Friday, May 24, 2019

First Man


Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by space travel. The seeds were planted in science fiction movies like Star Wars (1977) but my interest intensified in the early 1980s with the United States Space Shuttle program. If kids in the 1960s and 1970s had the space race between the Americans and the Russians, my generation had the Shuttles – incredible spacecraft that would hurtle into outer space to launch telescopes or rendezvous with space stations. The tragic Space Shuttle Challenger mission in 1986 where it exploded 73 seconds into its flight was a sobering reminder of the danger of these endeavors.

My interest in the Space Shuttles dovetailed with the release of The Right Stuff (1983), a historical biopic about the Mercury Seven astronauts that playfully exposed their flaws and celebrated these brave men. Over the years, my interest in the subject continued with films like Apollo 13 (1995) and so when it was announced that a biopic chronicling Neil Armstrong’s historic landing on the Moon was being made I was all in.

First Man (2018) is Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land (2016) and reunited him with his leading man Ryan Gosling playing Armstrong. As a result, anticipation for the film was high and then it failed to perform at the box office despite mostly glowing reviews. Some have speculated that the frivolous controversy over the omission of the planting of the American flag on the Moon as being unpatriotic may have turned off mainstream audiences, it was more likely Gosling’s historically accurate, reserved take on Armstrong, coupled with a somewhat detached point-of-view that probably turned off filmgoers. Who cares? First Man is a thoughtful, moving film that takes a visceral approach to the challenges of traveling into outer space.

Much like The Right Stuff, First Man starts off by putting its protagonist in peril. Armstrong (Gosling) is testing the X-15 rocket-powered plane by pushing it and him to the absolute limits as he escapes the Earth’s atmosphere. It is a gripping, visceral experience punctuated by a brief break of serene beauty as he takes a moment to admire the view of our planet from such a great distance. This soon gives way to sweaty, white knuckled panic as he has trouble re-entering the atmosphere. Chazelle makes sure we experience it right along with Armstrong and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

It’s 1961 and Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the death of their young daughter Karen. The taciturn Armstrong internalizes his feelings in front of everyone, only grieving by himself in private. He processes her death and goes immediately back to work but the powers that be ground him. While dealing with paperwork he notices a pamphlet for Project Gemini, whose focus will be on space exploration. In 1962, he applies for and is accepted into the program. The rest of First Man chronicles his journey and some of the challenges he faced on the way to achieving his goal: landing on the Moon.

Unlike The Right Stuff, First Man plays the astronaut training scenes straight-faced with the physical exercises depicted as grueling affairs that best the most determined men, like Armstrong, and the most confident, like Ed White (Jason Clarke), who are all pushed to their physical and mental limits. He spends little screen-time on this aspect of the program as it has already been depicted numerous times before.

Chazelle makes interesting choices on how he depicts certain events, like how Ed tells Neil about their friend and fellow astronaut Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) dying in a jet crash. Instead of going for the obvious close-ups on anguished faces, he shoots both men silhouetted in the frame of Armstrong’s front door. They accept the news with no emotion having been trained to be cool under pressure but when Armstrong comes back into the kitchen with his wife and son, Gosling conveys the inner turmoil through his expressive eyes and how every facial muscle clenches as Armstrong fights to keep in the emotions he’s feeling about the death of one of his closest friends.

Most of the film is experienced through Armstrong’s perspective. When he goes up in the Gemini 8, Chazelle depicts it through his P.O.V., quite often showing us what he sees – a seemingly endless array of dials and switches and then cutting to close-ups of Armstrong’s face as he reacts to this extraordinary experience. Once the rocket launches, Chazelle bombards us with a cacophony of sights and sounds as the noisy rocket shakes and vibrates violently, escaping the Earth’s atmosphere in an incredibly intense sequence.

Chazelle ratchets up the tension even more when Armstrong’s spacecraft suddenly loses control and plummets via a violent continuous left roll towards the Earth. The G-forces cause his co-pilot to pass out and within seconds of passing out himself, Armstrong manages to gain control, which is conveyed in jarring close-ups and kinetic editing as Chazelle cuts from Armstrong’s panicked eyes to the various switches and mechanisms he utilizes to keep alive. Chazelle juxtaposes these intense moments of Neil at work with his downtime at home presented in elegiac fragments reminiscent of the family scenes in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). They aren’t traditional scenes with a beginning, middle and ending, but rather snapshots of the Armstrong family dynamic.

Gosling is excellent, delivering a complex portrait of Neil Armstrong. He digs deep and shows the man’s private side, how he doesn’t show emotion to anyone, even, at times, his wife, preferring to express it alone. His generation saw emotion as a sign of weakness. Any private reservations he has he keeps to himself. This lack of communication comes to a head, however, on the eve of his mission to the Moon. Janet finally has had it and confronts him, forcing her husband to talk to their children about the danger of the mission. It might be the last time they see him and she wants Armstrong to let their children know that. He is not afraid of many things but having an open and honest conversation with his family terrifies him. Gosling is incredible in this scene as he conveys how uncomfortable Armstrong feels in this situation, answering his children’s questions like a press briefing as he doesn’t know any other way. Gosling conveys the emotions brimming under the surface in his eyes while his body language gives nothing else away. It is this unflappable nature that makes Armstrong a brilliant astronaut but not the greatest husband and father.

For all his stoicism, Chazelle shows a lighter side to Armstrong when he and his wife recount how he wrote lyrics in the vein of Gilbert and Sullivan to the faux disbelief of their friends as they all break up into laughter. This is an important scene as it humanizes Armstrong. This portrait of the man feels authentic but it isn’t very audience-friendly. He isn’t an easy person to relate to or like and Gosling’s natural charisma tempers this somewhat but he doesn’t try to go for the easy route nor does the film and make you like him. It forces the audience to meet him on his own terms, which probably hurt its commercial appeal.

Jason Clarke turns in another wonderfully solid performance as Ed White, Armstrong’s best friend and one of the few people able to penetrate the man’s stoic exterior. He’s an astronaut, too, so he knows what Armstrong is going through but even he can’t relate to the part of him that is still dealing with the death of a child. He is aware of his inscrutable nature and allows White in further than anyone else. After the death of See, Armstrong doesn’t want to let anyone else get too close as he knows how dangerous their job is and doesn’t want to mourn yet another person close to him. When one of their own dies on a mission they all think that could have been them. That’s the reality of their existence: there is always a high probability that they won’t come back and First Man shows how it affects Armstrong and his family.

The actual mission to the Moon is masterfully recreated with Chazelle capturing all the technical details while also allowing for a bit of artistic license that feels right and remains true to the spirit of Armstrong’s character as he finally gets closure on his daughter’s death. While there is a certain amount of tension conveyed in the actual landing on the Moon (they almost run out of fuel), Chazelle tempers this with the wonderment of being there in a way that has not been done before in a fictional film. Everything Armstrong has done in his life has prepared him for this moment and instead of underlining how momentous landing on the Moon was for the United States and for the world, the director opts for showing what it means to Armstrong.

In 2014, Damien Chazelle was approached by the producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey with the book, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen they’d optioned for Universal Pictures. Initially, he had little interest in Armstrong or the space program and was unsure about doing an adaptation as well as something based on real life. Everything he had done before had been made up and personal. The more he read about the man, though, the more he was intrigued about the very private person that had experienced multiple tragedies, which included the loss of his home in a fire and the death of his daughter at age three. Chazelle was also able to find a personal connection – he could identify with the hard work it took to achieve something and realize a dream. He pitched First Man to Ryan Gosling but they started talking about La La Land instead and made that first. The director felt that both Gosling and Armstrong shared similar qualities: introverted, cool-under-pressure and men of few words. Working with the actor on La La Land and getting to know him personally confirmed that Gosling was right for the role.

Chazelle began looking for a screenwriter that could do the research needed and then transform it into a narrative. He met Josh Singer in 2015 and liked his passion for the project. While Chazelle was shooting La La Land, Singer worked on the script. For research, they visited NASA and met a few of the surviving astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins as well as spending time with Neil’s wife, Janet.

As he began assembling his crew for the film, he sought out Nathan Crowley, the production designer on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), as he admired his practical approach: in-camera effects, miniatures, full-scale replicas, and lived-in sets. The look of the film was inspired by the archival materials that were uncovered during research and this included photographs the astronauts took in space, the LIFE magazine photos of the family, old home movies, photos the astronaut families shared, and seeing actual capsules. He also eschewed obvious themed films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Apollo 13 in favor of films like Battle of Algiers (1966) and The French Connection (1971) that opted for gritty realism. He ended up compiling a 300-page dossier of images that the crew nicknamed “The Notebook” (in reference to the Gosling film of the same name) that he could refer to during the 58-day shoot.

Chazelle worked hard to separate the man from the mythology and wanted to show his range of emotions. He was interested looking at Armstrong on the family level with his wife and children. He also wanted to depict lesser known aspects of Armstrong’s life, like how he almost died in the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle while training for the Moon landing. Chazelle also wanted to remind people “how dangerous that first era of space travel really was,” and “make it as scary and uncertain as it really was.”

During filming, Chazelle told his cinematographer Linus Sandgren, “imagine we’re a fly on the wall, carrying a camera, running and gunning with these astronauts.” He wanted to do as much “in camera” as possible and for the actors to see what the audience would see, so if they saw the Earth out a window it was on a 35-foot-tall, 65-foot-wide LED screen. To film the space flight sequences, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert used the screen to project 90 minutes of digital imagery created for the film. A replica spacecraft was built and mounted on a gimbal and synchronized to move in sync with footage on the screen. This allowed the astronauts’ surroundings to be filmed in real time. The footage consisted of 20 cans of 70mm NASA footage that was discovered at the Marshall Space Center in Alabama that had not been viewed in decades as the equipment to project it no longer existed. The filmmakers digitally processed and cleaned up the footage and used it in the finished film. Other footage, like the Saturn V rocket falling away was done with models built at varying scales. No blue-screen or green-screen was used in any shot. Only 726 effects shots were added in post-production.

To stand in for the Moon, Chazelle and his team found the Vulcan Rock Quarry south of Atlanta. Crowley and his team sculpted five acres of it to replicate the Sea of Tranquility. Shooting on location, however, proved to be challenging. On the first day it snowed and the schedule was pushed back a week. The specially built lamp that was 15 feet long, 200,000 watts – the most powerful movie light ever built to simulate the sun – exploded and caught fire 30 minutes into shooting due to the freezing temperatures.

First Man received mostly positive critical notices. In his review for The New York Times, A. O. Scott felt that the film was "strangely underwhelming. It reminds you of an extraordinary feat and acquaints you with an interesting, enigmatic man. But there is a further leap beyond technical accomplishment – into meaning, history, metaphysics or the wilder zones of the imagination – that the film is too careful, too earthbound, to attempt." Entertainment Weekly gave the film "A-" and Chris Nashawaty wrote, "Where the film really comes alive, though, is when it leaves the ground and soars into the heavens with all of its terror, beauty, unpredictability, and majesty. You’ve never seen a movie that captures space flight with this degree of authenticity." The New Yorker's Anthony Lane wrote, "Instead, the movie seeks to remold its protagonist in the image of our own era; it tells us more about us than it does about him." In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, "It is a movie packed with wonderful vehemence and rapture: it has a yearning to do justice to this existential adventure and to the head-spinning experience of looking back on Earth from another planet. There is a great shot of Armstrong looking down, stupefied, at the sight of his first boot-print on the moon dust, realising what that represents."

It is the emphasis on the intimate in favor of the epic that helps First Man stand out from other films of its ilk. We know the actual event’s place in history and Chazelle opts for telling a more personal story about the man, never losing sight of that right down to the understated yet moving conclusion as Janet meets her husband after he returns from the Moon. Hopefully, it will find a new life on home video and rekindle interest in space exploration, something that people used to dream about and has become forgotten over the years as we’ve become mired in a multitude of earthbound problems.


SOURCES

Davids, Brian. “How Damien Chazelle’s First Man Took a Page Out of Christopher Nolan’s Playbook.” The Hollywood Reporter. October 12, 2018.

Galloway, Stephen. “Damien Chazelle Shoots the Moon: Oscar’s Youngest Best Director Grows Up with First Man.” The Hollywood Reporter. August 22, 2018.

Rottenberg, Josh. “How First Man Director Damien Chazelle and His Visual Effects Team Took Moviegoers to the Moon.” Los Angeles Times. October 16, 2018.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Super 8


J.J. Abrams picked the wrong time to be a filmmaker. With his love of genres like horror and science fiction, he would’ve thrived in the 1980s alongside the likes of Joe Dante, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Steven Spielberg. Instead, he emerged at a time when Hollywood is only interested in remakes, reboots, sequels, and building up existing franchises. As a result, his directorial debut was a sequel (Mission: Impossible III) and then he went on to reboot two existing franchises – Star Trek and Star Wars with massive commercial success. He did manage, however, to make an original film amidst all of this franchise work.

Super 8 (2011) saw Abrams team up with one of his cinematic heroes and mentor, Spielberg. His presence, along with the film’s story about a group of kids getting involved with an extra-terrestrial, led many to claim that the former was merely paying homage to the latter. While this is true to a certain degree, it is only a superficial reading of the film as Abrams draws on other cinematic influences while also incorporating his own sensibilities to make a film that is his personal and best one to date.

Set in an American steel town called Lillian in 1979, we meet Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a young boy that has just lost his mother in an accident at the plant, leaving him alone with his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a police deputy who has no idea how to raise his son. Cut to a few months later and school is out, which gives Joe plenty of time to hang out with his friends, Charles (Riley Griffiths), Cary (Ryan Lee), Preston (Zach Mills), and Martin (Gabriel Basso), as they work on a zombie movie. Charles is their enthusiastic director that needs a female lead and asks Alice (Elle Fanning), one of their classmates, and she agrees much to Joe’s delight as he crushes on her from afar.

One night, they all sneak out to shoot a scene at the local train station and, as luck would have it, a train goes by while they’re filming. Charles decides to incorporate it into the scene (“Production values!”), however, Joe notices a truck driving onto the tracks and it crashes head on with the train, derailing it in an impressively orchestrated scene that our heroes narrowly survive. Something emerges from the wreckage, something not of this world, that goes on to terrorize the town, crossing paths with Joe and his friends.

One of the most striking things about Super 8 is Abrams’ deft touch with the young actors in the cast. They have to carry most of the film as they are in almost every scene and so casting is crucial. This is where the film excels as evident early on when Joe applies makeup on Alice before she films a scene for Charles’ movie at the train station. It is a marvel of understated acting from these two young people. It isn’t what’s said during this moment but what isn’t as they exchange looks – too shy to say what they’re really thinking. Instead, Abrams has them convey it through the looks they exchange.

After Alice mentions that her dad (Ron Eldard) works at the mill, this triggers painful memories for Joe. He wants to say something but it is still too painful and the look she gives him suggests that she understands. Then, when Alice rehearses a scene with her co-star Martin she delivers an emotional monologue, her expressive eyes on the verge of tears. Alice captivates not just us but the other characters as well. It is an incredible bit of acting from Elle Fanning and it announced her as a young actress to watch. She has an enchanting screen presence and a knack for a light touch as evident in the scene where Joe teaches her how to act like a zombie. He’s clearly smitten with her and we are too.

Joel Courtney plays Joe as a sensitive boy coping with the death of his mother whom he was very close to and fills that void by hanging out with his friends and making a movie. Like Fanning, Courtney has very expressive eyes and uses them effectively to convey his character’s feelings. They also share the film’s strongest scenes together, giving Super 8 its heart. Both deliver emotional, heartfelt performances, playing damaged characters as a result of absent mothers. Hers left an abusive situation, his died in an accident that shouldn’t have happened. They elevate the film above its genre trappings, giving us something to care about as we become invested in their lives.

The always reliable Kyle Chandler is well-cast as the savvy deputy that quickly figures out there’s more to the train wreck than meets the eye and doesn’t buy the military’s official stance. He’s also believable as a man too busy being a cop to be a proper father until forced to when his wife dies. There is a Gary Cooper-esque quality to the actor, playing a stand-up guy that gets tired of the military lying to him and decides to do something about it. Chandler does an excellent job conveying his character’s dilemma: he has the whole town looking to him to keep them safe while also trying to be a good father to Joe. There’s a scene halfway through the film where Jack forbids Joe to see Alice and the latter finally confronts the former about how little he knows about him. Courtney is so good in this scene as Joe’s hurt feelings come to the surface.

While Joe and his friends live in Spielbergian suburbia complete with dysfunctional families and kids that dream of becoming filmmakers, Alice lives on the wrong side of the tracks with a screw-up for a father, which echoes the character of Darren in Joe Dante’s Explorers (1985), who also lives in the poor side of town with terrible parents. Abrams, however, has different cultural touchstones than Spielberg as evident with a soundtrack that features the likes of The Knack’s “My Sharona” and ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down.” The kids are making a zombie movie, which is an obvious reference to George Romero and Charles even has a poster of Dawn of the Dead (1979) hanging up in his room as well as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).

The original idea for Super 8 was, according to Abrams, to make a film about “that time in my life and my friends’ lives making these Super 8 films.” To that end, he incorporated aspects of himself in the kids. He made moves like Charles, but “felt like I experienced the world through the eyes of Joe,” while he also took apart firecrackers and blew up models like Cary. Over time, Abrams incorporated the monster movie genre into the film. Growing up, he had friends whose parents were getting divorced and was afraid that could happen to him. While working on Super 8 he came up with the idea of what if “the mother is suddenly gone and this boy didn’t have the greatest relationship with his dad, what is that relationship once she’s gone?”

While Abrams was clearly inspired by Spielberg and his early Amblin films, he didn’t want to have any overt references to his films even though posters for them would most definitely be hanging on the kids’ walls. Instead, he made Charles a Carpenter and Romero fan. The Carpenter influence extended to the structure of Super 8 itself as Abrams wanted to combine “the sweetness of the autobiographical stuff with the horror of the John Carpenter-type of conditional terror, the premise of something monstrous out there.”

Super 8 is a coming-of-age story as the lives of Joe and his friends are changed forever. They see not just their town, but the world in a different light as their lives are put in real danger and are forced to grow up. A father and son relationship lies at the heart of the film, surrounded by genre trappings. Much like he did with Cloverfield (2008), Abrams wisely waits as long as he can to reveal the alien, building suspense by expertly staging a few attacks on random people by an unseen force. The last third of the film delivers the kind of expectations that are intrinsic with this kind of big budget genre film as the alien presence becomes more overt.

Where Super 8 falls apart somewhat is the last third as Abrams relies on the traditional tropes of the blockbuster action movie as Joe and his friends engage the alien. It is here where Abrams tries to fuse Cloverfield with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and stumbles. For most of the film we are meant to fear the alien as its motives are unclear. By the end of the film it is revealed that the alien had been captured by the United States government and tortured for years, which certainly justifies the swath of destruction it leaves in its wake.

The moment, however, where Joe gives up his mother’s pendant so that the alien can complete its spacecraft and go home rings false. Through the whole film Abrams makes a point of showing how important this object is to Joe. It is the last, significant tangible link to his mother. Why he would give that up doesn’t make sense. Is Abrams trying to tell us that symbolically it means that Joe is finally letting go of the hurt and pain he feels for the loss of his mother? It hasn’t been that long and why does the alien need that particular piece of metal? There is plenty around for it to use. Abrams should have removed that bit and instead played up the fact that Joe and Alice finally connect with their respective fathers who, in turn, have settled their differences between each other. Instead, we have a decidedly bittersweet ending, which is more Abrams than Spielberg.

The commercial and critical success of Super 8 should have paved the way for more original films from Abrams but instead he went back to Star Trek and has directed two Star Wars movies, which should give him the kind of creative control that Christopher Nolan enjoys. Perhaps Abrams simply hasn’t found something personal enough to motivate him into making another original film, or perhaps the flaws in Super 8 demonstrated that he was still learning, trying to figure things out and going back to franchise movie work allowed him to not only increase his industry clout but also gave him a chance to practice with the big toys and budgets that studios provide while working out things for when he decides to do something original.


SOURCES

Billington, Alex. “Interview: Bad Robot’s J.J. Abrams – Writer and Director of Super 8.” Firstshowing.net. June 10, 2011.

Knolle, Sharon “J.J. Abrams on Why Super 8 Is His Most Personal Project Yet.” Moviefone. June 9, 2011.

Ordana, Michael. “J.J. Abrams Combines Childhood’s Wonders, Horrors.” San Francisco Chronicle. June 3, 2011.

Sciretta, Peter. “JJ Abrams Talks Super 8, Bad Robot, Lens Flares, LOST, Spielberg and the Mystery Box.” /Film. June 10, 2011.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The 'Nam


It was 1986 when my fascination with the Vietnam War began. It was an unpopular war in the United States while it raged and one that was lost to a technologically inferior fighting force with much more to lose. Years after, the country had not come to terms with it until Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) came out and even then, it was only the beginning. I wasn’t old enough to see it in theaters (I rented it as soon as it came out on home video) but in the meantime I bought the novelization and read it cover to cover several times.

That year, Marvel Comics capitalized on the Vietnam War zeitgeist that was taking off and began publishing The ‘Nam, a comic book about U.S. foot soldiers serving in the war. Much like Platoon it was written by veteran Doug Murray that fought in the war, which gave it an authenticity. He was teamed up with artist Michael Golden and together they introduced us to the war through the eyes of new recruit PFC Ed Marks, following him on his one-year tour of duty with each issue chronicling a month in country.

While constrained somewhat by the Comics Code (no F-bombs, drugs or explicit violence), Murray and Golden managed to convey the feeling of what it was like to have been there thanks to the latter’s expressive and colorful artwork that was sorely missed after he was replaced on issue 14. The comic carried on for several years until outstaying its welcome when Murray left and lagging sales lead to the Punisher making several guest appearances.

Issue one began in January 1966 with Ed joining the 33rd Mechanized Infantry. He reports to the First Sergeant and is completely oblivious to the bribe that the man wanted in exchange for giving him a cushy assignment. Ed is assigned to Sgt. Polkow’s platoon where he meets and befriends Mike who, once they are out on patrol, gives him a crash course in some of the basics of surviving out in the field, like how to spot a booby trap and how to get water that is safe to drink in a canteen.

The first thing that strikes you about The ‘Nam is Golden’s artwork – an amazing juxtaposition of characters rendered almost cartoonish with exaggerated features, like Ed’s big, expressive eyes and Mike’s tall, lanky physique, with realistically rendered weapons, vehicles and setting. By doing this, each character has their own distinctive look, which helps you remember who everyone is among the sea of military fatigues. The artwork also set the tone and look of Vietnam, from soggy rice paddies to the lush jungle. Golden’s style is very cinematic as he uses color to express a mood, like bathing Ed in blue as he reflects on his first trip into the jungle only to be startled in the next panel by an explosion off in the distance, illuminating his face in red and yellow.

Golden’s atmospheric artwork is supported by Murray’s excellent writing as each issue shows a certain element of the foot soldier’s experience in Vietnam. For example, the second issue showed a clash between the corrupt first sergeant and Sgt. Polkow over the treatment of one of the former’s preferred soldiers in the field under the latter’s command. The first sergeant sends them back into the jungle only four hours after they just came back, following regulations while also sticking it to Polkow. Things build to a possible confrontation that is narrowly defused in the end. In the next issue, we see Saigon as Mike and Ed get three-day passes to celebrate a fellow soldier going back home in three days. This allows Murray and Golden to immerse us in the sights and culture of the city in fantastic detail. Their rest and relaxation doesn’t turn out so well as the three men are subjected to terrorist attacks. In a striking bid for authenticity, every issue saw Murray incorporating slang the foot soldier used at the time, like “Top” for first sergeant or “short” for not having much time left on your tour of duty or Vietnamese sayings, like “xin loi” for "sorry about that." At the back of each issue was a glossary explaining what all the slang meant.

Comic book editor Larry Hama was interested in doing a story on the Vietnam War for his black and white magazine Savage Tales. In 1984, he reached out to Doug Murray, one of the few fellow veterans in the comic book field he knew. Murray ended up writing The 5th of the 1st and it was well-received. Hama recommended Murray put together a proposal for a comic book title and he would give it to Marvel Comics.

At the time, editor-in-chief Jim Shooter was looking to take some chances at Marvel, branching out with non-superhero stories that were “experiments in different sub-genres,” according to Murray. Shooter liked Murray’s work in Savage Tales and had a mock-up cover made for a proposed series about the Vietnam War by taking an existing G.I. Joe cover and putting on a fake logo that said, “NAM.” Hama and Murray agreed that the comic book should be about ordinary people: “These weren’t super-soldiers, they were kids you knew in high school, the guys who pumped gas at the Texaco, the guys who went back to ‘The World’ and sold insurance or managed 7/11s.”

Hama suggested Murray tell the story from the point-of-view of the foot soldier in a platoon with each issue taking place over a month so that the reader would be experiencing it over the same amount of time as the characters. It was important for him to work within the Comics Code so that the title could reach a larger audience. He knew that a lot vets had trouble talking about their experiences in the war, especially ones that were parents and this was a way their kids could learn about some of the things that happened over there.

At the time, Michael Golden was set to do Batman for DC Comics but was also tired of drawing superheroes. He got a call from Hama who pitched him the idea for The ‘Nam. He was interested in doing something about the Vietnam War and had worked with Murray on The 5th of the 1st. He agreed to work on the title. Initially, Murray figured the comic book would last 12 issues and was surprised when it became popular.

The ‘Nam was not G.I. Joe. There was no overt patriotism, no ninjas, no superhuman feats – just regular guys trying to stay alive until they were able to go back home. Murray kept things as grounded as possible until a regime change at Marvel prompted him to leave and the quality of the title went downhill as the Punisher made a few appearances in a desperate attempt to boost sales. Its run ended in September 1993. Its decline in quality did little to diminish what Hama, Murray and their collaborators achieved and The ‘Nam deserves its place among some of the best literature on the Vietnam War from that period.


SOURCES

Jacks, Brian. “Interview: Doug Murray.” Slush Factory. March 14, 2016.

Mitchell, Bill. “In-Depth: Larry Hama on GI Joe, The ‘Nam and More.” Comic Book Resource. June 3, 2009.

Nolen-Weathington, Eric. Modern Masters Volume 12: Michael Golden. Two Morrows Publishing. 2007.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Red Rock West


Direct-to-video no longer has the stigma it once did. Back in the heyday of home video for a film to bypass a theatrical release and go straight to video was reserved for the likes of cheesy erotic thrillers and B-movies starring washed-up actors. Like time, stigma is a funny thing. The scarlet letters of yesteryear are a distant memory due in large part to streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, which have begun to change this perception by releasing high profile movies like Bird Box (2018) on home video as opposed to giving them a wide theatrical release.

Back in 1993, however, Red Rock West (1993), a modest neo-noir starring Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper and Lara Flynn Boyle, was unjustly sold to cable television when it wasn’t considered easily marketable by the studio that owned it. Fortunately, it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival where a San Francisco-based theater owner rescued it from obscurity. While it still didn’t make back its modest budget at least it was given a second chance before being relegated to home video.

Michael (Cage) is a down-on-his-luck war veteran living out of his car and looking for work. A knee injury rules him out of jobs such as an oil drilling gig he shows up for in Wyoming. We learn some important things about him in this opening scene. He’s honest. He could’ve lied on his application about his injury but didn’t. He has integrity. After failing to get the job his buddy told him about he offers Michael a few bucks to which he refuses, telling him, “Don’t worry about me.” This scene is important as it establishes what kind of a person he is – he’ll make his own through life. This is especially crucial later on when we begin wondering who we can trust.

Michael soon finds himself in the sleep little town of Red Rock, arriving like a gunslinger when he goes into a bar looking for leads on any work in the area. Wayne (J.T. Walsh), the owner, mistakes him for a hitman from Dallas he hired to kill his wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). Michael goes along with the ruse long enough to take half the money, warn the wife, take her money to kill Wayne, and skip out of town, letting this clearly dysfunctional couple settle their own issues. Of course, this being a noir story it is never that simple and Michael runs into the real hitman, Lyle from Dallas (Dennis Hopper), and finds it increasingly difficult to get out of Red Rock. Part of the fun of watching Red Rock West is seeing poor Michael get deeper and deeper in trouble as his attempts to leave town are thwarted.

Coming off the modest hit that was Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Nicolas Cage brought an affable everyman quality to Michael as he tones down his trademark Cageisms, which may explain why it isn’t one of his more celebrated performances. Some might consider this to be one of the actor’s tamer performances but so what? You can’t have crazy all the time as that too becomes predictable and stale. I like that Cage plays Michael as a reluctant protagonist that seems to always make the wrong decisions. There are scenes where we see Michael weighing his options over in his mind or berating himself after a particular one goes badly.

Hot off her role as good-girl-next-door Donna in Twin Peaks, Lara Flynn Boyle plays a duplicitous femme fatale. With her flinty gaze and emotionless demeanor, Suzanne is clearly not to be trusted but for some foolish reason (perhaps sex with her clouded his judgment), Michael does and this unnecessarily complicates his life. With the exception of the first season of Twin Peaks, I’ve found Boyle to have a cold presence, which may explain why her most believable role is as an alien in Men in Black II (2002). Dahl finds a way to use her iciness to effect as a scheming woman that manipulates Michael to do her bidding.

When Dennis Hopper shows up he gives the film a jolt of unpredictable energy as Lyle from Dallas, the real hitman. He’s a genial, good ol’ boy until he has to do his job and then Hopper brings his trademark scary intensity that we all know and love. The great J.T. Walsh plays the tightly wound bar owner/sheriff of the town that also harbors a secret. The role doesn’t require the actor to show much range but it does allow him to do what he does best – play an uptight authority figure that makes the protagonist’s life hell.

The first two thirds of Red Rock West is a slow burn as director John Dahl establishes all the characters and their relationships to one another. The last third is particularly enjoyable as we get too see the likes of Cage, Hopper and Walsh share the screen together as they head towards an inevitable confrontation.

Director John Dahl establishes an atmospheric tone right from the opening shot of an empty highway out in the middle of nowhere with ominous storm clouds overhead foreshadowing trouble. The opening credits play over a sunny version of this desolate stretch of road as we see Michael get ready for his job interview and it gives us some crucial insight into his character in economical fashion with no dialogue, instead conveyed visually. With its wide open vistas and twangy, country music-esque score, complete with frontier-type town, Red Rock West feels like a modern western fused with a neo-noir.

In 1992, Red Rock West was made in Arizona on a $7.5 million budget, financed with a negative pick-up deal selling off the cable T.V., video and overseas rights with Columbia TriStar Home Video covering $3.5 million of the production costs. They made a deal with HBO to recoup some of their money.

The film didn’t test well with audiences and fell between the cracks as it wasn’t deemed commercial enough for a strong advertising campaign or artistic enough to go out on the film festival circuit. As a result, there was little incentive for someone to buy the theatrical rights. This didn’t stop Red Rock West from opening well in Europe in 1993, which caught the attention of Piers Handling, director of the Toronto International Film Festival. He decided to show it at the festival that year.

It was well received, but none of the usual art house movie distributors were interested despite the pedigree of the cast and it aired several times on HBO. Bill Banning, owner of the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, saw it at the film festival and wanted to book the film and couldn’t believe it didn’t have a distributor. It wasn’t until January 1994 that he was able to find out who owned the rights. Once it began screening at the Roxie it broke the house record in its fourth week due in large part to positive reviews in the local press and strong word-of-mouth.

Red Rock West received strong critical notices. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “It’s the kind of movie made by people who love movies, have had some good times at them, and want to celebrate the very texture of old genres like the western and the film noir.” The New York Times’ Caryn James wrote, “The director and co-writer, John Dahl, keeps up this perfect swift timing throughout the film, playfully loading on every suspense-genre trick he can imagine. Red Rock West is a terrifically enjoyable, smartly acted, over-the-top thriller.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “Cage’s naturalness as a nice guy in a big jam lends the film considerable substance while Hopper’s wily foil, Boyle’s tough dame and Walsh’s minor-league baddie provide much amusement.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman described it as “a tongue-in-cheek film noir gothic…a likably scruffy knockoff of the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple.”

While Red Rock West doesn’t have the acclaim of The Last Seduction (1994) or the cult appeal of Rounders (1998), I still find it to be Dahl’s most engaging and entertaining film. It didn’t deserve its initial fate. Some films get all the breaks in the world, seemingly destined for greatness. Some films get no breaks and are forgotten. Some films take on a life of their own. Time erases stigmas. No one cares if a film was released direct-to-video. Truly good art survives. It can now show up on Amazon or Netflix, waiting for someone to discover it without any pre-conceived notions.


SOURCES

Bearden, Keith. “John Dahl.” MovieMaker. August 2, 1994.

Galbraith, Jane. “Following the Long, Strange Trip of Red Rock.” Los Angeles Times. April 8, 1994.

Hornaday, Ann. “Film Noir, ‘Tweener or Flub’?” The New York Times. April 3, 1994.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Manhattan Murder Mystery


Woody Allen was in trouble. Coming off the success of Husbands and Wives (1992), he was gearing up to make Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) with his then-wife Mia Farrow when their marriage broke up amidst allegations that he sexually assaulted one of their children, which resulted in a messy and very public custody battle over their three children. He responded by doing what he does best: making movies. He reunited with screenwriting partner Marshall Brickman and co-star Diane Keaton for a lightweight yet engaging comedy that, while receiving strong critical notices, failed to ignite the box office.

Larry (Allen) and Carol (Keaton) Lipton are middle-aged Manhattanites that have settled into a comfortable, routine existence, enduring each other’s passions (he loves hockey, she the opera). They’re also suffering a bit from empty nest syndrome and are worried that they are going to end up like Paul (Jerry Adler) and Lillian (Lynn Cohen) House, an older couple that lives down the hall: “Just another dull, aging couple with our little walks,” as Carol puts it. She fears they are turning into “a pair of comfortable old shoes,” and is looking for a spark to rekindle their relationship.

It comes in an unlikely form: Lillian dies suddenly from a heart attack. Initially, Larry and Carol think nothing of it, but over dinner with friends, she recalls how healthy Lillian was while Ted (Alan Alda), a friend of the Liptons, suggests that maybe she was killed by her husband. Later, Carol remarks that Paul seemed a little too upbeat so soon after her death. She decides to investigate further with Ted’s help, which makes skeptical Larry jealous. Did Paul really kill his wife or are Larry and Carol merely going through a midlife crisis and this is their way of dealing with it?

After her small role in Radio Days (1987), it was great to see Allen and Keaton reunited on-screen in another film. They slip effortlessly into their familiar rhythms, bantering back and forth as Carol immediately latches on to the murder mystery angle while Larry remains stubbornly unconvinced. Allen and Keaton clearly bring the best out of each other and it’s as if their characters from Annie Hall (1977) got married and settled into predictable domesticity. He establishes the Liptons’ stifling predictable routine early on in the film as Larry looks forward to watching a Bob Hope movie on television that night only to complain, “I don’t know why they put it on so late.” The Woody Allen of Manhattan (1979) would’ve stayed up late with Mariel Hemingway to watch it. The Woody Allen of this film, however, has gotten too old and set in his ways. This murder mystery is exactly what he and Carol need to rekindle the spark in their relationship.

Keaton, in particular, is wonderful as the instigator – getting the Liptons out of their rut with her fixation on Lillian’s murder. She brings her trademark vibrant energy and screen presence to the role. While Larry is content with where they’re at as a couple at this stage in their lives, Carol wants something more, like starting up a restaurant with Ted and then trying to solve Lillian’s murder. It is great to see her playing a proactive character while Allen is the passive one. Carol hones her amateur detective skills with Ted and the scenes where they excitedly theorize about the murder like kids are some of the best moments in the film. As he tells her at one point, Yes, this is crazy. But soon we’ll be too old to do anything crazy.” Alan Alda also shines in these scenes. With his knack for delivering witty banter, he is a perfect fit for Allen’s films and it is a shame he wasn’t in more of them as he really should’ve become part of his stable of actors.

Once again, Allen acts as the ideal foil for Keaton, responding to Carol’s newfound zeal for murder mysteries with his trademark neurotic angst (“You gotta go back to your shrink…You know how General Motors recalls defective cars? You gotta go in for a tune-up.”). Larry complains and criticizes what she’s doing but none of it deters her. Allen continued to show his knack for physical comedy as evident in the scene in which Anjelica Huston’s stylish writer teaches Larry how to play poker. It isn’t until an hour in that he realizes what he must do – take more of an interest in Carol’s obsession with Lillian’s murder if he wants to avoid them drifting apart. He’s also jealous of Ted and his boyish enthusiasm for her. It isn’t until he goes on a stakeout with her and they see something suspicious that Larry is finally convinced of what Carol has been saying all along. He finally believes her and goes from being passive to assertive.

The screenplay for Manhattan Murder Mystery originally started out as an embryonic incarnation of Annie Hall co-written with Marshall Brickman but Allen didn’t feel that it was substantial enough even though he loved mysteries and had always wanted to make one. He told Brickman that he should write and direct it and he would star in it. Over various rewrites, this element was abandoned as he decided to go in a different direction. He even told Brickman to go off and make it on his own but this didn’t happen. In 1992, Allen contacted Brickman and they worked on the story some more.

Allen had originally written the role of Carol for his then-wife Mia Farrow but after they divorced and became in embroiled in a contentious custody battle over their children, he called Diane Keaton and asked her to play the role of Carol. She immediately accepted. The film was shot in the fall of 1992 on the streets of Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side. For Allen, making the film was a form of escape as the “past year was so exhausting that I wanted to just indulge myself in something I could relax and enjoy.”

He found it very therapeutic working with Keaton again. After getting over her initial panic during her first scene with co-star Alan Alda, Keaton slipped back into her old rhythm with Allen. Anjelica Huston observed that the set was “oddly free of anxiety, introspection and pain,” and this was due to Keaton’s presence. According to Allen, Keaton changed the dynamic of the film as “I always look sober and normal compared to Keaton. I turn into the straight man.”

Manhattan Murder Mystery enjoyed decent reviews. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and called it an “accomplished balancing act.” Newsweek’s David Ansen wrote, “On screen, Keaton and Allen have always been made for each other: they still strike wonderfully ditsy sparks.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Although, Manhattan Murder Mystery struggles with its own contrivances, it achieves a gentle, nostalgic grace and a hint of un-self-conscious wisdom.” The USA Today’s Mike Clark gave it four out of four stars and wrote, “It’s very, very funny, and there’s no mystery about that.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “There is however, little ‘new’ in this film. Allen and Keaton are essentially playing Alvy Singer and Annie Hall gone middle-aged.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Allen and Keaton make an endearing team. It’s a pleasure to see them reunited, not just because we’re spared Mia Farrow’s dishrag mopiness – surely the one piece of positive fallout from the Allen-Farrow split – but because Keaton’s smiling radiance has only deepened with the years.”

Manhattan Murder Mystery takes an amusing look at a married couple whose life has become safe and routine only to be revitalized by murder. It warns of the danger of not being open to something new, be it opening a restaurant or solving a murder. Obviously, there are things that you do every day that are unavoidably predictable – that’s just life – but when this extends to what you do with your spouse you run the risk of losing sight of what made it so exciting to be with them in the first place. It happens all the time and as the film points out, you need to take an active interest in what your spouse wants.

When Manhattan Murder Mystery was released in 1993, the highly contentious court case between Allen and Farrow was fresh in people’s minds and it impacted on the film’s box office as it failed to make back its modest budget. To add insult to injury, TriStar Pictures ended their deal with him. There was speculation at the time that the deal wasn’t extended due to his personal problems and that his films weren’t very profitable but he denied it in interviews. Undeterred, he simply cut a deal with another studio and continued making films, bouncing back with Bullets over Broadway (1994), which garnered 7 Academy Award nominations with Dianne Wiest winning for Best Supporting Actress. Manhattan Murder Mystery holds a special place in the hearts of many Allen fans as it was callback to the days of Annie Hall and Manhattan and was the last time he and Keaton appeared in a film together.


SOURCES

Bjorkman, Stig. Woody Allen on Woody Allen. Grove Press. 1993.

De Curtis, Anthony. “What’s With Woody?” Toronto Star. September 5, 1993.

Dowd, Maureen. “Diane and Woody, Still a Fun Couple.” The New York Times. August 15, 1993.

Fine, Marshall. “Woody’s Take.” USA Today. August 18, 1993.

Lax, Eric. Conversations with Woody Allen. Alfred A. Knopf. 2007.

Span, Paula. “Here Comes the Judgment.” Washington Post. May 4, 1993.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Prince of the City


In a New York Times article about Night Falls on Manhattan (1996), the fourth film in Sidney Lumet’s police corruption quartet, Edward Lewine observes that the central question in these films is can a good person remain good within the system? In Serpico (1973), Frank (Al Pacino) starts off as a clean-cut recruit fresh from the academy and is immediately faced with accepting payoffs from local criminals. In Q & A (1990), Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) prosecutes his first case knowing that an esteemed cop (Nick Nolte) is dirty. In Night Falls, Sean Casey (Andy Garcia) is an assistant district attorney that must choose between adhering to the law and releasing a cop killer or making a dishonest deal to keep him in prison.

In Lumet’s masterpiece, Prince of the City (1981), corrupt police detective Daniel Ciello (Treat Williams) tries to redeem himself by ratting on his fellow police officers. As Lumet said in an interview, “The picture is also about cops and how pressured they are, what they have to live with day in, day out and how they try to keep some sort of equilibrium, whether it’s staying honest or not becoming cynical.” This is the central thesis for his police corruption quartet, realized so masterfully in this ambitious, sprawling film with its 130 locations, 280 scenes and 126 speaking parts, all of which Lumet handles with the assured hand of a consummate professional.

Danny is the leader of a team of narcotics detectives that work in the Special Investigations Unit of the New York City Police Department. They are a tight crew that work mostly unsupervised and hang out together in their off hours with their families. They are known as “Princes of the City” because of their impressive reputation for busting crooks. They also skim money from said criminals and give informants drugs in exchange for information. These guys live by the credo, “The first thing a cop learns is that he can’t trust anybody but his partners…I sleep with my wife but I live with my partners.”

Lumet has several scenes that show the camaraderie between Danny and his partners. They have a shorthand and joke with each other like life-long friends. There’s an ease and familiarity to these scenes that is believable. The filmmaker knows how cops talk to each other and how to depict it authentically. We often feel like flies on the wall, observing the conversations that only occur behind closed doors. Lumet does just enough to humanize Danny and his crew by showing them at work and with their families in unguarded moments, which demonstrates that, in many respects, they are regular working guys.

Danny and his crew live well off the spoils of their busts and carry themselves with confidence and swagger as typified by Danny’s arrogance. It’s the way he carries himself and the belief that he and his crew are untouchable. Lumet illustrates this in a scene where Danny helps a dope-sick informant in the middle of the night by busting another junkie and giving the stash to his stoolie. He takes the junkie back to his home – a grungy, squalid hovel – and listens to him beat his girlfriend (a young Cynthia Nixon) for shooting up his stash. The look on Danny’s face says it all, as he feels ashamed at what he’s done. The shame is eating him alive, so much so that he spills his guts to Richard Cappalino (Norman Parker) and Brooks Paige (Paul Roebling), federal prosecutors investigating police corruption. It’s interesting that Danny’s junkie brother (Matthew Laurance), who points out that he’s no different than the crooks he busts, initially convinces him to approach Internal Affairs, but it isn’t until he listens to one of his informants beating his girlfriend that he commits to ratting out dirty cops.

The scene where Danny tells them what he knows is a riveting one as Treat Williams starts off cocky, chastising these men for going after cops and then comes apart at the seams as he tells them how it is for cops on the streets. The actor unleashes all of Danny’s anger and frustration as he ends up breaking down by the end of the scene. Guilt-ridden, he decides to work with Internal Affairs and break up his team but with understanding that he’s not going to rat out his partners. The rest of the film plays out the ramifications of his actions.

Lumet goes deep, showing how Danny wears a wire, recording meetings he has with dirty cops and crooks. He loves it, getting off on the adrenaline rush of the risk of being caught. The scene where Danny is almost discovered by a dirty cop and a crook is full of tension as these guys are ready to kill him. They take him at gunpoint for a walk to the place where they’re going to do it. Danny tries to talk his way out of it until a mafia guy (his uncle) vouches for him. The Feds shadowing him are no help as they get lost trying to find him, as they don’t know the city. This scene shows how close to getting killed Danny was and gives us an idea of how much is at stake.

Aside from Hair (1979) and 1941 (1979), Williams hadn’t done much of note when he starred in Prince of the City, but Lumet saw something in the actor that convinced him that he could carry a film of this size…and he does. Williams does a brilliant job of conveying Danny’s arc over the course of the film as he goes from cocky cop to a man that has lost it all.

The deeper Danny gets the more scared he becomes as he not only has to avoid detection by fellow cops that are corrupt and crooks while also dealing with Feds that alter his deal so that he has to rat on cops that he’s friends with – something that he’s not comfortable with doing. He’s torn between saving his own skin and ratting on his friends. Lumet shows how this takes its toll not just on Danny but his wife (Lindsay Crouse) and his two children. It gets so dangerous that the Feds take Danny and his family up to their cabin in the woods under armed guard, scaring his son and finally reducing his wife to tears one night when they’re in bed. These are ordinary people trying to live under extremely trying conditions.

Writer Jay Presson Allen read a review of Robert Daley’s 1978 book Prince of the City: The True Story of a Cop Who Knew Too Much, bought and read it. It was an account of Robert Leuci, an undercover narcotics cop in the Special Investigation Unit in New York City from 1965 to 1972, making busts and cutting deals with fellow cops. Some SIU detectives were the best in the city and had the ability to choose their own targets and make major busts. They had their own distinct style and wore more expensive clothes than other cops because they had more money. In 1972, the Knapp Commission was looking into police corruption. Leuci met with New York prosecutor Nick Scoppetta and couldn’t live with the guilt of what he’d done, confessing his wrongdoings to the man. He said, “I found myself in a place I didn’t want to be. I couldn’t tell the difference between myself, my partners and the people we were investigating.” Scoppetta convinced Leuci to go undercover and tape his friends and co-workers, testifying against them. He went undercover for 16 months and the trials lasted for four years. The end result saw 52 out of 70 members of the Special Investigation Unit, of which he belonged, indicted, one went crazy and two committed suicide.

She knew right away that it was something Sidney Lumet should make into a film. When she inquired about the rights, Allen discovered that Orion Pictures had bought it for $500,000 with Brian De Palma set to direct and David Rabe was going to write the screenplay with the likes of Robert De Niro, John Travolta and Al Pacino considered to play Leuci. She didn’t think they could do it and called studio head John Calley and told him, “If this falls through, I would like to get this for Sidney, and I want to produce it, not write it.” He agreed and she gave Lumet the book. He loved it but they had to wait until De Palma’s attempt did not pan out. When this happened Lumet told Allen that he wouldn’t do the film unless she wrote the script. She was tired and felt it was too big of a job to take on: “It seemed like a hair-raising job to find a line, get a skeleton out of the book, which went back and forth…all over the place.” She agreed to Lumet’s proposal but only if he wrote the outline.

He proceeded to cut the book up into sections starting with the ending. He highlighted the three critical moments in Danny’s life: when he decides to reveal the names to his partner, when the judges meet to decide whether they should indict him for giving false testimony, and the discussion to retry the most crucial case he had to testify. Afterwards, they sat down and went through the book and agreed on what were the most essential scenes and characters.

Over the next two to three weeks, Lumet wrote 100-handwritten pages, which Allen didn’t like but thought that the actual outline was wonderful. It was the first time she had ever written about living people, which she found daunting. She proceeded to interview almost everyone in the book. Only then did she begin writing, completing a 300+ page script in ten days! When it came to filming, she had the book and all of her interviews to draw from if there was ever a question about something in the script. Lumet compared the script to the writings of famed journalist Norman Mailer: “It’s a news story that becomes fiction in the sense that the dramatic situations are so strong.”

After the comedy Why Would I Lie? (1980) received bad reviews and performed poorly at the box office, a frustrated Treat Williams changed professions, getting a job flying planes for a company in Los Angeles. Six months later, Lumet approached him about Prince of the City based on his work in Hair. He didn’t cast him, however, until after they spent three weeks talking and going over the script. Finally, he had Williams read with the rest of the cast and then decided to cast him as Danny. For research, Williams hung out with cops at the 23rd precinct in New York City and went on 3 a.m. busts in Harlem: “I saw junkies pleading to go to the bathroom and vomiting and shaking. You see people of the lowest end of humanity and you know if they had a gun they’d probably try to kill the cops.” He also hung out with Leuci and studied him: “Bob has a lot of tension in his shoulders. His toes go in when his foot lands. His walk is in the movie.”

Prince of the City was one of Lumet’s most ambitious projects and he and his crew had to be prepared: “We had to know the one-way streets, the traffic flows, the various routes we could take to save time.” He had planned a shooting schedule of 70 days and finished in 59 days. Lumet planned every camera movement and angle ahead of time. He did not use normal lenses as he wanted to create an atmosphere of “deceit, and false appearances,” and only used wide angle and zoom lenses. In addition, the first half of the film featured lighting on the background and not on the actors while in the middle of the film he alternated between the foreground and the background, and the end of the film aimed the lighting on the foreground only.

Roger Ebert gave Prince of the City four out of four stars and wrote, “It is about ways in which a corrupt modern city makes it almost impossible for a man to be true to the law, his ideals, and his friends, all at the same time. The movie has no answers. Only horrible alternatives.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Prince of the City begins with the strength and confidence of a great film, and ends merely as a good one. The achievement isn’t what it first promises to be, but it’s exciting and impressive all the same.” Pauline Kael was less impressed with the film: “The film has a super-realistic overall gloom, and the people are so ‘ethnic’ and yell so much that you being to long for the sight of a cool blond in bright sunshine.”

As Prince of the City moves into its second hour, the grind of what Danny is going through – the endless court appearances and the revolving door of handlers – affects the viewer as well, wearing us down as we wonder, like Danny does, when is this all going to end? By the end of the film, the system uses and discards him after he’s served his usefulness. Williams manages to make a sympathetic character but Lumet doesn’t let us forget that Danny was the architect of his own demise. He ratted on fellow cops to save his own skin. He lied in court to protect his ex-partners to avoid jail time.

Is Danny a hero? Did he do the right thing? During filming, Lumet wrestled with his feelings about Danny as an informant: “And I think that ambivalence is in the movie, and I think it makes the movie better. Part of it was that it was very difficult for me to separate political informing from criminal informing – a rat was a rat.” Ultimately, Lumet leaves it up to the audience to decide how they feel about the man and what he did. It’s a complex portrayal not just of the man but also the legal system he works in. There’s no good guys or bad guys – only lots of moral ambiguity.


SOURCES

Ciment, Michel. “A Conversation with Sidney Lumet.” Sidney Lumet: Interviews. Joanna E. Rapf. University Press of Mississippi. 2005.

Cormack, Michael. “From Prisoner to Policeman.” The Globe & Mail. October 12, 1981.

Corry, John. “Prince of the City Explores A Cop’s Anguish.” The New York Times. August 9, 1981.

Cunningham, Frank R. Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision. University Press of Kentucky. 2001.

Harmetez, Aljean. “How Prince of the City is Being ‘Platformed.’” The New York Times. July 18, 1981.

Hogan, Randolph. “At Modern, Lumet’s Love Affair with New York.” The New York Times. December 31, 1981.

Kroll, Jack. “A New Breed of Actor.” Newsweek. December 7, 1981.

Lawson, Carol. “Treat Williams: For the Moment, Prince of the City.” The New York Times. August 18, 1981.

Lewine, Edward. “The Laureate of Police Corruption. The New York Times. “June 8, 1997.

Myers, Scott. “How They Write a Script: Jay Presson Allen.” Go Into the Story. May 31, 2011.

Scott, Jay. “Director Sidney Lumet Fears for the Future of ‘Real’ Films.” The Globe & Mail. August 19, 1981.

Zito, Tom. “The Prince Himself.” Washington Post. October 2, 1981.