Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, William Conrad
Robert Siodmak, Mark Hellinger, John Huston, Ernest Hemingway
According to Lee Server’s biography of Ava Gardner, Broadway sharpie turned Hollywood hotshot Mark Hellinger well understood the commercial possibilities of Hemingway’s twelve page short story The Killers. His judgment proved correct – in reflection it’s easy to ask, Why would anyone doubt the assessment of a writer who died at forty four and yet somehow managed to get a major Broadway theater named after himself? (Nowadays the building that was once The Mark Hellinger Theater is The Times Square Church. (Mark Hellinger sounds like a truly fascinating personality; the book that seems to be a principal source of information about him, by Jim Bishop, isn’t easy to find and, when you can find one on, say, Ebay, the prices are preposterous.)) Server quotes Hellinger: “The exploitation values are gigantic.”
What he meant was that from a marketing perspective the picture would have to piggyback along on Hemingway’s name. Screenplay adaptation duties were shared by Tony Veiller, an old Hollywood pro, and John Huston, who had to be anonymous and appear on no paperwork because he was still serving in the army at the time.
Veiller and Huston produced a hell of a script, a real humdinger of a noir with a double and triple cross for the ages. Director Robert Siodmak, being talked about in some quarters as the next Hitchcock around that time, is in peak form here. This man knows how to make a movie – in particular, he knows how to pull performances out of his cast. This film has numerous supporting parts and bit parts and every actor is spot on in almost every case. Virtually nobody is miscast. (Insofar as it is possible for acting to contribute to the worth of a film, it’s the supporting parts and bit parts that make it happen, not the starring roles.)
But I’m not the sort of filmgoer who judges performances. I’d like to be one of the critics Kolker had in mind when he wrote, in A Cinema of Loneliness, that “The serious critic may talk about the director, but the reviewer and the publicist still sell the picture by the star.” Fortunately Siodmak is strong in every aspect of directing. This film contains one of the great tracking shots in cinematic history, in my opinion – the robbery of the hat company, which we see on the screen while we hear, on the soundtrack, the insurance company executive reading an old newspaper account of it!
That’s not all. Siodmak employs a kind of Ophuls lite style at several points in the picture. One example is the way the camera observes Nick Adams running through backyards and hopping fences from the Swede’s rented room, then retreats back into the room itself to observe the Swede in bed. This same strategy is in force when Riordan the insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien, who is actually the main star of the film despite third billing) seeks out the hotel maid the Swede has designated as his beneficiary and she tells him the story of the night she encountered the Swede in his room.
Still more – Siodmak has a flair for atmosphere and environment. Witness the statue in the lobby of the Atlantic Casualty Company, or that of the green cat in The Green Cat. Impressive indeed!
There’s a major problem here of another kind, however, which is this: The Killers is one of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. It is meant to be a chapter in the overall development of young Nick Adams – universally understood to be Hemingway’s alter ego – into a mature adult. In the film it is impossible to get any sense of this at all. This movie doesn’t give a hoot about Nick Adams. Nick Adams is a minor, minor character in the drama– he’s there, he serves a Hollywood screenplay checklist function (he runs to the Swede to warn him about the killers, thus giving us the opportunity to see the depth of the Swede’s apathy), but then he disappears.. The screenwriters are therefore forced to take the picture into areas that Hemingway never had any desire to investigate. At the risk of repeating myself please allow me to quote Gary Fishgall’s biography of Burt Lancaster: “Screenwriter Anthony Veiller and his unbilled collaborator, director-screenwriter John Huston (who was still in the Army and technically unable to take film assignments), effectively turned The Killers into the basis for a film noir classic.” Hemingway is one of the few authors who has ever had movie star type name recognition – everyone else connected with the picture, as I already observed, was essentially a no name with the general movie going public from Lancaster to Gardner to Siodmak to Hellinger. Thus, while it was absolutely necessary to have the Hemingway name there in a big way, the final product really doesn’t have much to do with Hemingway’s story thematically. The story, in reality, is a macguffin, a pretext used to kick off the picture.
Here in this second part of my tentative examination of Siodmak’s The Killers I’d like to explore the director’s choices and technique, as I see them, a bit further. This is an admittedly random analysis, jumping around a bit with no formal plan or structure – shards of observation, if you like.
The film begins with the camera in the back seat of the killers’ car as they drive down the road to Brentwood, NJ, to find and kill the Swede. We see their silhouettes, a road sign announcing Brentwood, and then a street in the town where Henry’s Diner sits across from a gas station. Again, we get silhouettes of the hit men – they walk across the town square to case out the closed gas station. Then they look across the road to the diner in profile, almost like models posing for their busts.
Inside the diner we have George, the waiter, and Nick Adams sitting alone at the end of the counter. The first spoken word in the picture is “Ketchup” – Nick Adams speaking to George. This is curious – the bottle of ketchup is literally inches away from him on the counter.
This shot establishes Siodmak’s methodology, which includes almost complete eschewing of a much employed Hollywood strategy – the shot/reverse shot way of showing a dialogue. The vast majority of the film works with two- and three- shots, with the camera well back from any individual face. There are some mid range close-ups – for example the face of the Swede as he waits for the killers to burst into his room, or that of the gangster Dum Dum as he recollects events for the insurance man Reardon.
For the most part, trying to punch holes in the logic of a traditional Hollywood screenplay isn’t going to be any great task, and the killing of the Swede is no exception. Nick Adams knows the two strangers intend to kill the Swede at any moment, yet after he tells the Swede and the Swede retreats into his own indifference and lethargy, Nick does nothing. What? He doesn’t run to the police? He just goes away?
Although, if he did report what he knows, he would doubtless encounter the silly chief we see in the next scene, where the main character, Reardon, is introduced. After the chief makes a few speeches trying to absolve himself of all responsibility Reardon and Nick Adams go to the morgue to view the body of the murdered Swede. Here is where the flashback structure that the screenplay follows begins in earnest. Nick Adams is the first of the characters to relay parts of the past to Reardon.
In the flashback we see the Swede is already resigned to the fact that he’s going to be killed by Big Jim Colfax. This is something we only grasp fully later on, in reflection, after most of the story has been told. We, as viewers in real time with our initial watching of the film, only sense that Colfax makes the Swede uncomfortable. We don’t know why.
Reardon next visits with the maid in an Atlantic City hotel, Mary Ellen Daugherty, whose nickname, in a little inside joke, is the same as that of the actress who portrays her, Queenie Smith. Queenie’s recollections reveal, among other things, the significance of the green handkerchief that Reardon found among the Swede’s effects.
And next – Reardon goes back to his office to see what information his secretary has managed to uncover about the Swede.
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW
This film has always been very highly regarded – nothing else Bogdanovich has done in a very long career has come close to garnering this level of acclaim. Why?
- The main theme of the film is a meditation on what seems to be an almost universal feeling – nostalgia for times gone by, for a disappearing world and way of life (symbolized by the closing of the movie house). At the risk of seeming to come out of left field, let me provide quotes from three sources – quotes that reconcile exactly with the message of this picture.
This is from the dust jacket of a collection of photographs by the Nebraska novelist Wright Morris:
“The author tacitly admits that this volume is an effort to hold fast to what he knows is passing, to salvage, in words and pictures, the nature of an experience already historic. Is there something of value in this effort for those who now attempt to shape the future? This is one man’s travels in a vanishing America, among those objects and places that still have a mystic meaning to give out.”
In Jerome Loving’s biography of Theodore Dreiser we come across an anecdote about Dreiser, at age 44, returning home to the Indiana of his boyhood:
“IN Bloomington, he discovered his old college so grown, not only in size, but in ‘architectural pretentiousness as to have obliterated most of the rural inadequacy and backwoods charm’ he had once enjoyed. He could find only a few buildings he remembered, and he wondered to himself where all the young women he had known (or had wished to know) and the professors who had taught him had gone. ‘What is life.’ He asked himself. ‘that it can thus obliterate itself?…If a whole realm of interests and emotions can thus definitively pass, what is anything?’”
The following is the first paragraph of George Jessel’s foreword to a book entitled A Pictorial History of Vaudeville by Bernard Sobel:
“People like myself – and there aren’t many left – who have been before the public for a half century, are all included to favor the yesterdays, and unless they are doing exceedingly well, they live in a capsule of the past, seeing beauty only in that which cannot return, believing to the full that everything old is sacred.”
- Consider this passage from Harold Hayes’ introduction to Bogdanovich’s book Pieces of Time:
“Possessing this value he has learned to work with it, and it is his mastery of sentiment – hovering dangerously on the edge of sentimentality but never quite going over – that so brilliantly in this hard assed seventies informs his work.”
Really? I guess the truth or falsity of this assessment is somewhat subjective but I’m skeptical.
- There are numerous great individual shots and scenes, particularly close ups. The camera certainly loves Cybill Shepherd in this film, though not in a stupid or unskillful way.
I might quickly add that Cloris Leachman owns the screen here in a way few performers ever do, and that Bogdanovich plays to Hollywood convention in setting up the death of Billy a little too obviously yet it a way that can still pull at heart strings. Overall I think the picture contains some very strong individual scenes.
THE LADY EVE
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time lately viewing the films Stanley Cavell calls “comedies of remarriage” and his essays on them in his book Pursuits of Happiness. We can leave aside the question of whether or not this type of film truly constitutes a genre in itself – there seems to be some debate about it – but repeated viewing of these films, coupled with careful study of Cavell’s essays on them, is certainly a most profitable exercise.
One of the things that strikes me is how little Cavell is interested in a film qua film; throughout most of his essay on Sturges’ glorious comedy starring Stanwyck and Fonda he could well be writing about a play, whether written, staged, or filmed. True, early on he discusses a camera movement (which is misidentified as ‘wandering’ – the scene in question is achieved by a straight cut), the humorous opening credit sequence, and, later, he does address REFLEXITIVITY in terms of the photograph of the three card hustlers, as well as stating, in a discussion about the mirror Jean holds up to observe the other passengers on the ship, that “…we are informed that this film knows itself to have been written and directed and photographed and edited.” Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t – but if it does, it does so in a way obvious only to a philosopher or a serious film scholar. It doesn’t display this knowledge of itself in the way, say, the microphone hanging over an actor’s head is plainly visible in a Godard film.
But other than this, there is little in Cavell’s essay that tackles the movie as a member of a unique artistic medium. For example it would be, I think, completely out of character for Cavell to comment on the transition cut from the “smokestack” of the little boat Fonda and Demarest use up the Amazon to the smokestack of the cruise ship (think of Kubrick cutting from the thrown bone to the spaceship) or on the use of stock footage of a cruise ship sailing on the ocean that Sturges uses here. There are also outrageous Hollywood conventions that we have to put up with here – for instance, when Fonda and Demarest first come aboard the cruise ship, how does Stanwyck just happen to have an apple handy to bop him on the head with????? Or this – the little boat that they have been up the Amazon with just happens to be able to connect with the ocean liner in the middle of the sea???????? Of course, I understand that Cavell’s concerns lie in different areas – he says he is not pretending to be writing film criticism – yet sometimes as I read his essays I wonder if he isn’t giving the cinematic aspects of cinema just a little short shrift.
The great philosopher Stanley Cavell has tried, in his work, to carve out and baptize a genre of Hollywood film called “the comedy of remarriage”. In this genre he includes seven films: The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Adam’s Rib, The Awful Truth, and Bringing Up Baby. His book of essays on the subject is called Pursuits of Happiness.
LAST TANGO IN PARIS
For the span of about fifteen minutes – from the start of the opening credit sequence until Paul and Jeanne make love against the window and then leave the apartment they will spend a great deal of the movie in together – this film is cinematic glory at its greatest. The possibilities for the motion picture as a full blown art form are exploited to spectacular advantage in almost every way possible before the flick, unfortunately, starts a gradual slide into cliché, sensationalism, and melodramatic slop, as well as a real slowdown in the sheer virtuosity of the filmmaking. But what a start!!
The part of the film I highlight here is bookended by two very distinct modes of the saxophonist Gato Barbieri. His main theme is a mid tempo, moody ballad with all the characteristics of Barbieri’s Latin-fusion period, including the trademark Latin percussion, shakers, and rattles, but as Paul and Jeanne exit the apartment and go forth into Paris there explodes onto the soundtrack some wild Ornette Coleman type free jazz on the piano (Barbieri was playing with Coleman soulmate Don Cherry around this time) – the perfect accompaniment for the half macho, half joyful timbre of the scene.
The painter Francis Bacon once said “Even in love, the barriers of the skin cannot be broken down.” The point behind the master stroke of using two Bacon portraits, a male and a female, to display the credits against is that it can impart a half aesthetic/half intellectual message or one that is fully aesthetic only, depending on the sensibilities of the moviegoer. It also speaks to Bertolucci’s immersion in culture – remember, this is the early 1970s. I wonder if Bertolucci means for the male/female in Bacon’s paintings to correspond directly somehow to the two principal characters, or in merely a more general sense? And seeing the name Jean-Pierre Leaud in the credits – what more can a cinephile ask for?
Fade in: we see Paul standing under the elevated train tracks. The camera twists in from behind him, on the right, as he clutches his head in his hands and screams “Fucking God!” into the noise of the passing train above. He’s a striking man in a long, almost orange colored coat; while his face dominates the screen for a second we see Jeanne, an equally striking looking individual, in soft focus, walking rapidly behind him, catching up on him. His face wears confused, pathetic, hopeless, helpless, sad expressions. As she catches up to him and passes on by, walking quickly, she stops to stare at him for a brief instant. She is flamboyant beyond flamboyant – a funky black hat, long white coat, high black boots. (The scene is in some respects owned by the costume designer Gitt Magrini.) As she passes him Bertolucci makes sure to include in the shot, on the far left, a very conservative couple in black overcoats walking side by side – a total contrast and comparison to Brando and Schneider, a juxtaposition of the mundane and the spectacular. And when she jumps over the broom of the street sweeper in her path we have our real first introduction to the spell cast by of one of the greatest female presences in the history of motion pictures.
She rushes forward, hurrying on, jumps over the broom, and Bertolucci cuts to the street below where we see policemen – alert, accessible, and available, an ironic situation because it is the complete reverse of the circumstances at the end of the film where there is not a cop to be found anywhere when Jeanne so desperately requires one. There follow more close-ups of Paul’s perplexed face and both man and woman gaze upward at the apartment – she from right outside the building where it is located, he still underneath the train tracks.
We’re wondering – who are these two? What is their relationship to each other? The questions are about to be both answered and prolonged.
We get our first close up of Schneider as she contemplates the APARTMENT FOR RENT sign – what a superstar, maybe not Brando’s equal in acting ability but more than his equal in screen presence and charisma (she will repeat this situation with Jack Nicholson a few years later). She hurries down the stairs to a café to phone her mother. Two other people are in the restroom – an old woman brushing her dentures (the significance of which is…?) and Paul, brooding. The only way he could have gotten there before her is to have gone straight down while she went up to the lobby of the building to read the APARTMENT FOR RENT sign. In another moment he will be in a place just a shade before her once again – we can’t know it at the time, but while the camera stays on her in the phone booth, calling her mother, he gets the key to the apartment from the concierge and enters it.
This phone call gives us our first little bit of exposition – Jeanne tells her mother that she is going to look at an apartment and then to the station to meet Tom, presumably her boyfriend or husband. But the visual exposition is just as strong – she opens her coat, puts her hand on her hip, the camera lingers on her legs as she preens for it. Bertolucci’s message is clear, and it’s not a feminist one – this is a woman primed to be fucked.
The concierge in the building pleads ignorance of the apartment for rent when Jeanne says, with great flourish, “I’m here for the apartment.” The concierge says she knows nothing of the sign and complains that people come and go and she’s always the last to know. She tells Jeanne to go look at the apartment herself if she so desires because she, the concierge, is (presciently) afraid of the rats. She can’t find the key; Jeanne disgustedly turns to go; the concierge produces a duplicate with a cackle, making an insulting remark about Jeanne’s youth. The concierge bursts into song, and a hand reaches out to place an empty bottle outside the door of an apartment. The principal musical theme – a little too schmaltzy here – plays on the soundtrack. Bertolucci throws in a neat little auteur move on the clank of the bottle, switching the focus from the concierge in the background to Jeanne in the foreground. But the whole scene is an exercise in cinema – the camera starts back, off to the right, and slowly moves in on the window until the window is center shot. This is reminiscent of the very first shot of the film that picked Brando up under the Metro tracks.
Jeanne ascends to the apartment in the elevator in a shot that’s lit in black and gray, in great contrast to the stark lambancy that the scenes have been framed in thus far.
Once within the dark apartment she opens shades and the balcony doors and gets a fright to see Paul sitting by the fireplace. She remarks that he must have come in behind her when she entered and left the door opened, but he says no, he was already there. Almost instantly they’re talking about where the furniture should go. He moves around; in a too obvious symbol, or metaphor, or whatever you want to call it, her reflection is shown in a cracked mirror. This time the panning camera moves back, not in closer, as she asks him, in English “What are you doing?” She – and we – are totally unable to make sense of this man’s dark, strange behavior. Neither she nor we, the audience, know a thing about him as yet.
In a shot photographed in a blue and white that clashes with everything else we’ve seen so far (as did the black and gray of the elevator shot), she goes to the bathroom and pees casually. She returns; the camera backs up to show her black hat isolated on the floor; after she asks, “You still here?” he sweeps her up into his arms.
As sex scenes often are in the movies, this once is a turn on, a turn off, and bewildering. The brute animal force of it is electrifying, but there are too many questions – for example, they’ve passed each other twice already, once in the street under the train tracks and then again in the lavatory in the café. They’re both unforgettable looking individuals – they don’t recognize each other in the apartment? Perhaps they do but choose not to comment. This would go a little way towards explaining the spontaneous combustion.
I can imagine what feminist critics might have to say about all this -especially the way her body jerks like a marionette after she rolls off him once they fall to the floor, and the clear shot of her pubic hair that accompanies this, to say nothing of Paul’s over the top priapic antics. It’s not my purpose to defend or criticize this here.
Oddly, though Paul never takes his coat off during any of the meeting, as they leave the building we see him, through the glass of the front door, putting it on. What?! When did he take it off? He wears an impish, almost mischievous, grin as they come out – not peccant in any way – while Jeanne seems shocked, dazed, confused. He takes the sign APARTMENT FOR RENT down, crumples it up, throws it away – the lease is signed, the relationship has begun.
I used to watch a lot of French films, so I guess it’s fitting that I should now and then take up Hollywood mainstreamers with a marginal connection to France – Papillon here and The Day of the Jackal there. (Coincidentally, these two films share another characteristic which is quite the opposite of the Hollywood norm – there is no love interest in either.) Or maybe not. Nobody is going to confuse Franklin J. Schaffner with Truffaut, Godard, or Varda.
Still, even though Papillon has truthfully got to be one of the sloppiest major studio releases ever released, it has enormous power, power that is heightened and intensified by the fact that Henri Charriere really did escape from Devil’s Island and lived to tell the tale. It’s a good thing that Schaffner had great facility with this kind of picture because the mistakes in the movie border on the incredible – liquids, both blood and water, quite visibly splash on the camera lens and completely destroy all suspension of disbelief. The guillotine scene is unintentionally hilarious, with continuity and editing goofs that make you wonder if the crew was stoned both during filming and in post production; and the penultimate scene in which Papillon dives into the ocean and we can clearly see the diver supporting the float beneath him – so readily discernible that he or she could almost be a part of the story – these are all truly debauched and unworthy. (There are, in fact, more mistakes, easily Googled. I don’t have the heart to go through everything. One involves the great actor Anthony Zerbe in the role of the leader of the leper colony.)
Whatever; here I want to talk about one small stretch of this long movie, and that’s the closing credits, which compromise not quite a full two minutes. This sequence almost makes me think that Schaffner actually planned a lot of the errors in order to have them work in concert with the credits at the end as a kind of reflexitivity.
As Papillon floats in the ocean on his makeshift raft after his daring jump from the cliffs, a narrator heretofore absent is mailed in from the universe to inform us that he escaped, lived the rest of his life in freedom, and outlived the notorious French penal colony. It isn’t clear to me what the advantage is of having a narrator bash in as an uninvited guest like this, and putting the message in text on the screen would have been just as intrusive and distracting. Perhaps Schaffner felt the point was too difficult to get across with more scenes in a “show, don’t tell” kind of way. Perhaps more scenes would have made a long movie even longer, and thus a little less commercially viable. Whatever the case, I think the consistent breaking off of the suspension of disbelief, whether intentional or not, sets up the images that accompany the credits in the end in a new and different way because watching the closing credits becomes an important part of understanding this movie.
I’ve often wondered what percentage of an audience actually sits and watches the final credits without popping the disc out or leaving the theater. It must be very low, and that’s because a definitive conclusion to the film has usually already been shown on the screen. Nobody cares who the gaffer or the third assistant director is. But here, as we watch the images of the abandoned prison – empty buildings eroded by time and covered in unsupervised vegetation – the enormity of the task that Papillon undertook, his quest for freedom, grows larger and larger in our minds. How many of us could match his zeal? The number is probably smaller than the number of us who sit through the closing credits.
This is a film full of action and violence, which necessarily makes for graphic scenes. But Schaffner also has an eye for the type of more understated, nuanced scene that a lesser director wouldn’t think of lining up. For example, in a scene showing the yard of the notorious prison the camera starts on a small lizard sitting atop the blazing hot roof of the building. A scene depicting a butterfly hunt pays significant attention to the fluttering insects trying to avoid the nets. In a scene in which the prisoners first arrive on the island a hog is shown happily rolling in the mud in the bottom left of the screen. And so on.
But the final scenes that I want to draw attention to here are devoid of people and animals and only show the various parts of the decrepit prison as backdrop for the names of everyone involved in the making of the film while haunting music by Schaffner’s habitual composer, Jerry Goldsmith, builds to crescendo. The end effect upon us is, of course, contemplation of the nature of the very nature of time. Time, we are being told by these pictures and the music in accompaniment, destroys everything. Sometimes the force of a human will – Papillon’s in this case – can combat it, or stall it off, but in the end the result is always a victory for time. And let’s not forget the cross breeding of the film and the meta-film, which is, overall, one of the most interesting features of Papillon.
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL
The Day of the Jackal contains a superb scene that looks like a choice candidate to fulfill the requirements of this blog – I refer to when the Jackal buys a huge melon at the market, takes it into the woods, paints a smiley face on it, hangs it from a tree, and uses it for deGaulle’s head in target practice. I’m going to leave it alone and refrain from comment. Sometimes in appreciation the old adage that less is more certainly applies. So what I’m going to do here is approach this film in a roundabout, bizarre fashion. Please permit me this indulgence. I’d like to make a weird analogy between an observation a famous film critic once made about movies in general and a somewhat similar state of affairs created by the Jackal in the eponymously titled film.
To this day many consider James Agee to be the gold standard for popular film criticism in America, and I think a good part of the reason why is his empathic identification with the audiences that were reading his columns as he wrote them. In his inaugural column for The Nation on December 26, 1942 he wrote:
I suspect that I am, far more than not, in your own situation: deeply interested in moving pictures, considerably experienced from childhood on in watching them and thinking and talking about them, and totally, or almost totally, without experience or even much second-hand knowledge of how they are made.
Wow. Of course, he was right. I’d like to put an unusual spin on this observation of Agee’s.
One wonders what Agee would have made of a film like The Day of the Jackal that requires at least some willingness on the part of the filmgoer to acknowledge a parallel between the kind of ignorance of moviemaking Agee references and the sorts of deceptions and illusions the Jackal (played by Edward Fox) creates and weaves throughout the film. Four of the people the Jackal crosses paths with in the course of his plot to kill deGaulle– the forger, the woman he meets in the hotel, Colette, the man who picks him up in the Turkish bath, and the landlady of the building from which he plans to shoot – he kills- the forger because of his attempt to blackmail the Jackal , Colette because the police are questioning her, the gay lover because the man has seen the Jackal, in disguise, identified on television, and the landlady because he cannot have anyone witnessing him inside the building. In other words, all four know too much. In one way or another the Jackal’s concealment of reality has been penetrated.. The fifth such person, the gun maker, is left alone without explanation. Maybe the Jackal trusts him, or perhaps intends to deal with him after he kills deGaulle. In any case, concealment of reality is the operating theme in the plot of the film as much as it is in James Agee’s remark, albeit within very different circumstances. The mysteries of filmmaking exist in order to entertain; the Jackal’s, in order to deceive.
A workmanlike film such as this could probably only have been made by a studio veteran of Hollywood mainstreamers, which is exactly what Fred Zinneman was. (Look, I’m just a casual watcher of movies with a humble, modest collection and by complete chance it contains four or five Zinneman pictures – High Noon, From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma!, etc., simply by virtue of the fact that I try to represent various genres of Hollywood films well.) (We can safely disregard Andrew Sarris’ nonsensical observations on Zinneman in The American Cinema – bloviation such as “At its best, his direction is inoffensive; at its worst, it is downright dull.”)
The gun maker – “Gozzi” – is completely and totally aware that the Jackal is an assassin, ordering a gun to kill somebody with. The forger is not – he only remarks that the Jackal must “have a big job” in the works. Too, the Jackal emphasizes – in very threatening, forceful tones, that, once the work is done, he wants the forger to forget everything. Yet he does none of this with the gun maker, indicating that he must have quite a bit more faith in him than he does in the forger. Still, the forger does not take the Jackal seriously and attempts to sell him back documents he had originally agreed to give back for free.
Notice – when the forger attempts to blackmail the Jackal, the Jackal kills him. When the gun maker reveals he had to make the gun out of a totally different material than the Jackal had requested, barely a word is mentioned about it. The Jackal’s response is “Where can I practice?” When the Jackal learns that Colette has been talking to the authorities he kills her immediately, with no hesitation (as he did the forger). Ditto the gay man – the decision to kill him is arrived at with no hesitation whatsoever. Only the landlady’s killing seems to have been planned in advance. But whatever the situation, the concealment of reality is paramount.
“What’s all this got to do with James Agee?” I can hear you screaming. Only this – what would it be like to watch a film in which you got yourself totally emotionally involved – laughing, crying, scared to death – and then could suddenly see the director, the cameraman, the sound recordists, the lighting director, and the rest of the crew, as well as the actors, as the movie was actually being filmed. How would you feel? Would you view the film differently? Of course you would. The necessary concealment of reality that’s required for things to proceed properly would have been removed. It’s something to contemplate, isn’t it?
News of first time screenwriters who pen spec scripts based on their own personal life experiences and actually – miraculously, really – see the film get made and released are always inspiring. The ones that always spring to mind for me are Robert Mulligan with Summer of 42 ; Douglas Day Stewart with An Officer and A Gentleman; and James Toback with The Gambler. (Even Sylvester Stallone and Rocky may qualify here.) I say they’re inspiring because such news invariably entails something a little more than just a desire to entertain or to make it in Hollywood – the screenwriter believes so strongly in their message, they believe that the truth they have to impart to us is so worth discussing in artistic terms, that their desire to succeed just will not be denied. As a matter of fact, there is a scene from the picture we are very briedfly mentioning here, Toback’s The Gambler in which protagonist Axel Freed, a professor of literature, gives a short lecture to his class on this very subject of the will and desire.
Here’s an excerpt from an article Toback wrote for Deadline Hollywood. It gives some background as to how he came to write the script. Here’s the link to the whole article, by the way:
“After graduating from Harvard in 1966 I taught literature and writing in a radical new program at CCNY whose additional faculty included Joseph Heller, John Hawks, William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme, Adrienne Rich, Mark Mirsky and Israel Horovitz. I also wrote articles and criticism for Esquire, Harpers, The Times, The Voice and other publications. Most of all, I gambled — recklessly, obsessively and secretly. It was a rich, exciting double life with heavy doses of sexual adventurism thrown in for good measure. Inspired by the life and work of my literary idol, Dostoyevsky, I embarked on the writing of The Gambler intended originally as a novel. Half way in, it became clear to me that I was seeing and hearing the “novel” as a movie and I abruptly decided to turn it into one. When I hit full stride I felt as if I were a recording secretary, simply putting down on paper dialogue and images I heard and saw as if they were not sounds and pictures at all but rather real life action existing in my brain.”
So as we see, the movie began as a powerful personal vision. British director Karel Reisz soon got involved with the project. Reisz, the author of one of the seminal texts on film editing, was a director of realistic films with a “focus on characters on the margins” as his obituary in The Guardian says. Certainly The Gambler qualifies there.
He was also quite unlucky in the way the executives he made pictures for handled them after they were finished and ready. Toback’s article cited above details this as far as The Gambler goes; Steven Bach’s Final Cut, one of the truly classic insider accounts of Hollywood, chronicles how Reisz’s next film, Who’ll Stop SThe Rain? was sabotaged by the very studio he made it for! (Incidentally, the picture was adapted from Robert Stone’s classic novel Dog Soldiers. Stone would go on to write the terrific Hollywood bashing novel Children of Light, and after reading Bach it’s easy to see why.)
The film itself is a bit of a wonder, and the article linked to above is immeasurably helpful in understanding it and the overall gambling sensibility. Lauren Hutton is an almost unreal presence on the screen – why in the world was this woman not more of a star? In the title role James Caan is excellent as an addicted gambler but not real convincing as a college professor. Paul Sorvino plays a role that’s kind of a hybrid of the ones he played in Goodfellas and A Touch of Class. And in small roles we have many actors who would become fairly well recognized over the years – Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Burt Young, Vic Tayback, Antonio Fargas, James Woods. All of them are very capable here.
The script, though very powerful and obviously authentic, is not without some problems – for example, Axel’s girlfriend and mother, both featured prominently for a while, at a certain point just drop off the screen. They literally disappear. And the Dostoyevskian existentialism is highly questionable as a working philosophy, even given that we understand it’s the main character’s principal operating principle.
THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR
Nineteen sixty eight wasn’t a peaceful year in the United States. Riots and protests over Vietnam and the state of race relations; the assassinations of RFK and Dr. r King; the spectacle of the police, under Mayor Daley’s order to “shoot to kill”, pounding on demonstrators at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago; all this and more contributed to the deep social unrest felt throughout the society. And yet one would never know any of this from a viewing of The Thomas Crown Affair, Norman Jewison’s film released in that year and meant to take place in the contemporary world. Why is that the case? I believe it’s because the real concerns of the film are selfhood, freedom, and personal identity – in other words, metaphysical issues and not social or political ones. At one point Thomas Crown is asked, “What do you have to worry about?” His answer – “Who I want to be tomorrow” – is instructive. It implies, first, that he has the power to control what person he wishes to be and, second, that he changes this identity frequently.
Here I would like to explore these issues by looking at Crown himself and his relationships with other characters in the picture.
This is a remarkable work – not only thematically but cinematically. Jewison’s stewardship, a team of editors led by Hal Ashby, cinematography by Haskell Wexler, and a varied score made up of several different kinds of music, all combine to give the picture an exciting feel. Indeed, the glitz and style are potentially overwhelming. Even a respected critic such as Roger Ebert essentially judged the picture to be all style and no substance. It’s true – there’s a lot to be said for the film’s glamour. In her great essay Notes on “Camp” Susan Sontag quotes Jean Genet (“the only criterion of an act is its elegance”) and Oscar Wilde (“in matters of great importance, the vital element is not sincerity, but style”). I have a tremendous amount of sympathy with this general point of view, which probably accounts for a lot of my enthusiastic appreciation of The Thomas Crown Affair. However, we must not mistake this motion picture for a delectable, gorgeous portion of fluffy nothing – because eventually it reveals itself to be a remarkably profound examination of important philosophical issues.
This inquiry focuses on the characters: Thomas Crown; Vicki Anderson (an insurance investigator suspicious of Crown); Lieutenant Eddie Malone of the Boston police; Crown’s mistress, Gwen; and the five gang members Crown recruits to rob a bank. I’ll try to do so with an analysis of the characters’ speech and behavior as well as a look at the formal style of the director, Norman Jewison, in part by comparison with some of his other films such as The Cincinnati Kid, In the Heat of the Night, and Rollerball. These investigations, hopefully, will help put us on the road to a serious appreciation of this richly rewarding and important film.
Save The Tiger
Pauline Kael’s book 5000 Nights at the Movies is a collection of very short reviews (many seem to be summaries of some of her full length reviews from her other books and her columns). The entry on Save The Tiger reads thus:
The picture asks us to weep for Harry the garment manufacturer (Jack Lemmon), who pimps for his customers so they’ll give him their orders, and who plans to set fire to his warehouse so the insurance money will finance filling those orders. The picture is a moral hustle that says this high-living showoff is a victim of American materialism. Harry suffers and jabbers; the writer and producer, Steve Shagan, appears to think he has created a modern tragic hero, and he’s determined to puff the movie up with wit and wisdom.
I don’t know how it is possible to so badly miss the points and themes of a film; perhaps the perspective from which one comes is the overriding factor. In my judgement this is a movie about the phenomenon known as the mid life crisis. I’m an admirer of the book Passages by Gail Sheehy, who has been accused of borrowing a little too heavily from the ideas of a psychiatrist named Roger Gould. One of Gould’s ideas refers to the years of our lives when we are between the ages of 35 and 45 He says that this is when
Tumult is caused by the unresolved problems of the 30s and the first emotional awareness that time is running out and death will come.
THIS is what the film is about, assuredly; and by the way, Jack Lemmon here gives one of the greatest performances in the history of motion pictures. The circumstances surrounding the adaptation are fairly unique in that Steve Shagan, a Hollywood insider, wrote both the novel and the screenplay concurrently. The film is essentially an outline of the novel, leaner, almost entirely faithful in those aspects that it chooses to bring to the screen. As directed by John G. Avildsen (who would later make one of the best known movies of them all, the first Rocky), the set ups are masterful I once wrote a quick review of the film on Ezine Articles that was picked up on a few different websites. I will reprint it here and then ruminate a little more fully by concentrating on the way the book goes into much more detail about things than the film does. As noted above, whatever parts of the novel the film elects to replicate, it replicates exactly, but there are considerably more characterizations, scenes and expositions in the book that flesh out the story much more fully. Many many years ago, in a screenwriting course in the Adult Ed program at NYU, I remember the instructor teaching us that we should write out reams and reams of biographical, background information on the characters that would not go into the movie and that no one else would ever read, in the hopes that this would allow us to create more living, breathing dialogue for the characters, make them more alive. Something like this is actually what the novel version of Save The Tiger is, and this is the function it serves for the movie.
Here then is my long ago piece, mistakes and all:
“Early on in Save The Tiger the apparel executive Harry Stoner is trying to mediate a dispute in his dress factory between an ancient tailor and a young, flashy designer. The two quarrel ferociously; Harry, needing to keep both happy, tries to be diplomatic and not take sides. The designer storms off with a cruel barb to the old man: “I can’t wait till they replace you with a laser beam!” All *he* means is to hurt the old man’s feelings, but we take this remark, from our perspective in 2005 (the film is from the mid 70s) as a prescient comment about how quickly the world around us can change.
Just as an idea of how fast things move, let’s look at another brief scene from Alvidsen’s film (Rocky would be his next project): on his way into the office Harry stops on an LA boulevard to pick up a hitchhiker, a young hippie girl with nothing to do but smoke pot all day. He makes a call from his car phone, a huge contraption hooked into the dashboard with a long cord, and the girl is simply incredulous – she gapes, “My God! You have a phone in your car! Are you, like, super rich?” In just thirty years an episode goes from being so far out of the ordinary to being as ordinary as possible.
Such is life!
The plot of Save The Tiger is relatively simple: Harry and his business partner, Phil, have cooked the books in their apparel company for years and lived the high life. Now time
has run out, there are no more accounting trick rabbits left to pull out of the hat, they’re going bust. The solution: hire an arsonist to burn the factory to the ground, collect the insurance settlement, cash out.
Why is this so important? Because Harry is having a midlife crisis of major proportions. He screams in his sleep, remembers the names of baseball players from his youthful days in Brooklyn, recalls lovemaking scenes with his wife from twenty years ago, has mirages of his old company from World War 2 before his eyes. Upon repeated viewings one comes to understand that this is a movie about time – not clock time, necessarily, but psychological time, the time inside, Heidegger time. How you wake up one day and you’re fifty years old all of a sudden and people you’ve known your whole life are dying all around you.
The brilliant metaphor of the title comes when Harry is walking down the street and an activist with a poster of a tiger that is going extinct calls out, “Hey mister! Wanna help save the tiger? Only a few thousand left in the world!” Even the mighty tigers die out, are not immune to the ruthlessness of time.
At the end of the film, after giving the arsonist a deposit, Harry walks slowly, in loneliness, past a park where some kids are playing baseball. One whacks the ball out of the park, and Harry gives chase and throws it back onto the field. A young player protests – “Hey mister! You can’t play with us!” Harry at once seems to accept this remark, as he has not throughout – has in fact fought against accepting it. He sees himself among the youngsters playing, and comes to an understanding that only true reflection and contemplation can lead to. And we see with him.”