1940s, British cinema, Drama, Horror/Eerie, Religious, Thriller

Black Narcissus (1947)

Directors / Screenwriters: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

By Roderick Heath

The incredible string of great films Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced in the 1940s was charged with a quality resembling proof of faith. Throughout the war the films the duo made, from the relatively straightforward rhetorical counterpoints of The 49th Parallel (1941) through to the epic historical and cultural surveys knitted into The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), they fought on just about every conceivable level to articulate what about their society was worthwhile and worth fighting for, counting small, individual experiences and epiphanies, even perversities, just as worthy expressions of that worthiness as ancient buildings and grand principles, in contrast to the pulverising fantasies of totalitarian projects. Powell and Pressburger, who had formed their legendary The Archers production outfit and begun officially collaborating as directing partners on One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), got in trouble with Winston Churchill for portraying a decent German and also acknowledging the dark side of certain aspects of English history in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, as well as finding a shocking level of sympathy for their outmoded and old-fashioned hero. To them, Clive Wynne-Candy’s ridiculous and antiquated streak was the essence of everything worth defending about their world.

Both the cost and necessities of fighting the war with Nazism, and the aesthetic dynamism and textured humanism The Archers packed into their movies in this face were created as and intended to serve as cultural arguments. After the war, Powell and Pressburger inevitably wrestled with the question of what all that grim and sadomasochistic commitment had cost, but through distorting lenses: Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes (1948) presented female protagonists who give themselves up to lives of extraordinary dedication only to run into problems of distracting passion on the way to facing a crack-up. Powell himself came close to identifying the peculiar motive inherent in the two films when he noted of The Red Shoes’ success that after years of being told to go out and die for democracy, that film told people to go out and die for art: the only coherent answer to years of dedication to war was to dedicate equally to the passions of peace. The Small Back Room (1949) finally dealt more directly with the war experienced as existential exhaustion, a last way-station before the 1950s began and the Archers hit bumpy road in trying to understand a very different zeitgeist start with the vastly underrated Gone To Earth (1950).

Black Narcissus is far more than just a metaphor for post-war psychic and moral fatigue, of course. The basis was a book by Rumer Godden, a dance teacher and novelist born in Sussex but who had spent most of her life in India. Her books often contended with the uneasy meeting of east and west in the physical space of India, a space teeming with sensual potency. Black Narcissus, her first bestseller, handed Powell and Pressburger a lucid metaphor for the great moment of dismantling of Empire just beginning for Britain, and a mythopoeic account of a battle between the sacred and profaning urges, as well as simply purveying a vivid human drama. Most revealing: the essential humanity Powell and Pressburger celebrated in their wartime films here begins rebelling, not consciously or controllably but in process that begins as termiting and concludes with another matter of life and death. Black Narcissus commences with a scene that can be read as a lampoon of the kind of war movies where a team of talents is assembled for a dangerous mission in enemy territory: Powell and Pressburger even punctiliously note the location with an onscreen title as in many such movies, with the Reverend Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts) of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary in Calcutta calling in Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) to give her mission and assigning her a team comprised of different strengths to back her up.

Such assets are notably different to wartime heroes, of course: Dorothea surveys the nuns in the convent dining hall and apportions members of the team according precepts including strength, in the hale and hearty Sister Briony (Judith Furse), popularity in the good-humoured Sister Blanche (Jenny Laird), called Sister Honey by her fellows, and a green thumb in Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), ingenious and stoic cultivator. The Reverend Mother also assigns to her retinue Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), absent from the dining table, to Clodagh’s immediate protest that “she’s ill,” but the Reverend Mother wants Ruth included not to benefit the team but be benefited from being on it, noting “She badly wants importance.” The Reverend Mother readily tells Clodagh that she doesn’t think she’s ready for the job she’s been given, seemingly by other powers in the Church, and advises her, “The superior of all is a servant of all.” The seeds for the failure of the mission are sowed right at the outset. Clodagh senses being saddled with Ruth is a mistake and the Reverend Mother correctly senses Clodagh does not yet have the skills for nurturing required to head off such an end.

The actual assignment Clodagh must fulfil is to head to the principality of Mopu, situated at the edge of the Himalayas’ highest regions, and set up a convent to be called St Faith’s in a building donated by General Toda Rai (Carl Esmond), ruler of the locale. The building, the Palace of Mopu, was built specifically by the General’s father as a home for his concubines, long since cleared out leaving the palace a draft-scored husk cared for by Angu Ayah (May Hallatt), a crone who longs for the return of the old, sensual thrills of the past, and is instead dismayed to be obliged to help the nuns set up their convent, which the General wants installed so the nuns can offer schooling and medicine to his citizens. Some monks, Clodagh learns quickly enough, previously tried the same thing and fled. The General, his English expatriate agent Mr Dean (David Farrar), and the bellyaching Ayah prepare for the nun’s arrival, with the General announcing with businesslike simplicity when Ayah demands to know what to feed them as he points to some crates he’s had brought in for the purpose: “Sausages…Europeans eat sausages wherever they go.” The cultural joke here is also an ever so faintly phallic one, rhyming with all the ripe and pulchritudinous figures painted on the walls of the palace, decorating halls and corridors where the incessant wind, gusting from the vivid white shoulders of the great neighbouring mountain called The Bare Goddess, stirs the old curtains and the dust, and the air never settles in a semblance of tranquillity.

Powell and Pressburger’s penchant for unusual rhythms of storytelling and discursive narrative gestures evinces itself early on as Clodagh’s reading of Dean’s explanatory letter to the Reverend Mother becomes narration and the hot, ordered confines of her office gives way to conjured visions of Mopu, its people, and the palace itself where Ayah stalks alone save for the many caged birds she keeps and mimics, a sort of devolved version of the harem she used to oversee. Clodagh’s mission immediately feels haunted by the looming presence of the palace, its environs, and the people connected to it. The soaring ice-clad peak opposite and the deep green folds of the valley are glimpsed, the interior of the palace with its empty halls: place is imbued with the boding knowledge of a person. Dean himself is also characterised through the wording of his letter as well as the intonations of Farrar’s voiceover: “It’s not the first time he has had such ideas,” he says of the General, hinting at his wry and cynical awareness, as well as a touch of poetic insight, saying of Ayah that “she lives there alone with the ghosts of bygone days.” The ghosts are loaned voice by Ayah’s caged birds chanting her name. Dean’s sociology is minimal but contains hints of his worldly perspective and promise-shading-into-warning for the approaching do-gooders: “The men are men. The women are women. The children, children.” Only after this conjured survey does the film return to the Reverend Mother and Clodagh as they begin selecting her team.

The nuns the Reverend Mother gives Clodagh form a collection of traits that could be said to symbolise the ideal balance of traits in her own personality, even Ruth with her need for importance, with the Reverend Mother advising Clodagh to “spare her some of your own.” It’s signalled here that Ruth is Clodagh’s dark side, her daemon, the side of herself still tormented by earthly needs. Into the high and rugged place the sisters of St Faith’s march with confidence: Clodagh with her clipboard instantly becomes the eminent cliché of a British tendency to take charge and put things in order regardless of whether they want to be. She immediately finds the landscape replete with perturbing phenomena. There’s Mr Dean himself, swanning about in shorts and often bared chest, refusing to bend at all to pious authority but rather making constant, barbed innuendos, as when he comments that “You’ll be doing me a very great favour, teaching the local girls English.” Dean soon brings a young woman named Kanchi (Jean Simmons), a penniless but pretty waif who’s been hanging around his house on the hunt for a husband, to be employed and hopefully segregated from other prospective males until proper match can be made.

There’s also the old and wizened mystic encamped above the palace on a perpetual vigil on levels far beyond the apparent, bastion of an alternative kind of faith both in the scriptural sense as a Hindu and in a more immediate one, offsetting the sisters who belong to an “order of workers,” the ancient schism inherent in religious tendency exposed on several strata. Despite his immobile and apparently disengaged state, the ancient mystic holds an authority over the local people the nuns find intimidating, even, as Dean puts it, worrying the General at all times of day with the feeling he should do the same. Indeed, the swami is his uncle, a former warrior and man of great education, but who has cast off all the affectations of the world and reduced himself to a nerve of metaphysical communion. The mystic continues his unwavering vigil, lending the night something like a benevolent but disinterested consciousness, from the mountain top even as the sudden cessation of the pulse-like drums in the valley indicates that the General’s elder son and heir has died of the fever he’s been suffering from.

This vignette shifts the cultural gravity of the locale, as the General’s second son Dilip Rai (Sabu) now inherits the unofficial but consequential title of “Young General” and is called back from his Cambridge education. The Young General hopes to continue learning with the nuns, and despite her rules and misgivings Clodagh concedes to taking him in. Farrar’s Dean is presented as the male equivalent of a femme fatale from the noir films of the same time, a physically, morally, and mentally provocative being. Dean teases the scruples of the nuns and ultimately provokes, however inadvertently, acts of madness and murder. Dean hasn’t exactly gone native in the old parlance but he does seem to like his life far away from the mores and morals the sisters insistently embody, seemingly a natural and committed pagan if not entirely lacking nostalgic affection for the paraphernalia of Christianity. Immediate provoked by Clodagh’s imperious piety and challenging glare, Dean plays soothsayer of failure (“I’ll give you ‘til the rains break.”) but also starts lending a hand, called out by Philippa when she finds him trying to install plumbing for their much-needed convenience.

Dean’s allure is concrete: he knows the lay of the land, is sufficient in forms of practical enterprise the nuns aren’t, and he seems to feel drawn to help them out through some rarefied sympathy which could also be connected with the definite sparks he strikes with Clodagh from the first, attraction that must register as antipathy because of their polarised identities. “Are you sure there isn’t anything you’re dying to ask me?” Dean questions Clodagh with sly import when he brings Kanchi to her threshold. The arc manifests more agreeably in a flash of shared humour over Briony’s professed but dubious coffee-making talents, lending an almost conspiratorial quality to the reluctant reliance Clodagh must seek from Dean. Later, when Dean is fetched back in a moment crisis despite being coldly chased away on his previous visit, he comes in this time shirtless as if in a deliberately provocative gesture, and Powell and Pressburger allow Ruth to slowly lean into the frame with him with woozily hungry glances at his torso, not that far from a Friz Freleng caricature of lust.

Dean’s willingness to help the nuns and their increasing reliance on him comes to an ugly halt when he turns up to their Christmas mass, lending his hearty baritone to the carols and momentarily giving Clodagh the thrill of seemingly having brought him back into the fold, only for him to prove rather drunk and still full of sardonic comments. Clodagh’s infuriated accosting has a charge of personal offence that seems sourced in her equally double-edged memory from a Christmas of yore, whilst Dean’s affectation of blasé receipt masking a deftly expressed edge of offence and wounding that hint he’s used to such accosting, says much of how Clodagh willingly incarnates despite herself everything he’s fled in the lowlands. His provoking revenge is to start his way down the mountain warbling a bawdy ditty declaring, “No I cannot be a nun! For I am too fond of pleasure!” The setting of Black Narcissus is certainly a predominate character in the drama. Powell and Pressburger, their production designer Alfred Junge, and cinematographer expended all their ingenuity on realising the setting thousands of miles from the actual Himalayas.

Cardiff’s brilliantly diffused lighting helps render the set looking completely real and exterior even as the lushly hued matte paintings create the landscape of Mopu with a flavour of the near-dreamlike, particularly the famously dizzying vantage of the palace campanile, perched right on the edge of a soaring precipice, fervent jungle and sheer rock below: the nuns using this bell as their signal and call to prayer must negotiate with the infinite, the fear and temptation, every time they ring it (honestly, folks, nail on a bloody rail). The cavernous, draft-ridden halls of the palace with the fading glories of royal décor and teasing, ghostly forms of semi-naked women festooning the halls, has a strong touch of the dream like to it, a feeling exacerbated when Powell and Pressburger shoot Simmons’ Kanchi dancing through the halls in a rough draft for the fantasias of space and movement in The Red Shoes.

Powell’s fascination with isolated communities and discreet local cultures predated his partnership with Pressburger, already apparent in some of his early B movies like The Phantom Light (1936) and The Edge of the World (1937), and burgeoned as the war wound down again with I Know Where I’m Going!, where the filmmakers noted that the corners of the British Isles themselves were as foreign and strange to Londoners as India. This was also a natural viewpoint for the transplanted Austrian Pressburger, whose simultaneous romanticisation and observant criticality of his adopted culture intensified Powell’s. Acts of journeying correlate to changes within for characters, naturally. A Canterbury Tale rendered that idea in echoing the Chaucerian theme of pilgrimage ironically rearranged for an age at once more profane and more urgent in its need and seeking. Black Narcissus is in part a revision of I Know Where I’m Going! in again tracking a heroine dedicated to a project journeying to “the back of beyond,” colliding with unexpected attraction, albeit with wry romantic comedy and gentle sublimation into a new way of life swapped out for seething neurosis and cross-cultural incoherence. The sisters of St Faith’s bring in foreign religions, not only Christianity but also scientific, medical, and cultural, strange and exotic and incoherent in themselves without being aware of it.

But the great project of Empire and colonialism rather attempts to resist such correlation: instead it aims to act more like a great act of inoculation, inserting alien DNA into other cultures. The sisters are soon perturbed to learn the great turn-out for their infirmary and school is because the General is paying his citizens to attend, overcoming their disinterest. The General hopes, as Dean spells it out, to make it a ritual or custom for people whose lives tick by according to rhythms entirely imposed by nature in place where one must “either ignore it or give yourself up to it,” a line that doubles as a commentary on the Raj where the ruling English maintained themselves as a transported pocket, unable to countenance adjusting to other values and so expelling them altogether. Soon the sisters are lying awake at night as the cold wind wafts in through the palace windows and their skin breaks out in blotches denoting not disease but a startling and unfamiliar level of purity, as if civilisation is a disease they will expiate from their flesh whether they want to or not. Attempts at meditation and sublimation are soon enough recolonised by their suppressed worldly selves. Philippa shows off the callouses on her hands, worked raw in trying to escape her reveries even as if compelled she plants the palace terraces with riotous alternations of flowers rather than vegetables, a creative and decorative urge bursting out in ignorance of the practical.

Seeds of a poisonous breakdown are meanwhile sown when Ruth dashes into a meeting Clodagh is having with Dean and Briony, her white habit stained red with blood, excitedly reporting that she managed to stop an injured local from bleeding to death after much struggle. Rather than praising her and elevating her struggling sense of self-worth, as the Reverend Mother wanted Clodagh wanted her to, Clodagh angrily retorts that she should have called in the more medically experienced Briony. Clodagh isn’t wrong, but her instinctive sense of what her authority is immediately proves the Reverend Mother’s point about her own unreadiness, reacting more like a bossy, know-it-all older sister to Ruth’s flailing need for validation and pride in achievement and unable to concede that sometimes risks need to be taken to help anyone mature. Dean instead casually spares Ruth a kind word in registering the moment of crucially dashed pride, a flash of recognition that gives Ruth’s psyche something to cling to, if less like a flowering orchid than a parasitic vine. The attentiveness of the film’s designers registers in the stiff, almost tentlike habits of the nuns, contrasted violently by the red of Dean’s shirt and the mottled gore on Ruth’s habit: the stain of blood is spreading, Dean and Ruth’s moment of sympathy marked by fate.

Not that Clodagh is unwarranted in her testiness with Ruth, whose internal tension and need to feel superior sometimes makes her intolerant and mean-spirited, calling the locals stupid-looking and, after catching a whiff of the Young General’s handkerchief doused with the eponymous scent of Black Narcissus, an exotic fragrance ironically bought from the Army and Navy Store in London, deciding the perfume’s name is apt for the man too. Moments like Clodagh’s connection with Dean over Briony’s bad coffee similarly deny the popular cliché of the surprisingly good-humoured and earthy religious figure, the kind Bing Crosby had just won an Oscar playing in Going My Way (1944). Clodagh’s lack of ease signalled by her incapacity to bend in that direction in any way. Clodagh’s drifts into personal reverie during prayer present biography in fragments mixed with deeply sensual associations, the cold water of a lake she once fished in, the thrilling rush of riding a horse in a fox hunt, the chill of snow and the glow of lantern light on Christmas Eve in singing with carollers.

Clodagh’s memories crowd into her head even as she leads her fellow nuns in prayer in the convent chapel, recollections of such thrills filling in for any hoped-for divine ecstasy. Such memories are connected with her long and finally ill-fated romance with a son of the same clique of landed gentry in Ireland, Con (Shaun Noble), who Dean plainly reminds her of as another lanky, tauntingly ambivalent rooster, a man who chafed at being expected to play prospective lord of the manor rather than make a career in America like his brother. Clodagh’s lips twist up ever so slightly in sardonic awareness as she remembers protesting her desire to live just in the place she comes from forever, and yet here she is.

Black Narcissus nudges aspects of both the haunted house movie and the slasher flick even as it holds itself aloof from any sure genre identity: the film is also a comedy of manners, a romantic melodrama, character study, satire, and parable. I’m often struck by the similarities between Black Narcissus and the Mark Robson-directed, Val Lewton-produced horror film Isle of the Dead (1945). Both films are set in old, isolated buildings where psyches fray and conclude with a maddened woman falling to her death after a bout of homicidal intent, walk a fine line between psychological narrative and entering a more irrational and symbolic zone, and are replete with shared images, atmospherics, and an ingrained subtext contending with the moral fallout of war and awareness of mortality. Hard to know if Powell and Pressburger ever saw the other film, of course, but the similarities are pronounced enough to signal commonalities of thought. Powell had lampooned a certain kind of spooky tale early in his career with The Phantom Light, but also laid down precepts for this film, the fascination with the bastion of mystery and the mystified interloper.

Black Narcissus might also have had a notable influence on horror films that followed it, including the “nunsploitation” subgenre and more deeply on the Hammer Horror aesthetic, and anticipates Powell’s shift in a horror direction for Peeping Tom (1960). Of course, its progeny rank far and wide, echoes in everything from Powell’s former mentor Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) to his generational alumnus David Lean’s globetrotting dramas of searcher heroes flailing amidst social and historical fluxes, and eventual acolyte Martin Scorsese’s entire oeuvre. Black Narcissus initially charts seemingly basic binary entities – man/woman, east/west, sensualism/asceticism, religion/unbeliever, sex/chastity – and tests them until their common roots lie exposed, each reflex, instinct, custom, and construction sourced in twinned relation to its opposite. The ideal of pious, sexless world-love the nuns practice is purposely against nature, that being its very point, and can sour into a kind of narcissism, but obeying nature brings no-one great happiness either.

Cynical as the film trends in regards to virtuous ideals, the film never really stoops to any kind of Buñuel-esque anti-clericism but regards the avatars of religion as merely, painfully human: “Yes, we’re all human aren’t we,” Clodagh comments sadly in response to Dean’s comment, meant as praise, that she’s become moreso since her arrival. Also avoids is any kind of ecumenical openness of religious experience, writing that off as a fantasy ignoring how much religious precepts are grown in native soil. The story ultimately states that no system of belief or practice can successfully deny nature without resulting in schizoid self-destruction, it also allows that it’s also a most human thing to resist descending to a level of insensate and primal appetite to fuck and kill. Such a fate ultimately consumes Ruth, just as she is the mere inversion of the old mystic, who has cleaved himself out of the physical world. Everyone else subsists on the scale on between. The abashed Young General, after his experience with Kanchi, abandons his desire to prove himself a fit citizen of a new era and decides to give himself up to the old order and expectations of his creed: it’s simpler and requires less personal moral and intellectual bravery. He’s not alone. Everyone in the film essentially finishes up foiled on some level, their attempts to transcend themselves failed, finding some comfort in their essential creeds.

The film’s commentary on the clash between eastern and western sensibilities contrasts many such stories of its time in plying the contrast mostly for dry satire and gentle comedy that only slowly shades towards darker, more confronting episodes. Rather than climaxing with some sort of outbreak of war or violence, crisis on this level is precipitated when Briony disregards Dean’s advice and treats a badly sick child who then dies, but despite Dean’s warnings of potential violent consequences this doesn’t result in riot of murder, simply the end of the locals’ trust and interest in the interlopers, leaving them without clientele and students. By the tale’s end it is rather the faultlines within the heads and hearts of the interlopers that results in tragedy. Until that point the film drolly charts incidents like Kanchi’s and the Young General’s initiation into the school, as well as the appointment of an official translator in the form of Joseph Anthony (Eddie Whaley Jr.), son of the General’s cook and one of the few bilingual people bout, a boy who estimates his age as between six and ten. Joseph Anthony’s sly glances around at the vignettes unfolding about him even as he coaches his fellow local urchins in fastidious pronunciation of the names of weapons and flowers, as when he notices Ruth staring down at Dean speaking to Clodagh through a lattice from the schoolroom, anoint him as young but quick-study incarnation of artistic observation and subversive intent.

The film’s anti-generic form contributes to what might be its only real fault, that it sometimes threatens to dissolve into a series of vignettes: it’s chiefly Powell and Pressburger’s overwhelming sense of style that gives it form until the key psychodrama finally erupts. Black Narcissus nods to familiar elements and clichés of the kinds of exotic melodrama popular back in the day, with visions of drum-beating Mopuris in the jungle night (The drums! Don’t they ever stop?!). Even as it takes care to place such things in a steadily evolving sense of context – the drums have a specific cultural and religious function to the Mopuris – they take on a different, more fervent and obsessive meaning for the nuns. We have passed through a veil into a zone where the psyche expands to fill the universe and everything becomes a function of the overheated inner life. The teasing games of erotic sparking and quelling that play out between the nuns and Dean are given their contorted reflection in Kanchi’s furtive attempts to catch the Young General’s eye, whilst the Young General himself taunts Ruth’s nose in the classroom with Black Narcissus.

Sabu’s terrific semi-comic turn as the Young General presents a lad enthusiastic to learn about the world, trotting up to the school with a programme for his education that contains unwitting double entendre and prophecy: “One PM to three PM, French and Russian with the French and Russian sisters, if any; three PM to four PM, physics with the physical sister.” Kanchi volunteers as the physical sister, looming sylph-like over lattices and under desks as the incarnation of enticing pulchritude, true to Dean’s comment that she’s surely heard the folk tale “The Prince and the Beggar Maid” and has the stuff to alchemise legend into reality. Eventually Kanchi and the Young General run away together, an incident which, along with the child’s death and Ruth’s decision to not retake her annual vows, seems to signal the complete collapse of the convent’s efforts. As well as speaking of the breakdown of imperialist projects in the face of different cultural norms and general human nature, there are overtones of satire in the film that might be aimed closer to home: the Old General’s determination to make his citizens care about things like ringworm can be read as a send-up of the post-war positivism and reformism being foisted in Britain and elsewhere, the challenge to old orders and the difficulty in shifting them noted.

Tempting to see autobiographical qualities encoded in the film, too, Powell and Pressburger’s more sarcastic anticipation of Fellini’s harem in (1963), the storage place of every real affair and masturbatory fantasy. Powell was making a film with his ex-wife Kerr, was married to Pamela Brown whom he had left her for, and commenced an affair with Byron during the shoot. The on-screen bevy are all save Kanchi nonetheless defined by their nominal untouchable status, the ever-teasing disparity in the idea of the sexy nun given a self-castigating gloss. Dean makes for an ironic projection for Powell’s masculine self-image, less a playboy despite his affectations of wolfish assuredness and more a kind of unwitting fetish object. “I don’t love anybody!” Dean finally bellows to Ruth when she tries to seduce him, a moment of denial that also feels like an unwitting self-exposure: Dean’s self-sufficient aspect, his air of male independence to the nth degree, is also the ultimate incapacity to give himself to anyone or anything. His sexual detachment gives an ironic dimension to his impersonation of the detached Englishman, subsisting within another culture but never at one with it.

Ruth, who leaves the order and dons a red dress she’s ordered by mail, recreates herself as the antithesis of what she was, playing Hyde to Clodagh’s Jekyll, and conceives of them both engaged in a war, at first psychic but eventually quite mortal, to possess Dean. Ruth’s rebellion against the army she belongs to and enterprise she represents results is ultimately self-defeating, but at least it most definitely is rebellion. Black Narcissus embraces its lexicon of religious images and concepts even as it tests them to the limit, eventually playing out as a no-holds-barred battle of the assailed sacred and the consuming profane. Much of Black Narcissus’ still-potent appeal for film lovers lies as much or more in sheer, lustrous quality as a piece of visual filmmaking as well as its dramatic richness. Movies had made great and artistically worthy use of Technicolor before Black Narcissus of course, but Cardiff’s work on the film might well have been the first work in the medium to prove a film shot in colour could be richly, subtly textured and flexible in expressive palette in the same way great black-and-white photography could.

Cardiff manages to create a style that matches Powell and Pressburger’s unique ability to be realistic and stylised, palpable and fairy tale-like all at once. The shooting style bears the imprint of Expressionism, particularly in the film’s last third as the visuals become increasingly shadow-riddled and split into multiple hues and shades of light and colour, the far mountains, sky and cloud in shades of blue and white, the crystalline amber hues of light from lamps and fires, and the slow spread of infernal reds, betrays an aesthetic sensibility created with unique care. One shot of the lantern-carrying nuns congregating in the forecourt of the convent after trying and failing to track down Ruth is particularly great, their lights jiggling and casting pale light of fire on the cobbles, recalls academic-mythological paintings of the Pleiades searching for their missing sister, whilst also evoking the metaphysical and psychological struggle before them, trying to keep the lamps of their faith alight in a vast and crushing night.

Dean singing his bawdy, calculatedly insulting song as he departs the Christmas mass is filmed sarcastically as a most perfect Christmas scene, a man on a mule lit in a precious lantern field, moving slowly down through a snow-caked landscape. Ultimately the camera zeroes in on sections of Byron’s physiognomy as Ruth’s lunacy hatches out and her identity fragments even as her body becomes ritualistically exalted. Close-ups of Ruth as she first challenges Clodagh see the lower half of her face in shadow whilst her eyes blare out with feral pleasure. Later, she delivers another calculated insult and repudiation to Clodagh by making her watch as she daubs her lips in red lipstick, an act that Ruth seems to think is an act of war and defiance but instead sees what’s left of her personality subsumed by the daemonic impulse. Finally Ruth’s mad, red-rimmed eyes fill frames, blazing out from the shadows at her objects of lust and hatred, reducing her from person to a kind of malevolent entity inhabiting the convent, flitting up steps as a shadowy, barely-glimpsed wraith.

Ruth’s venture through the jungle to reach Dean’s house becomes its own, brief waltz through a Freudian id-zone, guttural sounds possibly from tigers echoing through the bamboo. Still time for some observational fillips, as Ruth pauses to don thick and sturdy hide boots that somewhat despoil the image she tries to present, at once the ardently desirous mate and the red-draped, fire-lipped succubus. The war of gazes reaches a climax where at last the camera takes on Ruth’s point of view as Ruth chants Clodagh’s name in fury and the screen is literally flushed crimson as Ruth sees red. Ruth’s show of clenched calm after fainting before Dean is more alarming than her brittle hysterics, and sure enough when she climbs back up to the convent she assaults Clodagh as she rings the bell for morning prayers. Ruth’s savagery extends to not just trying to push Clodagh off the cliff’s edge but picking her fingers off the bell rope to which she desperately clings. Clodagh’s will to live drives her to regain footing even as Ruth unbalances and falls into oblivion, Clodagh’s horrified gaze driving down into the shadows, before the film resumes an indirect method and Ruth’s striking the valley floor far below is signalled by the flapping of some alarmed birds and the cessation of the thundering drums.

As a climax this more than fulfils the essential requirements of the film’s many levels of narrative, good and evil in a deadly grapple, the segments of a psychotic culture trying desperately to find resolve, and the sorry sight of a priggish but essentially decent woman fighting a victim of mental illness for her life. The melancholy of the coda scenes, as Clodagh encounters the chastened Young General and then Dean as she departs expecting demotion and ignominy, becomes a reckoning with lost illusions and cruel tutelage, even as the tacit connection between her and Dean finally achieves something close to authentic mutual understanding and sympathy. Clodagh charges Dean with the responsibility of tending Ruth’s grave and gives him her hand as a final gesture of affection. Dean’s sad and salutary gaze after Clodagh as she and her escorts vanish into the curtains of rain just starting to fall evokes an extraordinary pathos, Dean finally learning to miss something but also left with a kind of treasure in his hand, evidence that once something and someone meant something to him. And that’s ultimately the deepest and most resonant theme in Black Narcissus as it takes stock of the inevitable age of disillusionment after the one of mortal struggle and contemplates a new era where the old structures will be dismantled. Some lessons are not just hard but truly wounding, but whatever is left after them can be called the truth.

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

Dirty Harry (1971)

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Director: Don Siegel
Screenwriters: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, Dean Riesner, Terrence Malick (uncredited), John Milius (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Fifty years since the film’s release, the opening moments of Dirty Harry still pack a wallop, a potent aesthetic unit promising cruel and jagged thrills. Director Don Siegel surveys the names of policemen killed in the line of duty carved on a memorial are scanned as church bells chime on the soundtrack with an insistently ethereal overtone, before fading to a shot of a rifle in a man’s grasp, barrel and silencer looming huge and deadly, death from above rendered intimate and literal. A lovely young woman (Diana Davidson) is glimpsed diving into a swimming pool on the roof of a San Francisco skyscraper to swim a few laps. The man with the gun is watching the girl, his telescopic sight zeroing in whilst the camera shot zooms back to confirm the woman’s oblivious link to the man’s bleak intent, space, distance, and height gripped and distorted by the camera lens and the homicidal purpose of the assassin. Composer Lalo Schifrin’s music, an unsettling blend of skittish, pulsing drum riffs, spacy drones and creepy female vocalisations, weave a paranoid and threatening mood.

The pull towards godlike judgement is irresistible, predestined: the killer pulls the trigger in obedience, his existence only gaining meaning through the erasure of what he’s looking at, the despoiling of what seems to live in the world’s heart. The vantage suddenly becomes more dreadfully intimate, bullet hole exploding in the girl’s back, her hollow, water-sucking breaths heard as she sinks into the brine and black blood spasms in blue water. The thrill of power worked at deistic remove crashes headlong into the immediacy of hideous brutality worked upon a hapless body, death rendered a palpable and awful thing to a degree even Siegel’s former protégé Sam Peckinpah had not yet quite countenanced in his spectacles of bloodshed.

The anointed agent of retribution is swift to appear: Siegel cuts immediately to the entrance of his hero, such as he is, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), called onto the rooftops to survey the carnage of this new foe. Clad in grey suit and sunglasses that look like they might deflect such high-velocity bullets, Harry has the quality of a specially bred tracking animal released from his cage the moment his particular talents are required. Schifrin’s jazz-funk theme tags Harry with a jittery but propulsive metre as he ascends into the neighbouring building and collects his foe’s spoor-like leavings: a discarded shell, a pinned note, items left behind specifically by the killer to announce his coming to the powers that be and tease his inevitable pursuer. Siegel’s long-evinced obsession with landscapes of soaring heights and sprawling flats and their connection to the straits of his characters is immediately in play here. The great sprawl of San Francisco is laid out below as the stadium for the oncoming corrida between cop and killer, the gaze of the camera conjoined with the will to countenance such extremes of moral drama.

The killer calls himself Scorpio, and his letter draws a single, totemic groan of “Jesus” as he reads it pinned to an aerial and comprehends that he’s not dealing with just any old nut. Cut to the city mayor (John Vernon) reading out the letter in his office, unable to read out the racial slur Scorpio uses in the letter as he declares “my next pleasure will be to kill a Catholic Priest or a nigger” if he’s not paid a $100,000 ransom. Scorpio’s declared motive is money but he is also, in modern parlance, a troll, one who delights in assaulting social norms and provoking consensus with acts of calculated despoiling, an iconoclast who seems to care less about being caught than about getting to play his game out to the end. Harry, called into a meeting with the Mayor, the Chief of Police (John Larch), and his superintendent Al Bressler (Harry Guardino), senses such motives instinctively and declares a conviction that playing along with Scorpio is asking for trouble. But the Mayor wants him mollified long enough to set up a surveillance net over the city and get the operation to catch him up and running. Harry’s suggestion, that he find a way to meet him, is dismissed out of hand, and his listless attempts to explain basic police work are cut off by Bressler, more experienced in this sort of thing in offering quick, clipped, impressive-sounding measures to mollify the sternly questioning Mayor.

On his way out the door, the Mayor tells Harry that he doesn’t want any more bad headline-making actions “like we had last year in the Fillmore district”, leading to Harry’s serious if wryly pitched retort that “when a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.” A promissory note for Harry’s way of dealing with clear and present danger. And yet in the next scene, when Harry sits down for a lunchtime hotdog at a downtown diner even as he’s noticed the distinct probability a bank robbery is being committed across the street, his first response is to get the cook to call in other cops and “wait for the cavalry to arrive.” But the peal of alarms tells him he has to go to work. He strides out into the street and barks at one of the emerging robbers to halt through a mouth full of chewed hotdog. Rather than desist of course the robber fires at Harry, who brings his signature weapon, a massive Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, to bear and takes out the thieves with a precision that isn’t quite surgical, given their getaway car crashes into fire hydrant and topples a florist stand. Only after the battle is over does Harry glance down and notice the shotgun pellet wounds riddling his leg. Seeing one robber (Albert Popwell) is only wounded and seems to be contemplating grabbing his gun, Harry advances on him and gives a well-polished speech of challenge just about every movie lover know by rote.

Harry Callahan is immediately inscribed as a near-mythical figure, armoured knight or western gunslinger transposed into the contemporary scene, his Magnum his Excalibur capable of extraordinary feats. Or is it less Excalibur and more Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer, the cursed sword of the equally antiheroic Elric, feeding on souls and entrapping its wielder ever more deeply the more he uses it for however righteous ends? What’s particularly interesting about this scene, aside from how it gives the audience true introduction to Harry’s prowess under fire and his ritualistic dominance of his felled opponents, is the way he’s also characterised as a working stiff, trying to avoid being pulled into a gunfight during his lunch, lacking any gung-ho drive to put himself in harm’s way but committing fully once obliged. Treated by a police surgeon Steve (Marc Hertsens) who sets about plucking the shot from his leg, Harry insists on removing his pricey trousers rather than let the doctor cut them off: “For $29.50, let it hurt.” This touch serves a nimble game in the way Harry is characterised, allowing him to be a reasonably well-dressed hero but also one for whom it comes with a hole in his bank balance. There’s also the first hint dropped regarding Harry’s loss of his wife, as Steve unthinkingly tells Harry to get his wife to check his wounds, before remembering and apologising.

Whilst taking over a mythic role in his social function and a movie part designed to transpose the cinematic persona he was carrying over from his roles for Sergio Leone, Eastwood-as-Harry himself stands at a remove from the stony titans of the wastes he played in those films, forced to operate in the real world. Harry soon finds himself presented with an encumbrance to his usual preferred way of working, when he’s assigned a Latino partner newly promoted, Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni). Dirty Harry has long been a loaded film to contemplate despite being a popular classic and a foundational work of modern Hollywood film style. The film didn’t invent the figure of the cop driven by his own peculiar motives to play a rough game by his own rules, which had precursors in movies like Beast of the City (1932) and The Big Heat (1953), and some of Siegel’s own earlier works, whilst of course also anatomising a couple of millennia’s worth of duellist dramas going back The Iliad. But Dirty Harry certainly drew up a fresh blueprint for use in infinite variations over the next few decades in movies and TV shows.

Siegel’s film can count movies as disparate as Death Wish (1974), Assault on Precinct 13, Taxi Driver (both 1976), Lethal Weapon, Robocop (both 1987), Die Hard (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Se7en (1996) amongst its errant and quarrelsome children. Michael Mann’s films owe a vast amount to Siegel’s imprint. Even the concept of Batman and The Joker offered in Batman (1989) and doubled-down on in The Dark Knight (2008) as glowering vigilante versus mocking anarchist owe everything to Harry and Scorpio: Andy Robinson’s clownish leer and crazed laugh already trend very Joker-like. Siegel expected a lashing from liberal critics and viewers and got it at a moment in a time when, amidst the wane of the Counterculture moment which he and Eastwood had parodied on their earlier collaboration Coogan’s Bluff (1968), a reactionary spasm was manifesting. Concerns over street crime and social breakdown and the possible necessity, even desirability of vigilante action were on the boil and questions about police ethics and limitations were being vigorously debated from all corners just as they are today. Dirty Harry is still often caricatured as a fascist-vigilante mission statement. Still, moviegoers embraced the film to such a degree Eastwood was finally, firmly established as a major Hollywood star, and he returned to the title role four times.

Whilst both films owed much to the success of Bullitt (1968), a movie that did for the modern detective what James Bond did for spies in crystallising the idea of a cool cop, Dirty Harry and its slightly more reputable and thus Oscar-garlanded companion The French Connection gave the cop drama a hard, grim, violent gloss and reinstalled it as a vehicle of gritty entertainment in pop culture. The film had immediate real-life roots in the mythos of the conspicuously uncaught Zodiac Killer’s reign of terror over San Francisco in the late 1960s (and like Bullitt drew on real-life detective Dave Toschi as a model), although analogue Scorpio has a rather different modus operandi, and a few other murder cases were drawn on too. The film’s complex development saw the script, initially penned by husband-and-wife screenwriting team Harold and Rita Fink and then given rewrites by a credited Dean Riesner, a very experienced writer for TV westerns (and former child actor), and uncredited young talents Terrence Malick and John Milius. Milius, as well as introducing the totemic sense of gun lore, took Akira Kurosawa’s crime movies like Stray Dog (1949) as a model in defining Harry as an isolated man and doppelganger to the killer he’s chasing, whilst Malick’s take was used as the basis for the first sequel, Magnum Force (1973). A battery of major stars turned down the role, and in the end it was Eastwood who took on the project with his own fledgling production company Malpaso.

Eastwood had since The Good The Bad and The Ugly (1966) been looking for the right vehicle to cement the stardom he gained in Spaghetti Westerns as legitimate in the Hollywood sense, and after a couple of straight Westerns including Siegel’s turn to the Italianate with Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970) and the ill-advised turn to musical comedy in Paint Your Wagon (1969). Dirty Harry finally presented him the ideal chance to graft his squinty, taciturn gunslinger act onto a contemporary scene, and the much-mimicked familiarity of the character’s various catchphrases – “You’ve got to ask yourself one question – ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya punk?”, later giving way to the pithier “Go ahead, make my day,” from Sudden Impact (1983) – depend on the near-symbiotic perception of Eastwood’s presence in the role and the role itself. And yet there’s an offbeat quality to Eastwood performance despite its seeming familiarity. Eastwood never plays Harry as particularly physically dominant or cocksure, often seeming a beat or two out of alignment with the world around him, as if tired and wired all at once. His clenched, oddly undulating drawl conveys hints of ennui and contempt as well as the struggle he has day in and day out keeping his behaviour and reactions on an even keel.

More crucially, Siegel, who began his career as a studio artisan prized for his montage work and had to fight to be given a shot at directing, Siegel, whose feature directing career had nearly ground to a halt in the mid-1960s like many other Old Hollywood talents, confirmed his comeback after auteurist-minded critics had kept candles burning for him with a movie that looked and sounding almost super-modern. Siegel had been wrestling with his ambivalent feelings about justice and policing since his debut feature The Verdict (1946). That film set in play many ideas and images repeated in Dirty Harry, from the opening bell chimes to the soaring vantages and the central figure of a policeman who commits to his own ideal of justice. Siegel returned to the theme later of a cop battling political pressure as well as some of the same imagery in Edge of Eternity (1959). Siegel’s temperamental drift towards film noir and thrillers saw him often offering criminals and ne’er-do-wells as protagonists as often as cops and traditional hero figures.

Siegel’s natural sympathy for outsiders fighting for their lives and identities could be applied to victimised innocents like the luckless humans of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the Native American foundling-turned-avenger of Flaming Star (1960), and the doomed proto-beatnik soldier of Hell Is For Heroes (1962), through to brutal and destructive and but existentially beleaguered criminals as in films like Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Private Hell 36 (1954), Baby Face Nelson (1957), The Lineup (1958), and The Killers (1964). Siegel’s immediate acolytes included Eastwood, Peckinpah, and Ida Lupino who co-wrote and starred in Private Hell 36, and just about everyone to take on a modern cop and urban action movie lies under his influence. Dirty Harry allowed Siegel to set up these two essential types of character in direct warfare and played at extremes, Scorpio’s truly anarchic spirit and Harry’s increasingly maniacal response operating as schismatic halves of the same personality, Siegel’s own. Siegel had displayed with Two Mules For Sister Sara readiness to draw on the Italian Western template, and Dirty Harry, like the same year’s Klute, suggests the influence of Italian giallo film also creeping into Hollywood, Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) in particular, what with Siegel’s emphasis on voyeurisitic points of view matched to Schifrin’s score which betrays evident similarities to Ennio Morricone’s for Argento with the eerie female vocals and outbreaks of dissonant jazz.

At the same time, Siegel’s own stylistics were cutting-edge for the time, working with his great cinematographer Bruce Surtees in utilising inventive and sweeping use of wide-angle lenses to distort space and invert relationships, particularly evident in the opening shots of Scorpio and his vantage, the use of much handheld camerawork, and allowing the usually hard-edged texture of Hollywood cinematography to dissolve into semi-abstraction in the use of ambient light and long zoom and telephoto lens shots. As he had already done in The Lineup, Siegel uses the very geography of San Francisco and its spaghetti sprawl of new highway passes and ramps to present the idea of landscape as a trap as well as a mimeograph for the psychic and moral exigencies of the battle. This is particularly crucial in the climax, where Harry exploits certain knowledge about how to ambush Scorpio, but also propels much of the narrative, including the long central sequence where Scorpio forces Harry to run all over town in his attempt to pay the ransom, in order to make sure he’s not being followed – not counting on Harry and Chico being cleverer in arranging for a radio link – and informs the more sociological dimension of the story. Harry and Chico’s nocturnal excursions become epic journeys through the intestines of a modern American city, encountering lovers, hookers, muggers, gays, and would-be suicides, small fry at swim amidst neon blooming like ocean coral all looking for their own personal oblivion, behaving in ways that would have been kept hidden away just a decade before. Only cops like Harry and Chico have to engage with such a world in a spirit of obligation.

The Mayor’s hope of buying “breathing space” by answering his demand for money with a personal column missive pleading “be patient” proves exactly the wrong move as the smirking Scorpio is seen properly for the first time, tearing up the newspaper page and unpacking his rifle for another killing, this time taking aim at a gay couple having a date in a park. Luckily one of the patrolling helicopters spots him before he can shoot, forcing him to flee. Harry and Chico, patrolling in their car, cruise the district as the sun goes down and Chico spots a man carrying a suitcase the same colour as what Scorpio was carrying: investigating Harry finds it’s not their man and gets beaten up by some neighbourhood brawlers who take him for a peeping tom: Chico intervenes but Harry insists on letting them go, taking it as an occupational hazard. Called in to intervene as a man (Bill Couch) threatens to leap from his death from a rooftop, Harry lifted on a fire hoist and instead of playing placatory with the man provoking him into lashing out so Harry can knock him and bring him back to the ground.

These vignettes flesh out both Harry’s approach to policing and the society around him, trying to portray policing as an unceasing stream of crises unnoticed when they’re resolved but all too loudly wailed about when they don’t, in a world filled with people caught in their own little algorithms of perverse behaviour. Harry’s bemused response to them. “These loonies, they oughta throw a net over the whole bunch of ‘em,” he quips to Chico. But he knows he’s just another one: being attacked as a peeping tom prefigures the later stakeout scene, where Harry finds himself fascinated by the human scenes, Rear Window-like (1954), he spies through windows. Scenes glimpsed include a wife chewing out her husband and a hooker stripping down to her birthday suit and meeting a swinger couple, obliging Harry to comment, “You owe it to yourself to live a little, Harry.” Harry’s isolation, signalled early on in his conversation with Steve, stems from the death of his wife in an accident caused by a drunk driver, a tragic turn Harry later explains with a note of intense world-weariness to Chico’s wife Norma (Lynn Edgington). Earlier in the film, Harry and his long-time colleague and pal Frank De Georgio (John Mitchum), as De Georgio responds to Chico’s question on why they call him ‘Dirty’ Harry by noting that Harry “hates everybody”, listing ethnic epithets for everyone, with Harry rounding out the rollcall with “especially spicks.”

Eastwood might well have been remembering this scene for his own Gran Torino (2008) decades later, with its meditations on how working class culture revolves around the giving and taking of insults as a sort of totem of authenticity and ironic fellowship. In context it serves more as a sort of sarcastic piece of trolling in its own right, mocking expectations of Harry’s (and by implications cops in general) as racist and reactionary assholes, whilst also sketching Harry’s outsider quality: his misanthropy is shtick but his real attitude to society is nebulous even to himself. The guy who “hates everybody” is also the guy who defends everybody on the social ramparts, and the mediating figure who ushers people representing outsider groups – Chico in this film, a female partner in The Enforcer (1976) – into his zone and ethos, and the ultimate fates of such figures underline Harry’s sense of his fate to remain alone. Harry’s relations with the Chief and Brenner, played by the marvellously hangdog Guardino, have their own conversant climate, neither man forced to play the hard-ass boss cliché with him, but rather portrayed as men who have experienced the same moral and psychic exhaustion as Harry but retained something he doesn’t have, for better and worse. “It’s disgusting that a police officer should know how yo use a weapon like that,” Brenner notes queasily as he watches Harry scotch tape a switchblade knife to his leg in case of a close encounter, but it’s a disgusting world.

In the morning after their night-time patrol Harry and Chico are called to the sight of what quickly proves to be another successful Scorpio killing, leaving a black teenager gruesomely killed. On the theory that Scorpio will return to the same building he was spotted on earlier, Harry and Chico set up an armed stakeout to ambush him, resulting in a shootout: Scorpio again manages to flee and kills a cop dashing to intervene. Siegel’s carbolic sense of humour manifests as the two men set up their station under a huge rotating sign spelling out “Jesus Saves” in big neon letters, whilst Scorpio himself is offered a juicy target in the form of a Catholic priest who, as Harry tells Chico, volunteered to be bait. The eruption of violence here, as Scorpio proves armed not with his precise and artful rifle but a machine gun, turns the gunfight into an episode of urban warfare. Scorpio’s next ploy is to kidnap a teenage girl, Ann Mary Deacon, and double his ransom demand for her life, claiming to have buried her alive with a depleting oxygen supply. He rings Harry from public payphones and forces him to crisscross the city becomes an agonising comedy of encounters that underline his journey through the city as an exploration of the night.

Harry is forced to fend off some muggers who attack him a dark tunnel by brandishing his ferocious firearm, is momentarily plunged into despair after some random old codger answers one of Scorpio’s calls before he can get to the phone and Scorpio hangs up, and contends with a young gay man (David Gilliam) he encounters in Mount Davidson Park who mistakenly thinks he’s cruising, a vignette that highlights Harry’s barbed sensibility as essentially acquiescent to such wings of human peculiarity (“If you’re Vice, I’ll kill myself.” “Well, do it at home.”). The park has a colossal, looming crucifix as a monument at its heart, where Harry is ordered to meet Scorpio at last: Scorpio has an appropriately vivid sense of moral irony in forcing Harry to seek out such a symbol as the moral crux of the world only to turn it into an arena of cruelty as Scorpio makes Harry toss aside his gun (“My,” Scorpio drawls, instantly making Freudian links, “That’s a big one.”) before beating him to a pulp whilst announcing he’s going to let the kidnapped girl die, and is only kept from executing Harry by Chico’s timely arrival. Chico is shot in the ensuing battle but Harry manages to stab Scorpio with the secreted switchblade, sending the killer scurrying off with a severe injury and without his ransom money.

The ferocity of this movement strays close to the surreal, with Siegel building to matching low and high angles, from high above on the cross as Scorpio closes in on Harry from behind, and a point-of-view shot from Harry himself looking up the cross’s height; all lit with an edge of garish brightness that transforms a public monument into a manifestation of mockingly unattainable divine grace. The steady whisper-scream build of tension reaching its peak as Siegel briefly cuts away to the near-forgotten Chico dashing to the rescue and the jagged, pain-inducing cut from Harry plunging the knife into Scorpio to the killer’s shrieking mouth yawing in the circle of his balaclava’s mouth hole. Despite the seemingly vast disparity in setting and story, there’s certainly anticipation in all this of Siegel’s deeper drop into the dreamlike and the fetidly neurotic in his previous film and perverse companion piece, The Beguiled. The visual intensity and edge of the surreal returns when Harry, now working with De Georgio, tracks Scorpio to Kezar Stadium because a clinic doctor who stitched up his leg recognised him: as Harry chases the assassin De Georgio turns on the lights that arrest Scorpio midfield, brilliant lights freezing the fugitive mid-field and reversing his and Harry’s role as Harry guns him down and starts jamming his shoe into his wound to extract the location of the kidnapped girl.

This scene is of course endlessly disturbing and frightening but also perhaps the height of Siegel’s career, the queasy close-ups of Harry’s obsessive fury and Scorpio’s pathetic attempts to ward him off, all the more enraging to the cop as the killer keeps on trying to maintain the game of obfuscation and deflection in demanding a lawyer and declaring his rights, giving way to an awesome aerial shot as Siegel’s camera, as if retreating in horror and also with a certain discretion, flies back and up into the night, leaving cop and killer stranded in hell on earth in a moment of gruelling squalor and pain whilst the arena of light about them dissolves into darkness. The raw sturm-und-drang of this vision gives way to its sorry immediate aftermath. Having extracted the girl’s location, Harry watches as her naked, bedraggled corpse is dragged out of a pit in a park overlooking Golden Gate Bridge, Harry silhouetted against the sickly dawn light and looking across the bridge in utter solitude, failed in his mission and debased as a man even if he still thinks he’s done the right thing. It’s one of the saddest and most poetic shots in cinema, with Schifrin’s eerie scoring fitting the imagery perfectly.

Harry’s mission to catch Scorpio is defined by the desperate attempt to define that sliver of difference between him and the killer: he might do terrible things but at least has a force majeure motive to claim. Harry works for a society and a motive he believes in but feels increasingly frustrated by its niceties; Scorpio wages war on the same society and uses those niceties against it with calculated will. The film’s sequels set out to shade and moderate some of Harry’s characteristics and build on his more positive and complex ones. Magnum Force set Harry in deadly conflict with a gang of genuine, organised vigilante cops. The Enforcer had him forging respect and amity with his new female partner and finding unusual common ground with a black revolutionary. Sudden Impact saw him romancing a woman engaged in a vendetta wiping out the men who raped her. The Dead Pool (1987), a goofy and very ‘80s retread, sported a vignette where he tried to find a non-violent and non-indulgent solution to a hooligan trying to play to television cameras. Such variations on a theme were worked whilst maintaining Harry’s badass quotient, and they helped make the Dirty Harry series oddly engaging on a human level although they never risked going as far as French Connection II (1974) in deconstructing their prickly cop lead, and the price paid for such shading was Harry changed from a proper antihero into something more safe and familiar. Unforgiven, the film often interpreted as Eastwood’s mea culpa for his violent movie past, really actually exists on a continuum of provocation and questioning in his career leading back to Dirty Harry.

Harry’s subsequent, bruising encounters with legal authority, represented by District Attorney Rothko (Josef Sommer), sees the detective gobsmacked by the DA’s harsh upbraiding and refusal to prosecute the case against Scorpio because Harry’s actions have tainted the evidence. This scene is the crux of the film in one regard as an angry portrait of legal bullshit getting in the road of putting away an obvious malefactor, and its most facetious, for a cop of Harry’s experience would certainly not be so surprised at Rothko’s points. That said, it’s not so bluntly one-eyed as it’s often painted, as both sides are at least allowed to sound with duelling notes of righteous anger: “What about Ann Mary Deacon, what about her?” Harry questions at maximum growl-slur, “Who speaks for her?” “The District Attorney’s office, if you’ll let us,” Rothko retorts. Of course, the film weights the apparent morality in its hero’s favour because the audience understands what a monster Scorpio is and is obliged to agree with Harry’s verdicts. But this identification is double-edged, as Harry does some despicable and dangerous things that go far beyond the pale but also implicate the viewer: if you were in the same situation and felt the same level of personal and professional responsibility, Siegel ultimately states, you’d act the same way.

Perhaps, for Siegel, it’s a quality lying at the innermost core of being human, the eternal tension between animalistic will and evolved conscience, and beneath the deep underlying root where the two fuse into a base instinct for violence that can provoke and be provoked, a problem the very concept of justice attempts to reconcile. Scorpio uses crime to make himself godlike, and forces Harry in turn to embrace the brutish. Harry’s battles with authority are his inner battles with his own superego, the side of him that knows well what’s right and proper but can’t avoid playing the game by Scorpio’s rules, even as the gamester villain changes the rules when it suits him. Meanwhile Harry, happy to have Chico carry on as his partner once he recovers from his wounds, instead has to deal with Chico’s admission that he intends to leave the force, a decision Harry tells Norma is the right one for them as the two have a moment of quiet reflection on their mutual torments, Harry telling the story of his wife’s death and Norma meditating bitterly on the stream of abuse turned on her husband for being a cop, and asking Harry why he puts up with it, his only comment is “I don’t know. I really don’t.”

The portion of Dirty Harry after Scorpio’s release relieves much of the film’s fixated tension and narrative flow, with Harry reduced to following Scorpio around town, even as the tension resets on a slow burn and the air of malignancy gains new substance. Scorpio thinks up a ploy to fend him off, and plan he takes to the extreme of hiring a Black tough guy (Raymond Johnson) to beat him to a bloody pulp so he can then claim Harry did it and make appeal to the protest crowd. Scorpio provokes the heavy with a racial insult to ensure the beating is particularly convincing, and gets more than he asked for, in a scene laced with grotesque undercurrents, including what seems Scorpio’s perverse delight in in ugly provocations and suffering. Scorpio is a peculiar villain in his lack of any specific identity, presented as a Charles Manson-esque figure in seeming like a renegade from the eternal underclass of human flotsam who has evolved his own crazed philosophy that seems to fit the cynical times. Like Manson, despite his hippie-ish affectations, he’s actually a virulent reactionary, racist, homophobic, and greedy, trying constantly to convert his willingness to give and receive violence into multiple forms of profit, with humiliating policemen like Harry (“Don’t you pass out of me yet, you rotten oinker!”) just as much money in the bank as any ransom cash.

The beating at least gets the result he was hoping for: after telling journalists Harry assaulted him, the cop is forcibly ordered by the Chief to stay well away from Scorpio although there isn’t enough evidence to discipline him, which Harry warns him is exactly what Scorpio wants. Harry is of course right, as Scorpio cleverly attains a gun by assaulting a liquor store owner known for defending his store with his pistol, and uses this to hijack a school bus full of kids on their way home along with their terrified driver (Ruth Kobart), and renews his ransom demand. The film’s maniacal edge resurges as Scorpio forces the trapped children to sing schoolyard songs with increasingly crazed and abusive fervour. Meanwhile Harry finally refuses to be involved in yet another attempt to buy the killer off when the Mayor offers him the task. This time instead, knowing Scorpio is heading for the airport, Harry waits on a railway bridge over the road and leaps upon the roof of the bus as it passes underneath.

Siegel builds to Scorpio’s first glimpse of Harry on the bridge, coming right after Scorpio has freaked out all the kids as the embodiment of a childhood nightmare, as an iconic moment of imminent comeuppance to be delivered by a resurgent and purposeful hero, echoing back to the first sighting of John Wayne in Stagecoach: however tarnished, Harry is finally restored as the heir to the gunslinger tradition, and a few shots later Siegel has Harry walk out of a cloud of swirling dust in reference this time to Eastwood’s famous appearance at the final duel in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Siegel is giving a miniature genre film lesson here as well drawing parallels. The subsequent battle is very restrained by modern action movie standards, as Harry tries to keep his purchase despite speed and Scorpio’s bullets, before he is hurled from the bus roof as the vehicle swerves and crashes to a halt before a rock quarry. Scorpio and Harry have a running gunfight around the quarry, a setting that again underlines the neo-Western feel whilst also encompassing Siegel’s penchant for industrial settings a la Edge of Eternity, before Scorpio snatches up a young boy fishing to use as a human shield.

This time, of course, Harry isn’t to be turned, knowing his foe’s tricks too well, seeming to drop his weapon only to lift it again and knock Scorpio on his ass with a well-aimed shot to the shoulder. That still isn’t the end, as Harry delivers the same challenge to test luck to Scorpio – “Did he fire six shots or only five?” – and Scorpio, being who he is, takes his chance. Which proves his last mistake. Harry’s concluding act of throwing away his Inspector’s star badge is still an ambiguous gesture, one probably inspired by Gary Cooper’s Will Kane doing the same at the end of High Noon (1952). Eastwood was afraid doing it here meant the audience would think Harry was quitting the police force, whilst Siegel argued it was simply a gesture meaning he was throwing away bureaucratic limitations, and Pauline Kael took that further to mean he was becoming a vigilante. Personally, I’ve always found it rhymes with the gesture in High Noon, where Kane, whilst still a dedicated believer in justice, signalled nonetheless in the brusquest manner possible he would no longer be the patsy of a community that did not support him. Harry’s gesture similarly signals the same meaning, only aimed at his superiors.

What is certain about this last shot, zooming out to an on-high remove again as the paltry plop of the star hitting the water is heard and Harry turns and heads back towards the bus with a stiff, grave march, with Schifrin’s gently mournful music on sound, is that the victory brings no particularly great satisfaction because many have died, even if the necessary act of shooting the mad dog is done. The great and perpetual problem is that however much we fantasise at being the upright avenger, the hero on the range, the duellist in the dust, such a solution only ever comes too late, after the crime. And Dirty Harry, whilst delivering on that primal and eternal duel, is ultimately most memorable because it keeps that sorry truth in mind.

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

Dressed To Kill (1980)

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Director/Screenwriter: Brian De Palma

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1960s, Drama, Political, Thriller

Medium Cool (1969)

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Director/Screenwriter: Haskell Wexler

By Roderick Heath

Over fifty years since its release, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool remains one of the great unrepeated feats in cinema. Perhaps that’s a good thing: no-one should expect filmmakers to thrust themselves into the midst of a real, live riot for the sake of art or reportage, as recent events have proven. But Medium Cool is much more than just a unique record of cinema verite happenstance. During the fervour and fractiousness of the late 1960s, many filmmakers felt obliged to try and connect directly with the zeitgeist and get involved, to create movies with a direct connection in method and message with the cultural and political furore of the moment. The Chicago-born Wexler had a long and fruitful career as a much-lauded cinematographer. He initially gained regard for his incisive and palpable black and white shooting on films like Irvin Kershner’s Hoodlum Priest (1961), Elia Kazan’s America, America (1963), Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), for which he won his first Oscar. His textured colour on In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) helped define movie cinematography for the next decade in blending a documentary-like sense of immediacy and utilisation of diverse light sources with a rich and sensitive palette, reinventing glossy Hollywood moviemaking for a new era.

In the 1970s Wexler would win Oscars back to back for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Hal Ashby’s Bound For Glory (1976), and later worked with Terrence Malick, Dennis Hopper, and repeatedly with John Sayles, who had, ironically, signalled himself early in his career as a Wexler acolyte in making his script for the glorious B-movie Alligator (1980) into a sort-of sequel to Medium Cool. Simultaneously, Wexler, an unabashed leftist with an edge of the provocateur, essayed an equally respected career as a director, mostly of documentaries, beginning with his 1963 record of a Freedom Rider excursion, The Bus, winning yet another Oscar for his Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970), and interviewing members of the fugitive Weather Underground for the 1976 film Underground. His only two feature films as director were to be Medium Cool and Latino (1985), a film about US involvement in Nicaragua.

Medium Cool infamously saw Wexler, his crew, and actors staging portions of their movie amidst the Democratic Party’s 1968 National Convention in Chicago. Partly through serendipity and partly through his cultural antennae working at a fine pitch, Wexler was on hand to film the swaggering repression dealt out upon the anti-Vietnam War protestors who had gathered in the city streets by the Chicago police and Illinois National Guard. The event both exemplified and amplified schisms between protestors and authority, factions in the Democrats, and the national and international political dialogue at large, to a degree that still echoes in fundamental ways. Wexler’s immediate inspiration was writer and theorist Marshall McLuhan’s treatise on the emerging age of mass media and television as the new, primary delivery system for it, diagnosing it as a medium that tended to dampen any sense of immediate emotional and social connection: the “medium cool” of the title referred to McLuhan’s description of TV as a cool medium, lacking urgency for all the speed it could deliver news and connection with.

Medium Cool unfolds partly as a traditional dramatic narrative, partly as a documentary, and overall as a kind of thesis statement on the nature of visual media, methods and styles colliding until they form their own integrity, speaking to each-other with their own forms of authenticity. Wexler’s focal point, John Casellis (Robert Forster), is glimpsed at the film’s opening taking footage of a car crash he and his sound man Gus (Peter Bonerz) have chanced upon on the freeway, shooting the bloodied female driver slumped upon the ground whilst the jammed car horn blares out impotent alarm, before returning to their car as John comments in blasé fashion, “Better call an ambulance.” Wexler strikes a note here that’s become a pervasive cliché since, in questioning the motives and engagement of news collectors who seem more dedicated to feeding the beast of the mass-media with marketable images of gore and chaos than to the reality of what’s in front of them, but at the time it surely struck hard as a cold repudiation to the more familiar portrayal of heroic journalists solving public ills in so many Hollywood movies. But the scene is more neutral than it seems in also offering the lot of the reporters as one where they always become witness to tragedy and strangeness that has usually already occurred, recording the visual evidence for posterity with frigid bewilderment.

The film’s title appears over a shot that was something of a signature for Wexler as a cinematographer, an out-of-focus zoom shot of blurred lights, in this case the hazard lamps on the rear of the news crew’s van, redolent of a bleary and abstracted sense of the modern world’s strange textures. This segues into a stark yet mysteriously epic sequence unfolding under the credits as a motorcycle courier takes the film of the crash from the roving new crew back to the TV station for broadcast, traversing the empty streets of early morning Chicago, mapping out the city in a deserted and near-eerie state in pointed contrast to the later scenes of the film as the streets become an amphitheatre of human conflict. Wexler, oddly, stated this sequence was inspired by the otherworldly motorcyclists of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1949), a film which blended mythical concepts with a buried metaphor for the experience of Nazi occupation. Both facets inform Wexler’s quotation in context of his movie: the sense of blurred zones of life and death encouraged by technology as well as the more immediate portrayal of political violence and repression. John and Gus are next glimpsed as party guests as they and other journalists talk with guests, arguing over the vicissitudes of their profession and its impact upon society at large. “All good people deplore problems at a distance,” a black intellectual comments. A producer comments the approach of news programs with their emphasis on fragmentary episodes of calamity excises analysis and understanding out what leads to such events.

Medium Cool dedicates itself in part to portraying precisely what lies behind the climactic images of riot and affray in a manner contradicting this statement about the limitations of TV news, with Wexler utilising all the resources at his command, including both authentic footage of real events, recreation, improvisatory performance and scripted exchanges to present a coherent panorama. Wexler offers footage of the training of the riot responders working with a horde of people hired to stand in for a unruly horde of anarchic hippie protestors. The training session sports a surprising degree of good-humoured satire from the mock-protestors, particularly the man pretending to be Chicago’s then-mayor Richard Daley, who tries to mollify protestors: “I let you use the swimming pool every Fourth of July! We’ve operated the liquor stores at a minimum of profit!”, even as the National Guard file in with fixed but sheathed bayonets and jeeps festooned with barbed wire-clad bumpers, the hard edge of a militarised response to expected unrest revealed with a sense of foreboding. The relative jollity of the preparations and the pleasant and optimistic demeanour of the Robert Kennedy boosters interviewed in the Chicago downtown still bespeaks however a sense of things still working largely as expected.

Kennedy’s assassination is portrayed obliquely as Wexler surveys the functioning steaminess of a large kitchen, evidently supposed to be that of the Ambassador Hotel, as the cooks and staff go about their business whilst Kennedy’s speech is heard on the soundtrack. The door to the kitchen bursts open and a brief tumult is glimpsed, men jostling and TV lights glaring, as Kennedy, team, and media prepare to pass through, just before his killing. Wexler cuts hard to TV equipment already set up for his funeral parade, with John noting with queasy irony how good they’ve gotten since Jack Kennedy’s death at preparing for such events. Wexler’s eliding approach here relies on the audience to grasp the context as well as the unstated mood of dislocation and confusion that follows it, contrasting the infamous TV images of Kennedy’s bloodied form on the kitchen floor. Medium Cool purposefully weaves in a sense of workaday banality with the sense of history careening. Much like the kitchen staff whose activities directly adjoin a violent spasm of history, John and Gus shuffle their way through a variety of momentous events, plodding in mud as they try to capture a Civil Rights demonstration in Washington D.C. (with Jesse Jackson glimpsed amongst the rallying). The electrifying images that form posterity through news and documentary footage, however authentic, are themselves the carefully parsed remnants of events composed largely of milling distraction, confusion, and boredom.

It could be argued that Medium Cool reached back to an older ideal in documentary filmmaking less concerned with recording strict reality than with attempting to offer a panoramic concept of life in a given zone, associated with major practitioners of the form like Dziga Vertov, Robert Flaherty, and John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit, filmmakers who espoused the possibility of finding poetic form and expression in carefully crafted fragments of reality. “Did you know for every man in Washington D.C. there are four-and-a-half women?” Gus notes as he and John ready for another day on the job in covering Kennedy’s funeral, whereupon Wexler works in a Vertov-ish visual gag as he cuts rapidly between four different women filmed on the street and just the legs of one to register the “half.” The scripted and improvised scenes offer connective tissue that tries to present Wexler’s perspective on what he thinks the events he captures mean, which is to a certain extent a repudiation of the general supposition behind much documentary cinema, that it can be and should be a passive and neutral record of fact, whilst also contending with the basic question of what fictionalising means.

Forster rarely had so good a role after making an early mark in films like Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), and he was only slotted into the role after John Cassavetes, who was going to appear under his own name – hence the similarity in the character’s name – dropped out. John makes for an intriguingly astringent avatar for its photographer-author, with Forster embodying the miner at the coalface of the mass-media, playing the interlocutor for reality and image-play. Forster plays John with facets of both intelligence and also a certain bullish, insensate machismo that seems to signal he has working class roots, as if shooting footage for the mass media is in a way not that different to humping around lumps of meat in the stockyards, and also still has a bit of the boxer it’s signalled he once was in his mentality – hit hard, hit fast, don’t let the gore distract you. His distracted fascination in the fancy toys he’s tricked out his apartment with, bringing him into the space age for bachelor pads, has a glint of the deprived child now revelling to it even as he tries to act hard-bitten, one hit why he and Harold eventually strike an accord. Early in the film John has a girlfriend, Ruth (Marianna Hill), who’s a nurse, a relationship that’s barely more than a fuck-buddy partnering and clearly on its last legs. A key scene early in the film sees the couple shacked up in John’s apartment, sexual shenanigans blending with aspects of mutual contempt and spurned need, with Ruth lambasting John with a blend of forced humour and real feeling – “You’re a bastard. Why don’t you admit it?…A rotten, egotistical, selfish, punchy cameraman.” – whilst John listlessly shows off the wonders of his new centrally wired electronic system.

Ruth provokes John’s coldness by hinting it stems from his profession driving him to treat even his own life in the same way, prodding him to remember a scene from the infamous Italian shockumentary Mondo Cane (1963) where turtles deranged by Atomic bomb testing couldn’t find their way to the sea and asks why the filmmakers couldn’t help the animals. “How the hell do I know what they did?” John questions, “Those were Italian cameramen.” The scene resolves with the two chasing each-other naked about the apartment, play-acting a semblance of nature-child frivolity and spontaneity whilst actually sublimating their frustration and aggression. Ruth’s provocation becomes the thread of the whole film as Wexler ponders whether detached observation retains its own dignity or simply frees one from responsibility when faced with urgent truths. Is it the media’s job simply to watch as society stumbles in irradiated and madcap circles or to try and steer it towards a goal? And who gets to decide what goal is worthy? The note of elided reality recurs in a very different context as John, back in Chicago, is drawn into the lives of Eileen Horton (Verna Bloom), a young mother recently moved to the city from the rural South with her young son Harold (Harold Blankmanship), after John spots Harold seemingly about to steal the news wagon’s hubcaps and leaves behind a basket that proves to have one of the pigeons Harold likes to train within. John takes the basket and its charge to Eileen’s home in a crumbling neighbourhood. Both John and Eileen have a crucial relationship with the cultural texture around them, John through his work and Eileen in having lost her husband in Vietnam, a truth she’s been keeping from her son, who thinks his father is still alive. Harold is first glimpsed with a friend riding the L and releasing one of his birds downtown.

The glimpses of Harold, often reminiscing on times spent with his father or on the prowl trying to treat the city as merely another open habitat where he can roam and play, are imbued with a sense of lyricism that cuts across the grain of the urban-sophisticate zone John inhabits, allowing Wexler to take a breath with a languorously dreamy shots of pigeons wheeling across the sky, father and son tramping through rural brush, wildflowers, and mud, and Eileen being immersed in water, recollections charged with a sense of communion with a natural environment and connection with people living nominally on the fringe of the great American life but contrasting the squalor of the Chicago slums Eileen and Harold now subsist in. This sense of contrast also comes invested with a sense of clashing value systems quickly fraying in the harsh glare of the moment. Harold reads a book about pigeon mating habits and remembers his father advising him that a man has to rule his home and must resist all efforts by his wife to take control, whilst Eileen has reveries of attending country church meetings and being baptised. Meanwhile as John and Eileen drift into a relationship John inducts Eileen into the freakish vicissitudes of psychedelic nightlife and contemplate the juddering sense of reality beamed at them through the TV in the corner. John finds himself taking up a fatherly role for Harold to the extent that he can, giving him haircuts and schooling him in working a punching bag.

The intersection of news gathering and social tension, and the no-man’s-land between the blocs of power and claim, is illustrated when John encounters a black taxi driver, Frank McCoy (Sid McCoy) who becomes newsworthy when he hands in a parcel filled with $10,000 in cash that he found in his cab. John and Gus film Frank at the cab company office only to witness Frank being aggressively and provocatively interviewed by a police detective (Edward Croke). Later John talks his boss into letting him go out again to interview Frank at home, feeling his story could provide a rich human interest piece. They arrive in Frank’s black neighbourhood and immediately find the locale simmering with aggression and hostility, and Frank’s apartment is crammed full of local hotheads and radicals furious with him for playing the good citizen for whitey. John and Gus sweat their way through conversations with an air of threat in the air, with one woman claiming to be an actress demanding John film her, and a man intervening to save John from two provocateurs only to demand with equal force acknowledgement for saving his life. The encounter makes a mockery of John’s initial intent to celebrate an act of good citizenship which Frank now regrets, a sop to an ideal of society sustained like a zombie by a corporatized sense of social reportage and all too rudely contradicted by the undercurrent of seething anger of the black community.

Wexler pauses mid-film after this sequence for direct-to-camera speeches and testimonials by black radicals, including one (Felton Perry) who explains how even a seemingly hopeless and pointless act of random violence for a black man in the ghetto can become a brief but transfiguring moment of social and psychological potency. Wexler removes the nominal barrier between viewing of a drama and being spoken at for both journalist and film viewer here, with John finding himself both intimidated but also granted a peculiar shield through representing the intruding vision of the media, a wire connecting him infrastructure of social oppression. With mordant humour as well as cunning dialectic, Wexler cuts to John and Gus filming women being trained in pistol shooting, readying themselves for the great upheaval, with Peter Boyle appearing as the manager of the shooting range who unctuously jests with the newsmen before comparing learning to use a gun to learning to drive a car. The reactionary age is gathering steam, ready to meet protest and upheaval with a bullet, wrapped in bland and conciliatory language. Wexler’s approach here keeps in mind the theories of dialectic montage inherited from Sergei Eisenstein, using his contrasts to construct an intellectual case.

As well as the nods to Cocteau, Vertov, and Eisenstein, Wexler betrays a magpie eye for then-recent fashions in art cinema, particularly the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, quoting his Week-End (1967) in the recurring images of car accidents and blasé gawking and the direct-to-camera addresses that break down the barrier between drama and monologue, political themes and agitprop. Antonioni, too, registers in the early scenes depicting John’s detachment from emotional reality. But Wexler is ultimately a more pragmatic and journalistic talent than such filmmakers, trying to get in close to the moment and capture the fleeting blur of life in motion. Where for Antonioni in Blowup (1966) the image dissolves into ambiguity with a closer look Wexler merely suggests he’s pointing his camera in the wrong direction, wrestling more with the problem of context and the limitations of human awareness and empathy. John works up bardic verbal concision as he explains to Eileen how the whole thing works as the watch a televised memorial for Martin Luther King, the conversion of reality into a carefully shaped and packaged ritual, where even the nominal shame and social criticism – “A lot of experts saying how sick our society is, how sick we all are” – are part and parcel of the ritualised form, offering catharsis without struggle.

The question Wexler asks most obsessively throughout Medium Cool is whether true record through a visual medium retains a terrible isolate power or whether it becomes, however presented, simply an aspect of a stimulus-response mechanism on a par with the many more overt and sophisticated attempts to manipulate it, from the structuring of a TV soap to a mouthwash commercial, that the news itself becomes just another televisual spectacle, and therefore the authentic becomes instead part of a manufactured sense of reality. Or, as McLuhan put it, “The medium is the message.” A couple of years after shooting Medium Cool Wexler commented in Take One on one of his documentaries, Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971), about how people kept telling him that one of the people interviewed, a survivor of political torture, nonetheless came across as insincere on screen, and noted, “Once it’s reduced to a medium like film or tape, we automatically make a theatrical judgment.” His approach on Medium Cool shows he was already aware of this problem, and incidentally finishes up repudiating the core tenets of Neorealism, which famously made use of non-professional actors with the directors carefully manipulating the appearance of reality around them: Wexler instead weaves professional actors into the texture of the everyday reality he’s encountering.

It’s bordering on superfluous to note that the disparity Wexler analyses has only become more urgent in the intervening half-century, leading to our present moment as digital technology threatens to shatter any faith in the image as truth and where many choose to find a paranoid, internet-informed rabbit hole of bunkum more convincing than any other reference point. In the years since more and more value has been heaped upon the ephemeral charge to be located in what can only be called dramatized reality, be it the carefully crafted pseudo-realism of reality television or an increasingly memoirist approach to literature, in a manner completely opposed to, say, the project of modernist literature which was to not necessarily tell “true” stories but actively try and replicate the concept of experience. A crucial pivot in John’s story comes when he chats with one of his fellow station employees, Dede (Christine Bergstrom), and she hints that he’s angered the station management in some fashion by letting another show’s team have some unused footage he took. John, alarmed, forces Dede to explain what she’s alluding to, and she hesitantly tells him that the management has been letting the police and FBI look at the footage taken at protests to identify radicals. John’s fury is palpable as he realises the paranoid signals he’s been receiving on the street have a genuine cause, that he’s been incidentally acting as a surveillance agent for the state: “It’s a wonder more cameras haven’t been smashed.”

Injury quickly follows insult as John learns he’s been sacked for no given reason, dashing between offices seeking explanation with increasingly frantic wrath, experiencing spasms of anger as he stalks up and down blandly functional institutional corridors. Wexler here seems to be tracing the outer edges of a kind of political thriller twist, but little more is made of it – there’s even some signs John might have been sacked more because he’s a pain in the ass rather than because he’s fallen afoul of politically tinted malfeasance. Getting fired doesn’t truly shake John: “Do I look worried?” he asks Eileen as she queries whether he’ll be okay. Time off work actually seems to benefit John in fact as he spends more time with Eileen and Harold. The microcosmic and macrocosmic begin shifting into unexpected and alarming alignment when Harold catches sight of John and his mother kissing passionately after returning from a night out dancing, a sight that at last fractures the fiction that Eileen has sustained with her son. Harold takes off with one of his friends and rides the L into the Chicago downtown, wandering around Grant Park in general obliviousness to the furore that’s being unleashed as the convention begins and the street clashes wind up, first glimpsed in jarring, spasmodic nocturnal footage where bodies flail and lights flare. Realising Harold is missing, Eileen heads into the city after him and finds herself in the midst of the protest. Meanwhile John has landed a job with another news service to film inside the convention hall.

Wexler’s use of pop music of the moment is sparing and smart in turning to what even then were offbeat acts, employing Love’s “Emotions” as a motif throughout with its twanging guitar and march beat, helping generate the film’s hippie-noir, nerve-jangled tone, and utilising several songs by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention to offer deadpan-sardonic counterpoint to the onscreen action. Wexler dubs one of their numbers over footage of another band playing in the nightspot John takes Eileen too, the pleasures of climbing aboard the counterculture bandwagon mocked: “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet / psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.” There’s a great little touch in this scene as Ruth is also glimpsed at the nightspot, dancing close to John as if to both tease him and his new girl whilst also offering a kind of forgiveness. Early in the film John takes Ruth out and they attend a roller derby match where Wexler sarcastically plays the version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” associated with the athletic hijinks of the Harlem Globetrotters over footage of fights breaking out between the players, a sequence that comically promises the oncoming spasm of violence so far mostly contained by the fencing of the derby rink. Later, Wexler employs a recording of “Happy Days Are Here Again” over footage of the convention hall as the delegates celebrate in divorcement from the riot on the streets outside, with hints of ironic recollection of the New Deal consensus emerging from the collective suffering of the Great Depression, the showmanship of democratic ritual contrasted with images of battered and bloodied protestors being treated. Harold has already been glimpsed offering his own incidental satire on political grandstanding as he announces himself to the empty stalls before a bandstand, happy to boom out his name as master of his private universe.

The final reel of Medium Cool is deservedly legendary in the way it captures as readily as any news crew, and surely better, the furore of the Battle of Grant Park as it was later dubbed. Bloom in character wanders amongst and with the protestors, confronted by rows of advancing cops and National Guards, before being caught up in the tumult in the park, climbing over park benches stacked as a rough barricade by the protestors to try and hold off the marauding cops. For a few moments all boundaries between art and life, performance and experience, completely dissolve in the face of events unfolding before the camera. The most famous moment, in which one of Wexler’s crew can be heard crying to him as he films undaunted even as a tear gas shell erupts before him, “Look out Haskell, it’s real!”, is itself at once real and falsified – Wexler had the voice dubbed in to show his own thoughts at the moment. It provides the essential singularity for such a blurring of boundaries, filmmaker suddenly a character in his own film, his own spectacular professionalism both celebrated and highlighted as the ultimate example of the detachment he’s been criticising. Bloom’s costume, a buttercup-yellow dress she chose herself, is a genius touch, exactly the sort of thing a modest country girl like her would be wearing whilst still trying to seem vaguely with-it whilst out on the town, and manages to stand out as vivid before both the dress of the protestors and the uniforms, imbuing her with a strange untouchable distinction amidst the madness, a country wildflower adrift between the madly clashing tides of society.

Wexler patterns his editing here after Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) as he counters the clashing, advancing tides of protestors and cops and soldiers. But there’s a fascinating dynamic wherein the clash of theatre from both sides could well be encouraged and amplified by the presence of cameras to perform for: a cop bellowing “You stinking Commie!” as he picks out a hapless young student to wallop as if auditioning to be John Wayne and the screeching retorts from some of the protestors seem to anoint themselves as tragic actors in their own provoked drama. At one point the protestors are heard crying for a news van that seems to be driving off to come back, for fear that without the media eye the violence might be worse, or remain undocumented. Wexler’s cameras peek around the edges of the bloody theatre, noting the National Guards chatting with onlookers and one solicitously speaking with Bloom as she slips through a cordon, rifle in hand. Wexler films Bloom from a car as she strides down the avenue, passing by marching troops and jeeps as if caught up in some fascist invasion of a Stanley Donen musical. Eileen finally manages to track down John after encountering Gus in the park who then draws John out of the convention by radio, and they head off together in the news wagon to track Harold down, who has already made his way back home and gazes in through the window, forlornly beating on the glass.

A loud bang causes a jolt that causes John to veer off the road and collide with a tree. The cause is vague, perhaps a tyre bursting or perhaps some random shot fired off by some passing loon caught up in the delirium. A jolting twist of fate that nonetheless is not a surprise to the viewer, having heard on the soundtrack a news report that states Eileen dies and John is left in a critical condition moments before it happens. The random tragedy is a fait accompli in the matrix of the media, the cool medium supplanting the anguished event. It could be said Wexler here struggles to place an appropriate cap on his cinematic experiment, groping back towards a hoary brand of dramatic irony with John falling afoul of the same fate as the woman he filmed at the outset contrasting his embrace elsewhere of happenstance. The similar ending of Easy Rider the same year succeeded in representing the jagged psyche of the moment whilst also feeling believably random and cruel, where Wexler seems to be straining to make a point, as he stages a long zoom out before turning to reveal another cameraman who then turns the gaze of his camera on the audience, reality dissolving within the hall of mirrors that is the filmed image, retaining a moment and remaking it into something perpetual yet slippery. Nonetheless it is still an effective ending for its evocation of severance and pathos, with the added irony that John, in finally gaining something that tethers him to real life in its fine grain, also finally risks the danger of that life, the place where the camera is no defence. Another little drama lost amidst the din of history and the cold glare of the lens, blurring into an acknowledgement of falsity that makes reality more real.

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

The Driver (1978)

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Director/Screenwriter: Walter Hill

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1930s, Auteurs, French cinema, Political, Thriller

The Shanghai Drama (1938)

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Le Drame du Shanghaï

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Political, Thriller

Zabriskie Point (1970)

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Film Noir, Scifi, Thriller

The Terminator (1984)

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Director: James Cameron
Screenwriters: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, William Wisher (uncredited: Randall Frakes)

By Roderick Heath

Night. Dark. Ruination. Los Angeles, 2029. Monstrous metallic death machines traversing an apocalyptic landscape of twisted metal and structures, piled skulls crushed under caterpillar tread, laser beams slicing brilliance through the dank night. Darting human figures dodging the blasts. Instantly The Terminator plunges the viewer into a zone imbued with two contradictory impulses, at once ablaze with kinetic immediacy and vibrancy, and also haunted, moody, oneiric. A title card announces “the machines rose from the ashes of nuclear fire” and the battle between them and mankind’s survivors raged for decades, but will be decided in the past, “tonight.” The machinery of the present day – garbage trucks, front-end loaders, diggers – ape and presage the monstrous cast of the futuristic marauders. Spasms of brilliant energy discharge. In the two spots about the city, where the rubbish flits upon mysterious urges and the brickwork glows electric blue, naked men appear amidst a ball of white light. A version of birth rebooted for a new way of conceiving life and death. Two kinds of body disgorged from these pulsing portals, one hulking and glistening with honed perfection, the other curled in a foetal ball, smoking sores and scars on his body like the stigmata of future reckoning. The hulking man surveys Los Angeles’ nighttime sprawl and encounters a trio of punks, mechanically repeating their mocking words before making a clear and direct demand for their clothes. The price for resistance proves hideous.

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James Cameron, the kid from Kapuskasing, Ontario, found the answer to his dualistic mentality in movies. The former student of both Physics and English dropped out of college and educated himself in special effects techniques and wrote stories whilst working as a truck driver. But it wasn’t until he saw Star Wars (1977), announcing an age where his twinned fascination for technology and creative endeavour could find expression, that Cameron properly decided to become a moviemaker. Cameron made a short film about battling robots, Xenogenesis (1978), with some friends. Like many young wannabe filmmakers before him, Cameron got his break with Roger Corman, joining his low-rent studio New World Pictures. He quickly gained a reputation as someone who could get the budget up on screen, working on trash-cult movies like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1978), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Escape from New York (1981), and Galaxy of Terror (1981). Cameron was hired as special effects director on Piranha II: The Spawning in 1981, a sequel to Joe Dante’s darkly witty 1978 film, but the sequel was being produced by Italian schlock maestro Ovidio Assonitis. Assonitis sacked the original director after clashes and Cameron got a field promotion to take command of the shoot, although he too eventually would be fired and the movie patched together by Assonitis.

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The resulting film was dull and silly, although it betrayed hints of Cameron’s sleek visual talent. During a bout of food poisoning Cameron contracted as the production wrapped up, he had a nightmare about robotic torso chasing him about with stabbing protuberances. Cameron turned his dream into a script with the help of writer pals Randall Frakes and William Wisher, and went into a producing partnership with Gale Ann Hurd, Corman’s former assistant. Cameron was determined to direct the project, but he couldn’t get backing from studios around Hollywood. Cameron and Hurd finally gained backing from the British Hemdale Pictures, and made his debut for the tidy sum of just under $7 million. Whilst Cameron went to England to shoot Aliens (1986), The Terminator proved a startling hit, a signature icon of the age of VHS and seed for a franchise that’s produced five sequels to date on top of a TV series, all of highly varying quality. Cameron found epochal success with Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), which anointed him as the all-time box office champion twice in a row, only to be recently, finally dethroned by Avengers: Endgame (2019), a film which to a great extent can be regarded as both a clear descendant and pale imitation of the kind of sci-fi action movie Cameron made king.

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The Terminator’s opening reels betray Cameron’s nascent epic sensibility with the immediate onslaught of potent imagery matched to a script unafraid of thinking big even whilst creatively adapting it to a tight budget, whilst gaining immeasurably from an authentic feel for place. Cameron turns downtown LA into a neo-noir zone splendid in its seamy and desolate hue, where the homeless and wretched litter the streets and cops cruise in their own paranoid battle with mystery in the night. Early scenes of the film parse fragments of information to distinguish the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and their distinct yet fatefully joined missions, as the former casually unleashes terrible violence to get what it wants, whereas Kyle only strips the trousers off a hapless derelict (Stan Yale), and nimbly eludes the cops whose attention he attracts. Reese manages to overpower one cop and bewilders him by demanding to know what year it is, before fleeing within a department story and exiting dressed. Cameron quickly has Reese don a long overcoat to underline his noir hero status whilst arming him with a shotgun he steals from a cop car and readily joining the other night flotsam stalking the LA downtown in the wee hours. Daylight brings the mundane sight of young waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) riding a scooter to the diner where she works with her roommate Ginger (Bess Motta) and tries valiantly to get through days clogged with frenetic work and humiliation.

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Sarah’s name has been rendered totemic without her knowing, as both future visitors have searched the phone book for her name. The Terminator enters a pawn shop and kills the owner (Dick Miller) to obtain his horde of quality guns, before heading on to the home of one Sarah Connor, shooting the woman repeatedly at the front door. Ginger alerts Sarah to the bloodcurdling apparent coincidence when it’s reported on the news. That night, as Ginger prepares for a night in with her boyfriend Matt (Rick Rossovich) Sarah decides to head out on the town but soon becomes convinced she’s being followed as she spies Reese trailing her, she takes refuge in a dance club called the Tech-Noir, and when she learns that a second Sarah Connor has been killed she calls the police, who warn her to stay put. But she also calls Ginger, just as the Terminator has killed her and Matt, and he heads to club. Just at the point where the Terminator is about to shoot Sarah, Reese unleashes his shotgun, filling the Terminator with wounds that should be fatal, but only plant the man on the ground for a few moments. Reese and Sarah flee and Reese explains that the hulking man is a type of cyborg, sent back to kill her to prevent her giving birth to her son John Connor, beloved in the future as the great leader of the human resistance, and Reese was dispatched in pursuit to stop it.

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Whilst relatively limited in comparison to his immense later productions, The Terminator still stands as the Cameron’s best film to date, and, taken with its immediate follow-up Aliens, helped bring something new and galvanising to post-Star Wars sci-fi cinema. Cameron didn’t invent the sci-fi action movie, but he certainly perfected it. The Terminator matches the qualities of the title entity as a lean, precise, utterly driven unit of cinematic expression. Cameron managed something unique in the context of 1980s low-budget genre cinema. That zone was replete with inventive movies that often purveyed a weird and subversive attitude in comparison to the more high-profile releases of the age even whilst mimicking their trends: 1984 offered some strong entries in the same stakes including Repo Man, Trancers, The Philadelphia Experiment, and Night of the Comet, but none have left anything like the same cultural footprint. Perhaps that’s because The Terminator avoided the waggish edge those films had: whilst hardly humourless, The Terminator takes itself and its ideas with deadly seriousness and contours all into a cool, kinetic style, perfect for compelling an audience without yet hearing the call of the bombast and filed-down edges of multiplex fare.

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Cameron established immediately that he knew how to not just set up an interesting and bizarre story but how to keep it moving with headlong force and concision. The name of the Tech-Noir club nods to Cameron’s aesthetic mission statement, in fusing fatalistic thriller intensity with the chitinous sheen and intellectual flickers of sci-fi. Cameron incidentally revealed fetishism for malevolently cool hardware, and his fascination for the mindset of the battle-hardened. Cameron’s confusion in this regard might well have even helped his eventual conquest of the mass audience. Cameron’s initial purpose with The Terminator was to make up for a severe lack he perceived in sci-fi cinema: the lack of a robot movie that summarised the iconic power of the concept that had so often decorated the cover of pulp magazines. The vision of tingling paranoia and evasion amidst a grubby midnight world after the mediating opening title sequence carefully likens the world Reese lands in as a sector of the present day a visitor from a grim future like Reese can recognise and operate within. The glimpses of that future allowed throughout the rest of the film involve much the same game of eluding and pockets of poor and filthy people subsisting as they’re hunted by hostile forces.

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Then there’s the reason behind Reese’s arrival: the artificial intelligence (unnamed in this film, dubbed Skynet in the sequel) that sent the Terminator back into the past for a pinpointed assassination, an entity constructed for defence logistics that suddenly became self-aware and tried to wipe out humanity. The intelligence’s last-ditch plan after being defeated in a long insurgency reveals an amusingly robotic logic that can only perceive in limited terms: Skynet perceives its enemy, John Connor, as a variable to be erased, rather than one nexus for the human will and energy inevitably turned against it. Cameron’s engagement with the post-apocalyptic subgenre strained to remove direct political references, as the artificial intelligence’s intervention subverts the Cold War that had heated up again in the early Reagan era by portraying both the USA and the Soviet Union as the mere incidental arsenals for the machine’s plot: te superpowers’ illusion of control is mere grist for the ghost in the machine. But the portrayal of the results of Skynet unleashing such destruction still kept company with a spasm of bleak and portentous portrayals of such events around the same time in fare like The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984). Reese’s methods involve something like urban guerrilla warfare, ironically looking less acceptably normal than the Terminator itself as he wanders the streets with glazed eyes, filthy pants, and sawed-down weapon tucked under his arm and plastic explosives cooked up with household products in a motel room.

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In concept The Terminator is only a degree removed from a thread of speculative cinema ranging contending with the idea of urban guerrilla warriors from Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973) through to the Mad Max films and variants like Enzo Castellari’s Bronx Warriors films, as well as works tussling with thrillers rooted in post-Vietnam angst like Black Sunday (1977) and First Blood (1982). Cameron had even written a script, eventually much-revised, for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984). Cameron’s fascination with the fallout of the Vietnam War, an aspect still echoing loudly in his work by the time of Avatar, comes into focus here as Reese is offered as a veteran still at war even whilst returned to the ‘normal’ world. Cameron would back it up with Aliens in offering a blunt metaphor for the American grunt’s-eye-view experience of the war, whilst The Terminator leans heavily on time travelling warrior Reese as an analogue for a damaged veteran still carrying on the war on the home front. Such recognisable affinity was given a new charge by Cameron’s exacting technique and careful aesthetic, and well as the edge of his sci-fi conceptualism, suggesting all such conflicts are a trial run for the coming ultimate war. Reese’s experience is also imbued with Holocaust overtones as he displays the identifying tattoo, cast with chilling aptness in bar code, he retains from years in the AI’s disposal camps where survivors like Reese were used like sonderkommandos. Reese recounts how John Connor helped organise the prisoners, break out, and begin their war, leading to a hard-won victory where only Reese’s mission remains the last, strangest fight.

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Cameron’s grasp of time as a fluid and dimensional rather than a purely linear concept helped give the film, and its follow-ups, room to breathe in terms of cause and effect: “One possible future,” Reese tries to explain to Sarah before admitting he doesn’t grasp all the technicalities, implying regardless that the version of the past he’s landed in might not lead back to the same future, but probably will as long as the variables are still in place. That’s why the storyline erects a straightforward paradox as Reese becomes Sarah’s lover and father to her child, the man who will eventually find it necessary to send him back in time. Despite the many heady and imaginative elements fed into it, The Terminator shows Cameron sticking with established formulae when it came to make low-budget genre cinema in that moment. The film freely blends the basic pattern of the slasher style of horror movie with a style of thriller built around car chases and gunfights. Sarah Connor is a standard final girl in many respects, defined by her relative lack of worldly and sexual confidence compared to hot-to-trot Ginger who bangs her boyfriend with her Walkman turned up loud, channels nascent maternal instincts into her pet iguana, and slowly grows from frayed everywoman to resilient survivor. Like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and other slasher monstrosities, the Terminator moves with the steady remorselessness and lack of human register of fate itself, and repeatedly comes to life again for fresh onslaughts after it seems to have been laid low.

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The key difference is that those monsters rely on a supernatural mystique whereas the Terminator is a comparatively rationalised force. The way Cameron employs the slasher killer figuration allows him to exploit its key value – it’s a narrative style cheap and easy to stage and blessed with straightforward velocity – whilst also extending the psychological tension in Reese’s inability to establish his veracity until the Terminator provides proof, by which time it’s too late. Cameron also signalled the slasher mode’s end by pushing it into a new zone that would prove much more difficult to imitate because it required more special effects and makeup input, and audience would seek something more clever and substantial from then on. Schwarzenegger’s cyborg devolves from ultimate specimen of manhood to one losing bits of skin and flesh, slowly revealing the underlying robotic form, until only the mechanical being is left. Cameron also pushed against the grain of the slasher style in situating the drama squarely in an urban world where the forces of authority are ultimately revealed to be just as powerless before the marauding evil, and toying with the underlying moralism of the slasher brand. The Terminator offers a story in which, for a saviour to be born, the heroine must enthusiastically engage in premarital sex. The film toys constantly with imagery of birth and tweaked religious impulses. John Connor’s initials clearly signal his messianic function, and he’s the spawn of a figure that falls from the sky and comes to give Sarah the new gospel.

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Cameron readily admitted to emulating Ridley Scott and George Miller, assimilating the cyber-noir of Blade Runner (1982) and the rollicking ferocity of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). Interestingly, even as Cameron sublimates of Blade Runner’s atmosphere and ideas, he strays closer to Philip K. Dick than Scott’s film did in one crucial aspect: Dick’s original theme was that however close the facsimile of the replicants was to the human, ultimately they remained creatures without souls, without transformative empathy. Another of Cameron’s inspirations, the 1960s anthology TV series The Outer Limits, would eventually prove a thorn in his side. The ever-prickly Harlan Ellison, who had written two notable episodes of the series with similarities to Cameron’s eventual story, “Demon With a Glass Hand” and “Soldier”, would sue Cameron and his studio for plagiarism, a contention that was eventually settled out of court against Cameron’s objections: Ellison received a vague credit. To be sure, the basics of The Terminator do resemble Ellison’s episodes, although a great deal of sci-fi often borrows and remixes ideas in such a fashion, and the way Cameron develops his variations on the same themes proves quite different.

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Another strong antecedent is Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973), with its similar basic plot of a marauding killer android. Crichton’s film presaged The Terminator and some other ‘80s sci-fi-action hybrids in its visual motifs, introducing a post-human viewpoint as the deadly machine stalks its foes utilising point-of-view shots overtly placing us in a post-human way of perceiving the world’s textures. And, of course, the ace in the hole proved to be the casting of the former bodybuilder turned actor Schwarzenegger in the lead role. Schwarzenegger, who had become an odd kind of movie star appearing in the documentary Pumping Iron (1977), had been acting off and on since the late 1960s, and with Conan the Barbarian (1982) was promoted to leading man. Whilst that film had been a fitting vehicle for Schwarzenegger in emphasising a childlike quality within the hulking form, The Terminator went one better in turning all his liabilities as an actor into strengths. Cameron had intended the Terminator to be played by someone like the actor Lance Henriksen with whom he’d worked on Piranha II. The cyborg was supposed to be, after all, an infiltrator, without characteristics that would normally draw the eye.

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Nonetheless he found the entire project gained a new and specific gravity thanks to his star’s presence. Schwarzenegger’s grating Austrian accent, slowed down and levelled in a monotone, became perfectly unified with the character, as in his famous threat/promise to a cop at a duty desk, “I’ll be back,” before driving a car through the front doors. His line deliveries became then chiselled little runes depicting the awkward interaction of a machine mind and human custom, most amusingly illustrated when, trying to ward off a nosy hotel janitor, he punches up a selection of retorts and choose “Fuck you, asshole.” Schwarzenegger’s body meanwhile encapsulated the idea of bristling, unswerving threat and force: where Cameron’s initial concept was to utilise the cognitive dissonance between the form wielding deadly force and its impact, casting Schwarzenegger erased it, as he looked like he might just be able to ram his hand into a man’s chest and rip his heart out. A good deal of the film’s signature mood is illustrated simply by the image of the Terminator cruising the city streets in a stolen cop car, a renegade influence that nonetheless readily adheres to an image of pure authority, face bathed in red and green light, eyes promising cold execution.

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Although he ultimately came out of it with the least lasting credit amongst the major figures of The Terminator, a great deal of the film’s quality is due to Biehn, who perfectly embodies the future warrior, every nerve and muscle in his body honed by decades of brutal warfare and twitching with tormented survival instinct, and yet still retaining a streak of fractured romanticism. Cameron allows him a veritable Proustian streak as he constantly drifts into reveries of the future past, all of them invoking moments of trauma, as when he recalls battling robots monsters only to be trapped inside a toppled and burning truck, but also signalling the things that keep him human, as in the last flashback/forward where he retreats into an underground bunker where fellow survivors persist and settles to dream upon a photo of a lovely woman taken in another world, an image he clearly adores: it is, of course, a photo of Sarah gifted to him by John.

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This sequence is perhaps my favourite in the film as it offers Reese’s memory through a lens of the dreamy remove shading again into nightmare. Cameron evokes Reese’s feeling of peculiar hominess in the grim hovel he shares with other people, a sense of intimate shelter contending with such bleak jokes as a mother and child staring at a TV that proves to house a warming fire and people hinting rats for food. The abode is despoiled when penetrated by a Terminator that cuts loose with a laser canon, Reese’s memories fixating on the glowing red eyes of the murderous cyborg glimpsed through the murk and the photo of Sarah blistering and blazing in the fire. Upon waking, Reese finds that Sarah has dreamt of dogs, the barking sentinels that warn of a Terminator, somehow having shared some portion of his liminal space. Sarah herself is the first of Cameron’s many, celebrated gutsy heroines, although pointedly she doesn’t start as one, complaining that “I can’t even balance my chequebook” in response to the suggestion she’s the mother of the future. Cameron makes the idea of biological function both an ennobling prospect and a cross to bear as Sarah finds herself tethered to this aspect of her female being, whilst Reese, however heroic, serves his function as drone protector and inseminator and then dies, purpose spent.

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The film’s most recent extension, Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) honourably attempted to allow the alternative of a woman not being simply defined by the man she might birth but become a leader in her own right, but whilst this ticked a rhetorical box it spurned the weird force of Cameron’s initial metaphor for maternity itself, considering every woman as the mother of the future, surprisingly little tackled in the sci-fi genre and a major aspect of The Terminator’s nagging novelty: it found a way to make motherhood seem inherently heroic. This ironically essentialist take on gender functions contrasts the mechanical way of assembly lines and the Terminator’s perfectly self-sufficient body that is nonetheless functionless beyond dealing out death, a most perfectly inflated and reductive evocation of a certain ideal of masculinity. The film’s first sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), would stretch Cameron’s thinking further to the point where he offers Sarah a few years down the line as having become Reese, just as wiry and honed and ablaze with terrible, maddening awareness.

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The film’s more earthbound and familiar aspect is provided by an array of supporting characters, most of whom fall victim to the Terminator, including Ginger and Matt. The cops tasked with investigating the spate of Sarah Connor homicides are Traxler (Paul Winfield) and Vukovich (Henriksen), a splendid pair of workaday non-heroes with palates deadened by bad coffee and cigarettes and existential miasma, and the police psychologist Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) who interviews Reese and rejoices in the brilliant complexities of his psychotic delusion. Such men try their best to defend a reality they don’t realise is crumbling, and come supplied with running jokes like Traxler’s lack of interest in Vukovich’s anecdotes. Sarah and Reese are arrested after surviving another battle with the Terminator, with the possibility of alternative explanations for what’s happened presented to Sarah. Just after Silberman leaves the station the Terminator comes crashing in, blasting his way through the small army of police with cold efficiency, including Traxler and Vukovich, whilst Sarah and Reese take the chance to escape custody. The police station slaughter is another of Cameron’s nerveless action sequences, the Terminator’s ruthless brutality and efficiency finally described at full pitch, calmly gunning down cop after cop and shrugging off bullet wounds, hobbling his foes by knocking out the power and then proceeding with his infra-red vision. This scene also incidentally underlines the Terminator’s badass lustre in his complete indifference to adult authority, one clear reason perhaps why so many kids and teens immediately adored it.

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Cameron’s technical expertise certainly helped him in forging momentous images on a budget, his technique incorporating a cunning use of slow motion in the sequence when Reese and the Terminator converge on Sarah in the Tech-Noir. This seems to match the Terminator’s seemingly more distended sense of time and action when seen from his viewpoint. There’s also Cameron’s signature use of filters, particularly steely blues and greys with patches of lancing reds, and the use of plentiful Ridley Scott-style smoke and steam diffusion. Amongst its many precursors, the film The Terminator most resembles in mood and visual palette is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), another work in a zone of urban noir albeit one lacking sci-fi aspects, similarly propelled by the feeling that its characters are akin to the last living survivors of an apocalypse and yet still persist within the stark and alien textures of nocturnal LA. One significant aspect of the film’s identity is Brad Fiedel’s then-cutting edge electronic scoring, with its throbbing, metallic textures, revolving around a main theme at once ominous and plaintively evocative: the scoring feels perfectly of a unit with the film’s underlying struggle between the mechanistic and the emotional, describing all the blasted landscapes and desperate humanity.

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Reese underlines the absolute relentlessness of the Terminator to Sarah, its complete imperviousness to all forms of reason and dissuasion. The film draws its galvanising pace from the depiction of such unswerving programming. When it does grab some effective moments of downtime, islands of peace must be bought with moments of incredible exertion and frenzied survival will. Humans need things the Terminator doesn’t, and only geography and the maintenance of its camouflage limit it. The notion of the robot made to look human was hardly new – it has a clear precursor as far back as Metropolis (1926) – but Cameron’s vivid illustration of his version, in the mangling of the Terminator’s appearance, offered a newly gruesome depiction of the machine within, the grown human apparel discarded through its many battles until revealing shining metal and a glowing red eye, the organic one that covered it plucked out with Biblical readiness when damaged. Such subterfuge becomes unnecessary as the Terminator zeroes in on its prey. “Pain can be controlled,” Reese tells Sarah, a sign that to function in terrible extremes the human must aspire towards a Terminator-like state to survive cruel realities, but limits to all such remove are eventually found. The human urge to vulnerable connection inevitably sees Reese and Sarah have sex in a motel room they retreat to, after Sarah beholds Reese’s body with all its scar tissue and his mind with all its quivering, innocent need.

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Narrative efficiency reasserts itself with cold humour as Sarah calls up her mother to reassure her about her safety and her mother’s voice extracts her location from her, whereupon Cameron shows the other end of the call, panning past signs of violence to find the Terminator on the phone performing an imitation. This lapse sets up the film’s climax as the Terminator arrives at the motel, with Sarah and Reese warned by a barking dog and fleeing just ahead of the cyborg, which pursues them on a motorcycle. Reese tries to fend off their pursuer with his improvised explosives, but is clipped by a bullet, and both chased and chaser crash on a freeway overpass. The Terminator, after being dragged under a semitrailer, commandeers the truck whilst Sarah has to drag away the injured Reese, but Reese manages to blow up the truck with one of his explosives, and the Terminator stumbles out amidst the flames, collapsing as its flesh burns away in blackened flakes. The lovers embrace by the flaming wreckage, only for Cameron to stage his own variation on the famous, carefully framed revival of Michael in Halloween (1978) as the now entirely denuded cyborg skeleton rises from the wreckage and resumes the chase. Cameron’s penchant for nesting surprising new stages in his climaxes had its first and most sensible iteration here, as once again the constant assaults of the Terminator obey its own logic and capacity to the limit, as well as his intelligence on a plotting level which always tries to make the various crises grow out the previous ones. The terrifying difficulty of halting such a foe is illustrated again and again, and the film’s finally tragic aura stems from the accruing certainty that it can’t be stopped without countenancing hard loss.

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Hard loss comes indeed as Sarah and Reese flee within a factory and, desperate to keep the cyborg away from Sarah, Reese gets close enough to stick his last explosive into its armature, blowing it to pieces but getting himself killed, and Sarah badly injured, in the process. Even this still doesn’t stop the monster as the bedraggled torso keeps after Sarah, dragging itself along with one good hand, the organic and mechanical beings now both crippled, mimicking each-other’s motions as they drag themselves across the floor and through the gullet of a hydraulic press, as mutually entrapped as the Coyote and Roadrunner who, at root, they strongly resemble. Sarah’s final destruction of the Terminator by catching it in the press and crushing it is both the end of the narrative and the culmination of Sarah’s evolution, saving herself with warrior grit and kissing off her great enemy with the ultimate reversal of role, “You’re terminated, fucker.” Hardly the birth of the action heroine, but certainly the modern breed’s debutante party. It’s fitting that, after all the thunderous action and surging drama, the coda returns to meditate upon the film’s rarer quality, that aspect of menacing yet yearning genre poetry. Sarah, now travelling the desert in a jeep with a dog for company, is sold the photo that will become Reese’s icon by a Mexican kid, now revealed to be the image of her meditating on Reese himself in an eternal loop of longing and pain. Onwards she drives and vanishes into Mexican mountains, the storm clouds blowing in suggestive of the oncoming apocalyptic threat, one of the great final movie shots.

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The Terminator’s influence still echoes through action and sci-fi cinema, including its own birthed franchise. Following a relative commercial slip with the undersea alien tale The Abyss (1989) Cameron would take up his debut again and reiterate it as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released seven years after the original, this time on a record-breaking budget and riding a wave of hype and expense the likes of which Hollywood had scarcely seen since the days of 1950s widescreen epics. In the meantime the Cold War had ended and the Vietnam-age angst of the original had dwindled. Cameron did his best to intensify the nuclear angst with a punishing vision of LA’s destruction in a dream sequence, but the newly positive mood of the moment was reflected in Cameron’s depiction of his heroes forestalling the rise of Skynet and the destructive war. So Cameron deflected his narrative’s stress points into concepts more rooted in societal observation particularly in describing the feckless lot of the moment’s young folk, as represented by the teenaged John Connor, trapped between disinterested representatives of square society as represented by his dimwit foster parents and a new, ruthless Terminator now disguised as a policeman and entirely subsuming the image of authority, and ruined radicalism as embodied by Sarah, whilst recasting Schwarzenegger’s Terminator from embodiment of brute masculinity to an ironically idealised father figure. The film’s excellence as spectacle, with groundbreaking special effects and tremendous action setpieces couldn’t quite hide the degree to which Cameron often settled for lightly riffing on his original script and recycling a settled template. But taken as a pair the two films remain one of the great diptychs in popular cinema. The rest of the sequels are a matter of taste.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Scifi, Thriller

You Only Live Twice (1967)

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Director: Lewis Gilbert
Screenwriter: Roald Dahl

By Roderick Heath

I vividly recall, when I was a very small boy, the first time I saw You Only Live Twice on television. More specifically, it was the opening scene that sank like a fishhook through my imagination. A NASA Gemini space capsule in orbit, carrying two astronauts. One astronaut, Chris (Norman Jones), starts a spacewalk, only for the trackers on Earth to warn some strange contact is approaching. With John Barry’s score swirling in ominous and ratcheting intensity, Chris sees another spacecraft zeroing in, its nosecone splitting apart like a hungry maw and capturing the Gemini. The closing jaws sever Chris’s lifeline, cutting him adrift as the devouring craft moves off. Director Lewis Gilbert conveys something stark and chilling about the notion of death in space in the way the frantic dialogue of the astronauts and the trackers is suddenly severed and Chris drifts away in silence into the cosmos like so much refuse. Not long after, Pauline Kael accused Stanley Kubrick of trying to inflate this affecting vignette into an entire film with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Such a vivid evocation of space and death as harsh and lonely certainly didn’t sit with the usual, larkishly nasty entertainment value of the James Bond series, which in just five years had become astonishingly successful to the point of reorganising much of popular culture in its own image.

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You Only Live Twice was also the first Bond film I ever saw and the one that made me a lifelong if sometimes hesitant aficionado, deeply fascinating me with its vivid, iconographic style, particularly the opening credits with their evocation of dreamlike romanticism and seething natural force. John Barry and Leslie Bricusse’s great theme song as sung by Nancy Sinatra warbles over Maurice Binder’s visions of naked geishas and boiling volcanic lava, describing a grandly sensual and mysterious world that treads close to subliminal zones, a vision that powerfully infiltrates the often more boyish fantasies glimpsed in the rest of the film. The relatively modest initial hit that was Dr. No (1962) had made Sean Connery synonymous with the lead role and resulted in three follow-ups, From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965), each of which outstripped the last in astonishing popularity and moneyspinning: the margins of profitability on those films would make modern blockbuster producers weep in yearning. By 1967, the Bond marque had to fight for screen space amongst a plethora of other spies and suave action men, and so the series, which was never exactly realistic but certainly had an initially gritty and intimate approach to its thrills, began exchanging that for grander showmanship and a more overt engagement with science fiction. Sci-fi had been percolating in the series since Dr. No’s plot involving rocket toppling, and it persisted in the futuristic edge to Q’s (Desmond Llewellyn) inventions, as well as the supervillains and mysterious cabals borrowed from old serials and Fritz Lang movies.

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To give the instalment some fresh vigour, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman turned from their settled series team. Directors Terence Young and Guy Hamilton had forged the series in aesthetic terms, working with regular screenwriter Richard Maibaum and cinematographer Ted Moore. Hamilton had affixed a glistening pop sheen to Young’s cool jazz template with Goldfinger, but the relatively languid and indulgent style of Thunderball pointed to difficulties the series would have in reconciling a greater and greater push for fan service with propulsive plotting. Trying to up the stakes, You Only Live Twice saw something like the birth of the modern blockbuster as a genre unto itself, melding special effects and action in a delirious blend. Lewis Gilbert, an experienced and robust director used to handling big productions and just coming off a major hit with Alfie (1966), was taken on as director. With Maibaum busy on another project, Roald Dahl, a writer known mostly for his maliciously witty and cunning children’s stories, was commissioned to write the script. Freddie Young, winner of two Oscars for his work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) with David Lean, was hired to give the film a dose of widescreen spectacle. The making of the film proved somewhat fraught, as Connery was getting sick of the role and fearing typecasting, and disliked filming in Japan, leading to his fateful dropping out of the role.

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You Only Live Twice already represented a break for the series beyond the personnel changes, as it was the first entry to more or less compose its own storyline and only borrow basic elements from Ian Fleming’s source novel, abandoning the credibility of the early entries, albeit whilst merely amplifying the tropes of futuristic technology and grandiose conspiracy already established. Dahl, who disliked the Fleming novel he was nominally adapting despite having been a friend of the writer, decided instead to offer a more expansive variation of the plot of Dr. No, and You Only Live Twice would itself be recycled in the Bond series, as The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Fleming’s book, the last he properly completed in his lifetime, was one of his harshest and strangest entries, with Bond sent to Japan on the hunt for Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the leader of the insidious SPECTRE organisation, after Blofeld had killed Bond’s wife Tracy at the end of the preceding novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Blofeld had taken over an old castle on a remote island and amongst his varying projects had turned it into a garden filled with poisonous plants and creatures as a place where rich people could come to kill themselves. Most of the book, including the finale where Bond was left amnesiac in blissful ignorance, was jettisoned, and the order of the novels reversed in filming, leaving only the basic premise of Bond going on a mission to Japan and battling Blofeld in alliance with local spymaster Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba).

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The mysterious spacecraft that swallows the Gemini capsule at the outset has been launched by SPECTRE – the Special Executive for Counter-Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion – from a base secreted within an extinct volcano and carefully hidden from all aerial and satellite surveillance. The USA blames the USSR for taking their craft, but during a heated summit meeting in the ironically frigid climes of Scandinavia where the Americans accuse the Soviets of trying to seize control of space, the British Foreign Secretary (Robin Bailey) reports radar signs the craft responsible returned to Earth around Japan. In Hong Kong, James Bond is currently off assignment and enjoying the fruits of his labour with a local girl (Tsai Chin, best known for playing Fu Manchu’s daughter in the Christopher Lee series), only for her to trap him and let in two machine-gun wielding assassins. When policemen arrive they seem to find Bond dead. Bond is given a burial at sea from the deck of a destroyer in Hong Kong harbour, only for his sail-wrapped body to be collected by two frogmen and brought aboard a submarine, where M (Bernard Lee) and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) wait: Bond’s death has been faked and he’s being spirited to Japan in the most covert fashion to take up the search for the spaceship.

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Dahl’s cruelly mischievous sense of humour and imaginative gift for absurd mechanics, long apparent in his own writing, quietly invaded the Bond style here, meshing with the wistful spiritual overtones suggested by the title and the many games with identity and culture played throughout, to invest the film with a blithely surreal energy. Bond’s once-solid identity is fractured in many pieces to keep pace with the vastly inflated stakes and bizarre new facts in the age of the space race. Dahl’s imprint is particularly obvious in an early run of droll flourishes, like the Hong Kong girl trapping Bond in a spring-loaded Murphy bed, and Bond being put through all the trappings of a naval funeral, before being brought aboard the submarine where M holds court in a travelling version of his familiar office complete with wood panelling. You Only Live Twice skirts satire of the already-settled Bond formula at quite a few junctures, only to prove they were always a moveable feast. Soon Bond, ever a globetrotter who reminds Moneypenny that he “took a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge,” lands in Japan nominally as a dead man and therefore free to experience on a deeper and stranger level. Upon landing on the Honshu shore, after being fired out of the submarine’s torpedo tube (!), Bond looks towards the sun as it sets with mystical import: Bond reborn in a new land in time to take on a new age.

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The film still retains some of the flavour of Fleming’s exotic tourism at a time when Japan was truly becoming a world player again after World War II, offering it as a country with a shell of glistening, ahistorical super-modernity concealing a far more potent classical culture at once unfamiliar and appealing to a westerner half in love with death and dedicated to pagan mores like Bond. So Gilbert cuts from that evocative sunset to shots of pulsating Tokyo neon, putting the dualistic sensibility into the visual language. Bond’s adventures in Tokyo nightlife take a hard swerve towards the mysteriously transformative and unstable spirit of Lang and Orson Welles, as Bond makes contact with one of Tanaka’s operatives, Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) at a sumo match, and she takes him to meet his colleague, the local British intelligence officer Henderson (Charles Gray). Bond takes the quick and expedient route of ensuring Henderson is who he says he is by taking his cane and giving one of his legs a whack, accurately establishing it’s false. The beaming Henderson begins explaining why he thinks the mystery rocket really is locally based when suddenly he stops speaking in mid-sentence. Bond realises someone’s stabbed him through the paper wall of his room. He chases down the assassin, knocks him out, and dons his clothes, including the surgical mask he wears, to take his place: another goon waiting in a car spirits him to the skyscraper belonging to the Osato Chemical & Engineering Co.

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When the second goon uncovers Bond’s face after hauling him up to an executive office, the two have a brutal battle that Bond wins by swatting his foe with a decorative statue. Bond cracks and robs a safe and flees, with Aki proving to be waiting nearby to spirit him away. When Bond demands to take over, Aki lures him into an underground tunnel where the floor opens up and drops Bond into a chute that deposits him neatly on a chair directly before Tanaka in his secret office. This hilarious flourish of destabilised reality strongly evokes the funhouse sequence in Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai (1947) and would itself be filched by Bond fan George Lucas for Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) in Luke Skywalker’s plunge out of Cloud City. Bond and Tanaka prove swiftly to be well-matched collaborators and personalities, both being fantasies of man-of-the-world largesse and finesse as well as effective force. Upon inspecting the stolen Osato documents, they find a suggestive list of chemical orders and a photo of a freighter, the Chinese-registered Ning-Po, at anchor off a coastal island that the company has gone to ruthless lengths to suppress.

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After Tanaka introduces Bond to the pleasures of a Japanese bath, with his harem in attendance, Bond and Aki become lovers. Posing as a chemical buyer, Bond visits the Osato building legitimately to meet with the boss, Mr Osato (Teru Shimada), and his sultry assistant Miss Brandt (Karin Dor). After sparking another attempt to kill him, Bond heads with Aki to Kobe to inspect the Ning-Po to see if it might be carrying constituents for rocket fuel. Dor, swanning into the film with mane of red hair and eyeliner thick enough to dam the Mississippi, doesn’t get to make as much of an impression as some other Bond femme fatales, like Luciana Paluzzi in Thunderball, as this seems the one aspect of the Bond formula Gilbert and Dahl don’t quite seem to know what to do with, not in the same way they give a new flesh to the familiar figure of the ally-lover-victim in the form of Aki, who overshadows the official Bond Girl. Brandt’s attempt to kill Bond by trapping him in a plane and letting him crash is rather lackadaisically staged. Nonetheless Dor gains a memorable note of sadistic incision as she threatens the captive Bond with a knife used by plastic surgeons for slicing away skin, only to free him and hand the blade over to cut away the straps on her gown. “The things I do for England…’ Bond murmurs.

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It’s tantalising and disappointing that no-one involved in the franchise has yet done something with the Sadean poetry inherent in the novel’s concept of Blofeld’s garden of death, imagery that accords strongly with the cult of extreme experience Bond and Blofeld both subscribe to. Certainly it wasn’t however a particularly cinematic concept in a series increasingly defined by action. One aspect of the novel retained was the theme of Bond being immersed in Japanese mores by Tanaka. The very dated bawdiness of Tanaka introducing Bond to the pleasures of the Japan way of life where according to him “men come first, women come second” gives the requisite dose of Bond-as-playboy business as he takes pleasure in being scrubbed over by the harem. Fortunately this stuff is quickly and playfully undercut by the way the film offers Aki and, later, Bond’s second partner and “wife” Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) as deft agents for Tanaka. Kissy even saves Tanaka with a well-aimed shot in the finale, and the two women are rather more effectual heroines than many from the franchise’s more officially enlightened eras. Aki in particular is a terrific partner for Bond, dashing around Tokyo streets in her zippy white Speed Racer sports car, shimmying down ropes to make a speedy getaway, and calmly calling up the familiar Tanaka surprise for pursuing goons, a helicopter with a dangling electromagnet to pick up their car and dump it in Tokyo Bay.

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Bond and Aki’s foray to Kobe justifies a sequence that sees Gilbert and Young delighting in their unfettered sense of the cinematic as they shoot Bond battling off a horde of dockyard thugs, set upon them by Osato, in an ebullient helicopter shot watching Bond punch and thrash his way through opponents as he dashes along a pier rooftop, with Barry’s scoring surging joyously on the soundtrack. Bond escapes them a display of physical daring and skill and he leaps onto piled cargo from on high, only to be knocked out as he calmly tries to walk away. After escaping the villains’ attempt to kill him in a staged plane crash, Bond has Q bring to Japan one of his inventions, Little Nellie, contained within four suitcases, which proves to be a gyrocopter festooned with weaponry. Bond uses Little Nellie to search for the SPECTRE base, and gets to use all her talents in a terrific aerial action, a few ropey, interpolated model shots notwithstanding, as four SPECTRE helicopters appearing seemingly out of nowhere and attack him, only to be out manoeuvred and outgunned by the nifty little vehicle. This sequence augments another familiar element to new importance: where before Bond’s gadgets had been used as part of more functional action scenes, this time an entire scene is contrived purely for a ritual display of what Bond can accomplish with Q’s ingenious weapons. Gilbert employs a puckish cinematic joke as Little Nellie is assembled in an array of still shots without the constructors, the finished machine only becoming coherent in the last.

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In spite of his jokes and flourishes of weirdness, Dahl’s script is also notable for having a remarkably solid plot by the series standard, and for actually letting Bond do real and effective spy work. As opposed to, say, Goldfinger where the plot depends on him being incredibly incompetent at his job but then doing Pussy Galore so well she rats out the entire evil plan. By contrast in You Only Live Twice Bond successfully uses ruses to uncover his enemies and collects information that yields clues that describe the increasingly tangible outline of what he’s facing. He also contends with enemies with an edge of real guile and brutality, like Osato, who uses an x-ray machine in his desk to uncover the fact Bond is armed when posing as a buyer, and Brandt, who uses Bond for sex and subversion in the same way he often uses others to get him where she wants him and then tries to kill him. Gilbert conveys all with his hard, clean, rigorously flowing images that play off the specific landscape of 1960s Tokyo. He builds to spasms of terrific action like Bond’s combat with the fearsome goon in the Osato office, a small masterpiece of stunt fight staging, and rendering even episodes of comic-surreal weirdness like Bond’s fall into Tanaka’s office somehow coherent.

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You Only Live Twice has significant rivals to being called the best Bond film, particularly From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and Casino Royale (2006). Tellingly, each of them retains a more intimate sense of Bond’s character in professional travails and emotional risk, whereas Bond here is necessarily at his most acquiescent at the dizzying flow of violence and strangeness thrown his way, in one of his most serial-like adventures. You Only Live Twice fully codified some aspects of the series most beloved of lampooners and apt for generalised caricatures, the first Bond film that really adheres to the popular lore of what an old-school Bond film was like. Where before the intimations of awesome force and alien threat represented by Blofeld and SPECTRE were kept fairly minimal and suggestive, here they step out into the open, with their colossal lairs and technology, their nasty paraphernalia for mistreating weak employees, and their nice line in futuristic fashion and architecture. But You Only Live Twice also lacks significant flaws its rivals films have: it doesn’t contend with an awkward lead performance like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or a first half crammed with franchise-building make-work as Casino Royale, and it moves faster than the relatively slow-burn From Russia With Love.

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The major quality as a consequence of You Only Live Twice is that it surely represents the finest balance the glib and absurdist aspect of the series with the side defined by a tough and percussive sense of adventure. Despite its enormous box office success Thunderball had evinced signs of the self-indulgence that would often dog the franchise, as Terence Young had been both the perfect man to kick off the series and a vexing one to continue it precisely because of his strong identification with Bond. Broccoli and Saltzman were wise to turn to a talent like Gilbert to take over. Son of music hall performers and a former actor and screenwriter before making his directorial forays as a documentary maker, Gilbert was a skilled classical storyteller with a talent for evoking atmosphere and finding strong human dramas within big-budget spectacles, with war films as excellent as Reach for the Sky (1956), Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), Sink the Bismarck! (1960), and H.M.S. Defiant (1962), as well as more intimate and ironic movies like Ferry To Hong Kong (1959), The Greengage Summer (1961), The 7th Dawn (1964), and Alfie. A connecting thread between many of his diverse movies was a fondness for studies of sardonically disaffected and detached characters who find themselves trapped between worlds figuratively and/or literally, often trying to convince themselves they’re not affected by their quandaries and heroically, or sometimes tragically, discovering they’re right.

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Bond fits neatly into this attitude, the existential survivor and gladiator who feels it when one of his lovers dies but doesn’t let it divert him one iota, the perfect British swashbuckler who finds more self-recognition in Japanese culture, and who is, eventually, even transformed into a Japanese man with makeup at Tanaka’s insistence so he can infiltrate a fishing community. You Only Live Twice evolves a uniquely precise atmosphere for a Bond film, largely thanks to the pulse of Barry’s scoring, constantly revising and recapitulating the essential theme to offer a permeating sense of exotic fancy to accompany Gilbert and Young’s lush visuals, and the sense of double identity and duplicitous appearance that defines the film stems from the interplay of sound and vision. One particularly affecting scene in this regard comes when Bond has to marry Kissy, one of Tanaka’s operatives and an Ama girl who can give him good cover in his search for the SPECTRE base. On one level the scene involves a rather crass joke as Bond dreads the wedding because Tanaka has told him his bride has “the face of a pig,” only to behold the lovely Kissy. But Gilbert pays close attention to the evocation of ritual and a different cultural sublimation of a common act. It’s perhaps the closest the series ever came to reconciling its intensely romantic impulses and its celebration of louche behaviour.

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The way Gilbert shoots Bond’s first glimpse of Kissy, with Barry’s surging music, packs an unexpected jolt of romantic intensity, and suddenly Bond’s act of tourism becomes a genuine immersion within the spiritual and sexual life of Japan (Gilbert would later offer a semi-remake of the film with an explicitly romantic gloss with 1976’s Seven Nights in Japan). It also suggests a new act in Bond’s sputtering evolution, setting the scene for his marriage in the subsequent film. Meanwhile SPECTRE’s plot hits its climactic phase as their rocket swallows a Russian capsule, pushing the Soviets and the US on the brink of war as the former accuse the later of a revenge attack. With the second snatching, Gilbert this time follows the mysterious craft through its descent into the atmosphere and landing within the volcano lair. The rocket is a delightful piece of hardware, beyond what rocket engineering was at the time and yet strongly resembling more recent attempts to build a lander. Here, we gain glimpses of Blofeld, his presence still only signified by the infamous white cat he pets and his ruthlessly commanding voice. In From Russia With Love and Thunderball Blofeld’s presence had been suggested with actor Eric Pohlmann’s plummy European accent wielding sonorous menace, offered as an enigmatic, near-abstract source of evil lurking behind the schemes Bond fought, commanding and terrifying his underlings from behind veils of mystery and remote-controlled punishment.

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For Blofeld’s first proper appearance Donald Pleasance was cast, but his revelation is left until the climax. Until then he’s the same unseen source malignancy lurking in an apartment off the lair that, like M’s mobile office, mocks the pretences of old European power with its art and tapestries even whilst adapted to a new landscape of cyclopean metal and hewn living rock, high life for the age of the nuclear bomb shelter. Blofeld pushes a lever with his foot that dumps Miss Brandt from a footbridge into the pond filled with ravenous piranha to punish her for her unsuccessful attempt to kill Bond, a moment that still packs a disquieting note, although it’s neatly dispersed by the deadpan comedy of the bridge snapping back into place and Osata scurrying off in alarm to obey Blofeld’s orders. This scene also sees Blofeld meeting with the people who provided the plot’s financing and equipment with the strong hint they’re Chinese Communists, fitting the film neatly into an odd run of movies and TV shows around the same time, also including the likes of Battle Beneath The Earth (1967) and The Chairman (1969) based around a paranoid feeling the Chinese were quietly outstripping the rest of the world.

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Unlike the novels, where Fleming cast Bond as the mortal enemy of the KGB, the Bond films liked to avoid dealing with the Cold War too explicitly, playing up SPECTRE instead as a foe. The series even recast the plot of From Russia With Love from a SMERSH operation to one cooked up by SPECTRE, which is rather an supra-national organisation formed from the human refuse of clashes between political systems – their cover, as glimpsed in Thunderball, is a refugee resettlement organisation, which also hints this is how they recruit operatives – and aggressively committed to subverting and leeching off all such blocs. Blofeld even forces the Chinese backers in this film to give him more money before committing to the last part of the plot, and when one retorts furiously, “This is extortion!”, Blofeld coolly replies, “Extortion in my business.” This concept of SPECTRE as something rather larger, more insidious, and more efficiently malignant than any rogue terrorist operation or even rival spy group gave the early Bond films much of their cohesive force, and less random than the later pool of lone wolf tycoons that would provide most of Bond’s foes. It’s also an idea the more recent revivalist entries with Daniel Craig have tried to leverage but have yet to properly exploit.

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You Only Live Twice offers Alexander Knox as an American President who’s all terse business and warlike grit, dismissive of the British theory and determined to forestall another snatching, putting the world on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Fleming’s book had meditated on the decline of British standing in the Cold War game, but the film cleverly points the way forward for the series and Bond as a character in presenting the British influence as a mediating one, a level head outside the whirlwind of Cold War intransigence, and Bond as the hard human edge of that attitude. The regular production designer for the Bond films was Ken Adam, whose style almost invented a way of thinking about the future in his cavernous, Spartan spaces, a touch he also applied to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The similarity of Adam’s war room designs here certainly reflect his design principles but also accords with the vision, not at all dissimilar to Kubrick’s, of nuclear brinksmanship as something harsh, alien, incomprehensively destructive and real yet also waged through the prophylactic of telecommunications, and so entirely modern. This contrasts the supernal retention of homey environs M prefers. Like Dr. Strangelove, You Only Live Twice beholds an age of annihilating terrors and readily provoked national egos. Only Bond is big enough, in various senses of the word, to hold it off.

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This thread runs right through the early Bond series, albeit mostly only explored on a specifically visual level, the tension between futurism’s homogenising power and the peccadilloes of established order. Attempts to dissect or revise Bond from a more politically correct angle are always doomed to fail because they don’t understand this tension is fundamental to the series’ popular cachet. This entry even was the first to start making constant jokes about Bond’s traits a ritual facet, in repeatedly making sport of his smoking habit. Blofeld, once revealed, resembles a kind of full-grown misbegotten foetus, the scarred and malignant, asexual embodiment of a world defined by radiation and pollution and monstrous will to power. The immediate follow-ups, which cast Telly Savalas and Charles Gray in the part (and, much later, Christoph Waltz), failed to live up the specific charge of perversity personified Pleasance offered. By comparison the whole of Japan is presented as embodying the dualism of contemporary existence, again according with Bond himself, the primal man enclosed by a loose glaze of civilised mystique.

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Fittingly, Tanaka has Bond join his cadre of trainee ninjas who will when the time comes attack the SPECTRE base. The ninjas are presented as both modern warriors but also still proficient in an ancient arts, thus achieving perfect balance and fusion. Amidst their number Bond has to slay a couple of moles out to kill him. One of them sneaks into the house he shares with Aki and tries to poison him by dripping poison down a thread, only to kill Aki by mistake. It’s to You Only Live Twice’s credit that it actually feels connected with some genuine Japanese thriller films of the period (the manner of Aki’s death is borrowed from one), true to the baroque, even surreal lilt many have, if far short of the bravura lunacy of someone like Seijun Suzuki. A lot of Japanese thrillers, like their sci-fi, were attuned to the same tensions as the Bond films, the feeling that the modern world was the insubstantial hallucination, not the past. Tamba, Hama, and Wakabayashi were popular faces in Japanese cinema at the time, and the two women had appeared in both King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) and the Toshiro Mifune vehicle Samurai Pirate (1965) together.

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When Bond, Tanaka, and Kissy head to a small village in the region where they think the base is hidden, they and the other ninjas blend into the populace. They’re forced to spring into action as it’s announced the next American launch has been moved forward, and Bond and Kissy act on a clue presented by the death of a local Ama girl: inspecting where she died, they realise she was killed by gas warding off inspection of a volcanic tunnel linked to the SPECTRE hideout. Bond and Kissy’s relationship is initially defined by Kissy’s insistence they’re engaged in business, not indulging themselves, but heats up as they take a time out from climbing the volcano for a bit of smooching, an act that fortuitously makes them look innocuous to a helicopter that flies into the volcanic crater. Once Bond establishes that what looks like a lake in the crater is in fact a huge metal hatch, he sends Kissy back to fetch Tanaka and penetrates the lair. There, he finds the captive American and Russian astronauts and breaks them out, and attempts to pose as one of the SPECTRE astronauts to take command of their craft. But Blofeld spots the deception and has Bond brought to him, cueing Blofeld’s unveiling, eyeing Bond like a frog blinking out of the water with sadistic intentions.

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Today the makers of many franchise works and blockbusters fret over giving audiences too much of what they want, but You Only Live Twice has no such compunction: it promises James Bond and an army of ninjas rumbling with SPECTRE in their hideout to decide the fate of the world, and it delivers. Moreover, the Bond films had properly anointed themselves by this point as the inheritors of old-fashioned Hollywood values despite all their pop-age chic, the Roman Forums of recent epics now giving way to glistening abodes of super-science. Adams’ set for the SPECTRE base, the largest ever constructed for a film at the time, is still an awesome piece of movie infrastructure. The set’s enormity helps give the film palpable drama: all this absurdity seems like it could actually be happening, fusing a precise depiction of functional detail and scale with an edge of the dreamlike, another aspect of the film that anticipates the Star Wars series. This is a world where radically different realities nest within the apparent, lethal beasts planted within beautiful landscapes. SPECTRE’s method in capturing the space capsules rather than simply blowing them up seems to be based in the charge of menace the act evokes for the audience: an explosion would be blatant and clear-cut, but the act of swallowing is stranger and leaves no trace, making it seems as if in space there literally be dragons.

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The rush of action in the finale is perfectly organised and delivers every gleeful absurdity you could ask for, the ninjas rappelling into the lair, complete with a katana-wielding badass carving his way through SPECTRE operatives. The running joke about smoking being bad for your health finds its punchline as Bond requests a last cigarette only to launch a tiny rocket at the controller for the lair’s hatch, allowing the ninjas access. Blofeld guns down Osato as a lesson in failire, but Bond’s life is saved when Blofeld next means to shoot him when Tanaka plants a throwing star in the megalomaniac’s wrist. Bond himself has to fight his way past Blofeld’s hulking bodyguard Hans (Ronald Rich) in order to make the swallowing ship self-destruct before it intercepts the next American capsule. Hans of course finishes up as food for the piranhas and Bond manages to blow up the craft in time. The injured but unbowed Blofeld sets off the lair’s self-destruct system, the explosions reawakening the volcano and forcing the heroes to flee via the sea tunnel, and the air force drops rubber rafts for them. There Bond and Kissy seem ready to consummate their marriage at last, only for M’s submarine to surface directly under them. Someone always wants to wake you from a good dream.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Scifi, Thriller

The Omega Man (1971)

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The Ωmega Man (on-screen title spelling)

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Director: Boris Sagal
Screenwriters: John William Corrington, Joyce Hooper Corrington

By Roderick Heath

Published in 1954, I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s classic and influential amalgam of apocalyptic science fiction and horror, has known strange fortune when it comes to filming. The novel surely owes some of its standing to being adapted to the big screen three times, as Sidney Salkow’s The Last Man On Earth (1964), Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man, and Francis Lawrence’s 2007 film under the original title. None of them represents a purely faithful version of the novel, each instead pursuing its own, particular motives and conceptual twists. Salkow’s threadbare if atmospheric take was nominally based on Matheson’s own script, but was so heavily revised by the producer he insisted on a pseudonym, and nudged the material closer to traditional horror. Lawrence’s was a well-made but generic, special effects-laden action vehicle that reduced the enemy from dark antitheses of the hero to marauding CGI critters. Sagal’s film was made to capitalise on Charlton Heston’s new status as a sci-fi star following on from the first two Planet of the Apes films, and like that series enthusiastically uses genre movie garb to tackle flashpoint social and political issues. Soylent Green (1973) would round out an unofficial trilogy for Heston. The Omega Man wasn’t the first post-apocalyptic survival movie released by Hollywood, but it does seem from today’s perspective to be the one that made the subgenre perennially popular, laying down a blueprint by showing how it could function as a both a microcosmic metaphor and a branch of action cinema.

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Husband and wife writing duo Joyce and John Corrington’s script for The Omega Man departed widely from Matheson’s novel in several respects. The novel, set in a time where most of humanity has been wiped out by disease leaving one immune survivor, proposed that that vampirism, revealed through the protagonist’s research as a once-rare and often misdiagnosed disease, has infected all the other survivors of pandemic to a greater or lesser degree, turning some into ravening beasts whilst others remain functioning and civilised, but hate and fear the hero now as the last human. The novel ends with him realising that he is now the stuff of myth and bedtime bogeyman stories to the post-humans, who put him to death. The Omega Man, by contrast, portrays the diseased survivors as the direct product of the pandemic, a manmade virus unleashed during a war between China and the Soviet Union (not that farfetched at the time) supposedly breaking out in 1975, with the bulk of the film set two years later in an empty and decaying Los Angeles. The man who thinks himself the lone true survivor, Colonel Robert Neville (Heston), is a former army scientist who managed, in the raging days of the epidemic, to synthesise a vaccine, but was only able to give it to himself.

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At the film’s outset, Neville roams the vacant streets in a convertible, faking his way through conversations with imagined people, partly to suit his sour sense of humour and also in a ritual trying to keep hold of his sanity. Whilst driving around, scored hilariously by a cassette recording of “A Summer Place,” Neville hefts a submachine gun and sprays bullets at a window he sees a figure flit behind. When he crashes his car and busts a tyre, Neville smashes his way into an auto showroom to prime and take off in another vehicle. He heads to a movie theatre which he’s plainly visited often before to watch the film that was showing there when everything fell apart: Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), powering the projectors with emergency generators he knows to bring petrol for. The on-screen record of massed and joyous humanity gives Neville company he otherwise lacks, and he can recite the optimistic speech of one young attendee interviewed word for word. Leaving the theatre, Neville starts hearing telephones going off all over the city, a dazzling din that forces Neville to deny its reality, whereupon the noise ceases. Neville returns to his home as he realises nightfall is coming. As he prepares to enter his garage, black-robed figures with chalk-white faces launch a prepared assault on him, and Neville only narrowly survives with a blend of quick reflexes and brute force.

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These marvellous early scenes skilfully establish Neville’s solitude and situation along with an aesthetic of desolate genre poetry in surveying the desolate city still festooned with all the appealing, empty yardsticks of the modern lifestyle. Neville’s favourite movie doesn’t just ironically underline his loneliness with a teasing vision of mass idealism, but also announces The Omega Man’s key theme, the breakdown of humanity’s remnants into camps representing contentious visions of society and its future, if any. The hidden menace lying in wait for the last man is suggested, but also presented as initially less frightening than the weight of solitude and potential insanity upon him, setting in motion the basic drive and irony of the narrative, that Neville needs his foes and vice versa to give their lives meaning. What that contest is slowly becomes apparent as Neville spends his days wandering the city seeking out the hive of his nemeses. That tribe call themselves The Family, and are led by former TV news anchor Jonathan Matthias (Anthony Zerbe). Grotesquely transformed into albino ghouls who can’t survive in the sunlight, many of them injured psychologically as well as physically, The Family, under Matthias’ fanatical leadership, now want to cleanse the Earth of the hated reminders of the fallen human world and its final arbiter, and fight an extended guerrilla war with Neville.

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Neville’s apartment, which he later explains he clings to out a sense of sheer, obstinate resolve despite being difficult to defend, is filled with retrieved artworks and accoutrements befitting the lifestyle of a well-heeled man of the world. Floodlights affixed to the building exterior keep the intensely light-sensitive Family away and CCTV lets him see everywhere at once. He tries to settle down with a good whisky and get back to the chess match he nominally plays against a bust of Julius Caesar, but his enemies begin congregating in the street and chanting the perpetual demand, “Neville! Come Down!” Neville hurls his glass across the room in reactive anger and triggered desperation. His robed and misshapen enemies roam about the city in packs at night, collecting the fruits of human civilisation from technology to books, and destroy them, staging a Hitlerian bonfire in the plaza outside Neville’s building to taunt him with the sight as well as satisfy their own project. “The whole Family can’t bring him down out of that – that…” Matthias trails off as he smoulders in frustration, so his lieutenant Zachary (Lincoln Kilpatrick), once a black man, suggests the descriptor, “Honky paradise, brother?” When they try assaulting Neville’s apartment with flaming masses fired with a crude ballista, Neville responds with a machine gun.

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Neville drifts into a reverie in the elevator to his apartment, cueing the first of two efficient, visually striking flashbacks to the time of the plague’s coming, unleashed during the war, punctuated by images of flocks of pedestrians struck down in their tracks by the deadly disease. The flashbacks cleverly render Neville and Matthias as opponents long before they encounter each-other’s works in the dead city. Neville, in his old office, listens to Matthias speaking on the television with bleak import: “Is this the end of technological man? Is this the conclusion of all our yesterdays, the boasts of our fabled science?…We were warned of judgement. Well, here it is.” Neville allows no such fatalistic philosophising, still trying to develop his vaccine and save the world. But the pilot of the helicopter taking him to a secure facility with his experimental vaccine keels over as the disease hits him, and Neville is unable to prevent the helicopter crashing. Crawling out of the flaming wreckage, Neville took the desperate shot of injecting himself with the dose, and two years later his success is now also a bitter mockery. Neville resumes his systematic search the following day, exploring the innards of downtown buildings where he still finds desiccated corpses from the time of the plague, including a couple who died in each-other’s arms in bed.

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Sagal blends aspects of gothic horror with a sarcastic sense of derelict consumerism in this scenes, all the high-end shops and hotels filled with dead plants and bodies and copious cobwebs. The stuff of daily life and social ritual betrays the sudden cessation of that life, like a dining table laid out for some banquet now filthy and encrusted, the whole world now resembling a vampire’s castle in a horror movie. Neville also finds dead members of the Family finally consumed by the disease, their physical symptoms being what Neville refers to as “tertiary cases.” Roving about a boutique clothing store, Neville is stricken with erotic fascination by a mannequin, reaching out to touch its smooth plastic belly in tactile arousal now that only a facsimile of a female form is left to him. This flourish of knowing sexual desperation dashed with humour has an immediate consequence, as Neville seems to virtually conjure up a very real female out of the recesses of his mind. When he thinks he hears something moving through the store, he looks to see a mannequin where there wasn’t before, a figure with eyes that slowly pivot to look at him. The woman, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), dashes out of the store and Neville loses track of her outside. Unsure if she was real or just another figment of his imagination, Neville resumes his hunt, only to be ambushed and captured in a well-laid trap by the Family.

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Matthias has Neville tried and convicted for forms of heresy according to The Family’s law as a “user of the wheel,” lacking the stigmata-like proof of faith that is the bleached irises the tertiary cases all have. Matthias wants to destroy all the pretensions of the old civilisation, considering himself the anointed avenger of the Earth, extinguishing the original sin of knowledge so The Family can then build something else. “Build coffins, that’s all you’ll need,” Neville tells him late in the film, knowing as he does The Family will all die out if their disease isn’t treated. Matthias has him wheeled out into the centre of Dodgers Stadium on a tumbril, complete with a dunce’s cap, to be burned alive. But Neville is saved when the stadium lights come on, dazzling The Family. Lisa and another survivor, Dutch (Paul Koslo), move to save him despite Lisa’s take-no-shit attitude towards Neville. Dutch wards off The Family with flash-bombs whilst Neville and Lisa make a zippy getaway on a motorcycle. Lisa directs Neville up to a bunker in the hills above the city where she and Dutch are caring for a small collection of children. All of them have the disease, but so far have resisted either dying or devolving, although all expect one or the other: one lad, a teenage boy named Richie (Eric Laneuville), is in the throes of transitioning, so Neville decides to risk trying to use his blood as a serum to treat his case.

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The Omega Man is a very much a pop film in the early 1970s mode, and it’s often been criticised for this. But this specificity is also the source of much of the film’s pleasure and its special thematic punch, investing it with levels of symbolism and metaphor for a particular moment and sensibility, whilst also still working readily today as a mythically styled action movie. Like a genre-fied, mass-audience friendly remake of Zabriskie Point (1970), it contemplates an impending post-human era where characters are coded as representatives of various cultural sectors, and the radical fringe, embodied by Dutch and Lisa and the children they care for, are poised to be the only possible inheritors of the Earth. They subsist between the poles of Neville with his attachment to the old material world and willingness to defend it with ferocity, and the cult of Matthias and The Family, who take the streak of suspicion for the mainstream, technological society found in the hippie movement to an extreme but also inject it with medievalist religious certainties, as well as Nazi-like contempt for contradictory knowledge. The Omega Man takes off where Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967) left off in considering the efforts of iconoclasts to smash apart the last signifiers of a fundamentally sick world.

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The Family, with their bleached white faces and hair riddled with bloody buboes and glazed eyes, wrapped in monkish garb and stalking the streets at night with torches, bridge the imagery of classic horror stories, like the hordes of undead devil worshippers in something like The City of the Dead (1960). But they retain dimensions of damaged humanity, as well as fanaticism rooted in the belief they are the lucky ones to be so marked and tasked, as well as susceptibility to suggestion that makes someone like Matthias, who retains his intellect, able to control them. The Family members are scrubbed of racial, gender, and social differentiation, instead blessed with a new homogenised identity. Late in the film, Lisa is suddenly stricken with the disease and unfurls her headscarf, revealing she’s been overtaken by the disease and recognises The Family as her new kind. It’s a sign of the times that the film votes Matthias a great deal of sympathy for his perspective, his passionately righteous hatred for the world men created and then laid waste to, no form of logic or argument more plain and cold than the simple and obvious fact he can point to of apocalypse all about them.

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Matthias is ultimately, in a perverse fashion, presented as a sort of antihero, the one who counsels Zachary, “Forget the old ways, brother, all the old hatreds, all the old pains. Forget, and remember,” and promises Neville they will “cancel history.” Social divides are now reduced now to a much simpler dynamic: us versus him. The very name of The Family suggests a likeness to the Manson Family, all over the news at the time the film was being made. Matthias tells Neville that in the days after the plague’s coming he realised he and the others like him had been spared for the purpose burying what was dead, including the fallen civilisation. “You’re the Angel of Death, Doctor, not us,” Matthias tells Neville in reminding him that even if they are trying to kill him, he’s killed far more of them, after angrily shouting, in response to Neville’s question as to why they haven’t tried finding a cure, “There is none!” Zerbe, a much-employed actor at the time, is terrific as Matthias, expertly countering Heston’s bellicose passion with his own surgically precise enunciations of his sure and unremitting interpretation of their lot.

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Against them stands Neville, ensconced in his fortified bachelor pad. Neville’s lifestyle is offered in part as dry parody of an early ‘70s magazine ideal of masculinity and the action man ethos so common in the period, once ironically associated with all the estimable hip values and yet standing in opposition to many of them. Neville tries to make like Hugh Hefner playing James Bond, the First World incarnate guarding its turf and privilege in stalwart style, treating the remnants of human culture he’s assembled and curated like his collection of guns and booze, steadily ransacking the city for everything that’s useful or eye-catching for him. He’s the swinging bachelor as superman survivor even whilst cursed with awareness of his actual insignificance and paltriness before the vast empty world, at least before the other survivors turn up. Much is made of Neville’s brawny body – Heston’s as shirtless throughout the film as Chris Hemsworth in his average vehicle – and his concomitant physical resilience, whilst his apartment’s art collection sees him in company with Caesar and mad emperor Caracalla, suggesting the poles of authority and brutal power Neville anoints himself heir to. Neville’s intelligence and resolve are likewise admirable, and when fate gives him a genuine function once again he leaps to the task.

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But he’s also, as young Richie states after Neville’s serum cures him, “hostile,” a man who feeds off his war with Matthias and The Family, happy to oppose their campaign of destruction with his efforts to remain an island of the old ways, and uninterested in trying to find some sort of accord even as it becomes clear a cure that can restore The Family is now in their hands. In the finale he even dons once more his military uniform and cap, as if both acknowledging his anachronism whilst committing to a warrior creed he never really aspired to in the first place as a healer with the job of “inventing cures for diseases that didn’t exist yet.” Neville’s idea of civilisation is appealing but also hermetic, immobile, and intolerant. Lisa’s entry into the film injects an amusing edge borrowed from the nascent Blaxploitation mode as she appears swathed in red leather with a ballooning afro, a tough survivor stridently bossing and pistol-whipping Neville even in the process of rescuing him, in part because, as she later tells him, when he warns her to be careful whilst foraging for supplies, “The most dangerous thing I ever met in one of those places was you.”

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Introduction to Lisa, Dutch, and the children strips from Neville the armour of his solitude and replaces it with responsibility. One of the first serious post-apocalyptic dramas was Ranald MacDougall’s The World, The Flesh, and The Devil (1959), a film that exploited both racial and sexual anxieties hatching out in the waning days of the Ike era as two men, played by Harry Belafonte and Mel Ferrer, battle for the one (white) woman left in an irradiated New York. The Omega Man takes up the same teasing motif of interracial eroticism in end-times as Neville and Lisa become lovers as Lisa negotiates the delights of Neville’s apartment. They try to forget the world outside it even as Neville acknowledges he really is looking at the last girl on Earth. Their tete-a-tete is interrupted when the building’s generator stops from lack of fuel, requiring Neville to shimmy down the elevator cables to the ground floor, whilst Zachary takes the opportunity to climb up the outside of the building to kill the enemy. Neville gets the power working again and arrives back upstairs just in time to gun down Zachary as he springs through the windows. Zachary plunges back off the balcony onto a spiked railing below. As it becomes clear the blood serum works and can reverse the disease mutation, Neville, Lisa, and Dutch resolve to take the children to a new base in the Sierras.

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Heston, who had been fascinated by the book when reading it on a plane flight and didn’t know it had previously been filmed, supposedly had tried to interest Orson Welles in the script. Heston was still trying to leave behind his association with epic films and religious movies, but he was canny not to entirely leave behind the outsized associations he retained: both Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man cleverly twist and pervert Heston’s titan stature. The director he ended up with, Boris Sagal, was mostly a very well-employed TV director, and his feature work only sported a couple of solid westerns and war movies and an Elvis vehicle, Girl Happy (1965). Nonetheless some of his telemovies, like Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976) and his surprisingly good remake of Dial M For Murder (1981), wielded a similarly baroque visual sense matched to a flair for tight drama. The Omega Man is easily his most popular and best-known feature. Personally I love the fleshy, colourful vividness of his work on the film: it’s the sort of thing where a more restrained and refined talent might have burnished off the rough edges but not achieved the same the delirious and suggestive highs as well. Various vignettes, like Neville crawling from the burning helicopter and dosing himself, the revelation of the infected Lisa, and the finale, at once eerie and operatic, have stuck like jagged glass in my mind since childhood.

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Despite its cheesy and modish touches The Omega Man achieves something of an ideal for a movie of its kind, maintaining a fleet and functional pace, dotted with flashes of punchy spectacle, and yet remaining attentive to the bleak and meditative aspect of the drama, the twinned yet contradictory feeling of crushing solitude and being trapped with inimical beings, ironically a less dreadful feeling, neatly articulated. The Omega Man is crucially balanced in a way that eludes a lot of contemporary movies in the same vein. One great plus is Russell Metty’s cinematography. Heston obviously remembered how good Metty was from working with Welles on Touch of Evil (1958), and his work conveys the right pulpy lustre offsetting the pallid and sonorous texture of the deserted cityscape with the primal drama unfolding on the streets, where extremes of mortification and danger are measured in blazing fire, unnaturally white skin, and pocks of red blood. Another aspect of the film I’m inordinately fond of is the score by Ron Grainer, the Australian-born composer who had worked for the BBC where he wrote classic TV themes including those for Doctor Who, The Prisoner, and Steptoe & Son. Grainer’s memorably elegant and evocative main theme comes in variations that truck in flourishes of funk, jazz, and pop, with organ flourishes to lend an appropriately gothic tint in places, even if it gets a bit Mannix-esque in the Dodgers Stadium sequence.

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Coming as it did at the outset of the ‘70s, a decade when sci-fi tinted parables became popular, The Omega Man’s success had a definable impact on the cinematic genre that took a little time to hatch out and infect pop culture. The film’s release coincided with Robert Wise’s more procedural and cool-witted take on Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain, and the two works helped codify the subgenre concerned with disease and epidemics as potential apocalyptic agents dubbed bi-fi, quickly taken up by works like George Romero’s The Crazies (1973). The film laid down a template for how a pulpy notion of genre thrills and a more high-minded variety came into fruitful fusion, likewise allowing movies like Crichton’s Westworld (1973) and Jack Smight’s Damnation Alley (1976), and leading on to a host sci-fi-action hybrids with smart propelling ideas in the 1980s: such stalwart hits from Alien (1979) to The Terminator (1984), Predator (1986), and RoboCop (1987) owe it at least that much impetus. The Mad Max series would offer a version of Neville, albeit one that wisely chose mobility but still retained certain traits, as a figure carrying on a sense of duty and legacy into post-apocalyptic battles. Whilst his Night of the Living Dead (1968) predated Sagal’s film, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) would annex The Omega Man’s driving concepts and oppositions, likewise presenting its heroes as futile warriors living on swathed in a consumerist bubble in trying to ignore collapse and the zombified hordes without.

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True to the credo of the best ‘70s sci-fi films too, The Omega Man isn’t afraid to get seriously dark at points. This is particularly apparent as the plot barrels towards its climactic crisis, as Richie decides to try and reason with Matthias and the family, to convince them to let Neville try and cure them. Matthias listens to him indulgently, only for Neville, when he arrives to save him, to find Richie strung up with his throat cut, the final, perfect goad to Neville and a rejection of all hope. Neville tries to charge back to his building, only to crash through a trap set by The Family. His jeep upturned, Neville fights his way out of the trap and enters his apartment, to find Lisa, now inducted into The Family, has let Matthias and his goons in. Matthias makes Neville watch as his people unleash an orgy of destructive fury on all the remnants of civilisation Neville has collected. Neville manages to break free and drags Lisa away with him, but this causes a fatal delay: as he tries to unjam his gun and call back Lisa as Matthias chants her name to draw her back, Matthias takes the opportunity to hurl a spear at Neville, hitting him in the torso and knocking him into a fountain in the plaza. As the sun rises, Dutch and kids arrive to find Neville bleeding to death, but Neville manages to hand over the last bottle filled with his blood serum, key to curing Lisa and the children. Sagal offers one lovely grace note as one of the young girls plucks Neville’s cap out of the fountain water and places it on the rim as a show of respect and salutary farewell to the last of his kind. The last image, with Neville splayed Christ-like as he dies, is by comparison too insistent, although this certainly presents an appropriately futuristic and ironic twist on Heston’s messianic image and the very idea of the saviour who donates to his followers his blood and flesh for the sake of salvation.

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