"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Grifters


“They probably had grifter parents and grifter grandparents and someday they’ll each spawn little grifter kids.” – Miller’s Crossing (1990)


This quote always makes me think of The Grifters (1990), a film that presents a world of confidence artists – people who gain the trust of their targets only to then fleece them of something valuable. Essentially there are two kinds of people in this world: the grifters and the people they con. The film takes it one step further and has the grifters con each other but muddies the waters with notions of family and love. Who can you trust? The answer is simple and yet hard-earned: no one.
 
Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is a small-time operator working the short con, scamming bartenders and hapless patrons out of chump change. His estranged mother Lilly (Anjelica Huston) is a mid-level grifter, working for a powerful mobster (Pat Hingle) at race tracks, betting on certain horses to lower the odds. Roy’s girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening) is a high-end grifter who works the long con – ambitious schemes that swindle wealthy marks. All three have their established methods that work for them except when they don’t as evident when Roy tries to scam a savvy bartender who proceeds to hit him so hard with a club that he suffers serious internal injuries.

When Myra can’t get what she wants from a local jeweler (Steve Tobolowsky) she attempts to use her feminine wiles with no success. When Lilly fails to lower the odds more than she should have, her boss punishes her by stubbing out a lit cigar on her hand in an ugly display of power. Their lives all get complicated when Lilly decides to visit her son while on business in Los Angeles. There’s visible tension between them that goes way back. When Myra finds out that Lilly is a fellow grifter she sets her sights on the elder Dillon unbeknownst to Roy who is unaware that his girlfriend is in the game.
 

For years John Cusack had done a series of successful teen comedies and by 1988 was looking for more mature roles in films made by auteurs like Roland Joffe (Fat Man and Little Boy), John Sayles (Eight Men Out) and with The Grifters, British director Stephen Frears. Back then there was an innate likability to Cusack that audiences identified with but on this film, he dials it back in a much more controlled performance as a grifter that thinks he’s in control and can walk away from the life whenever he wants only to find out it’s not that easy.
 
Annette Bening plays Myra like a vivacious sex kitten who knows how to use her body to get what she wants but under the façade is a ruthless professional con artist. The flashback scene where we see her in action with her ex-partner (a superbly cast J.T. Walsh) as they play their target (Charles Napier) is a wonder to behold as they expertly massage their mark to pull off a sizable payday.
 
It is Anjelica Huston that is the film’s M.V.P. as the veteran grifter that has been in the game long enough to know her limitations. Lilly spots Myra right away and the scenes between Huston and Bening crackle with playful intensity as they trade verbal barbs. Huston also shows why Lilly has survived for this long, whether it’s how she deals with her ruthless boss or a creep hitting on her at a diner. Yet for all her cold logic, she shows a vulnerable side when it comes to Roy as her long-buried maternal instincts surface and she finds herself wanting to reconnect with him. Huston does an excellent job of showing both sides of Lilly and how, ultimately, she’ll do anything to survive.


Director Stephen Frears gives the film a timeless look. Even though it is set in 1990, it could easily be the 1940s as all three main characters do not wear any trendy clothing that would date them instantly. Even the dialogue treads the line between classic grifter lingo and contemporary speak courtesy of legendary crime writer Donald E. Westlake (The Hunter), who does a brilliant job of adapting Jim Thompson’s 1963 novel. He populates the film with snappy dialogue, such as Lilly and Myra’s first meeting when the latter says, “I’m Roy’s friend,” to which the former responds, “Yes, I imagine you’re lots of people’s friends.” He immediately establishes an antagonistic relationship between the two characters that starts off as playful verbal sparring but escalates when Myra finds out that Lilly is also a grifter.
 
The entire film has a low-key classic feel to it with wonderful bits of detail, like the old school switchboard in Ray’s building. This also applies to the minor yet colorful characters that are sprinkled throughout The Grifters, such as the annoying older man (Henry Jones) who works the front desk of Roy’s apartment building. Every time someone comes in we are subjected to his personal philosophy on women, how to properly fold a towel and so on. There’s also the scene where we get Roy’s backstory on how he became a con artist when he meets a veteran grifter (the wonderfully cast Eddie Jones) who teaches him the nuts and bolts of the business: “But to take another pro, even your partner, who knows you and has his eye on you, that’s a score.” This key line of dialogue could be the film’s thesis.
 
Filmmaker Martin Scorsese wanted to know what was the best crime novel that had not been made into a film and was told it was The Grifters by Jim Thompson. He and executive producer Barbara De Fina were given a spec screenplay by Robert A. Harris and another man. Scorsese was too busy and called British filmmaker Stephen Frears in 1987. He asked if he had heard of the novel. Scorsese was a fan of the latter’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and felt that Frears was the right person to direct The Grifters as he felt that he had an affinity for unusual characters. Frears read the novel and agreed to direct.
 

The screenplay was initially developed at Disney where Scorsese had a deal and Donald E. Westlake went to work adapting the novel but the studio eventually decided not to back it. Originally, Westlake didn’t want the job but Frears told him the think about it terms of Lilly’s story as opposed to Roy’s and the writer agreed to do it. Cineplex Odeon agreed to finance the film but over the course of the production the budget gradually shrunk as the backers were going bankrupt.
 
Originally, Melanie Griffith was cast as Lilly, Geena Davis as Myra and Cusack as Roy, who had read the novel in 1985 and was so taken with it that he had wanted to make it into a film himself. Frears had also briefly considered Robert Downey Jr. and Tim Robbins for Roy but when Cusack heard that Scorsese and Frears were attached to the project, he active pursued the role and got it. Anjelica Huston was cast towards the end of pre-production, just beating out Sissy Spacek. She had been contacted by Frears in 1989 while making Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) but after reading the script she was unsure about the part, shocked by the scene where Lilly is beaten by her boss. Ricky Jay was hired as a consultant and helped Cusack prepare for his role by arranging for the actor to meet actual con artists. Cusack saw Roy as “a wonderfully twisted role to dive into.”
 
The Grifters received glowing reviews from most mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out four stars and wrote, "One of the strengths of The Grifters is how everything adds up, and it all points toward the conclusion of the film, when all secrets will be revealed and all debts collected." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Anjelica Huston's performance: "Miss Huston is again spectacular. Not since The Dead has she had a role of such eerie complexity, nor given a performance that was so haunting. Though Lily is a sly, unpleasant woman, out always for the main chance, Miss Huston discovers the sadness within that comes close to true tragedy." Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave it a "A" rating and wrote, "It’s Anjelica Huston who gives the film its emotional gravity. There’s almost nothing likable about Lilly. She’s callused over; she perseveres, period. But Huston, looking weirdly like a drag queen in her puffy, bleached-blond hair, plays her with such indomitable negative charisma that in the end the character doesn’t win your affection so much as your respect."
 
In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, "The line Westlake and Frears walk skirts the edge of parody; it's the most puckish of film noirs. Their characters are scoundrels, but they have a hipster's arrogance; they play the sucker for nobody, and the sneaky thrill here comes from watching them work the angles for the upper hand." Finally, Newsweek's David Ansen wrote, "Huston dominates the film, but Bening, an effervescent sex kitten with the soul of a snake, and Cusack, with his brittle self-protectiveness, are spectacular in their own ways. These doomed grifters deserve instant admission into the film noir pantheon."
 

When The Grifters concludes, we are left with a world of con artists that aren’t all that attractive. It can be a brutal and ugly world where people go insane, get killed on a deal gone bad, or go on the run, always looking over their shoulder. There’s a reason why Lilly has survived for this long. Years of experience of making mistakes and learning from them has toughened her up as evident from the final scene where she accidentally (or was it?) causes the demise of another character that ends the film on a decidedly dark note. The Grifters isn’t a cute, we-all-got-away-with-it ending like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies, just people surviving any way they can even if it means killing in order to do it.
 
 
SOURCES
 
“Seduction, Betrayal, Murder: The Making of The Grifters.” The Grifters Blu-Ray. 441 Films and 101 Films. May 21, 2018.
 
Sharkey, Betsy. “Anjelica Huston Seeks the Soul of a Con Artist.” The New York Times. December 2, 1990.
 
“The Making of The Grifters.” The Grifters DVD. Miramax. September 24, 2002.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “At the Movies.” The New York Times. August 31, 1990.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Dust Devil


As far back as when he was a teenager, filmmaker Richard Stanley dreamed of the image of “the dark man, his face hidden, his hat pulled low, his coat gathered around him, standing alone in the wasteland.” For years, he dreamt of this man while the town of Bethanie, Namibia was during a years-long drought with several locals murdered in gruesome fashion that some attributed to local superstition of a black magician known as the “Nagloper.” Stanley incorporated this mythology with his dreams of “the dark man” into a student film that ran out of money before it could be completed but was ultimately fully realized in Dust Devil (1993), his feature film follow-up to Hardware (1990).

The Dust Devil (Robert John Burke) emerges from the hazy desert like a cross between Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name gunslinger and Rutger Hauer’s nightmarish hitchhiker in The Hitcher (1986). With his piercing eyes he hitches a ride with a woman (Terri Norton) driving alone and seduces her into taking him home with her where they have sex, killing her at the moment of climax. Wendy Robinson (Chelsea Field) leaves a dysfunctional marriage by traveling from Johannesburg, South Africa to the small town of Bethany, Namibia, encountering the Dust Devil, a serial killer that ritualistically dismembers his victims and takes their fingers as trophies.

Sergeant Ben Mukurob (Zakes Mokae) is the police detective investigating these murders and discovers that they go back decades before their suspect would’ve been born! Realizing that he is out of his depth, he enlists the help of Joe Niemand (John Matshikiza), the local witch doctor, to track down the Dust Devil. Unaware of his true nature, Wendy travels with this enigmatic hitchhiker to a town ravaged by drought and decimated by the closure of the local uranium mine. It might as well be the end of the world and it is this unlikely place where she confronts the Dust Devil with Ben in hot pursuit.


“You got to keep your eyes open when you deal with magic.” – Joe

Neither Wendy or Ben believe in magic. She believes in nothing, her grief over her increasing estrangement from her husband (Rufus Swart) causes her to nearly commit suicide. He, on the other hand, is in a profession that deals in facts and believes only in what he can prove, He experiences a dream within a dream that shakes his belief system while she encounters the Dust Devil who speaks of magic, myths and legends. At one point, they have a fascinating conversation about the belief in a higher power. When he tells her about God, the Devil or the idea of a soul, she says, “I don’t believe in that any more than I believe in magic or Peter Pan.” This is rather amusing as her name is Wendy and she is very much a “lost boy” with an emphasis on the lost. Both she and Ben have dreams that hint at their checkered pasts and continue to haunt their subconscious. They are both adrift in life. She is so down in it that at one point she nearly slashes her wrists. He wakes up every day with very little purpose in life, given garbage assignments by his superior and enduring thinly-veiled racism by his fellow co-workers.

The Dust Devil is a shape shifter that practices black magic and seduces Wendy by preying on her weaknesses and vulnerability. He feeds on pain and such people as Wendy who have nothing. He takes people’s souls but is trapped in the material world, bound by flesh until he can perform enough ceremonial murders to build up his power and return to his realm. He pushes Wendy to her mental and physical limits as he pursues her across the desert, threatening her physically and manipulating the environment by summoning a sandstorm to torment her.

The Dust Devil arrives in Bethany on an old fashion train like a gunslinger straight out of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as the narrator intones, “He can smell a town waiting to die.” With his intense stare, Robert John Burke requires little dialogue to convey a commanding presence and this only enhances the character’s mystique. He is a very physical actor and lets his actions define his character. The Dust Devil is a wonderfully low-key boogeyman and a far cry from the chatty Freddy Krueger and much cleverer than the lumbering Jason Voorhees.


Burke doesn’t play the Dust Devil as a stereotypical monster but rather as an old soul that has existed for countless years, still exhibiting human frailties such as the moment when he cries after making love with Wendy. He tries to articulate his internal pain and how it has tormented him for as long as he can remember. Joe sums up the character best when he says, “He seeks power over the material world. Through the ritual of murder…He feeds off our light. He preys upon the damned, the weak, the faithless – he draws them to him and he sucks them dry.”

Zakes Mokae and John Matshikiza are also excellent in their respective roles. Ben and Joe make for an unlikely yet compelling team – the believer and the non-believer. To succeed they must find common ground for, like Wendy, Ben is a lost soul and it takes Joe to awaken his faith by showing him what they are up against. Ben must tap into his dreams and pay attention to them if he has any chance of defeating the Dust Devil.

There are several things that make Dust Devil stand out from other horror films. There is the film’s exotic locale, the deliberate pacing, and the emphasis on spiritualism. It has a distinctly European sensibility with an importance on symbolism over gore – although, it does not shy away from the red stuff, it just doesn’t revel in it, such as a lingering close-up shot of a fly on a blood-splattered window instead of cutting away to the gruesome murder scene nearby. Stanley wisely opts for a low-key approach to the supernatural elements with most of the effects done in camera and with clever editing techniques.


Stanley immerses us in this world with stunning establishing shots of the vast, unforgiving deserts of Namibia and the burnt-out, nearly abandoned town of Bethany with African music playing on the soundtrack, which culminates in Wendy and the Dust Devil arriving at the “end of the world,” a Grand Canyon-esque place that is simply breathtaking in its scale and scope.

The idea for the story came from the most inexpensive, simplest film he could make at the time: two characters – a woman driving a car and a “crazy hitchhiker.” Some ideas came from his mother’s book, Myths and Legends of South Africa about the “Nagloper” and the urban legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker, an often-told tale about people picking up hitchhikers only for them to disappear out of the passenger’s seat.

It was a strange case of kismet that Stanley’s recurring dreams of “the dark man” dovetailed with the “Nagloper.” Even stranger still, he found himself passing through Bethanie while the murders were occurring and was beaten by a paranoid railway policeman. In 1984, the 15-year-old aspiring filmmaker returned to the town with a 16mm camera, a homemade crane and five friends with a 45-page screenplay entitled Dust Devil. They spent two months shooting on the Skeleton Coast until it had to be abandoned when the money ran out and two of them were hospitalized after a freeway accident.

Stanley continued to dream about “the dark man” and seven years later he decided to flesh out the script, taking out many of the hitchhiker elements to avoid comparisons to The Hitcher and placing less emphasis on the killers, and gave it to Jo-Anne Sellar who had produced his previous film Hardware for Palm Pictures. Its success enabled the production company to pre-sell Dust Devil and secure a $2 million budget from Miramax. Palm mistakenly thought that Stanley was making a serial killer movie like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) but that was the farthest from his mind, thinking more along the lines of the films by Dario Argento or Andrei Tarkovsky.

Stanley originally considered Nicolas Cage for the Dust Devil but the budget wasn’t big enough for someone of the actor’s caliber and ultimately, he didn’t think he was right for the role. Stanley had seen Robert John Burke in Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth (1989), liked the actor’s intensity and felt he was right for the role. The filmmaker could return to Namibia and shoot on location thanks to elections in March 1990 when a socialist government was voted in. The production arrived in July 1991 but Stanley met with resistance from the financial backers over the casting of the female lead. Miramax executives Bob and Harvey Weinstein wanted Chelsea Field, who had just come off a part in The Last Boy Scout (1991), as they thought she had more star power than Stanley’s choice, Kerry Fox. They pushed hard for Field and Stanley relented but in retrospect felt that she didn’t play the character as mean as written and never quite got the South African accent. The studio also tried to convince him to set the film in Santa Fe, New Mexico and use American Indians instead of black South Africans.

The shoot was a challenging one as Stanley shot the film on the actual locations of the original murders, requiring the production to cover 1500 kilometers of road during the eight-week shoot. The pre-production period pushed the shooting schedule to the start of the windy season with gale force winds making it impossible to stand upright. Cars had to be weighed down with sandbags lest they be blown off the roads. Despite these setbacks, he enjoyed filming in Namibia, comparing it “shooting on the face of Mars. I like being in landscapes where humans have no sane reason to be there.”

Three quarters of the way through the production, Palm was gradually going bankrupt and Stanley only became aware of this when equipment they needed failed to show up and the crew began leaving. By the end of production there were only eight crew members left! In December 1991, Stanley delivered a 120-minute cut of the film that was subsequently edited down to 95 minutes and shown to a test audience in April 1992 to a not-surprisingly confused response. Palm went into liquidation and any further post-production was shut down. Polygram took over British distribution rights and promptly shelved the film. Miramax produced their own cut that gutted all the supernatural elements and restructured the narrative completely. In January 1993, Stanley managed to track down all the original elements of the film and spent 40,000 pounds of his own money reconstructing his edit of the film. He went bankrupt trying to complete Dust Devil, losing his apartment and living in a spare room above the ticket office of a movie theater.

“The moment you start dealing with God, the Devil, the big issues, you end up in the genre, whether you like it or not. So in some bizarre way the horror genre has become the last place where you can really deal with these things. If you’re trying to actually do something which is about those kinds of issues, that is where you end up.” – Richard Stanley

Was it all worth it? Stanley pushed himself to his physical and emotional limits making Dust Devil with the result being a fascinating struggle between the good and evil aspects of a woman’s soul filtered through the lens of the horror genre. He isn’t interested in making a straight up genre exercise but something else, something more deeply felt, something that resonates and stays with you long after the film ends.



SOURCES

Dust Devil liner notes. Subversive Cinema. 2006.

Rowlands, Paul. “Richard Stanley Talks to Paul Rowlands About Dust Devil.” Money into Light. July 2012.

Totaro, Donato. “Richard Stanley Interview: The Dust Devil.” Off Screen. August 1997.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Tenet

Christopher Nolan is an ambitious filmmaker that with every movie he makes sets out to challenge himself, whether its an unconventional narrative with Memento (2000) or making a non-franchise movie like Inception (2010) at a time when studios rarely greenlight projects not already based on an established property. He is a rare Hollywood studio filmmaker capable of making original big-budgeted movies that make hundreds of millions of dollars. This has given him the clout to make his boldest movie yet – Tenet (2020), a sprawling spy thriller that explores the manipulation of time.

This movie is a testament to the kind of juice Nolan has within the industry. He is able to command a budget over $200 million starring John David Washington, whose casting as the movie’s lead must have raised eyebrows with studio executives as he has no experience with a project of this magnitude or the kind of drawing power of someone like Leonardo DiCaprio or Matthew McConnaughy – actors who helped sell Nolan’s previous ambitious fare. Even the casting of Robert Pattinson as Washington’s co-star was something of a risk as he is no longer the bankable Twilight heartthrob he once was having rejected Hollywood for the most part to appear in foreign and independent films.

Nolan is also employing a deliberately demanding narrative at a time when Hollywood wants to spoon-feed audiences that have been conditioned over decades to expect formulaic product. This may explain why his name factors so prominently in the movie’s marketing as with the absence of a big name movie star he has become the star. Is this something the ambitious filmmaker wanted all along – to be a distinctive brand name like George Lucas or Steven Spielberg? Or, has he bitten off more than he can chew and will Tenet finally end his streak of profitable popcorn movies with more on their minds than car chases and explosions?

The movie begins with an impressively orchestrated sting operation at the National Opera House in Kiev with an unnamed CIA operative known only as the Protagonist (Washington) liberating an exposed spy and obtaining a mysterious device. He’s caught and tortured by Russian agents but manages to take a cyanide pill before divulging any information and dies. Or does he? He wakes up in a hospital bed from a medically-induce coma. Officially declared dead, thus taking him off everyone’s radar, he’s given an assignment by his boss (Martin Donovan): prevent World War III from happening. This is tagged with a bit of advice: “All I have for you is a gesture with a combination with a word: tenet. Use it carefully. It’ll open the right doors but some of the wrong ones, too.” This last line is particularly relevant to understanding what happens later on in the movie.

With the help of a fellow operative named Neil (Pattinson), the Protagonist discovers that the man responsible for triggering World War III is a powerful Russian oligarch by the name of Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). To get close to him, he befriends his unhappy wife (Elizabeth Debicki) by appealing to her interest in fine art. The rest of the movie plays out the Protagonist’s mission to get to Sator and discover how he’s going to bring about the end of the world and stop it from happening.

Some have complained that Tenet is too complicated and the plot too hard to follow. Is it maybe that we’ve had our senses dulled by an endless stream of mostly mindless big budget blockbusters that do little to challenge us? Nolan provides plenty of exposition rest stops along the way to explain what’s going on, such as the scientist (Clemence Poesy) the protagonist meets early on that gives us a taste of movie’s central conceit: a technology known as “inversion” that sees objects and people traveling backwards in time by reversing their entropy. Or, as she puts it at a gun range where the bullet travels back into the gun instead of hitting its target, “You’re not shooting the bullet, you’re catching it.” He gradually fleshes this concept out over the course of the movie until the last third where, admittedly, things do get a little tough to follow but not enough to ruin the enjoyment of the exciting climax.

Tenet features some of Nolan’s best choreographed action set pieces, from the opening sting in Kiev to the stealing and crashing of a jumbo jet liner into a building that is as impressive as anything in Inception. The opera house sting, in particular, is right out of the Michael Mann playbook in the way it is staged and the use of dense tech lingo as Nolan drops us right into the middle of the action with little to no explanation, reminiscent of the opening sequence in Miami Vice (2006).

John David Washington is excellent as the no-nonsense protagonist who tells someone early on, “I’m not the man they send into negotiate. Or the man they send in to make deals, but I am the man people talk to.” The actor deftly juggles action sequences with dialogue-heavy ones effortlessly. He plays a rather enigmatic fellow with little to no backstory thus forcing us to get know him through his actions in the movie.

He plays well off of Robert Pattinson’s quirky operative. It’s the juicier role and the actor has fun providing much-needed levity at just the right moments in this otherwise po-faced movie, much as Tom Hardy did in Inception. For example, when he and the Protagonist are talking about stealing and crashing a jumbo jet liner, the latter asks, “How big of a plane?” to which the former says sheepishly, “That part is a little dramatic.” The way Pattinson delivers this line is a wonderful bit of subtle comic timing.

Kenneth Branagh plays a vicious Russian billionaire with malevolent intensity. Nolan wisely prolongs his introduction for as long as he can so that the character’s reputation precedes him and our anticipation of his first appearance increases. Sator is a power hungry bully with a crucial edge – he communes with the future for a very specific reason that isn’t the usual mad man villain stuff we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies.

Ludwig Göransson replaces Nolan’s long-time go-to composer Hans Zimmer and the movie is better for it. With a few exceptions, he eschews Zimmer’s sledgehammer orchestrations for pulsating electronics that provide the movie’s moody backbone and enhance Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, which adopts a grounded, realistic look reminiscent of Inception.

It’s no secret that one of Nolan’s burning ambitions is to make a Bond movie. He doesn’t need to anymore. With Inception and now Tenet he’s made two spy movies jacked-up on science fiction steroids and done it his way with the kind of creative freedom the Bond producers would never allow. With this movie it feels like he has pushed the techno spy thriller as far as it can go by introducing grand science fiction concepts that turn the genre on its head.

What is Nolan’s ultimate end game? He has reached the point in his career where he has the creative freedom to control every aspect of his movies and so everything in it – the muffled dialogue, the overpowering music and sound effects – is intentional. Nolan wants to be regarded as a serious filmmaker such as Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick – two of his cinematic idols – are considered serious auteurs. He lacks that special something that those filmmakers have, transcending genre trappings to create films that are groundbreaking and unique in ways other than on a technical level.

Nolan is at his best when making cerebral spy thrillers like Inception or gritty comic book movies like The Dark Knight trilogy. He doesn’t do touchy-feely sentiment very well, which is why the emotions expressed in Interstellar (2014) felt forced. He’s not a warm filmmaker like Spielberg but more of a puppet-master like Kubrick. Nolan’s movies work best when he uses emotion like a garnish, sprinkling it sparsely over his story. Tenet is a strong, bold effort that invites repeated viewings, not to get past its aggressive sound mix, but to unravel the timelines of the three main characters who are complicated through the plot machinations of the movie.

Friday, August 7, 2020

American Graffiti

“The anthropologist side of me never went away and…the whole innocence of the ‘50s, the mating rituals of the ‘50s, the uniquely American mating ritual of meeting the opposite sex in cars was very fascinating to me…I saw the beginning of the ‘60s as a real transition in the culture in the way, because of the Vietnam War, and all the things we were going through and I wanted to make a movie about it.” – George Lucas

There is a fascinating push-pull friction going on in American Graffiti (1973) between George Lucas the anthropologist with the use of long lenses and takes observing his subjects and Lucas the autobiographer with his close-ups on the compelling dramatic moments of his characters going through events either he experienced or people he knew. The film is at times nostalgic for this bygone era and at other times chronicling it from a distance, which may explain why it has aged surprisingly well as a time capsule of that time period and of Lucas as an artist when he made it, before he would create a franchise empire that would overshadow everything else he has done.

The film follows four young men and the women in their lives on the last night of summer vacation in 1962. We are introduced to the first three in a long shot arriving in their respective vehicles at a local diner in Modesto, California. Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) is deciding whether or not to college on the east coast. Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) is also going off to school and can’t believe that his friend is having doubts, pointing out that this is finally their chance to escape their dead-end town and avoid ending up like John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the local drag racer that never grew up and has a reputation for having the fastest car. Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith) is entrusted with Steve’s ’58 Chevy Impala while he’s away at school and spends the night trying to get laid.

Curt, Steve and his girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) start the night off by going to the freshman hop at their high school to remember all of “the good times” as Curt puts it, which sets John off: “I ain’t going off to some goddamn fancy college. I’m staying here right here! Having fun, as usual.” This hints at the trouble he won’t say but we know. He feels left behind while they go off to college. He wants things to stay the same; later complaining that rock ‘n’ roll has gone downhill since Buddy Holly died.

The characters soon go their separate ways and Lucas the anthropologist cuts to a montage of cars cruising up and down the main street of the town. This was a nightly ritual that began back in the 1950s and continued on into 1960s and beyond – teenagers would go riding in their cars making fun of each other, getting into trouble and picking each other up. We see John in his element for this is where he feels most comfortable. He’s the king of the strip. All the while, Lucas has music playing with famed radio disc jockey Wolfman Jack’s colorful banter between songs. The music acts as a Greek chorus, complimenting and commenting on what we are seeing.

The guys’ lives are complicated by the women they are either involved with or encounter over the course of the night. With John, it’s when he agrees to pick-up Carol Morrison (Mackenzie Phillips), a young girl and not a beautiful woman as he was led to believe. Curt spots a mysterious striking blonde woman (Suzanna Sommers) in a car mouthing what he believes are the words, “I love you,” and spends the rest of the film trying to find her. Steve and Laurie start off by agreeing to see other people while they’re away at college but that quickly goes south when they get into a fight at the dance. This tension flares and simmers over the course of the night. Finally, Terry picks up a girl named Debbie (Candy Clark) off the street and they go through a series of misadventures.

The split personalities of Lucas the documentarian and the autobiographer are most apparent early on during the depiction of the freshman sock hop that Curt, Steve and Laurie attend, which is much more interesting than the melodrama that erupts between the latter couple. Lucas is a depicting a ritual from a bygone era that he actually experienced, which gives the sequence an air of authenticity. Once again, Lucas’ documentarian side comes to the foreground as he meticulously recreates this dance right down to the band Herby and the Heartbeats (Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids) playing the music and the dance moves of the kids. Lucas the self-mythologizer takes over when we see Curt wandering the empty, darkened halls of the high school. He ends up talking to a teacher (Terry McGovern) chaperoning the dance and asking him about his college experience. He only lasted a semester before going home after deciding he wasn’t “the competitive type.” This only feeds into Curt’s doubts.

Of the four main characters Curt and John are the most interesting, even getting the film’s most poignant moments. Steve is your typical all-American class president type and Terry is a dweeb that just wants to get laid. Curt, in comparison, starts off with the dilemma of going to college or staying put, then becomes obsessed with a blonde woman in a car and this leads him to being shanghaied by local greaser gang The Pharaohs who force him to pull a series of pranks as a form of initiation. Richard Dreyfuss is charming and funny in the role, especially how he interacts with others, using humor to both deflect insults and keep himself out of trouble as we see with his misadventures with The Pharaohs.

Curt’s brief stint as a juvenile delinquent is both amusing and a bit harrowing as The Pharaohs put him in danger on two separate occasions but he is able to use his affable personality to get out of these sticky situations. Dreyfuss plays well off of Bo Hopkins’ genial yet menacing greaser. There’s always the implied threat of violence hanging over them but Curt manages to pull off the tasks he’s given and survive the night.

John starts off as a typical hot rodder interested only in cars and picking up women but the more time he spends with Carol his true character emerges. Initially, they have an antagonistic relationship, as he’s embarrassed to be seen with this young kid, afraid it will damage his reputation. She feels like no one likes her, not her older sister Judy who dumped her with John or this grease monkey who is trying to get rid of her. Mackenzie Phillips does an excellent job of showing that Carol is more than an annoying brat. She wants to hang out with the older kids and be taken seriously.

They take a walk through a junkyard and John points out a few cars and their histories, such as the people that died in them. He’s managed to avoid that fate so far and stay the fastest guy on the strip. It is a quiet, poignant moment between these two characters where they put their differences aside. Paul Le Mat is excellent in this scene as John lets his cool façade down for a few minutes and shows a vulnerable side to Carol. In their next scene together, he helps her terrorize a car of girls that threw a water balloon at her. It is an important bonding experience for them as it is no longer two of them sniping at each other but them working together against a common foe. Their night ends on a sweet note as he finally drops her off at her house and gives her a part from his car – a little memento of their night together. It means the world to her as she runs off into the house while he heads off into the night with a wry smile.

Curt’s payoff comes when, in a last ditch Hail Mary to get in touch with the mysterious blonde, he goes to the local radio station to get a dedication played in the hopes she’ll contact him. He meets the night D.J. who doesn’t claim to be the mythological Wolfman but promises to relay the dedication to the man. As Curt leaves the station he looks back and sees the D.J. adopt the Wolfman’s distinctive voice and smiles with the knowledge that few others have.

American Graffiti heads towards its exciting climactic showdown between John and Bob Falfa (played to cocky perfection by Harrison Ford), an unknown drag racer in a black ’55 Chevy One-Fifty Coupe who has been looking for him all night. It’s dawn when the two head out of town to race. John has been dreading this moment, as he knows Falfa’s car is faster than his, thanks to a brief encounter earlier that night, but the would-be challenger crashes his car. Terry gushes about John’s win and in a rare moment of candor among his friends, tells him that he would’ve lost. Terry won’t hear it and hypes him and his car. John goes along with it, snapping back into “character” as it were. After all, being the top hot rodder is all he has in life and he knows it. In that moment, he comes to terms with it.

One can’t stress the importance of music in this film enough. It is everywhere. The first thing we hear is a radio being tuned to a station with the characters listening to it or having it play in the background throughout the film with the legendary Wolfman Jack commenting occasionally between songs. Music is often used to establish a mood and take us back to the time period as evident early on when “Sixteen Candles” plays over a shot of cars parked at Mel’s Diner, or showing cars cruising up and down the main drag to “Runaway” by Del Shannon as Lucas the anthropologist observes these people in their natural habitat, chronicling their nightly rituals.

For all the nostalgia that this film evokes people often forget the darker elements that gradually appear towards the end as Laurie is almost killed in a car accident. Lucas delivers the most powerful, emotional gut punch at the end with an epilogue that bluntly states the death of one of the main characters and another MIA in Vietnam. In an incredible example of tonal whiplash, the Beach Boys’ cheery “All Summer Long” plays over the credits ending things on a bittersweet note.

With every passing year there are fewer people that can answer the American Graffiti poster’s tag line question, “Where were you in ’62?” Lucas takes us back to a more innocent time when John F. Kennedy was still President of the United States and before a series of political assassinations, coupled with the Vietnam War, divided the country. We have this knowledge and are aware that these characters are on the cusp of all of this happening but are currently blissfully unaware. The farther we get away from the year that the film is set and the less people still alive who can remember it, American Graffiti becomes less of a nostalgia piece and more of a snapshot of a certain time and place, capturing Lucas as a young man before his life became complicated with filmmaking and empire building.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Reflections in a Golden Eye

In a career as vast as Elizabeth Taylor’s, you’re bound to find the occasional oddity or strange outlier that doesn’t get mentioned often or is given much attention but is just peculiar enough to invite rediscovery. Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) is such a film. It started out as a way for Taylor to get her long-time friend and fellow actor Montgomery Clift an acting gig and boost his spirits after surviving a horrific car accident that shattered his good looks and confidence. It eventually became a twisted Southern gothic tale starring Marlon Brando opposite Taylor, directed by none other than John Huston who imposed its distinctive golden filter over every scene.

The film chronicles the dysfunctional marriage of Major Weldon Penderton (Brando) and his wife Leonora (Taylor) who likes riding horses and having an affair with Lieutenant Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith), good friends with her husband. Private Williams (Robert Forster) is a young man that tends to Leonora’s horse and does yard work for the Penderton’s. He becomes obsessed with the couple and in particular Leonora, observing their most private moments from their yard at night.

We are introduced to the three main characters in a way that tells us something important about each one of them. Williams is a gentle soul that enjoys hanging around the stable, taking care of the horses. Weldon is a vain man obsessed with making himself look better as evident by the way he admires himself in a mirror after a workout, flexing his muscles. Leonora is all about what makes her happy, whether it’s making sure all the details for an impending party are just right or her affair with Morris.

Weldon and Leonora have a loveless relationship that borders on the contentious. She likes to have fun and he’s a humorless man, which begs the question, was it always like this? Were they ever happy together? Now, they have an antagonistic relationship as typified when he chastises her for walking around the house in bare feet. She responds by taking off all her clothes and walking around the house, which only infuriates him more. As she heads upstairs, Leonora simply turns, looks over her shoulder and says, “Son, have you ever been collared and dragged out into the street and thrashed by a naked woman?” While Brando seethes and chews up the scenery, Taylor wisely plays it low-key with simmering contempt. If Weldon is repressed then Leonora is the complete opposite, an exhibitionist who has no problem expressing how she feels at given moment.

This is a juicy role for Elizabeth Taylor to sink her teeth into as she vamps it up as a boozy, spoiled housewife with voracious appetites. She relishes her dialogue and delights in Leonora’s rebellious behavior towards Weldon and cheerfully condescends to Alison (Julie Harris). She is blissfully oblivious to everyone else’s problems, going on about her preparations for the party or casually dismissing Alison’s flamboyantly gay houseboy Anacleto’s (Zorro David) obvious disdain for her.

Marlon Brando is terrific playing a tragic figure trapped in a repressive prison and wanting so desperately to escape it. The scene where he is almost killed while riding a runaway horse is a powerful one as it culminates in a complete emotional breakdown. All of Weldon’s suppressed emotions come bubbling to the surface, erupting like a volcano in a powerfully acted moment by the actor. He can’t harm is wife directly so he punishes her in more insidious ways, such as taking out her beloved horse Firebird. When it nearly kills him after he provokes the animal, Weldon viciously whips it with a tree branch. He’s clearly venting his anger at Leonora out on this poor horse. Weldon is doing this as much to punish her as himself, lying to his wife about beating Firebird so that when she finds out and comes back understandably enraged, she begins striking him with a riding crop while he just stands there and takes it.

Williams is an enigmatic figure. Why is he so fascinated with these people? His obsession with them only grows as the film goes on. Robert Forster delivers an intriguing, largely wordless performance as a voyeuristic young man that spends most of his time observing the Penderton’s disintegrating marriage. Williams often stares impassively, his obsession guiding his actions as he increasingly takes more risks to spy on Leonora. He even goes so far as to breaking into their house, going into her bedroom and watching her as she sleeps.

Julie Harris plays Morris’ long-suffering wife, still dealing with the death of her child three years ago. The only comfort she finds is with Anacleto, a colorful character with a flair for the dramatic as he cuts loose while Morris looks on disdainfully. Zorro David delivers a wonderful monologue about a dream he had in such an odd way that anticipates similar showstopping moments in David Lynch films. His character would not be out of place in one of them. It's a shame David never made another film after this one as his onscreen presence is absolutely riveting.

Everyone in the cast is going for it, playing their respective roles to the hilt, be it Brando’s repressed major, Taylor’s lusty housewife, Forster’s stoic voyeur or Harris’ tragic wife.

Reflections in a Golden Eye is a beautiful shot film by Aldo Tonti with a golden filter that saturates the entire film with one object in a given scene naturally colored. This is in reference to Anacleto’s drawing of a golden peacock whose eye reflects the world. The film also features excellent use of shadows during night-time scenes where Williams spies on the Penderton’s, creeping around the outside of their house. There is another stand-out shot of a train, enshrouded in smoke, leaving the station at dawn.

After saving Montgomery Clift’s life in a horrendous nearly fatal automobile accident, Elizabeth Taylor had been trying to find a project for them work together on. The accident not only physically disfigured him but also had a huge psychological impact and his subsequent reliance on drugs and alcohol made him almost unemployable. In 1964, his agent suggested that they star in an adaptation of Carson McCuller’s novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, a Southern gothic story about sexual repression. Clift was to play a latent homosexual army officer that becomes fixated on a young private. Taylor was to play opposite Clift as his wife and object of the private’s obsession.

Producer Ray Stark was understandably worried about insuring Clift and told the actor he’d have to put up his beloved brownstone as collateral. He was so desperate for work he considered but Taylor wouldn’t hear it and announced to the press that she and Clift were making the film together – their first since Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). When Stark asked her to reconsider, she offered to give up her salary to pay for his insurance.

Complications arose when Taylor told Clift that her husband Richard Burton wanted to co-star and direct the film. Not only did Clift not consider Burton a serious actor but also felt uncomfortable in the presence of the Welsh alpha male. Burton eventually decided not to do the film and John Huston was hired to direct. Unfortunately, Clift died in July 1966 and was subsequently replaced by Marlon Brando at the suggestion of Taylor.

Production on the film began in October 1966 in Rome where Burton and Taylor had been filming the play Doctor Faustus. It was a ten-week shoot with Brando often going out to dinner with Burton and Taylor. The film’s distinctive golden amber look was a result of extensive experimentation for a specific effect as Huston remarked, “This served to separate the audience somewhat from the characters, who were in various ways withdrawn from reality, and to make their story a bit more remote and erotic.”

An executive at Warner Brothers objected to the look of the film and Huston was able to convince the studio to release his version in select cities. Reflections in a Golden Eye received poor reviews and did not perform well at the box office. Variety said, “Brando struts about and mugs as the stuffy officer whose Dixie dialect is often incoherent.” Newsweek said that the film was “devoid of style and grace,” and called it “perverted.” The New York Times criticized the film’s “odd and pretentious use of color to convey the notion of reflections in a golden eye, I suppose that is, the suffusion of the whole thing in a fluctuating golden wash or monotone.” Finally, Pauline Kael gave it one of its more merciful reviews, stating, “Despite everything that is laboriously wrong with Reflections, the visual style – like paintings made from photographs – is interesting and the director, John Huston, and the actors are able to do some extraordinary things with Carson McCuller’s conceptions.” Technicolor prints had been struck at the same time as Huston’s version and replace them when the film was given a wider release.

The Penderton’s are a tragic couple that shouldn’t be married as he’s gay but unable to come out of the closet as a result of the repressed times and the environment in which he lives in. She, on the other hand, can’t empathize with other people as she’s so concerned with herself. Reflections in a Golden Eye is about damaged people, from the repressed Weldon to the selfish Leonora to the unhappy Alison to the obsessed Williams.

The film is also about perception – how people perceive others and themselves, from Weldon admiring himself in the mirror to Williams obsessively gazing at Leonora while she sleeps. It is an unhealthy, destructive gaze that Anacleto observes more succinctly when he shows Alison his watercolor of a peacock, explaining that in its eye are “reflections of something tiny, and tiny and…” upon struggling to find the right word, settles on “grotesque,” contorting his face. This film features grotesque caricatures of human beings doing horrible things to each other with often tragic results.


SOURCES

Kashner, Sam and Nancy Schoenberger. Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century. itbooks. 2011.

Phillips, Gene D. “Talking with John Huston.” Film Comment. May/June 1973.

Spoto, Donald. A Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor. Harper Collins. 1995.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Pronto

Somewhere, there’s an alternate universe where James Le Gros is playing recurring Elmore Leonard character Deputy United States Marshal Raylan Givens in a series of television movies instead of Timothy Olyphant in a T.V. series. Watching Le Gros in Pronto (1997) is a study in contrast of styles to what Olyphant would do later in Justified. Airing two years after Get Shorty (1995) was released in theaters, and based on the 1993 novel of the same name, Pronto clearly tries to ape it in style and tone only with less money and star power in front of the camera.

Leonard fans will find themselves on familiar turf right from the get-go as we are introduced to Harry Arno (Peter Falk), a Miami Beach bookie who’s been skimming off the top from the mob for years. He has his regular customers and haunts – everything seems to be going swimmingly until he’s tipped off by police detective friend Buck Torres (Luis Guzman) that the Feds are tapping his phone and his boss, Jimmy “The Cap” Capotorto (Walter Olkewicz), has put a hit out on him.

Pretty soon someone tries to take Harry out (although, he certainly knows how to take care of himself) and Raylan shows up in the lobby of his building. Harry invites the lawman up and we get Le Gros’ take on Raylan. He saunters in wearing a suit and a big white cowboy hat that looks completely out of place in neon-drenched Miami. He spots Harry and gives him a big, corn-fed grin, which screams hayseed and when he opens his mouth out comes the equivalent of a southern Boy Scout.

He tries to convince Harry to testify against Jimmy and in return he will protect him. Not surprisingly, Harry’s not the testifying type and gives Raylan the slip, taking refuge in an Italian town that has special significance for him from World War II. The rest of the movie plays out seeing who will find him first – Raylan or sadistic mob tough guy Tommy “The Zip” Bucks (Sergio Castellitto), who wants to make sure Harry doesn’t testify.

Peter Falk plays his usual, easy-going self, breezing his way through the movie as only he can. Harry is a smart guy, a typical Leonard protagonist who is always one step ahead of everyone else, always thinking, especially when everyone is looking for him. Le Gros initially plays Raylan as a little too cartoonish but as the movie progresses one realizes that this is a conscious choice. Raylan has created a country bumpkin-ish façade so that his enemies underestimate him. As the stakes get higher and the situations get more serious, the façade falls away and the actor brings a wonderful intensity to the role revealing a deadly determined lawman.

Pronto is directed by Jim McBride but you’d hardly know it from the flat, functional lighting in many scenes and the predictable framing. Where is the visual flair of Breathless (1983)? Where is the playful, anarchic energy of Great Balls of Fire (1989)? With the exception of some nifty transitional wipes between scenes, the man that made those films is absent. I understand, sometimes you have to do jobs to pay the bills, but one would think based on past adaptations that his visual style would be perfect for Leonard’s material, which makes this feel like a missed opportunity.


Fortunately, screenwriter Michael Butler, who penned notable crime thrillers The Gauntlet (1977) and Flashpoint (1984), does an excellent job adapting Leonard’s book, preserving the snappy dialogue, and he’s aided by a talented cast that tries to give life to his script in the way we’ve come to expect in more successful adaptations, such as Jackie Brown (1997) and Out of Sight (1998), it’s missing the vivid style to compliment it. Still, Falk, Glenne Headly and especially Le Gros are good enough to keep one watching until the end. Ultimately, it is unfair to compare Le Gros’ take with Olyphant. The latter had six seasons and 78 episodes to flesh out Leonard’s character and bring him to life, Le Gros had a 100 minutes and did the best with what he had to work with, delivering an engaging performance that always makes me wonder what could have been?