-fated train driver with the lingering temptation of self-consuming crack-up at the end of the line. A Day in the Country, by contrast, retreats into a bucolic past, a portrait of Edens lost, a place free of psychic and physical pressure from bustling machines and harsh contemporary facts. All the better for Renoir to take a closer, more exacting look at the dance of seduction and the evanescence of pleasure. Accounts regarding the production radically diverge. Some have claimed it was essentially left unfinished, as Renoir became frustrated with the weather, and eventually dashed off to get working on his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1936), and that Renoir’s assistant director Jacques Becker, who would go on to be a highly regarded filmmaker himself, reportedly shot some footage. Renoir however insisted that the project was always intended to be a short film and he resisted his producer’s encouragement to expand it into a full feature.

The resulting pile of celluloid sat on the shelf for nearly a decade, during which time war broke out and Renoir moved to the US, where his interest in people on the fringes of society was evinced in regional dramas like Swamp Water (1941) and The Southerner (1945). Eventually, Marguerite Renoir sat down and carefully cut A Day in the Country together and it was released as a 38-minute movie almost one decade exactly later. Whatever the truth behind the film’s shoot and its long marination on the shelf, if might well be a great argument for such messy method, as it’s one of the most perfect artefacts in cinema, an island of expressive concision and theme realised through filmmaking. The title and basic notion seem carefully tailored to recall the works of Renoir’s father and his artistic alumni, who often went off on jaunts in the countryside to try and capture perfect visions of the world and the people at large in it. A Day in the Country was also an inferred glance at the new freedoms the Front Populaire’s reforms allowed to French workers, with enshrined shorter working hours and paid holidays, to pursue leisure in a manner once reserved for the kind of prosperous bourgeoisie Renoir depicts here. Not that A Day in the Country is any kind of political tract either.

The story is as simple and universal as the plot of Night at the Crossroads is knotty and obscure. Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello), a successful tradesman, takes his wife Juliette (Jane Marken), his mother (Gabrielle Fontan), his daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), and her fiancé Anatole (Paul Temps) out for a buggy ride in the country just outside Paris, on a fine summer’s day in 1860. Approaching a riverside restaurant, they decide to stop and have lunch. Dufour and Anatole are both enthusiastic to do some fishing and are initially frustrated when they can’t get their hands on some rods. Henriette sets her mind on a picnic under a cherry tree by the river. Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) are two gentlemen idlers whose day of calm and quiet time-wasting hanging about the restaurant and playing chess is spoiled by the sounds of the shrill and excitable city folk arriving outside. Upon catching a glimpse of the feminine pulchritude suddenly on hand, irritation swiftly turns to resolve to seduce the ladies, which proves, on the whole, a rather easy task.

Renoir had taken initial, powerful inspiration from the lacerating intimacy of Von Stroheim’s films, and A Day in the Country could be described as Renoir’s take on the countryside trek and intended seduction in Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922), shed of melodrama and moralism. Jean-Luc Godard, who greatly admired Renoir’s works even as he remained temperamentally antithetical to them as a director, would push the cycle of inspiration on by tormenting and misshaping Renoir’s template into Weekend (1967), tossing in one brief recreation of Renoir’s riparian placidity to ensure the connection. Renoir’s film celebrates passion in a manner blissfully, if finally with a flutter of heartbreak, disconnected from worldly business or moral judgement: there is only the purity of the erotic urge as an end in itself to be served by any willing party. As Renoir’s cinema matured, his grip on the rhythmic flow of his images and sense of how to use the space in a frame most exactly became surer and indeed scarcely rivalled, and A Day in the Country is a pure study in space as a cinematic value. The film’s key joke even depends on it: Rodolphe opens the restaurant windows to “enjoy the view,” and opens the window shutters to behold the sight of the mother and daughter riding upon swings, a frame opening within a frame where beauty of multiple varieties spills on.

The two men look on like wolves in a Friz Freleng cartoon. Young seminarians marching by halt in distraction, needing a swift clip on the ear to get them moving again. Randy energy permeates everything; Dufour even mentions that the clasps for the oars on the riverboats are called dames. Later Madame Dufour tries to rouse her dozing husband after their meal with memories of past sexual adventures, but the torpor of bourgeois self-satisfaction has descended. It’s heavily hinted Henriette and Anatole’s looming marriage has been arranged; Anatole is probably one of Dufour’s employees, an overgrown calf more interested in fish than sex. Renoir casts himself and his wife as the Poulains, owners of the restaurant, serving up the goodies. But the mood isn’t one of mere, simple bawdy potential. Henri confesses to Rodolphe his exhaustion with carnal relationships with uninteresting women, and the project the two men set for each-other has a quality of dutiful adventuring. Rodolphe isn’t even particularly concerned when Henri abruptly takes more interest in Henriette rather than her mother. Meanwhile Henriette feels protean longings in the face of oncoming future. She’s tentative on a boat for the first time, worried she might fall in, and impressed by Henri’s easy way with rowing.

If Night at the Crossroads is defined by its aura of hazy entrapment and immobility for most of its length, A Day in the Country, whilst seemingly far more placidly paced and becalmed than Renoir’s headlong contemporary fables, is actually rendered in a mode of constant, restless motion, conveying the giddy thrill of escaping a city where “there’s not enough oxygen,” as Dufour proclaims, into a land of sun, greenery, and lung-filling freshness. Renoir here offers a shot from the cockpit of the day-trippers’ carriage as they glimpse the restaurant on the roadside and read its signage with agreeable pricing. He attaches his camera to the swings upon which Juliette and Henriette ride, conveying the giddy sensation of being unshackled from the usual bonds of life and gravity. As the film reaches its climax the entire landscape comes alive, grass swaying, reeds thrashing, branches flicking, swing ropes dancing before the camera, the river waters pocked and pummelled by rain, all nature in concert with the thrill of fucking in the bushes.

The river, the road, the railway, all courses that are ultimate symbols and shaper of Renoir dramas. Of course, one day he’d even make a film called The River (1951). Just as the water drives Boudu back to his natural state, Henri wants to flee the threatening encroachment of Paris (“Parisians are like microbes – admit one and you’ll have a colony in weeks.”) by heading upstream, but then the waterway bears the two makeshift couples down towards leafy beds. Henriette is resistant at first to Henri’s suggestions they land on the riverside and take a breather, only for Juliette to gaily float by, gleefully giving herself up to the designs of her self-appointed “Romeo” who then becomes into Pan chasing here around the tree with stick blown like pipes. Henriette lays down in the grass as Henri kisses her and Renoir swoops in for a colossal close-up of the girl’s tear-stained face, a portrait in conflict between social self and natural self, perhaps the ultimate theme of Renoir’s cinema (small wonder he’d go on to do his own take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Testament of Doctor Cordelier, 1959).

Collapsing facades gives way to elemental passion and the world falls into chaos before reshaping itself into the old, placid mould. A postscript scene redefines what we’ve seen, however. However many months or years later, Henri rows downstream alone to visit the scene of “my happiest memories.” He finds Henriette there, lying on the grass with Anatole. She sees Henri and approaches him, and reveals that she too can’t forget that defining day on the river, as it haunts her at night. Now she’s married to Anatole, who’s still a dolt. Henri watches the couple trudge dutifully back to their boat and settles for a sad and solitary cigarette, whilst now, in Renoir’s last, drollest bit of character revelation through action, watches as Henriette now easily and confidently rows herself and her husband, and the river flows quietly on. Passion has had its moment, the rest is mere stuff of persistence, but every good memory is a jewel taken out at night. This conclusion comes as a deft and supple gut-punch after all the sunny drollery, a vision of gentle interpersonal tragedy that, tellingly, enlarges upon the conclusion of Night at the Crossroads as the frustration suggested in the suggestive final framing of Maigret and Else, the eventual return to civilised norms an exercise in self-defeat.

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