1970s, Comedy, Crime/Detective

The Sting (1973)

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Director: George Roy Hill
Screenwriter: David S. Ward

By Roderick Heath

Despite winning the 1973 Best Picture Oscar and proving one of the most popular movies ever made, The Sting rarely gets much serious appreciation. Today’s popular hits can very often prove tomorrow’s deflated gasbags, but The Sting retains a kind of perfection, an ingenious and multileveled engine, a film with a narrative that takes the matter at its heart, the arts of deception and dishonesty, and also makes them the framework for its story, with a deft guile and cocksure vigour almost vanished now from popular cinema. The Sting began life when the struggling screenwriter David S. Ward, doing some research into pickpockets, read some books about the classic methods and characters of confidence tricksters, particularly David Maurer’s 1940 book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, about the brothers and partners in grifting, Fred and Charley Gondorff, whose last name Ward appended to one of his fictional antiheroes. Ward later had to fend off a lawsuit from Maurer, claiming that he plagiarised the book. The Sting eventually reunited the two biggest male movie stars of the moment, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and director George Roy Hill, after the trio had scored a huge hit with 1969’s semi-satiric, counterculture-infused western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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The Sting pulled off the ultimate trick of beating out William Friedkin’s horror juggernaut The Exorcist for the Oscar after giving it a run for its money at the box office. Of course, The Sting’s upbeat, retro fun was easier for the Academy to embrace than Friedkin’s garish and nightmarish experience, as Hill’s film exemplified old-fashioned Hollywood values in a New Hollywood context, packing major star power together with a sure-fire script. The Sting also rode a wave of nostalgic longing for bygone days, expertly coaxed by the score’s use of ragtime tunes by the near-forgotten Scott Joplin, whose works, as arranged and recorded by Marvin Hamlisch, enjoyed sudden new popularity on the back of the soundtrack’s success. Joplin’s music, most famously “The Entertainer,” used as the film’s main title music and recurring throughout, but perhaps more crucially in terms of the film’s aesthetic the melancholy piano theme “Solace,” punctuates the repeating vision of its heroes as solitary or at drift in the streets of 1936 Joliet and Chicago, dogged by their own strange knowledge of the world and themselves, both a part of but also distinct from the society whose homeless and destitute rejects still litter the sidewalks in the waning Depression.

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The appeal for the Academy might well have been something more subtle too, in the way Ward’s story offered a sharp metaphor for being a Hollywood player, depicting talented people obliged to live in a netherworld in putting their abilities on the line. The con men of The Sting are directors, writers, and above all dynamic actors who put on their shows for the highest stakes, always a twist of chance away from beggardom, imprisonment, starvation or riches and their own kind of hermetic celebrity, needing only a performance so convincing it erases the line between fakery and authenticity, a show of brilliant wit and world-reordering sleight-of-hand. Redford’s character Johnny Hooker, first glimpsed expertly bilking a mark of a bundle of cash in league with his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), is a young man with a true gift for his unusual art, but a need for father figures and a compulsion to try and persuade luck the same way he persuades people, a need he fulfils through gambling, at which he always ultimately loses. Despite being young and good-looking he’s so much an interloper and a habitual screw-up he can’t even keep his stripper girlfriend Crystal (Sally Kirland) after blowing his first big score on a game of roulette, and he spends much of the rest of the film running, often literally, from men who want to kill him and from his own shiftless, exile-on-main street lack of identity.

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Film and plot gain momentum from the opening moments where Hill surveys human wreckage on the streets of Joliet, one of many, prickling remembrances that the story unfolds in a time of hardship: the characters on screen have been created by their circumstance. The initial spur of the story is deeply wound into the time and place: a numbers operation, part of the larger crime syndicate run by Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), making fortunes off ordinary people making their own paltry plays for sudden, unlikely enrichment. The Joliet operation is run by Granger (Ed Bakey), who reports relatively weak profits and a slow count owing to a brief shutdown of the operations in town by a mayor on one of his tough-on-crime kicks, gives the week’s take of $10,000 to one of his men, Mottola (James J. Sloyan), to carry up to Chicago. Just after setting off, he glimpses an aging black man who’s been stabbed and robbed by a fleeing thief: Mottola declines to take down the thief but another bystander does and gets the money back. The old man explains he was heading to make a payoff to some loan sharks he owes money to, and begs Mottola to carry the money there for him. The third man advises him to keep his money wrapped in his handkerchief and stuffed down his pants in case the thief and any pals are lying in wait for him. Mottola takes the old man’s bundle with a kindly assurance to help him and then absconds, gleefully thinking he’s made a killing, only to find he’s the one who’s been ripped off. He’s just fallen victim to Hooker, his mentor and partner in crime Luther, and their confederate Kid Erie (Jack Kehoe).

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This opening employs oblique method to get the story moving, starting with the vignette of the numbers racket and following Mottola as he’s suckered in by the expert flimflam of the three conmen, the wise guy outmanoeuvred when he thinks he’s made “the world’s easiest five grand.” Mottola’s surprise is the audience’s surprise, even as we’re schooled in both the cunning method the tricksters employ, their piercing psychology in counting on the greed and dishonesty of the people they take down in the food chain of street life and the quick twists of logic used to sell the scam. This opening also privileges us with information the conmen won’t learn until it’s too late, the mistake they’re unwittingly making in suckering a man working for a big steam operation like Lonnegan’s. The sociology of the film is also, swiftly established: there are big sharks making well-protected fortunes bilking people and the smaller, entrepreneurial kind living on their wits. Astounded by the huge sum they’ve swindled out of Mottola, the three men divide their share, with Luther happily telling the startled and disappointed Hooker that he plans to use his cut to stop grifting altogether. Hooker meanwhile blows all his share, and is then waylaid by corrupt local detective Snyder (Charles Durning), who knows about his windfall and threatens to hand Hooker over to Lonnegan’s people if he doesn’t pay him off. Hooker gives him the counterfeit money he used in the con and then races back to Luther’s place to warn him about the heat coming down, only to find Luther’s been thrown to his death from his apartment window.

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Vowing revenge and knowing Joliet is now highly hazardous to his health, Hooker heads to Chicago, where, following Luther’s last piece of advice to him, he looks up Henry Gondorff (Newman), a big-time con artist who’s now hiding out from FBI agents after a sting that went wrong: Hooker appeals to Gondorff to find some way of putting the sting on Lonnegan as payback for Luther because “I don’t know enough about killing to kill him.” Hooker first finds Gondorff lying wedged between his bed and the wall sleeping off a drunk, living as he does with his brothel madam girlfriend Billie (Eileen Brennan) in his efforts to keep hidden from the feds: Johnny’s sour introduction to “the great Henry Gondorff” is a deflating experience. Gondorff, in between soaking his aching face in a sink full of chipped ice and repairing the merry-go-round Billie uses to entertain the children of her clientele, explains the difficulties and deal-breakers, particularly warning Hooker against deciding half-way through that just bilking Lonnegan isn’t enough payback. Nonetheless Gondorff agrees to mastermind the sting not just because Lonnegan’s a big fish who could pay off in a big payday but because of offended professional community pride, a motive he knows others will feel too: “After what happened to Luther I don’t think I could get more than two, three hundred guys.”

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Much as he would a couple of years later in Jaws (1975), Shaw gives proceedings a potent dose of theatrical bravura as Lonnegan, introduced playing golf with a underworld friend-rival, refusing to let Hooker get away after Luther’s death because it tarnish his image as an exacting and omnipotent operator lest men like his current golfing opponent thing they can get one over on him. He snaps his intimidating catchphrase “D’ya follow?” at people in his grating Irish-by-way-of-Five Points accent, as vicious and sharklike as anything in Jaws. Lonnegan is another poor boy made good through criminal enterprise but garners absolutely no sympathy because his type of criminal enterprise demands a ruthlessness he dishes out with relish: it’s made clear that he murdered his way to the top of the rackets and murders to stay there. Of course, Lonnegan needs to be a grade-A bastard to make it easier to cheer along our lesser bastard heroes. Gondorff draws together a team of the best grifters he knows, with the dapper Kid Twist (Harold Gould) acting as his agent in hiring the rest of the outfit and doing much of the legwork; he also draws in the motormouthed J.J. Singleton (Ray Walston) and Eddie Niles (John Heffernan). Together they decide to hit Lonnegan with a version of an outmoded con trick called “The Wire,” depending on the brief lag between horse races and the broadcasting of the results, which demands setting up a fake bookie’s office to draw Lonnegan in and get him to put up a big stake on a supposedly sure-fire bet. To get the cash to set up the big sting, a smaller one is needed, so Gondorff swings into action, buying his way into a poker match Lonnegan likes to hold on the train between New York and Chicago, and goes up against him a duel of dextrous cheating.

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Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1972) had staked out similar territory the year before in dealing with Depression-era swindlers, although with quite a different relationship at its heart and its setting out in the dusty Midwest. Like many gangster stories, from any of James Cagney’s hoodlum flicks through The Godfather films and the TV series Breaking Bad, The Sting plays games with the audience’s fantasies. It appeals to that part of the viewer who for a moment forgets the rage and insult of being on the wrong side of a con trick and instead reclines in the wish we too had such talents to ward off the worst abuses of the world. The Sting makes this appeal something of a motif, as the main characters, despite their general alienation and outsider stature, are imbued with fraternal distinction and seedy glamour when surrounded by the victims of the Depression camped out in the street and in tent cities under railway lines. Whilst the conmen might any moment be as broke as the other people, they’re by and large never more than a couple of sharp moves away from cash in pocket as long as they keep their cool. Con artists were usually, in earlier crime fiction and movies, depicted as the lowest of the low on the criminal world food chain, but The Sting converts this into part of the appeal. They’re the mostly non-violent, clever, impudent criminal class, usually operating alone or in small teams but when roused capable of fiendish communal purpose and ingenuity, usually punching upwards in their labours, and absent prejudice in their own circles, a zone where a black man like Luther and a white one like Hooker can work together.

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The greater part of The Sting’s pleasure is the way invites the viewer into this peculiar little subculture and its mystique – the little rituals, lingo, and signs of recognition all concisely captured and deployed, like the nose rub the grifters use to signal each-other, and the tavern haunt that doubles as a hiring hall. The big question before Hooker is whether, as Luther thought, he’s a truly top-rank conman, because he’s never participated in a trick on the level Gondorff has operated on. The price the grifters pay for their kind of freedom is however constantly reiterated in their isolation, only able to relate to women who are prostitutes or fellow rootless drifters, as when Hooker makes a play for the waitress, Loretta (Dimitra Arliss), he meets in a diner who explains she’s only working there long enough to make enough money to get out of town. Hooker’s inability to get laid, despite looking like Robert Redford, becomes a minor running joke in the film as well as a signifier of his character straits, until he makes anxious, self-lacerating appeal to Loretta: “I’m just like you – it’s two in the morning and I don’t know nobody.” 1930s nostalgia, as improbable as it might have seemed to some who lived through the Depression, had become a familiar pop cultural topic by the time of The Sting. But Hill’s restrained but rigorous sense of style and Ward’s writing are particularly piquant in annexing the ghostly echoes of writers of the era like Damon Runyon and Dashiell Hammett, luxuriating in the old-school streetwise language, and magazine illustrators and advertising as well as, for more elevated reference, artists like George Bellows and Edward Hopper. The division of the film into chapters, each announced with title cards illustrated with vintage Saturday Evening Post-like flavour by Jaroslav Gebr, signals how the film is structured like the ritualistic form of a con game itself.

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Part of the narrative’s wit lies precisely in affecting to let the audience in on the art of the con, making the basic mechanics of the sting aimed at Lonnegan comprehensible, whilst also working to keep a few twists hidden, particularly the subplots involving Hooker, who we’re told is the target of a top-notch assassin named Salino, hired by Lonnegan because his local killers Riley (Brad Sullivan) and Cole (John Quade) failed to get him. Hooker is also picked up and strongarmed by an FBI agent, Polk (Dana Elcar), who has also roped in Snyder and bullies them both into helping him nab Gondorff. Snyder, played by the ever-marvellous Durning, has followed Hooker to Chicago in his determination to nail him for the counterfeit payoff. When he happens upon Kid Erie, who’s also come to Chicago on the lam, in a bar, Snyder slams his face against the counter to avenge a quip. He also tries pushing Billie around when he insists on searching her brothel, only for her to warn him to stay out of one room because the chief of police is in there. Snyder represents degraded authority and a cynical sense of society, the nominal enforcer of the law enriching himself by leaning on criminals and punishing infractions as zealously as Lonnegan: Snyder takes it as a matter of logical course that Luther’s death isn’t worth investigating and that his murderer should be escorted safely and unobtrusively from the scene of the intended FBI bust, as Polk commissions him to do. But he’s not as convincing as the gangster in his badass qualifications, as Hooker keeps managing to give him the slip, most notably when Snyder catches Hooker in a phone booth and surprises him ramming his revolver through the glass, only for Hooker to simply open the concertina door, trapping Snyder’s arm long enough to make an escape.

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Hill studied 1930s movies and hit upon recreating their relatively sparse approach to utilising extras in street scenes, to help emphasise the isolation of the heroes and the schematics of their self-involved gamesmanship. The sense of throwback style is also extended to the opening credits, which mimic the movies of the early sound era in using Universal’s old logo sequence and introducing the cast with their names and roles with images in the opening credits. And yet The Sting is still most definitely a ‘70s movie, with its buddy movie underpinnings, the Watergate-era sarcasm about power, and the sympathy and affection for characters usually designated as worthless riffraff in any other moment. And like many films that seemed like pure popular fodder in that decade like The Exorcist, Jaws and Rocky (1976), today The Sting, with its low-key, melancholy-soaked texture, character-based storytelling, and sense of finesse in historical and plot detail, feels closer to the art house than today’s big, bludgeoning blockbuster equivalents: the biggest thrills in The Sting come from things like a well-played hand of cards. The Sting relies deeply on the appeal of seeing Redford and Newman, two damn good-looking and charming men as well as accomplished actors, hanging out together on screen, although the storyline polarises their roles more than their precursor vehicle Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Where that film offered a slick and popular variation on the late 1960s’ sense of fatalism for the beautiful loser, The Sting rides its crowd-pleasing impulses all the way, and is the better for it.

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Hill stands today as a relatively neglected figure, despite making a handful of bona fide classics and mammoth hits. Hill, who as a young man had a love for Bach and acting and was at one point a student of Paul Hindemith, also had a lifelong passion for flying, obtaining a pilot’s licence at 16. This particular talent made him invaluable in war as he became a pilot in the Marines flying transport planes in World War II, and was later reactivated to be a fighter pilot in Korea. The schism in Hill’s formative experiences, the sensitive young man deeply immersed in art and the active warrior, were mediated through the alternations of striking, gritty realism and flashes of horror and wistful, dreamy detachment in his best movies, perhaps coming closest to articulating this in his underrated adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), whilst his jarring box office bomb The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) revolved around both his love of flying and his trademark sense of dashed and stymied romanticism. Hill, after making a name for himself in the theatre first as an actor and then director, shifted into television in the mid-1950s, including writing and directing for Playhouse 90 a compressed but interesting version of Walter Lord’s Titanic account A Night To Remember two years before the film version. He debuted as a filmmaker with Period of Adjustment (1962).

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His follow-up, Toys in the Attic (1963), a Lillian Hellman adaptation starring an improbably cast Dean Martin, nonetheless first articulated a basic theme of wandering innocents trying to comprehend the world and absorb its evil shocks whilst seeking a home or an ideal, a theme infused in most of Hill’s subsequent works, and it made him a perfect fit for the mood of pop culture in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Hill’s first major film, The World of Henry Orient (1964), worked to evoke a wistful, almost fairytale-like style and poignancy whilst also providing moments of satire and high farce, in depicting two teenage girls obsessed with a concert pianist as a distraction from their unhappy home lives. He subsequently scored hits with the glossy, big budget labours Hawaii (1966) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967): the latter helped define Hill’s lighter comedic talents and feel for nostalgia as a dramatic value in itself in his ability to take a quasi-sociological snapshot. Whilst not a showy director, Hill developed a distinctive shooting style, often employing muted and diffused colour to amplify the kind of strong Americana atmosphere he had a special gift for conveying, culminating in the brilliant Slap Shot (1977), a panoramic study of a changing society at that moment partly disguised by the foul-mouthed and raucous vision of ice hockey. In the 1980s Hill scored his last major critical and commercial success with an adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), before a halting version of John LeCarre’s The Little Drummer Girl (1984) and his last work, Funny Farm (1988), which suffered from fights with the studio over what kind of movie it was supposed to be, after which Hill quit cinema and taught drama at Yale.

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The Sting depends on Hill’s ability to imbue Ward’s script with a sense of place and time as exacting as the machinations. It’s often noted that the use of Joplin’s music wasn’t a great fit for the late 1930s at the height of big band jazz. But the job of a film score is to describe the film’ evanescent emotional plain, and Joplin’s tunes are perfect for this, as well as suggestively evoking a similar meaning for the characters, beset in adulthood and feeling the pensive tug of the past, that the film as whole has for the audience watching it, describing places just over the line of sight in the past. Whilst much of the film revolves around relatively mundane settings and small gestures that have large meanings, Hill injects nods to the slapstick movie tradition, particularly when he lets the camera hang back to watch slim and fleet-footed Redford trying to elude the bulbous but dancer-nimble Durning. Hill plays games with planes within his framing, as Hooker climbs onto an L station roof to elude the cop, or when he vanishes from the frame as Lonnegan’s goons chase him, only to be carried back into the shot as he clings to the side of street cleaning machine, successfully eluding the hoods. The setting has its sleazy side: Hill beautifully captures the grimly funny tawdriness of an old burlesque show with Hooker’s visit to Crystal early in the film, planning to wow her with his new fortune: Hooker waits in the wings for her to get off stage whilst she, nearly naked, shakes her tits at the sparse audience, and is supplanted on stage by a blue comedian.

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As if by counterpoint Hill gains a note faintly surreal and childlike glee in the sight of Billie’s stable of girls gleefully riding the merry-go-round on a quiet night, a vision of strange innocence amidst seediness matching the story’s overall lilt. Hill and cinematographer Robert Surtees often utilise deep-focus shots and use vertical frames within frames, conveying period flavour in the cramped and pokey urban environs the characters inhabit, the small, dingy back rooms, diners, train compartments, and dens of iniquity, and also capturing the psychological pressure, the tightness of their lives, and also contrasted with the blasted, depopulated city streets. Directorial flourishes often have two meanings in the film much like the grifter’s art – at one point Hill’s camera draws back from a window encompassing Hooker and Loretta in bed, a particularly Hopperesque image in the glimpse through from an urban space into a private world, only to pull back further and reveal an unseen presence watching them from across the street, turning the shot into a giallo movie-like vignette complete with black-gloved hands switching off a light, signalling the presence of lurking threat. Later, in a vaguely horror movie-like vignette, Hooker eludes the hitman Cole who’s still hunting for him, only for Riley to be cornered and shot by an unseen figure he calls Salino – the name strongly suggests a nod to the demonic hitman Canino in The Big Sleep (1946). Here, the film’s own sleight-of-hand involving Salino’s identity is foreshadowed, and a note of real menace is struck here to generate tension in the otherwise, generally jaunty proceedings. There’s also another, wryer dimension to this vignette” Salino’s vindictive brutality, killing a colleague because he didn’t get out of the way as professional courtesy demands, also rather cheekily gives the world of assassins a similar sense of a code to that of the hitmen, even if their way of handling things is far less amusing.

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Hooker and Gondorff are unusual film protagonists, in their unrepentant criminality but also in their essential ambivalence. Gondorff’s reassurance to Hooker in regards to Lonnegan, “Don’t worry kid – we had him ten years ago when he decided to be somebody,” reflects Gondorff’s jaded knowledge of human nature, the things that make some people successful also being exactly what people like him and Hooker feed off. Gondorff was initially characterised as an aging, portly has-been in Ward’s script – one reason perhaps in the film’s ill-fated, afterthought sequel The Sting II (1982) Jackie Gleason stepped into the role – but was revised when Newman became interested in the role into a charismatic rogue who knows enough angles to be the Pythagoras of crime but one who knows “I could do a lot worse” when Hooker goads him by asking if he wants to remain Billie’s handyman. Although not seen for half-an-hour, Gondorff quickly dominates the film as he sets his peculiar genius to work, seen in a long, droll sequence where he begins the great game against Lonnegan, first by arranging for Billie to lift his wallet and then going toe to toe with him in the card game, schooling Hooker all the while in touches like what kind of liquor to drink with a mark. The resulting, intimate comic set-piece sees Lonnegan’s habitual ferocity easily stoked by Gondorff’s performance, posing as Shaw, an insolent and besotted Chicago bookie who keeps getting Lonnegan’s name wrong, but also outdoes him in card sharping: Lonnegan’s wrath is potent, but it also blinds him to the game he’s really in, which he doesn’t realise until he’s soundly beaten. Hill cuts at one point to an exterior view of the train passing by the fire of some encamped hobos, another jabbing reminder of the social landscape beyond the hermetic workings of the plot and the obsessiveness of the characters.

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Hooker sets the next phase of the plan in motion by posing as Shaw’s disaffected henchman. The humour has a queasy undercurrent as just how close to the edge the tricksters are dancing is made clear when Lonnegan is swiftly moved to murder Hooker when he reveals ‘Shaw’s’ con, something only Hooker’s self-possession and quick line of patter staves off. Hooker’s role is to pretend to want to draw Lonnegan into his plot to bankrupt his hated boss by feeding him tips on winning horses in races, supplied by a source working for Western Union. When Lonnegan demands to meet the source, Kid Twist steps into the role, he and Singleton bluffing their way in to take over a Western Union office for a few minutes, long enough to pull off the deception. Whilst the mechanics of these scenes carefully lay out for the audience just how the grifters are taking down Lonnegan, other aspects of the plot are still ambiguous, the blow from the mysterious Salino waiting to fall, and the FBI leaning on the anguished Hooker to betray his new pals. These elements threaten to prove the ghost in the well-sprung machine, particularly as Hooker’s habit of keeping secrets from Gondorff has already almost gotten him killed.

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Whilst the star power of Newman and Redford anchor the film with their megawattage charm and crafty performances, the remarkably good cast of character actors giving them support also give it flesh. Some of the strong turns include Gould, whose Kid Twist presents the incarnation of what perhaps every grifter wants to be as they get older, worldly and debonair and sublimely easy in their command of studied surfaces, and Kehoe, whose Kid Erie is the opposite, a small-timer like Hooker who wants a bit of payback and to prove himself capable in high-pressure situations. He gets his chance when Twist hires him and he successfully pushes the hook just a little bit deeper in Lonnegan in playing a gabby gambler hanging about Shaw’s bookie office. Jones, father of James Earl, does an invaluable job in a short time as he gives the film its initial dose of pathos, presenting the more realistic face of the aging con man, tired, greying, happy to take whatever happy exit he can grab. There’s also a great example of how an actor with a small role can almost steal a movie with one well-turned line, in this case Avon Long as Benny, the agent who rents Kid Twist the necessary fittings for the fake bookie’s office who, after Twist asks him if he wants to be paid a flat rate or get a percentage of the score and then learns the mark is Lonnegan, responds with wisest of wiseguy drawls, “Flat rate,” as there’s a good chance no-one might be alive to claim his money from.

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Amidst the largely masculine milieu and cast, Arliss and Brennan provide strong, refreshingly earthy presences. Billie’s relationship with Gondorff presents the only strong human attachment anyone glimpsed in the film retains, and she stands up to Snyder with a nonchalance that’s almost transcendental. The turning gears of the plot finally begin reaching their climax after Hill portrays his heroes, and villains, waking and readying on the morning of the main event with a sense of breath being inhaled and held. Hooker is surprised to find Loretta gone from her bed when he wakes up alone, but is pleased to see her in the alley outside, only for a gunman to appear behind her and plant a bullet in her forehead. Hooker, shocked, nonetheless finds the gunman (Joe Tornatore), the man who was watching him from across the street, was actually sent by Gondorff to protect him, and Loretta was Salino, who couldn’t kill Hooker the night before for witnesses but found the perfect way to keep him on ice overnight. A jarring moment but another one where the world of con artistry and professional murder have their common aspects in the game of concealment and surprise, Hooker almost falling victim to someone willing to play a long game.

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The other dangling subplot is resolved at the same time as the central tale, as Lonnegan descends into the bookie joint to place a mammoth $500,000 bet, goading ‘Shaw’ into taking the bet: “Not only are ye a cheat, you’re a gutless cheat as well.” The last twist of the knife is delivered, as Kid Twist in character as the source drives Lonnegan to apoplexy in his mortified report Lonnegan was meant to bet on the horse to place rather than win, but just as Lonnegan begins raising hell in bursts Polk and his agents with Snyder: Gondorff guns down Hooker when he realises he’s screwed him over, and Polk immediately shoots Gondorff. Snyder bustles Lonnegan out: the gangster should know he’s well out of it, but his fixation on his money almost overrides his good sense. Of course, once Lonnegan’s gone, the dead rise from the floor and wipe away the fake blood, fake FBI man shakes hands with resurrected Gondorff, and the band of merrie men start packing up to head their different ways, much richer and rather satisfied: “You’re right,” Hooker comments to Gondorff, harking back to the older man’s warning: “It’s not enough…But it’s close.”

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Hooker turns down his share of the take, not through some phoney attack of conscience – one thing the movie is blissfully freed from is any kind of official morality – but because he’s gained something in self-knowledge, an awareness of why he does the things he does and a sense of what he needs to do to escape his own vicious circle. So he and Gondorff stride off together, seen off by Hill with the last of his old-timey touches, an iris shot, closing the curtain on this rarefied annex where show business and crime readily commingle. The Sting has remained a permanent wellspring of influence in Hollywood, and not just in providing a reusable template to a subgenre of likeable, swashbuckling criminal trickster movies like Focus (2015) or Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans 11 series, which owes it infinitely more than the movie they nominally remade, and darker but still similar fare like The Usual Suspects (1995), but arguably in the whole craze for twist and puzzle narratives seen in the past quarter-century. But The Sting remains inimitable in its most fundamental qualities, its cast, its insouciant veneer and gentle mockery of familiar movie melodrama, and its old-fashioned faith that, no matter how clever the gimmick, what finally delivers the gold is the human element.

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2000s, Auteurs, Chinese cinema, Historical, Romance

In The Mood For Love (2000)

Fa yeung nin wa

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Director / Screenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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T2 Trainspotting (2017)

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Director: Danny Boyle

By Roderick Heath

Trainspotting was one of the signal cultural moments of the 1990s. After his helter-skelter debut, Shallow Grave (1994), Danny Boyle placed his name on the lips of the international caste of cineastes with his second work. Although set nearly a decade earlier, Trainspotting was the closest thing the decade’s cinema offered to a big screen avatar for the zeitgeist of the already waning grunge scene in music: grimy, blackly comic, pungent in its evocation of society’s margins and the up-yours attitude of its citizens. Adapting Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge depicted a landscape of scruffs and dropouts making do, without a countercultural era to lend them glamour, on heroin and dubious friendship, finally torn apart by money in an ultimate act of self-liberation that was also, in aptly sarcastic manner, an act of obeisance at last to an entirely commercialised world. Trainspotting’s antic sense of humour and its equally vital if sometimes exceedingly grim depiction of the junkie were visualised by Boyle in ebullient cinematic terms. I remember describing it to a friend a few years later as A Hard Day’s Night’s (1964) evil twin, a comparison the film readily courted in quoting the Abbey Road cover. This sort of touch also confirms Trainspotting’s complicity in the Cool Britannia moment of the mid-‘90s, when new pride in the nation’s post-war cultural accomplishments surged in time with the oncoming Tony Blair era. As for me, like many, the film was a galvanising moment in my teen years, when the indie film scene was roaring at full blast and interesting moviemaking could come from anywhere and still find an eager audience. Now, at a time when everything old is new again in the movie theatre, revisiting beloved movies from beyond the usual roster of multiplex fodder gains a certain attractiveness, particularly when pitched as an investigation into nostalgic as a contemporary state of mind.
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T2 Trainspotting is officially spun out of Welsh’s follow-up novel, Porno, but is as much about the original film, its place in the lives of anyone who saw it and loved it, as well as its unmistakeable lexicon of images and, perhaps even more crucially, sounds. This self-reflexive urge is both the most interesting aspect of T2 (the title itself is an act of cheek, appropriating the carefully groomed marketing contraction of another ‘90s hit, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991) and its most irritating. Or to put it another way, it’s like having a friend rave on in your ear about how great the good old days were whilst occasionally stepping back and making fun of himself for his nostalgia: the cake is had and eaten too. Reacting to this sequel also means reckoning with passing time and shifting attitudes. Boyle, who seemed to me the coolest cat on the street back when I was a teen, has long since revealed himself as a creature of facetious cinematic energy whose work I soon started to dread more than anticipate. Boyle and favoured star Ewan McGregor followed their breakthrough hit with the now blessedly forgotten A Life Less Ordinary (1998), a raucous mess that fulfilled the threat of ‘90s alternative culture to turn into a caricature of itself in throwing out all narrative sense and instead linking a series of pop cultural pastiches, and then actor and director purportedly fell out acrimoniously over McGregor being displaced by Leonardo DiCaprio on Boyle’s next film, The Beach (2000). T2’s status as a reunion project adds a charge of subtext to the scenes of angry and recriminatory but ultimately forgiving confrontation between old friends. Steve Jobs, Boyle’s surprisingly measured if flagrantly theatrical 2015 release, suggested Boyle was capable of restraining himself still, and I hoped returning to this ground might provoke something latent in the director.
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Boyle and Hodge here try to entwine the characters’ pining for a social past that was largely mythical with their own longing for their youth. The formerly dynamic duo of Mark Renton (McGregor) and Sick Boy, now going by his more mundane real name of Simon (Johnny Lee Miller), are now easily caught up in free-flowing rhapsodies about various national past touchstones in a way that feels less appropriate to these once-cynical drop-outs than to Boyle’s self-appointed status dating back to the London Olympics as the framer of the national psyche, proxies for an imagined audience of barroom mates for whom the original Trainspotting is a fixture along with George Best and James Bond instalments. The storyline here mimics the act of revisiting the past as Renton is driven back to Edinburgh after twenty years living in Amsterdam. The collapse of his childless marriage and impending joblessness, on top of a suddenly nascent heart problem, events he attempts at first to cover up, have compelled him to return home. Soon he’s walking along streets where wistful recall is forever accompanied by a low-key pang of anxiety, considering that he left Britain after ripping his mates off and absconding with the proceeds of a drug deal. Simon greets him by wrapping a pool cue around his ear, which is cute compared to what their vicious mate Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie (Robert Carlyle) will do when he meets up with Renton.
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Begbie is currently incarcerated, serving a twenty-year stretch for his many crimes, but after he’s rejected yet again for parole, he contrives to have a fellow inmate stab him to get transferred to hospital, and then to escape. Meanwhile Simon has taken over his aunt’s old pub, but that building is a solitary monolith now amidst a bulldozed neighbourhood, leaving Simon trapped between a disappeared community and an oncoming wave of gentrification. To make extra cash, Simon sets up opportunities for blackmail, making clandestine recordings of his pseudo-girlfriend, Bulgarian prostitute Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), in her romps with respectable clients. Once the visceral business of dealing with old betrayal is done, Renton and Simon quickly fall back into matey ways, to the point where Veronika sarcastically tells them, under the cover of a language they don’t understand, that they actually love each-other. Veronika and Renton quickly become lovers regardless, whilst Renton eagerly joins Simon in an enterprise to transform the pub into a brothel, an enterprise that demands capital, so they set about fleecing suckers whilst also applying for a business loan from a government panel. Meanwhile Begbie returns to his terrified wife June (Pauline Turner) and now-grown son Frank Jnr (Scot Greenan), only to experience impotence in bed and frustration with his wannabe hotelier son, whom he drags along with him on robberies. When Begbie visits Simon, he fobs him off with suggestions Renton is still in Amsterdam, but the two foes are doomed to encounter each-other in a rave palace toilet.
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Part of the original Trainspotting’s cunning lay in the way it mused with carbolic acidity on the then still-recent sting of insult so many felt from the ‘80s conservative reaction, but refracted through the cracked lens of a bunch of fuck-ups whose personal deficiencies only gained relevance through that context. The characters’ mordant pronouncements on modern life had their true side, but there was an irony involved, as their own lives were revealed to be littered with jagged shards of tragedy and violence and brushes with death, their rebellion a method of slow suicide. By comparison, T2 cannot commit to any new cultural thesis. There’s a gag early in the film when Renton is met by a flotilla of female greeters at the airport, all dressed up like stars in the first reel of a porn film, who turn out to be immigrants. As this joke evinces, T2 buys not so subtly into the logic of Brexit, that the present is a deracinated joke and Britain is now full of foreigners living out the dreams that were those of locals however many years ago; this idea is literally the underpinning of the plot, as Veronika reproduces Renton’s arc from the original. The film’s most political interlude is also one that takes aim not at contemporary malfeasance but at the habits of backward-looking pockets of the British Isles, particularly a social schism that’s long been niggling the Scottish community, as Renton and Simon infiltrate a club for right-wing Protestants who still celebrate ancient victories over Catholics. As Renton quips, “They have something we don’t – an identity,” for they retain a folksy brand of communality that just happens to be based in sleazy sectarian prejudices. Renton and Simon bluff their way out when they’re almost unmasked by improvising a song about killing Catholics, and then fleece many of their bank accounts simply by punching in the date of the Battle of the Boyne.
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Renton himself can’t even bear to listen to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” the original film’s thunderous theme, on his old turntable, as the emotions it stirs are too intense. Meanwhile Danny ‘Spud’ Murphy (Ewen Bremner), the fourth pillar of the surviving gang, has relapsed into addiction after trying to settle down with old girlfriend Gail (Shirley Henderson) and their young son. Spud’s attempt at suicide is narrowly averted by Renton’s arrival, and as well as coaching the two eager entrepreneurs, Veronika pushes along Spud’s attempt to supplant his mania for heroin with a mania for writing down his experiences. Following the lead of Porno, T2 substantiates Spud as Welsh’s stand-in in this, the most wretched of the group whose scrappy creative gifts will nonetheless finish up the most viable for any real survival and prosperity. By contrast Renton and Simon’s labours add up to nothing when they’re leaned on by a gangster who nixes their project and dumps them in the woods, whilst Begbie romps around the city, alienated from his family and with no object in mind more profound than to visit cruel revenge upon Renton. The other three make an excursion into the hills to pay tribute to the missing member of their old gang, Tommy, whose death, Simon reminds Renton, was partly his fault in introducing him to the junkie lifestyle. Whereupon Renton reminds Simon in turn about how his neglect when high also killed his infant child. When the business loan is approved unexpectedly, Renton and Simon find themselves each trying to work up the nerve, and self-justification, to rip off the other man and flee to A Better Life 2.0.
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The major pleasure of T2 is seeing these actors snap so confidently back into their old roles, many relishing the new dimensions of the original’s rather Hogarthian sprawl of gangly, hyped-up caricatures. Miller’s performance here is a splendid roadmap of egotistical traits that have lost the sexy edge they had when he was a twenty-something and settled into mere scuzzy pathos: far from tongue-swapping Es with girlfriends, now he’s only gotten it up far enough to bang Veronika once, and prefers to get high and watch music videos on his big screen telly. Bremner, who has gained the charmed career natural character actors know, plays Spud with a blend of keen empathy for his flailing as he tackles the chance to regain control over his life, whilst retaining an edge of unhinged, almost alien attitude to his physical comedy, prancing like a denuded spider through some scenes, quivering like jelly in others, and sometimes finally locating the lode of character and creative zest under all his timorous, life-shy unease. Carlyle’s act as Begbie is just as uncanny as ever in describing the terrifying side of the Scots character, that inchoate berserker will, but it’s stretched here in some discomforting ways, as Begbie finally reveals a self-aware streak as he finally makes peace with his son. Welsh turns up playing the same part he did in the original, former small-time drug dealer-turned-fence Mikey Forrester.
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McGregor is by comparison not so well served as the straight man to these freakazoids: Renton’s successful but only temporary integration into the world at large has left him bereft of the outsider cheek and verve that once served him well, and it’s not until half-way through the film that he’s allowed a glimmer of the bard-like state of cynical ferocity that so famously marked him in the original. This comes as he explains the meaning of his and his mates’ old, sarcastic “Choose Life” motto and updates it to take a poke at the bullshit of the present day. One problem here, however, is that the original Trainspotting was rooted securely in its portrayal of an era, an era that was already slightly antique when the film was made: by this logic, T2 should be set in the late Blair era. But the reference points here are much hazier and generally present-tense, and when Renton delivers an updated “Choose Life” rant, it’s a sprawl of whinges directly transcribed from a million Twitter accounts: “Choose rape jokes. Choose slut-shaming, revenge porn…Choose 9/11 never happened.” The angry thrill of rejecting officially sanctioned bromides has lost its ironic pep and become a mere list of bugbears, as a vast slice of society at large has stolen Renton’s thunder but without the irony. In its best moments T2 coherently visualises the feeling of being plunged back into the past in the frame of the present, when that past was so much more vibrant if also often terribly ugly, as in a moment when Spud finds himself on a familiar street and remembers events that pierce him to the core – and the viewer, as those events are the iconic opening moments of the original.
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T2 locks itself into this pattern and can’t get out of it, reproducing the fault of its characters. These middle-aged goons are left looking back perpetually to a time when, however squalid they were, they were at least confident in their disasters. Building an entire film around this reflex is a dodgy move at best: long after the point where this film should have moved on to new business, the filmmakers are still busy rehashing the old. Almost everything that takes place in this entry is beholden in some way to the original, rather than presenting a new piece of art that properly creates an interesting present-tense. T2 reminded me of some other attempts to synthesise second acts for reasonably serious hits. One unfavourable comparison is Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986), which expertly crafted a mature continuation of a not-so-dissimilar character portrait whilst avoiding miring itself in retracing old steps. Trainspotting’s concentration on characters barely holding on to a place in society and thus moving from scam to scam might easily have loaned itself to such fresh contexts, but instead T2 takes the least adventurous course, never quite making truly effective drama and only occasionally wringing fresh and outrageous comedy out of the thin plot. Porno was more concerned with Spud’s reinvention as an artist and the other characters’ gleeful repetitions of the past. Boyle and Hodge make gestures towards rendering T2 as a kind of work-in-progress, post-modern depiction of its own creation as Veronika urges Spud to give us an ending to his tale. But to call these gestures hamfisted feels excessively kind. Teasing snatches of familiar music keep bobbing up on the soundtrack, calling back to the original’s anthemic use of “Lust for Life” and Underworld’s “Born Slippy,” but the new soundtrack is very forgettable, or littered with tracks straight out of Boyle’s iPod shuffle.
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The female characters retained from the original are left holding the bag in a way that confirms how suffocating the portrait of male ageing angst has become. Henderson, who loaned mischievous humour to the original, is reduced to a barely-glimpsed walk-on, a forlorn martyr to Spud’s fecklessness. Sadly, Kelly Macdonald returns only very briefly as Diane, Renton’s one-time randy, underage party girl pick-up. Now she’s a besuited, coolly confident lawyer installed in bright and shiny offices, whom Renton and Veronika hire to spring Simon from prison after his blackmailing racket rebounds. The spark in Macdonald’s eye as she teases Renton about his latest too-young girlfriend gives the film a momentary spark of knowing, randy energy that Veronika can’t match in spite of Nedyalkova’s admirable poise even wearing cavorting in a strap-on dildo: the foreign hooker girlfriend looking for her chance is a little too cliché a figure. Indeed, too much of the film’s would-be biting commentary has shop-worn aspect, like the opening that finds Renton not running through the streets but on a treadmill, an arch way to tell us he’s devolved into just another yuppie, and the gangster’s punishment of Renton and Simon’s disrespect by leaving them naked and forcing them to venture their back home, a sequence that feels like it stumbled in out of another movie. A scene in which Begbie reconciles with his son feels entirely phony, a sop to the imperative in so many modern films to offer some kind of maudlin connection even as everything we know about Begbie shouts at us that he’s an insensate psychopath without such capacity for introspection. Now Begbie has traumatic memories of a drunken father and a streak of class rage. But in the very next scene he’s carrying around a bag fool of tools intending violation and dismemberment of Renton. So who cares what his issues are?
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The original Trainspotting was a daft ode to its own bratty energy but it was in that way true to its characters and their smart-arse viewpoint on pop cultural mores. Boyle’s stylistic showiness was attuned to the frenetic highs of junkie life and to its wilful blindness and weak grasp on reality – moments of gouging tragedy passed by noted and then lost amongst oblivious recourse into more drugs, vignettes of fantasy and kitschy self-mockery coming at you with such fervour they coalesced into a kind of sense. Here, the mood demands something totally different, and if Boyle had been less concerned with re-establishing his hip bona fides he might have tethered this tale to an artistic palette rooted in the bleak feeling of being washed up after a shipwreck. Instead, Boyle’s style settles into weak self-imitation, replete with canted camera angles and freeze-frames of no function, and random film references – Spud imagining himself as the hero of Raging Bull (1980), and a finale that spoofs Blade Runner’s (1982) climax. Boyle pulls off one great shot when Renton first approaches Simon’s pub, a monolith in the midst of an apocalyptic landscape, remnant outpost of an age and a culture that has literally upped sticks and moved on. Indeed, Anthony Dod Mantle’s photography is perhaps the best thing about the film, even when Boyle makes him do nonsensical things. The film does still offer its occasional comedic coups, like the sequence with the Protestant clique, and the cleverly deadpan sequence in which Renton and Begbie finally encounter each-other, sharing cross words through a toilet stall without initially recognising the other’s voice, only then for the penny to slowly drop for both. And there are images that sharply capture the evanescent emotions Boyle is chasing, as when Renton watches Diane in her office from the street, the outsider looking in and pining for all lost time.
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After moving in circles for what seems like an eternity, T2 finally starts barrelling towards a climax as Begbie finally encounters Renton, and he leaves his quarry with a gashed arm as Renton flees him. Soon Begbie tracks down Spud and is momentarily stalled in his quest when he starts making Spud read his written anecdotes to him, taking great pleasure in hearing his old sadisms mythologised, only then to find the same way that Renton cut Spud in on the money he stole. At Veronika’s behest, Spud aids her in filching the money the lads got off the government, before trying to warn them about Begbie’s murderous intentions. But he arrives too late, as Begbie has already entered Simon’s pub, forcing his former friends to try and battle him. The trouble is that once the actual story pace of T2 picks up (as opposed to its shot pace, which remains stroboscopic), it stops making sense, and resolutions to the various plot lines carry unusually little weight. That’s in part because unlike his younger self, Boyle, like many a recovering cynic, has become an indulgent and syrupy filmmaker, loathe to drag any of his characters too deep off into the woods. Unsurprisingly for the guy who made me sit through Slumdog Millionaire (2008), far from revisiting this material to shock current cinema out of its lethargic state, Boyle instead has, in spite of the occasional bit of male nudity and his empty showiness as director, removed the fangs from his creation. T2 isn’t a bad film by any stretch, and yet I found it a profoundly disappointing, even dispiriting one on many levels. Not because of its melancholic streak, but because it doesn’t know how to frame that melancholia. Something I’ve long suspected is now hatching out in movie land: after decades whining about Boomer nostalgia, the Generation X equivalent threatens to be utterly insufferable. Where are the worst toilets in Scotland of yesteryear?

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