Friday, August 19, 2016

The Big Sleep

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Film Noir Blogathon over at The Midnite Drive-In Blog.

The Big Sleep (1946) is often considered one of the quintessential classic film noirs and with good reason. Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name by none other than William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett and directed by Howard Hawks, it stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall who had previously appeared together in To Have and Have Not (1944). The studio wanted to capitalize on the undeniable chemistry between the two actors and the public’s fascination with them. The end result is an atmospheric private detective story masterfully told and expertly filmed.

Philip Marlowe (Bogart) arrives at the Sternwood house to speak to its patriarch about a job. While waiting in the foyer he meets the youngest daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers), who coyly flirts with him. “You’re not very tall are you?” she says and without missing a beat he replies, “Well, I try to be.” She practically throws herself at him but he wisely and politely rebuffs her playful flirtations.

Marlowe meets with General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) in his greenhouse and the man is a no-bullshit kind of person that has no problem speaking his mind. He’s being blackmailed by a man named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) and the man who usually took care of these matters has disappeared. It seems that Carmen owes a sizable amount of money to Arthur Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), a rare book dealer. Sternwood hires Marlowe to get rid of Geiger and so begins his journey into a shadowy criminal underworld.

Before leaving, Marlowe visits with Vivian (Bacall), the eldest daughter, and it gives us a chance to see the sparks fly between Bogart and Bacall as their characters engage in some wonderful verbal sparring until Marlowe delivers a lengthy zinger:

“I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me, drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

Bogart delivers this dialogue clearly and quickly with just the right amount of withering sarcasm that puts Vivian in her place. The Big Sleep is full some of the best-written, snappy dialogue, like a memorable exchange early on between Marlowe and the Sternwood’s butler (Charles D. Brown):

Marlowe: How did Mrs. Rutledge know I was here?
Butler: She saw you through the window, sir and I was obliged to tell her who you were.
Marlowe: I don’t know I like that.
Butler: Are you attempting to tell me my duties, sir?
Marlowe: No, just having fun trying to guess what they are.

While the butler delivers his lines emotionlessly, Marlowe has a wry smile on his face as he enjoys messing with the man. Writing clever dialogue and having someone talented enough to say it has become a lost art and this film is a potent reminder of just how entertaining it is to watch a film that is so well-made.

After doing some legwork, Marlowe trails Geiger to his home and we get the first proper noir set piece as the private investigator hangs back while his target makes his way in the pouring rain at night. Time passes, the rain stops and a flash of light goes off in the house followed by a gunshot forcing the P.I. into action. No more playful flirting for Marlowe as he becomes embroiled in a convoluted mystery.

I was never a big fan of Humphrey Bogart’s but watching The Big Sleep again made me rethink my stance on him. Watching the actor deftly shift gears in a given scene, changing tone from comedy to drama and back again, is seeing a very skilled thespian masterfully plying his trade. He could play a ladies’ man, coyly flirting with women, and also be a tough guy, like when Marlowe finds himself in a dangerous situation.

Bogart’s Marlowe is quite the ladies’ man, flirting with nearly every woman that crosses his path, from the Sternwood women to a cute librarian (Carole Douglas) to a sexy bookstore proprietress (Dorothy Malone) who all happen to be gorgeous knock-outs. It is interesting to see the number of women from all walks of life that Marlowe encounters – a reminder that it took place during World War II when many men were overseas fighting. With the amount of flirting that goes on in this film maybe it should have been called The Big Flirt.

Lauren Bacall plays the quintessential “tough dame” that often populated film noirs. She more than holds her own against Bogart considering their difference in age and acting experience, but she had natural ability and a screen presence that is always interesting to watch. She even gets to sing in one scene – “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine” – which provides an enjoyable moment of levity. She is more than capable of handling the screenplay’s twisty dialogue and portraying a sophisticated woman.

The scenes between Bogart and Bacall crackle with sexual tension as their characters flirt with each other and, as it turns out, they were in love with each other in real life. It is easy to see in the way they look at each other in a given scene – that is genuine chemistry between two people. It is also a large part of the film’s appeal.

After the success of To Have and Have Not, Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner wanted to find another film for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to star in after audiences responded to their on-screen chemistry. He asked Howard Hawks, who had directed them in To Have and Have Not if he had any ideas. He had been talking with William Faulkner about possibly adapting Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

In 1939, Warner Bros. had toyed with the idea of buying the film options to the book but feared that the subject matter (pornography, nymphomania, homosexuality, etc.) would never get past the censors. Hawks assured Warner that he could get a screenplay that would pass the censors. Enticed by the re-teaming of Hawks with Bogart and Bacall, the studio chief green-lit the project.

Hawks employed Faulkner to write the script and while he tackled the plot, the director hired first-time novelist Leigh Brackett, whose novel No Good from a Corpse impressed him, to work on the dialogue. Hawks told his writers, “Don’t monkey with the book – just make a script out of it. The writing is too good.” They proceeded to soften or omit the less savory aspects of Chandler’s novel to appease the censors. It took them only six weeks to produce a shooting script.

Principal photography began on October 10, 1944. There was tension between Bogart and Bacall, who had an affair while making To Have and Have Not, when, before filming, he told her that since his wife had stopped drinking, he was going to give their marriage another try. This made Bacall very nervous during filming and she relied on Hawks to make it through the endeavor

The emotional toll of his turbulent marriage affected Bogart, who still loved Bacall, causing nights of little sleep and heavy drinking. His on-again-off-again relationship with his wife put terrible strain on him to the point that in one instance he was unable to report to work. Fortunately, Hawks covered for him with the studio. It got so bad that by November, the film was 17 days behind schedule.

Illness and injuries to various cast members also slowed down filming as well as continual rewrites of the script. Eventually, Faulkner burned out and left the production and Hawks brought in Jules Furthman to sharpen dialogue, reshape scenes and come up with a new ending. To make up time, the director shot faster and cut pages from the script. Principal photography finished on January 12, 1945. It took 76 days to film – 34 more than had originally been scheduled.

The Big Sleep had its world premiere in the Philippines in August 1945 and by October it was being shown to United States servicemen in several bases overseas. Hawks felt that the Marlowe-Vivian relationship needed more work. In addition, Bacall’s film Confidential Agent (1945) was released and bombed with the actress receiving bad notices. Worried that this might affect The Big Sleep, it was felt that three to four additional scenes of her and Bogart together would improve the film. Philip Epstein, co-screenwriter of Casablanca (1942), was hired to write these new scenes.

The new version, which debuted in 1946, featured 18 minutes of new material but was actually two minutes shorter. In addition to the scenes between Bogart and Bacall, another one was added with Marlowe and Carmen. Cut from the 1945 version was a scene where the facts of the case are reviewed by Marlowe and Chief Inspector Ohls (Regis Toomey). As a result, the version we know and love came across as a tad confusing or “enigmatic” as Leonard Maltin put it.

With the atmospheric sounds and memorable score by Max Steiner, coupled with Sidney Hickox’s richly textured black and white cinematography, Hawks creates a fantastic mood and, at the right moments, a sense of danger that is vintage noir. The common complaint is that at some point it becomes impossible to figure out what The Big Sleep is about but for me I hardly notice it because I get caught up in what’s going on, enjoying a given scene – the interaction between characters and the snappy dialogue that is bantered back and forth, which makes the film such a pleasure to watch again and again.


SOURCES

Grimes, William. “The Mystery of The Big Sleep Solved.” The New York Times. January 9, 1997.


McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. Grove Press. 1997.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Spanish Prisoner

“A fellow said, ‘We must never forget that we are human. And as humans we must dream. And when we dream we dream of money.”

This line of dialogue is spoken early on in The Spanish Prisoner (1998) and establishes one of the most important themes of David Mamet’s film: greed. The allure of money is what motivates all of the characters in the film save one – its protagonist, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott). He is not only at the mercy of other people’s greed but also their deception, which is another significant theme of this film.

Joe Ross and his friend and business partner George Lang (Ricky Jay) have invented “The Process,” a complicated formula that controls the global financial market. While pitching it to their boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) at a resort somewhere in the Caribbean, Joe meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a wealthy, well-spoken man who offers $1,000 for Joe’s camera. The two men become friends and Joe is gradually drawn into a world filled with elaborate facades where no one can be trusted.

Campbell Scott is first-rate as the innocent man embroiled in a scheme where Joe is at the mercy of situations beyond his control. He is not dumb – just not savvy but he wises up soon enough. Joe is the classic patsy, set-up in an elaborate frame job that is so beautifully orchestrated that we wonder how he’ll get out of it. The actor handles Mamet’s wordy screenplay with ease and his calm, even voice is perfectly suited for the filmmaker’s dialogue.

Steve Martin not only slides effortlessly into this dramatic role, but is also adept at speaking Mamet’s dialogue. He has a tough role in that he plays a charismatic wealthy man who turns out to be a master at the long con, gaining Joe’s trust by giving enough believable personal details in an affable way to gain his (and our) trust. It isn’t until late in the film that we realize just how much we’ve been taken in by Jimmy. At one point, he tells Joe, “People aren’t that complicated, Joe. Good people, bad people. They generally look like what they are.” This is, of course, a lie as Jimmy is nothing like what he seems.

In a mannered performance, Rebecca Pidgeon plays a chatty femme fatale that uses her incessant chatter as a smoke screen. Not for one second do we believe she’s the eager beaver, low-level secretary she pretends to be and even tells Joe at one point, “Who is what they seem? Who in this world is what they seem?” Again, she is conning both Joe and us because her annoying perchance for verbal diarrhea throws us off guard – there’s no way she could be in on the con even when she makes a point of warning us.

Known for playing the obnoxious dad in the popular sitcom Married…with Children, Ed O’Neill is cast against type as a no-nonsense FBI agent along with a pre-Desperate Housewives Felicity Huffman. Long-time Mamet collaborator Ricky Jay is exceptional as Joe’s business partner, getting the bulk of the film’s memorable lines in the first third of the film. Ben Gazzara also has a memorable turn as Joe’s somewhat enigmatic boss whose behavior only adds to our hero’s paranoia.

Not surprisingly, The Spanish Prisoner is chock-a-block with classic Mamet-speak with such gems as George telling Joe, “Here’s what I think, you know – worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.” Another keeper is when Jimmy says to Joe, “A man said, it’s alright when your hobbies get in the way of your work but when they start to get in the way of each other…” And finally, this gem: “Beware of all enterprises, which require new clothes,” says George at one point. The film is an unusual thriller in the sense that everyone speaks eloquently and intelligently in the very distinctive cadence of Mamet’s style.

The Process is the film’s MacGuffin, a thing that everyone values highly but is never fully explained or revealed but is apparently capable of generating a large amount of money, which is also never revealed. The characters dance around what it is exactly and Mamet does this intentionally because it is ultimately unimportant. Its purpose is to get Joe embroiled in a complex web of lies and deceits from which he tries to extricate himself.

One of the first images in the film is of luggage going through an x-ray machine. Mamet is cleverly foreshadowing one of the film’s central themes, which is the nature of perception and how some things are hidden even when they seem to be visible. The first time we watch The Spanish Prisoner we are like Joe – unaware of just how much he’s being manipulated by others. It isn’t until the second time around that we look for the signs that this is all an elaborate ruse. Joe, a man of numbers and formulas, is oblivious to these manipulations because he is so focused on The Process. It isn’t until it is stolen that he gradually becomes more self-aware.

The idea for The Spanish Prisoner came from a time when David Mamet and his wife were on vacation in the Caribbean. It was raining the whole time and he was looking at a little lagoon from his porch and saw a large 140-foot yacht with a helicopter on top: “And I wondered what someone would be like who came off that yacht. Then I started wondering, what if someone came off the yacht and you weren’t sure if they came off the yacht.” He decided to make a light thriller in the style of Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Donen. He had also wanted to work with actor Campbell Scott since he saw him in Longtime Companion (1989) and felt that he would be right for a “clean-cut, patrician, Leyendecker, Arrow-shirt” role.

The con employed in the film is an actual one called the Spanish Prisoner and still done today: “It’s a fairly long con and involves getting a substantial amount of money off a person and putting the person ‘on the send.’ Making a connection with the guy and sending him off to get some money and come back,” Mamet said in an interview.

The Spanish Prisoner received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The Spanish Prisoner is delightful in the way a great card manipulator is delightful. It rolls its sleeves above its elbows to show it has no hidden cards, and then produces them out of thin air.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The splendid inspiration of Alfred Hitchcock is much in evidence, with Mr. Scott as a latter-day James Stewart coping with the most subtly extraordinary of circumstances and later reeling from surprise after surprise. He and Mr. Martin especially display the debonair sang-froid that the material warrants.” The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “The ultimate seriousness of The Spanish Prisoner is validated by the rueful self-flagellation of the hero, and his recognition that the world itself is awash in chaos and corruption. Hence, there is no real Hitchcockian moral closure, no probing into the depths of the soul for the evil that lurks in us all.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “In The Spanish Prisoner, a tight, mathematically pleasing exercise in con-manship, Mamet returns to the coolly observed turf he knows well, and pulls off another fine, bitter, intellectual heist.” However, the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “The Spanish Prisoner ends as abruptly as it began slowly. Its rhythms, therefore, feel violated, it just stops, rather too conveniently, with the intrusion of still another level of conspiratorial force far beyond what has gone before.”

Like the protagonist in another Mamet film, House of Games (1987), Joe must navigate a series of challenging con games. However, The Spanish Prisoner is much more complex in its plotting so that the scams perpetrated on Joe are layered in such a way that he is never sure who he can trust. As Joe is being conned by various people in the film so are we by Mamet as he playfully manipulates our expectations of the genre. As Mamet said in an interview, “Well, writing a movie like this is exactly the same as if I were developing a con, because I am developing a con. The filmmaker has to get something from the audience – their belief, their credulity – which they wouldn’t [give] if they were thinking about it.” We think we know which way the plot is going to go only for him to pull the narrative rug out from under us. Some may be put off by The Spanish Prisoner because it doesn’t try to endear us to any of the characters or be sentimental. It’s a logical, methodically plotted thriller, seemingly from another planet and this is due in large part to Mamet’s idiosyncratically written dialogue and stylized direction.


SOURCES

Covington, Richard. “The Salon Interview: David Mamet.” Salon. October 1997.


Pride, Ray. “Con Artist.” Filmmaker magazine. Spring 1998.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Being Evel

For many kids growing up in the 1970s, Evel Knievel was a real-life superhero. He became famous for performing death-defying stunts that usually involved him jumping over something (or many things) with a motorcycle. He was the pioneer of what would later be known as extreme sports, inspiring a generation of kids to push the envelope with what was possible on skateboards, bicycles and so on. Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine helped create a very popular reality television show called Jackass, which was, in part, their tribute to Knievel. Years later, they helped produce a documentary on the man entitled, Being Evel (2015), directed by Daniel Junge. It chronicles Knievel’s rise from very humble beginnings to being rich and famous until fame consumed him – with help from a sizable ego, precipitating an alarming descent that left him financially destitute.

Right from the get-go, one gets the feeling that this was a passion project for Knoxville who is the first talking head on-screen as he lays out the film’s thesis: “I didn’t know the story of the man and it was pretty complex. I’m a grown-ass man and some of the stuff is hard to reconcile. It’s a crazy story.” The documentary proceeds to examine Knievel’s colorful life as told through vintage footage of his most memorable stunts both on and off the motorcycle and interviews with his family, friends, contemporaries, and admirers.

Knievel grew up in the rough and tough mining town of Butte, Montana without parents, raised by his grandmother. He learned early on how to fight and never backed down from a challenge. As a teen, he discovered motorcycles, raising hell with them at every opportunity. He committed all sorts of petty crimes over the years before eventually settling down and getting a job selling insurance, but when he realized that there was no room for advancement he quit and moved away with his wife Linda and their kids.

He sold motorcycles and then got the idea to start jumping things with them. He and his family settled in California and started a stunt riding show. It was at this time that he started developing showmanship techniques that would serve him well in the future.

Being Evel takes us back to the heady days of ABC’s Wide World of Sports with its iconic introduction that everyone who saw it back in the day could recite by heart: “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” with the shot of the ski jumper wiping out that everyone remembers, memorably illustrating “the agony of defeat.” As ABC Sports producer Doug Wilson says, “We were in the business of sports theater. Sports was drama. Sports was a story.” It was one of the biggest shows on T.V. at that time and was a program that Knievel was perfect for. He was able to get on it by jumping over 15 cars.

The documentary takes us through some of Knievel’s greatest hits, like jumping the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas (scamming the casino’s owner in order to get permission to do it) and the infamous Snake River Canyon jump, which was a high-profile debacle, often with mixed results as the footage of the former shows him crashing and breaking several bones. Not only did he not make the latter jump (in a rocket-powered vehicle no less), but things got ugly among the tens of thousands of people that showed up to witness the event, some of whom belonged to various motorcycle gangs. It was “the evil twin of Woodstock,” as someone puts it. A high school band tried to play and were accosted, outhouses were knocked over and set on fire, women were raped, and fights broke out. Amazingly, no one was killed.

Knievel was breaking new ground and, as a result, was making it up as he went along or, as Knoxville points out, in regards to the stunts: “He dreamed up and sold before he even knew was possible and then on the day, he’s got the crowds there and he doesn’t know if he can make it. He’s just got to go for it.” The film explores how Knievel became an overnight popular culture sensation by putting it in a historical context. The United States was just coming out of the Vietnam War, which was a very dark period of American history. The American public had become very cynical and needed a hero. Knievel, with his white, star-spangled jumpsuit, stepped up and gave people someone to look up to. He was so popular that his stunts were among seven of the top ten rated shows in Wide World of Sports’ 37-year history.

Knievel quickly realized that he drew more crowds when he crashed then when he successfully landed a jump, telling a friend, “Nobody wants to see me die but they don’t want to miss it if I do.” His stunts literally embodied Wide World of Sports' credo of “The thrill of victory,” when he made it, and “the agony of defeat,” when he didn’t. This understandably not only put a great amount of stress on him but also his two sons and first wife Linda who recalls how nerve-wracking life was back then, not knowing if her husband would survive a given jump or not.

Junge deftly juxtaposes archival footage of Knievel talking himself up and espousing his worldview to anybody who’d listen, with his family and friends reflecting on what he was like in private and it wasn’t pretty. He cheated on his wife constantly and the painkillers he took to keep his numerous injuries in check affected his behavior, causing him to act irrationally and paranoid at times. Over time, Knievel crafted a persona and began to believe it, especially once he became rich and famous, adored by millions. As his daughter says at one point, “He forgot how to be Bob and when he became Evel it’s like the world took him away from us.”

The doc is chock-a-block with memorable anecdotes, like actor George Hamilton recounting a time when he was forced to read a screenplay for a movie version of Knievel’s life (written by John Milius no less!) with a gun pointed at his head by the man himself! For all of its hero worship, Being Evel tempers it by showing how the man’s monster ego and hubris proved to be his downfall, culminating in an incident where he attacked Sheldon Saltman, the promoter of the Snake River Canyon jump, with an aluminum baseball bat for writing a relatively tame tell-all book about the tour leading up to the event. Apparently, it was a little too truthful for Knievel.


The doc ends by touching upon Knievel’s legacy and how he lives on with guys like Tony Hawk, Travis Pastrana, Robbie Maddison, and Mat Hoffman who embody his daredevil spirit and theatricality, while the Jackass crew represent the flipside – his numerous crashes and wipeouts. Evel Knievel – daredevil superhero or charismatic con man? This is the dichotomy that Being Evel wrestles with and ultimately embraces in its fascinating portrait of one of the cultural icons of the ‘70s. Towards the end, one gets the feeling that this film has been something a cathartic experience for Knoxville as he forced himself to take a good long look at his hero and concludes, “I still think he’s a superhero. I know a more complete story, now. And some of the stuff is really heartbreaking, you know? But to me, what he did transcends that.”

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Great Gatsby

Ever since F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus The Great Gatsby was published, Hollywood has been fascinated with adapting his novel into a film. To date, there have been five official versions, from a silent film made in 1926 to Baz Luhrmann’s postmodern take in 2013. Filmmakers have long been intrigued by the novel’s themes of decadence, excess and its portrait of the Roaring Twenties, making it a haunting critique of the pursuit of the American Dream.

In 1974, a particularly intriguing version of The Great Gatsby was released starring Robert Redford in the titular role and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, the object of his affection. It was directed by British filmmaker Jack Clayton and adapted by Francis Ford Coppola. The film received scathing reviews and was nominated for several Academy Awards and Golden Globes – even winning a few of them. It is generally regarded as an uneven adaptation at best and an outright failure at worst but I’ve always found it a fascinating take on Fitzgerald’s novel.

The opening credits play over a montage of Gatsby’s opulent mansion that is oddly devoid of life, coming across more as a sterile museum full of nice things: an expensive car, piano, ornate furnishings, marble floors, and exquisite décor, all the while echoey music plays as if to suggest ghosts of the past haunt this place. While the camera lingers over expensive jewelry, it keeps returning to a newspaper photograph and portraits of Daisy Buchanan (Farrow) – the only thing that Gatsby really cares about.

We meet Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) arriving in West Egg, Long Island via boat to spend the summer hanging out with his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom (Bruce Dern) who live in the far more fashionable East Egg, “drifting here and there, unrestfully, wherever people played polo and were rich together,” Nick observes via voiceover narration. He’s met by Tom and they head back to his house where he’s reunited with Daisy and meets her friend Jordan Baker (Lois Chiles).

One is immediately struck by Daisy’s flighty condescension and Tom’s smug superiority. These people live in their own rarefied world because they can afford it. She even tries to appear deep by making an observation about a bird on the lawn but it comes across as a half-hearted attempt. The film wastes no time showing what a hypocrite Tom is with his talk of the superiority of the rich, upper class and his polo games but his mistress Myrtle (Karen Black) is the wife of a destitute mechanic (Scott Wilson) living in a garage located among a desolate wasteland of ashes.

Nick arrives home and only catches a fleeting glimpse of his enigmatic neighbor Jay Gatsby (Redford). The film cheekily juxtaposes Nick’s simple existence – eating a modest steak dinner he prepared himself with a glass of beer on the porch of his modest rental house – dwarfed by the army of groundskeepers and caterers that prepare Gatsby’s estate for one of his lavish parties. We only catch a couple of glimpses of him until 35 minutes into the film when Nick is brought up to meet the man one-on-one in the heart of his mansion. It is an impressive introduction as Robert Redford flashes that high wattage movie star smile and one can see why he was the ideal actor to play the enigmatic man with loads of charisma.

Daisy and Gatsby have a doomed love affair. When they first met they couldn’t be together because she was rich and he wasn’t. This violated the rules of the upper class. Gatsby spent years amassing a large personal fortune, buying his way back into Daisy’s world in the hopes of proving himself worthy, only she didn’t wait for him and married another rich man. They reunite for a brief affair, knowing it can’t last but are determined to savor every moment they have together.

Bruce Dern does an exceptional job of portraying an Alpha Male reeking of entitlement. He uses up people with little to no thought of the consequences. Karen Black plays his ideal foil, an equally duplicitous spouse that when she wants something, like a puppy being sold on the side of the street, has Tom pay for it. The actress does a wonderful job conveying Myrtle’s indulgence of excess. These aren’t very nice people and Dern and Black aren’t afraid to portray them as such. And yet for all of her vanity, Black gets a moment to suggest that Myrtle is something of a tragic figure while Dern’s Tom is ultimately nothing more than a wealthy bully. “They’re careless people, Tom and Daisy. They smash things up and then they retreat back into their money or their vast carelessness…leaving other people to clean up the mess,” Nick says of them, which perfectly nails their characters.

Sam Waterston plays Nick as a blank slate audience surrogate, acting as our guide among the rich and powerful. The character’s purpose is to react to the behavior and actions of the colorful people he encounters throughout the film. The actor does a decent job portraying the wide-eyed outsider in a world he is familiar with but can never truly be a part of because he’s not rich. As the film progresses, a friendship forms between Nick and Gatsby and this gives Waterston something to do other than being an observer. Nick is a true friend to Gatsby as he doesn’t like him because of his money but because he truly admires him.

Robert Redford always struck me as an actor that kept his cards close to the vest, never letting audiences inside and showing a vulnerable side. It always feels like he keeps audiences at arm’s length and in the process maintaining an air of mystery, which is ideally suited for playing Gatsby. The actor portrays him as an elusive figure that only interacts with people on his own terms.

If Redford is ideally cast as Gatsby then Mia Farrow is very much miscast as Daisy. Her fickle, bird-trapped-in-a-gilded-cage take on the character is grating at times and makes us wonder why Gatsby is so taken with her. That being said, the scene where Daisy and Gatsby meet for the first time in eight years demonstrates incredible on-screen chemistry between the two actors. In particular, Redford’s reaction to seeing her is quite powerful as we see Gatsby, a man always in control, caught up in the moment – a rare thing that sees him letting his guard down.

The Great Gatsby features beautiful cinematography courtesy of Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and features memorable shots like that of Nick leaving the Buchanan’s at the end of the day with the sky and water bathed in the warm orange, pink and yellow hues of the sunset. The soft focus approach gives everything an almost hazy look, making all the metal of the expensive silverware, glassware and jewelry sparkle and shimmer.

For years, the likes of Sam Spiegel, Ray Stark and Sydney Pollack had wanted to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby into a film. Actress Ali MacGraw dreamed of playing the much-coveted role of Daisy Buchanan, which prompted then-husband and head of production at Paramount Studios Robert Evans to buy the film rights as a gift to her. He partnered with Broadway producer David Merrick who was friends with Fitzgerald’s daughter Scottie. At the time Merrick approached her there were other interested parties and it took him a year before he closed the deal for $350,000.

Potential directors circled the project, including Peter Bogdanovich, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols, but none of them wanted MacGraw to play Daisy. British director Jack Clayton was hired to helm the film. He had actually tried to acquire the rights to The Great Gatsby himself in the 1940s and was obsessed with the novel for 30 years. To this end, he not only consulted with Fitzgerald estate curator Matthew J. Bruccoli but also with Scottie and literary experts.

Evans hired Truman Capote to write the screenplay. Clayton felt that the first draft had “far too much dialogue and exposition.” Evans was also unhappy with the script, which included confusing dream sequences and flashbacks. He asked Francis Ford Coppola to write a more straight-forward adaptation. The filmmaker was looking for a change of pace from working on The Godfather (1972) and wrote the script in five weeks. Clayton loved Coppola’s script and removed some passages he felt were unnecessary and inserted material from the book that the filmmaker had not included. It was these additions that upset Coppola, including an ending that he felt was anti-climactic.

Evans wanted either Warren Beatty or Jack Nicholson to play Gatsby with the former agreeing but only if MacGraw played Jordan Baker, and the latter only if she was not cast as Daisy. Evans was determined to have his wife play the role. He approached Marlon Brando but couldn’t afford him, especially after The Godfather. They were two months away from the start of principal photography and still hadn’t found their Gatsby. When Robert Redford heard about the project he approached Evans who turned the actor down. Redford met with Clayton who was interested in Nicholson as Gatsby but after talking with Redford for 90 minutes wanted him to play the part. Clayton said of the actor, “You can see the possibility of danger beneath the romantic WASP image.”

Evans still wasn’t convinced and felt that Redford didn’t look the part, which drove the actor crazy: “I began to think Evans never read the book. Sure, he liked the idea of doing Fitzgerald, but he didn’t know the text.” He had first read the novel in college and found it “florid,” but revisited it for the film and “I saw it was something extraordinary, the depiction of human obsessions, and I felt some great screen work could come from it.” The studio also backed Redford and he was cast as Gatsby.

Merrick wanted MacGraw to play Daisy and McQueen to play Gatsby. At the time, Evans and MacGraw were getting divorced after he discovered she was having an affair with her co-star on The Getaway (1972), Steve McQueen. Evans, understandably, disagreed with Merrick and had Paramount executives meet with him and Merrick to decide on potential actresses to play Daisy: Mia Farrow, Katharine Ross, Candice Bergen or Faye Dunaway. Merrick continued to insist on MacGraw while Clayton wanted Farrow and Evans agreed. The studio executives concurred and she was cast in the role. After being cast she discovered that she was pregnant. The shooting schedule was moved up a week and her dresses were altered to hide her pregnancy.

Most people assume that the media blitzkrieg and merchandising of a movie started with Star Wars (1977) but forget that The Great Gatsby predated it with a then-unprecedented amount of hype as typified by Evans hubristically saying, “The making of a blockbuster is the newest art form of the 20th century.” Oh, how prescient that statement was when one considers the rise of the mass marketed studio blockbuster in the 1980s. Paramount spent $200,000 on publicity and promotion with product tie-ins valued at $6 million. The film was made for $6.4 million and made $18.6 million on advance bookings making it a financial success before it was even released in theaters!

Film critics savaged The Great Gatsby when it was released. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “But we can’t penetrate the mystery of Gatsby. Nor, to be honest, can we quite understand what’s so special about Daisy Buchanan. Not as she’s played by Mia Farrow, all squeaks and narcissism and empty sophistication.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Nothing that Mr. Clayton does with the actors or with the camera comes close to catching the spirit of Fitzgerald’s impatient brilliance…The plot has been dismantled like an antique engine and photographed, piece by piece, preserved in lots of pretty, glistening images that bath the film in nostalgia as thick as axle grease.” Time magazine’s Jay Cocks wrote, “A great deal of time, money and promotion have been concentrated here, but Gatsby’s sad and curious history has resulted in a dull, dreadful movie.” Finally, in his review for The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann wrote, “In sum this picture is a total failure of every requisite sensibility. A long, slow, sickening bore.”

Redford said of the film, “The truth is, Hollywood wanted to make The Great Gatsby because it was a literary success, not because it was great literature. Enough time may not have been taken to work that one out.” Coppola hated the film and felt that Clayton had ruined his faithful script. Farrow felt that it “was a victim of overhype.”

The Great Gatsby takes a fascinating look at the idle rich and their decadent lives as typified by the people that populate Gatsby’s parties. They are filled with people that want to see and be seen, lose their inhibitions and indulge in all kinds of excesses – this was the Roaring Twenties where the United States was prospering after World War I. And yet, the film ultimately shows these parties as empty affairs that its host Gatsby rarely attends. Why should we care about these people? When it comes to the likes of Tom and Myrtle, we don’t and neither does Nick who becomes disgusted by them and their phoniness, turning his back on their way of life.

As Nick observes early on, Gatsby is a tragic and romantic figure: “For Gatsby turned out alright in the end. It was what preyed on him, what foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams.” He’s a self-made man that built himself up to impress a woman he loved years ago and never forgot. Unfortunately, he thought that money could buy happiness and return things to the way they were once years ago, but this proves to be his undoing. For its faults, this version of The Great Gatsby is remarkably faithful to its source material and a strong indictment of the vanity of the rich and the dangers of achieving the American Dream.


SOURCES

Callan, Michael Feeney. Robert Redford: The Biography. Vintage. 2012.

Phillips, Gene D. Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola. University Press of Kentucky. 2004.

“Ready Or Not, Here Comes Gatsby.” Time. March 18, 1974.


Sinyard, Neil. Jack Clayton. Manchester University Press. 2013.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Lethal Weapon

Thanks to the success of 48 Hrs. (1982), the Buddy Action Movie became arguably the most popular genre in the 1980s and it seemed, for a short time, that studios were handing them out to any dramatic actor-comedian combo that wanted one. This resulted in the best of times (Beverly Hills Cop) and the worst of times (City Heat). By the late ‘80s, the formula had gotten stale and in need of an injection of new blood. Along came aspiring screenwriter Shane Black who had written an urban western inspired by Dirty Harry (1971). With Lethal Weapon (1987), he took the Buddy Action Movie to darker places than it had been before by teaming up a veteran cop in the twilight of his career with his new partner, an unhinged, suicidal loose cannon. Needless to say, the end result was explosive and the movie was a massive commercial success, spawning three increasingly inferior sequels and a television show.

Veteran Los Angeles police detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is assigned a case involving a coked-up, pill-popping prostitute that took a swan dive off her high-rise apartment building. He becomes personally involved when the dead girl’s father (Tom Atkins) turns out to be an old Vietnam War buddy who tells him that she was murdered and desperately implores his friend to find those responsible and kill them. If that wasn’t hard enough news to take, he’s also been assigned a new partner – Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) – who may or may not have a crazy death wish.

They soon run afoul of retired General Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) who is running a heroin-smuggling operation and employs a team of mercenaries including his fiercesome right-hand man Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), an impeccably dressed individual that pulls a G. Gordon Liddy with an underling’s lighter to show what a badass he is. It’s a nice scene that shows what a serious threat these guys are to our heroes. I like how the film gradually reveals the kind of threat Murtaugh and Riggs are up against and they are people that use deadly force, which tempers the comedy that is sprinkled liberally throughout. Black’s script gets the mix just right – something that subsequent Black-less sequels did not with their increasingly lazy sitcom elements typified by the addition of Joe Pesci’s annoying mugging.

Director Richard Donner immediately shows the contrasting lifestyles of Murtaugh and Riggs with the former a loving family man that lives in the suburbs while the latter starts the day with a cigarette and beer in a trailer with his dog by the beach. Not surprisingly, they also have contrasting approaches to police work and this is memorably illustrated when we see Riggs at work, going undercover to bust a trio of drug dealers at a Christmas tree lot and proceeds to throw them off guard by going all Three Stooges on them in a moment that is hilarious but quickly turns deadly on a dime when one of them pulls a gun. After dispatching a few of them, one of the crooks grabs Riggs and puts a gun to his head. Instead of freaking out or begging for his life, he repeatedly taunts the guy to shoot him, which unnerves the crook so much that Riggs is able to disarm him.

The scene where Murtaugh and Riggs first meet is a memorable one as the former spots the latter taking out his gun, assumes he’s a criminal and charges him only to be taken down very quickly by his new partner. This starts the beginning of a contentious partnership as Riggs tells Murtaugh early on, “Let’s just cut the shit. We both know why I was transferred. Everybody thinks I’m suicidal in which I’m fucked ‘cos nobody wants to work with me. Or, they think I’m faking it, draw a psycho pension in which case I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me. Basically, I’m fucked.” Not surprisingly, Murtaugh isn’t thrilled to be working with Riggs either and tells him, “God hates me, that’s what it is,” to which his partner replies, “Hate him back. Works for me.”

I like that the film takes the time to establish the volatile relationship between these two men, showing their contrasting styles of police work as evident in a scene where they deal with a guy threatening to jump off a building. Riggs’ solution is certainly a novel if not completely batshit crazy one. This leads to an excellent scene where they have it out and Riggs tells Murtaugh about his suicidal tendencies, which features intense acting from both men. It gives Lethal Weapon an edge as Murtaugh (and us) don’t know what Riggs is going to do next even as the movie goes through the usual Buddy Action Movie beats.

Chemistry is everything with this genre and Gibson and Glover certainly have it and not just in the action scenes but the crucial downtime in-between, like when Murtaugh takes Riggs home to meet his family and afterwards they hash out the case up to that point, which shows them gelling as a team. It is a nice moment between these guys as we get to know them and care about what happens to them. Black’s script tempers this quiet, bonding moment with Riggs’ parting shot before he heads home: “When I was 19, I did a guy in Laos from a thousand yards out. It was a rifle shot in high wind. Maybe eight or even ten guys in the world could’ve made that shot. It’s the only thing I was ever good at.” Gibson delivers this dialogue with just enough matter-of-fact edginess as to give off a chilling vibe.

Riggs is haunted by the death of his wife and in a powerful scene puts a loaded gun in his mouth. The utter sadness and despair Gibson conveys in this scene is powerful and gives his character an added dimension beyond being simply a wild and crazy cop. It also gives us insight into what motivates him. Murtaugh is a police detective celebrating his 50th birthday when we first meet him and is really starting to feel his age thanks to his oldest daughter who has started dating boys, much to his chagrin. Glover does a nice job of juggling his role as beleaguered family man and someone who is becoming increasingly exasperated by the dangerous antics of his new partner.

Lethal Weapon would establish Black’s tried and true motifs that he’s used in most of his movies: a mystery is kickstarted by the death of a prostitute or stripper, which establishes a favorite recurring thematic pre-occupation of innocence lost. In order to solve the murder, an older, burnt-out character partners with a younger, zanier one going up against a villain who is an older, richer white character that employs an impeccably dressed, unfailingly polite sadistic henchman with the story usually taking place during Christmas in Los Angeles.

Ever the consummate professional, Donner’s crisp direction keeps things chugging along with a slick, glossy look that was synonymous with most ‘80s action movies. The action sequences are coherent, we always know where everyone is and they aren’t edited within an inch of their lives. Best of all, he makes sure to spend enough time letting us get to know Murtaugh and Riggs, showing how their partnership develops over time as they learn to trust each other by surviving death-defying situations. The film also isn’t afraid to forego logic and indulge in its Alpha Male reptilian brain at the climax when, despite being surrounded by cops, Riggs decides to have it out with Mr. Joshua for a knock-down, drag-out fight where the cop is finally allowed to let his inner caveman out. And everyone lets these guys do it! It makes no common sense but the film has been building up to this point and we want to see these two guys go at it to see who is the bigger badass.

The commercial success of Lethal Weapon propelled the young Shane Black into the stratosphere and for a short while he became the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. Donner, Gibson and Glover did pretty well for themselves, reteaming for three more sequels – the second of which (1989) was the only one that was any good. None of them have been able to touch the lightning in a bottle that Donner, et al were able to catch with the first movie and for a brief moment it seemed like the Buddy Action Movie was going to be given a new lease on life. After all, Midnight Run came out the next year and was also a breath of fresh air but sadly these two movies were the exception and not the rule for some time to come.