Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Prisoner (1967-1968)

What if James Bond tried to resign?

It is this intriguing premise that lies at the heart of influential British television series The Prisoner. Coming off the spy show Danger Man, actor Patrick McGoohan and writer George Markstein created a decidedly unconventional follow-up (some say sequel) that turned the espionage genre on its head. It was a show unafraid to defy expectations right down to the uncompromising final episode that so infuriated viewers back in the 1960s that McGoohan famously went into hiding. It’s legacy of messing with viewers’ minds lives on to this day in T.V. with the likes of The Sopranos, Mr. Robot and the recent revival of Twin Peaks, but no one did it better than The Prisoner.

The opening credits are a marvel of efficient visual storytelling by brilliantly establishing the premise in only a few, dialogue-free minutes. Top-secret government agent Number Six (McGoohan) resigns rather emphatically from his job. Unbeknownst to him, he’s followed home and as he packs to leave for somewhere else, smoke is piped into his place. He loses consciousness and so it begins….

He awakens in a quaint, remote seaside resort known as “the Village.” One almost might say it is an idyllic place except that he is forbidden to leave. The denizens act nice enough – maybe a little too nice – but in a way that feels slightly off. This is best encapsulated in the often-repeated phrase, “Be seeing you,” that the villagers say to one another and that quickly goes from provincially charming to downright creepy.

Each episode sees a different Village administrator, known only as Number Two, try to find dissimilar ways to get Number Six to reveal why he resigned while he devises ways to escape and figure out the identity of the mysterious Number One who supposedly rules over the Village. His captors don’t want Number Six running around in the world with the kind of knowledge and secrets that he knows. After all, information is power and they want to know what he knows. Naturally, Number Six resists (“My life is my own.”), and it is his resilience the Village will put to the test repeatedly, and therein lies the main source of conflict.

Patrick McGoohan brings his trademark intensity and intelligence to the role. In every episode we see Number Six thinking and scheming of ways to outwit his captors and escape. While the actor displays a wide range of emotions, he also plays the role enigmatically, never revealing too much as Number Six resists any kind of inquiries from the powers that be.

The actor famously turned down playing James Bond on two different occasions and “The Girl Who Was Death” sees the show at its most playful as the spy genre and detective shows are satirized, complete with overly complicated plots and an insane, power-hungry baddie with the requisite femme fatale. This episode certainly conveys McGoohan’s feelings about the spy genre and why he had no interest in playing Bond.

Watching several episodes back-to-back is like a experiencing an acid trip – the more you watch the more you lose touch with reality as you become deeper immersed in this strange world as the show goes from a spy fantasy story to a science fiction/horror hybrid fused with ‘60s era psychedelia and “pop art.” It as if artist Jim Steranko had decided to take a break from drawing Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD and decided to go into art direction for The Prisoner.

The show’s overriding theme is free will as Number Six resists Number Two’s repeated attempts to get him to divulge his reason for resigning. The Village is a false utopia. In “Arrival,” Number Two claims that it has everything one could want. Everything that is, except for freedom – the commodity that Number Six values most. Number Two controls every aspect of the Village, including its inhabitants and anyone who steps out of line is dealt with in ruthless fashion as a big white malleable sphere known as a Rover emerges with a horrific sound and absorbs said troublemaker. There are hidden surveillance cameras everywhere, eerily foreshadowing the way we live today.

The Prisoner also explores the abuse of power. The government that Number Six used to work for thinks that they own the secrets in his head and do everything in their power to extract them. To this end, they have an entire Village under their control to aid in this endeavor. It is all about control – who has it and how they exert it. As the show begins, the Village administrators have all the power, but over time Number Six gradually wrests control and repeatedly resists their various methods to extract information from him.

“A. B. and C” is an excellent example of the lengths that Number Two will go to extract information out of Number Six – dream manipulation – while also serving as a showcase for the show’s style, employing rear screen projection right out of a Classic Hollywood movie, and skewed camera angles and quick cuts inspired by Orson Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1962), which only draws attention to the artifice of the dream.

While there is some dispute over who came up with what, McGoohan is often credited as the driving force behind The Prisoner, starring in every episode, and writing and directing several of them. This is a rare actor as auteur project – an accomplishment that has rarely been equaled on T.V. with the notable exception of Twin Peaks: The Return where David Lynch directed and co-wrote every episode and also appeared in many of them. The Prisoner was clearly a passion project for McGoohan and it shows in every detail, right down to the décor of Number Six’s home and the blazers everyone wears, that this was all thought out beforehand and with great care.

The Prisoner’s legacy is impressive. It has gone on to inspire comic book writers (Grant Morrison), musicians (The Beatles), films (The Matrix), and T.V. shows (Lost). The less said about the mediocre six-episode miniseries remake on AMC in 2009 the better but hopefully it motivated some to seek out the original, which continues to provoke and remains even more relevant today than when it first came out. We are even more prisoners of our own making, trying to control every aspect of our lives and that of others through technology. McGoohan was warning us of these dangers way back when but clearly his admonition was not heeded.

"We're so desperately concerned with saying 'We're free!' And I want to know, how free are we? I think we're being imprisoned and engulfed by a scientific and materialistic world. We're at the mercy of gadgetry and gimmicks” – Patrick McGoohan

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Carlito's Way


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“When I went to Berlin and I was watching it in Berlin after it opened and did okay in the United States, I remember watching in Berlin and said, ‘I can’t make – I can’t make a better picture than this.’” – Brian De Palma

He said these words with a heavy heart while recounting a story of seeing Carlito’s Way (1993) at the Berlin Film Festival, realizing he had poured his heart and soul into a film that received mixed reviews from critics and did well but not great at the box office. The start of the 1990s had not been good to Brian De Palma with the high-profile and costly failure that was The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). It shook his filmmaking mojo so much that he second-guessed the narrative structure of Raising Cain (1992), a return to more familiar territory with the psychological thriller, which took a personal toll on the man.

He was in need of a hit to appease the studios and moved on to what he hoped would be a commercial hit by reteaming with Al Pacino in an effort to recreate the magic of Scarface (1983). If fans were expecting the same over-the-top bombast with Carlito’s Way they would be sorely disappointed as it took a more melancholic, introspective approach while still featuring De Palma’s virtuoso camerawork and masterful action set pieces, crafting a tragedy about how a criminal tries to go straight but is ultimately doomed from the get-go.

Carlito’s Way features one of the oldest chestnuts in the world. Narrating his story during the last moments of his life, Carlito Brigante (Pacino), a veteran criminal, has recently been released from prison, intent on leading a normal, law-abiding life. Of course it isn’t going to be that easy – when he returns to his old neighborhood, his reputation precedes him. Local gangster Benny Blanco from the Bronx (John Leguizamo), a cocky, up-and-comer, sets his sights on Carlito after being shamed by him in public. Carlito, however, barely notices him as he’s torn between reuniting with an old flame and a struggling Broadway dancer, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), and keeping his lawyer and friend, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), out of trouble.


As a personal favor to David, Carlito runs a nightclub for the latter to raise enough money to move to the Bahamas and start his own business renting cars in a tropical paradise with Gail. However, Carlito’s loyalty to David will be his undoing – his friend has become so corrupt during the time that Carlito was in prison that he’s not only wanted by law enforcement but the mafia as well.

Carlito’s Way begins at the end (even though we don’t know it yet) with Carlito being shot and rushed to the hospital. While lying on the stretcher going through the train station, he flashes back to how he got there. De Palma lets it all play out over the opening credits, in dreamy slow motion, with somber classical music playing over it all. The entire sequence is shot in black and white save for a billboard that says, “Escape to Paradise,” with inviting tropical imagery symbolizing Carlito’s desire to escape a life of crime for a better one.

It is 1975 and Carlito has been released from prison after a five-year stint, reinvigorated and reborn. At his hearing he sticks it to the judge (a cameo by Paul Mazursky no less!) and the District Attorney (James Rebhorn) in classic Pacino style, delivering a speech like he’s accepting an Academy Award. It’s as close to Scarface as Pacino gets and, in a bit of irony, Carlito is actually sincere about going straight. Unlike Tony Montana, he doesn’t want to rise to the top of the criminal underworld – he wants to get out. He even tells both the local crime boss and David that he’s retired but they don’t believe him. An ex-con career criminal going straight? No way.

Sure enough, he gets roped into an “errand” with his young cousin (John Ortiz) that turns into a bloody shoot-out. As always, De Palma injects the film with his trademark bravura action sequences. One look at the set-up and, like Carlito, we know that something is not right. Pacino shows how his character survived for so long as he expertly sizes up the situation and takes stock of the room: how many guys and where they are in relation to each other and him. Carlito is calm, unruffled, while his eyes convey a readiness for anything.

De Palma thrives at orchestrating these kinds of set pieces, masterfully using editing to build anticipation and suspense as we wait for the inevitable explosion of violence, gradually building the tension as we feel Carlito’s apprehension. Despite his desire to go legit, he gets drawn back into a life of crime; he can’t escape.

Carlito is a role tailor-made for Al Pacino, allowing him to essay another larger-than-life character. Carlito is a smart guy who cannot escape what he is no matter how hard he tries and the actor conveys the melancholy that lurks behind the bravado of his character. For all of his street smarts, Carlito makes the fatal mistake of underestimating local small-time tough guy Benny Blanco (a perfectly cast motor-mouthed Leguizamo) who keeps trying to get an audience with the veteran crook only to be rebuffed every time.


Carlito also pines for Gail and goes up to the top of a neighboring building in the rain to watch her in a dance class. He is still in love with her and envisions being reunited with her as part of his dream of escaping a life of crime. Like James Caan’s safecracker in Thief (1981), Carlito is making up for lost time and wants to start his new life right now, but his old one won’t let him go.

The real scene-stealer, however, is Sean Penn’s sleazy, coked-up lawyer. The actor reportedly did the film to help finance his directorial debut, The Crossing Guard (1995). For a paycheck role, Penn does a great job immersing himself in the part, complete with a frizzy Afro and receding hairline. It’s as though Pacino’s presence inspired Penn to step up his game, making Penn’s memorable turn so much fun to watch. Even though David dresses in expensive clothes and smokes fancy cigarettes, he’s a cokehead that runs with a dangerous crowd who thinks he’s untouchable. His hubris is his undoing.

The rest of the cast is filled out by solid character actors like John Leguizamo, who plays Benny as a pushy little runt not to be underestimated, and the always-reliable Luis Guzman as Carlito’s right-hand man. There’s also Viggo Mortensen in a small role as a former contemporary of Carlito who has been let out of prison to get the dirt on his friend. Wheelchair-bound and wearing cheap, stained clothes, the actor isn’t afraid to portray a pathetic snitch, a shadow of his former self. He plays a sad figure that really gets under Carlito’s skin. It also shows how far the D.A. is willing to go to send him back to prison.

The only miscasting is Penelope Ann Miller as Pacino’s love interest. She looks out of place and just doesn’t have the acting chops to hold her own against Pacino. She does have a good scene with Pacino when, much to Carlito’s surprise, he discovers that Gail moonlights as a stripper to make ends meet. It is a continuation of his disillusionment in the sense that despite all of her talk of trying to make it as an actress, Gail gets naked for other men. Like Carlito, there is her dream and there is her reality. They have an interesting conversation as he awkwardly disapproves of her dancing for men, to which she unashamedly counters, “You ever kill anybody, Charlie?” Carlito realizes that he has no right to judge her as he’s done far worse for money.

Loyalty is both Carlito’s greatest attribute and vice. It is his loyalty to David that gets him in trouble with Benny Blanco and the Italian mobsters that go after in him in the film’s exciting climax. He has a personal code that he adheres to no matter what happens. However, it is the internal conflict that rages within him that ultimately clouds his judgment. It is his natural instinct to be the ruthless criminal he was versus the legit businessman he wants to be, which results in the sparing of Benny’s life when the smart play was to kill him, as he’ll be a problem later on.

Carlito knows that David is out of control and taking unnecessary risks, like ripping off a wiseguy for $1 million, but helps him break said crook out of Riker’s Prison out of friendship, a debt he feels he owes him. Ultimately, he can’t change who he is. The two men finally have it out and Carlito realizes what a true friend David is as the lawyer lays it out for him, tells him that he looks out for himself, while Carlito lives by an antiquated code. That’s all Carlito needs to hear and ends their friendship, leaving him at the mercy of a mob assassin.


New York State Supreme Court judge Edwin Torres wrote Carlito’s Way in 1975 and its sequel After Hours in 1979, both chronicling the rise and fall of Puerto Rico drug kingpin Carlito Brigante. Al Pacino came to producer Martin Bregman with these two novels and said that they could be made into a film. Screenwriter David Koepp was already working for Bregman when he was given the two novels and told to adapt them into a screenplay. He liked them but taking 800 pages and making them into a film was a daunting task. Koepp was also unfamiliar with Spanish Harlem in the 1970s. When it came to adapting the novels, he ended up using more of After Hours as it featured an older Carlito that Pacino could play.

Bregman felt that Brian De Palma was the best person to direct but he wasn’t interested in making another gangster film. At the time of making Carlito’s Way, De Palma’s personal life was in turmoil. He said, “In the space of two years, I got married; I had a child; and I got divorced!” He elaborated further: “I wasn’t able to reconcile my private life and my professional life.” Like Carlito loses Gail, De Palma lost his second wife, movie producer Gale Ann Hurd. To this end, De Palma was drawn to Koepp’s script as he recognized his own crisis in Carlito’s:

“A guy who just got assassinated and who thinks, ‘Shit, I’m dead! How did I end up here?’ And he reviews his life to understand the chain of events and to accept what has happened to him. That was my situation at the time. To make this film that conveyed what I was feeling, I had to lay myself bare.”


When De Palma called Sean Penn about Carlito’s Way he hadn’t acted in four years and needed money as his wife at the time, Robin Wright, was pregnant again. The actor said, “I certainly was interested in working with Al Pacino. And I’d had a very good relationship with Brian on Casualties of War.” When he initially talked to the director, Penn got the impression that the film was going to be very raw and his research uncovered a very gritty setting. When he arrived on the night club set during filming to find a very expensive-looking set with many extras and complex moving shots that took a long time to set up, which did not allow for multiple takes. Penn felt “a little duped. And that created tension.”

Torres gave Pacino and Penn a personal tour of the criminal justice system and Puerto Rican New York, taking them to the South Bronx, the barrio and to various clubs and bars. To prepare for the role he took Pacino to salsa clubs in Spanish Harlem. The actor said, “It was the Disney tour of the barrio: ‘So-and-so got shot here. So-and-so got shot right over there.’” According to De Palma, Pacino patterned his character’s cadences and speech patterns after Torres. The judge also arranged for Penn to watch Bruce Cutler sum up the Thomas Gambino racketeering case. The actor also talked to Albert J. Krieger who defended John Gotti. Penn looked through period articles on lawyers and came across a still photograph in Life magazine of a young law student that he based the look of David on.

There are several colorful anecdotes about the filming of Carlito’s Way. De Palma and Penn clashed over the scene in which David asks Carlito to break a mobster out of Riker’s. Penn had done ten takes with the director – happy with take three – but the actor wanted to do another 15 takes until he was happy with his performance. Incredulous, De Palma wanted to do Pacino’s side of the scene. After 25 takes, he insisted on shooting Pacino and Penn got upset as a result. Afterwards, Penn disrespectfully chewed out De Palma over the course of the rest of the day.

De Palma started filming the final chase sequence in the winter – and finished it in the middle of summer. They shot the train-to-train scene over and over again (in the blistering New York heat) with Pacino running up and down the train in a long, black leather coat and De Palma in another running parallel filming it. It was a complicated shot that took many hours. An exhausted Pacino finally had enough and took the train home at four in the morning without telling De Palma. The director recalls, his assistant director telling him, “Al took the train home. And he thinks you’re crazy. He doesn’t know what you’re doing.” When the studio first saw the pool scene they felt it was too long. De Palma interpreted that to mean it wasn’t long enough! He added more footage, setting up the action and building more suspense. Bizarrely, the studio saw the new version – and congratulated him on making it shorter.

Carlito’s Way received decidedly mixed reviews from critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Carlito’s Way is best watched as lively, colorful posturing and as a fine demonstration of this director’s bravura visual style.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers gave it four stars and wrote, “The drug wars have raised brutality and betrayal to levels we see reflected on Pacino’s eloquently ravaged face. It’s that face that holds us even when Pacino’s ‘Rican’ accent slips into his Southern drawl from Scent of a Woman. It’s that face that cuts through De Palma’s erratic pacing and derivative shootouts.”

There were critics who wrote decidedly negative words about the film. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave it a “B” rating and wrote, “Watching Carlito’s Way, I never really believed that a heroin dealer and coolly pragmatic killer could be such a simple, romantic guy.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “De Palma’s direction is alert but dispirited, and certainly for us there is a sense of drudgery in having to observe this gifted filmmaker run through his tired bag of tricks.” Finally, the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan criticized Miller’s character: “Miller works hard to make the part believable, but finally the role fits too snugly into the traditional ‘exotic dancer with a heart of gold’ category to allow for much genuine impact.”


Despite the clichéd premise, Carlito’s Way works well because of the caliber of actors, David Koepp’s screenplay with memorable dialogue (“You think you’re big time?! You’re gonna fucking die big time!”), and De Palma’s stylish direction. The last 20 minutes plays out in an exciting chase as the director pulls out all the stops, like the impressively choreographed tracking shot, as Carlito tries to evade mobsters and make it in time to meet Gail at the train station; he is literally racing for his life. What makes the film’s ending so heartbreaking is that Carlito got so close to realizing his dream only for it to be cruelly ripped away at the last minute by someone he could’ve dealt with earlier on but chose not to, and therefore pays for this lapse in judgment dearly.

While De Palma did not originate this project, he certainly made it his own. He found something in Koepp’s script that he connected with on a personal level and transformed what could have easily been a paycheck gig into an artistic expression for what he was going through in his own life. This might explain why he seems crestfallen in the De Palma documentary when recounting watching Carlito’s Way at the Berlin Film Festival years ago. The film was a personal expression and its mixed critical reaction and decent but unremarkable box office was likely a bitter pill for De Palma to swallow at the time. His desire to stay in the game and enjoy the resources that a major studio could provide, coupled with his hunger for a commercial hit, drove him to team-up with Tom Cruise and direct the first movie in the Mission: Impossible franchise, which allowed him to fulfill this goal.

Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Carlito’s Way, like Scarface, is first and last a character study, a portrait of a man who wants to be better than he is.” Much like Carlito, De Palma was also struggling to become a better man in his own life, not wanting to look back. Unlike, his cinematic alter ego, the director overcame his personal demons and triumphed in the end, thereby proving that he was able become a better filmmaker than he had been before, delivering a powerful, personal film that stands as one of the strongest efforts in his filmography.



SOURCES

De Palma. Dir. Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. Empire Ward Pictures. 2015.

Feeney, Sheila Anne. “So New York…Yet So Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times. November 4, 1993.

Grimes, William. “His Honor Himself is Counselor to Pacino.” The New York Times. July 27, 1993.

Keesey, Douglas. Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film. University Press of Mississippi. 2015.

Kelly, Richard T. Sean Penn: His Life and Times. Canongate U.S. 2004.

“The Making of Carlito’s Way.” Carlito’s Way Blu-Ray. Universal Pictures. 2010.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Point Blank


“The current cycle of crime films is a vicarious way to participate in the crime wave without committing a crime. That feeling is latent within each of us. Everybody wants to get even with somebody.” – Lee Marvin

Lee Marvin was a World War II veteran that utilized acting as a way of dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. For him, it was a cathartic experience and this was particularly true with Point Blank (1967), a stylish crime film that bridged the gap between classic film noir and neo-noir. This adaptation of the 1962 Donald E. Westlake novel The Hunter also marked a close collaboration between Marvin and then-up-and-coming British filmmaker John Boorman, realizing that this film was a personal passion project for an actor whom used his clout within Hollywood to push this very experimental effort through the system.

The film begins jarringly with Walker (Marvin) shot and left for dead in Alcatraz Island, wondering how he got there. The rest of the film is an audacious collection of fragmented memories from the past mixed with the present as he exacts revenge on his partner-in-crime, Mal Reese (John Vernon) – and his duplicitous wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) – whom set him up. This is summed up beautifully in a visual metaphor early on of Walker viewed through a screen door that is initially out of focus, only to become clear. It’s all done in a way that suggests an extremely subjective view of what happened – that of Walker – as evident in odd, out of context scenes like a crowded party where Mal physically tackles and hysterically begs Walker to pull the ill-fated heist job.

Logically, how could Walker, shot twice at point blank range, survive the blood loss and swim back to civilization – a feat that was rarely achieved by perfectly healthy inmates? Logic dictates that he died on Alcatraz and the scenes set in the present only exist in his mind just before death. Point Blank isn’t necessarily concerned with logic but with inner workings of a dying man. To that end, we get a haunting image of Walker wounded, wandering the empty spaces of Alcatraz.

This is the only the beginning of the many bold, stylistic choices Boorman makes. There’s the establishing shot of Walker purposefully striding down a corridor, the sound of his footsteps continuing to play over a montage of his Lynne waking up, getting dressed and going about her day until he comes bursting through their front door, gun in hand, ready to kill Mal. It’s a New Wave aesthetic married to Marvin’s no-nonsense persona with exciting results.

As the film progresses, more of Walker’s backstory is fleshed out as he plays back in his mind. His friendship with Mal, courting Lynne and how they fell in love. This is all conveyed in a radical editing scheme that plays around with time. One moment, Walker is shoot up he and his wife’s empty bed. The next moment, he wakes up and Lynne is on the bed, dead from an overdose. Then, he wakes up again and the bed has been stripped, the body gone with only a white cat remaining. How long has he been asleep? How much time has passed? Boorman captures the unusual nature of time passing in one’s mind, It jumps around and isn’t always linear.

In a stylistic nod to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), Walker goes looking for Mal in a nightclub, rife with psychedelic imagery, and an energetic rhythm and blues band playing in the background. Like, in Blowup with the Yardbirds, it is an audio-visual assault on the senses as we get close-ups of the singer, a patron enthusiastically enjoying the music, and Walker bathed in phantasmagoric lights. Even the fights are chaotic as he is attacked by two thugs in the nightclub. It is a knockdown, drag out fight complete with dirty shots done to put a man down and keep him down. By the end, Walker is a disheveled, triumphant mess.

For a film obsessed with death it isn’t relentlessly grim. There are amusing set pieces: Walker interrogates a car salesman with knowledge of Mal’s whereabouts by taking out one of his cars – and wrecking it while he’s in it – all the while one of his dealership’s commercials plays on the radio. This is an amusing, cheeky bit of humor that lightens things up briefly.

At the time, the presence of the Organization eschewed the traditional, family-based organized crime often depicted as the Mafia in many crime films for a corporate mentality. In Point Blank, there is no longer one figurehead controlling everything, rather a faceless collection of people – and Walker works his way up the corporate criminal ladder to get his money. Their solution to dealing with him? Pay him off. The amount he wants is chump change in the large scheme of things. For him – it is a matter of principal carried to an extreme. The Organization can’t understand why he only wants $93,000. What does he really want? For him it is personal; for them it is just another business transaction. His fight is man against system. For all of their so-called sophistication and fancy digs, they are still simple crooks obsessed with money.

John Vernon plays Mal with perfect, icy, reptilian charm. He’s an arrogant crook now that he’s advanced up the ladder in the Organization, only out for himself. Vernon oozes smug superiority, also used effectively in later films like Animal House (1978).

Angie Dickinson plays Walker’s beautiful sister-in-law Chris who helps him in his revenge mission. The actress has an excellent scene where, upset at her life needlessly put in danger, finally explodes on Walker, battering him with a barrage of slaps and punches, which he just stands there and takes until she finally runs out of energy. Dickinson gives everything she has in this scene and plays well off of Marvin’s remorseless crook.

Lee Marvin certainly has the steely-determination-of-a-man-bent-on-revenge look down cold – no one has done it better. There’s more to it, however, as he delivers a minimalist performance with a complexity in how he conveys so much through a look or through body language. There is the haunted, defeated look on Walker’s face after surviving being shot and left for dead by Mal, or his body language that conveys the same vibe. He’s a physically and emotionally wounded man, adrift in life. He is also able to convey the notion that there is more going on behind his eyes, that he is always thinking and planning what to do next. There are also significant stretches in scenes where Marvin says nothing, allowing the other actor to say everything. He’s a gracious performer and one with an economic style. There are no wasted looks or lines of dialogue in Point Blank – everything he says or does means something.

After the commercial failure of big budget movies like Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Hollywood studios began entertaining the idea of cashing in on the popularity of modestly budgeted “art house” films from Europe. Hollywood producers started looking in London as there was a notion that younger European directors knew how to appeal to an audience. Producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler saw British director John Boorman’s first film Catch Us If You Can (1965), and set up a meeting between him and Lee Marvin while the actor was making The Dirty Dozen (1967), and pitched him the idea for Point Blank. The actor was interested. The two men stayed in contact, working out the details, including setting up a meeting between them, several film producers, the head of MGM, and Hollywood agent Meyer Mishkin. At the time, Marvin had enough clout in the industry to have final say over crew and cast selection, which he surprisingly gave to the director. Boorman remembered, “Making my first picture in Hollywood, I was fortunate enough to have the gift of freedom. And he backed me all the way with a belief and loyalty that was inspiring.” This was quite a leap of faith on the actor’s part as this was only the director’s second film and first one for a Hollywood studio starring a movie star.

David and Rafe Newhouse faithfully adapted the Donald Westlake novel but Boorman and Marvin found their screenplay to be mediocre and cliché-ridden, although liked the idea of the protagonist’s pointless quest for revenge. Boorman felt that Walker “had been emotionally and physically wounded to a point where he was no longer human [and] that this made him frightening, but also pure.” Marvin agreed and told Boorman that he’d only make the film if they tossed the script out the window and started over. The actor had a limited time of availability and to save time, had the screenwriting, production design, and casting occur simultaneously.

Boorman hired BBC colleague Arthur Jacobs to rewrite the script. In four weeks, he wrote it and then rewrote it completely. He and Boorman wanted to do “…something completely fresh. We wanted to make a film that was a half reel ahead of the audience, that was the whole idea.” Jacobs wrote a second version that was an amalgamation of phone conversations and letters between the two men. With each subsequent draft they cut out dialogue – the final draft was a lean 92 pages long.

Jacobs went to San Francisco for the first two weeks of shooting and wrote a completely new beginning and ending. At the end of the day, Boorman would consult with Marvin and found his responses were “always allusive, oblique. He leapt from metaphor to metaphor, and when he was drinking, the leaps got wider.” Marvin’s drinking was legendary and Boorman observed, “I would follow him as far as I could, and there was always wisdom there, deep dark thought that touched on our enterprise – but beyond a certain level of vodka, he sailed out on his own into deeper waters where no mortal could follow.”

During filming, Marvin managed to confine his drinking to weekends, starting in on Friday afternoons as he finished his last shot of the week. That being said, the actor knew when to use it for his own advantage. He looked out for Boorman during filming. One night, the director couldn’t figure out what the shot should be for one of the Alcatraz scenes. Sensing he was in trouble, Marvin faked a drunken outburst, which gave Boorman time to figure things out. “I went over and told Lee I was ready. He made an immediate and total recovery and we made the scene and the day.”

According to co-star Angie Dickinson, Boorman and Marvin “were constantly working on the script,” and found the production, “constantly challenging.” The director found his lead actor, “endlessly inventive, constantly devising ways to externalize what we wanted to express.” Despite being given complete creative control, the director was still worried that the studio would try to recut Point Blank and shot as little footage as possible so that it couldn’t be dramatically changed. He even stopped filming in the middle of a line of dialogue where he knew there would be a cut so there would be no other choice in post-production.

Several of the film’s scenes were drawn from Marvin’s own life, like Lynne’s suicide mirrored his live-in girlfriend Michele Triola’s suicide attempt. The scene where Mal tackles a drunken Walker and begs him to a pull heist job was based on an incident in a Malibu bar where a drunken Marvin was approached by a friend who demanded he loan him money. Looking back at the film years later, Marvin acknowledged how personal it was: “That was a troubled time for me, too, in my own personal relationship, so I used an awful lot of that while making the picture, even the suicide of my wife.” Boorman saw Marvin as a man wracked with guilt:

“The young Marvin, wounded and wounding, brave and fearful, was always with him. The guilt at surviving the ambush that wiped out his platoon hung to him all his days. He was fascinated by war and violence, yet the revulsion he felt for it was intense, physical, unendurable.”

After assembling a rough cut of the film, Boorman was advised to show it to Margaret Booth, head of the studio’s editing department and a legend that had started in the silent era as well as Louis B. Mayer’s editor of choice. She had a notorious reputation for re-editing films she felt weren’t good enough, but after screening Point Blank only offered a few minor suggestions. The film was then shown to chief executives who did not understand it and called for reshoots. Booth defended the film defiantly and it was released without any further edits.

Point Blank is one of the most fascinating cinematic laments of a crook’s troubled past ever put on film. It is full of visual echoes, with gestures that occur in the present, mirroring a past event, like the way Walker opens a curtain in a room or makes love to Chris like he did with her sister. These are echoes that exist in his mind. The film ends on a deliciously ambiguous note: does Walker get the money? Is he still alive? Did any of this really happen? The last we see of him is disappearing into the shadows of Alcatraz, which begs the question, did he ever leave?


SOURCES

Boorman, John. Adventures of Suburban Boy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2004.

Epstein, Dwayne. Lee Marvin: Point Blank. Schaffner Press, Inc. 2013.

Farber, Stephen. “The Writer II: An Interview with Alexander Jacobs.” Film Quarterly. Winter 1968-1969.

Hoyle, Brian. The Cinema of John Boorman. Scarecrow Press. 2012.

“Playboy Interview: Lee Marvin.” Playboy. January 1969.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Mindhunter

Why is popular culture so fascinated with serial killers? There are all kinds of reality television shows and their fictional counterparts dedicated to examining their perverse methodology. What compels these murderers to kill several people in all kinds of horrible ways? There are as many reasons why as there are serial killers as each one has their own unique motivation. Our fascination comes from the morbid speculation that one’s next-door neighbor may have a bunch of severed heads in their fridge. It’s rubbernecker syndrome – an interest in the gruesome details of the murders. It is also the relief in the knowledge that you’re still alive and safe and not the murder victim, that in some way you’ve cheated death.

In 1995, David Fincher directed Seven, one of the best films about serial killers. With the commercial and critical success of that film, he was careful not to get pigeonholed in the genre and didn’t return to it until Zodiac (2007), which was a very different take indeed. His fascination with serial killers continues with Mindhunter, a show created by Joe Penhall, based on the true crime book of the same name by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, that he is executive producing and directed four episodes for Netflix.

Set in 1977, the show focuses on the FBI’s nascent Behavioral Science Unit with two agents – Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) – fighting against internal resistance – their superior (Cotter Smith) thinks they’re wasting the Bureau’s time – and external ignorance – local law enforcement doesn’t understand what they’re doing. We meet Ford working as a hostage negotiator as he unsuccessfully tries to defuse a situation involving a man armed with a shotgun and holding a woman hostage.

After failing to calm the man down, which results in his death, Ford is ordered by his superior to continue teaching his hostage negotiator course at Quantico. It is here that we get the first inklings that Ford is different. He’d rather settle a hostage situation peacefully than through excessive force by reasoning with the criminal and the way to do this is figuring out what motivates them…but how?

After his latest class, Ford overhears a lecture in a nearby classroom. The instructor is talking about David Berkowitz (a.k.a. The Son of Sam) and offers up this observation: “You could say that the guy is crazy or that he’s pretending that he’s crazy but if we’re looking for a motive we can understand we suddenly find there is none. It’s a void. It’s a black hole.” He points out that in Hoover’s heyday, criminals like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson were easy to figure out because they did what they did for personal gain.

Someone like Berkowitz is completely different. “Where do we go when motive becomes elusive?” the instructor says. It is this line that hits Ford like a thunderbolt and serves as an epiphany. He and the instructor have a fascinating discussion that is really the show’s thesis: if the world no longer makes sense, then neither does crime. They both agree that they don’t know what to do about it, which Ford wonders, “But we’re supposed to, right?” to which the instructor replies, “Sure. But here’s the troubling thing – no one’s even asking the questions.” This is just one of many well-written, masterfully acted conversations depicted over the course of the ten episodes of Mindhunter. This scene also sets the tone: this is going to be a character-driven show that eschews traditional cop show heroics in favor of dialogue-heavy explorations into what motivates serial killers.

The first half of episode one focuses not just on Ford’s professional life but his personal one as he meets a witty, attractive woman named Debbie (Hannah Gross) at a rock concert that is just as smart as he is if not more so, much to his surprise. Their initial meet-cute turns into a first date where she takes him back to her place and gets him to take a bong hit in an effort to loosen him up. They even go see Dog Day Afternoon (1975), which he is so impressed with that he shows it to his class. Debbie isn’t afraid to call Ford on his bullshit and is willing to challenge his beliefs, which makes for an entertaining give and take between them in their scenes together. There’s a sexy and smart frisson between these two characters that is a lot of fun to watch. After sex one night, she playfully chastises his naïveté about sex, calling him a monk, chiding him, “How can you figure out the criminal mind if you can’t even figure out your girlfriend?” Good point.

Jonathan Groff plays an atypical FBI agent. He’s youthful and sensitive – hardly the Melvin Purvis type. He’s also very smart but lacks the street smarts to excel in the field as evident in the bungled hostage negotiation that kicks off the show. He needs more time in the field with an experienced veteran showing him the ropes. His boss arranges a meeting with Tench and the elder agent instantly reads the younger one. He asks Ford to tag along with him on the road, teaching FBI techniques to local law enforcement all over the country.

Initially, it appears that Fincher is treading on familiar turf with the Ford-Tench duo – the idealistic young agent butting heads with the older, more experienced agent. What Ford lacks in experience, he makes up for with intelligence and soon his enthusiasm for profiling serial killers is contagious enough to convince Tench and then their boss to interview them. Ford isn’t the brash, impulsive person that Mills was in Seven and Tench isn’t ready to give up on humanity like Somerset was in that earlier film.

Their first teaching gig does not go well. Ford gets too cerebral, his college training confuses most of the cops while Tench tries to keep things simple. Ford ends up pissing off a veteran detective who then asks them for advice on a grisly local murder case. They offer several theories but nothing concrete for the clearly frustrated detective, which only upsets him even more. And so it goes. Not every case can be solved but it is unusual for one of the protagonists to admit it so honestly. The episode ends with nothing resolved and tangible tension between Ford and Tench.

Setting Mindhunter in the late 1970s is an interesting choice. As Fincher has pointed out in interviews, it was the end of the J. Edgar Hoover era with the last vestiges of the stereotypical FBI agent idealized by Melvin Purvis and represented by Ford and Tench’s boss being replaced by people like Ford. Tench represents a bridge between the two eras. He still adheres to old school practices but is receptive to Ford’s new way of thinking and Holt McCallany does an excellent job of showing how his character deals with these contrasting schools of thought – the old vs. the new. Initially, Tench doesn’t reveal much about himself but over the course of the show he’s given moments, like a quiet scene in a bar with Ford in the fourth episode, where he reveals a very personal detail about his home life that is wonderfully conveyed by the actor who displays an impressive amount of vulnerability. A few minutes later, we are shown a glimpse of his home life in a heartbreakingly understated scene.

In order to understand the criminal mind better it makes sense that one should talk to criminals. Ford wants to interview Charles Manson but he’s unreachable – ever for the FBI – and so at one of their teaching gigs a cop says they should talk to Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton) a.k.a. the Co-Ed Killer, a man that decapitated 16 teenage girls and had sex with the corpses. He’s a dream interview – he loves to talk about himself. Fincher films Ford walking through the prison, down the halls among the inmates with the sounds of them leering and yelling at him. The look on his face is one of palpable unease.

The meeting with Kemper is a brilliant sequence that begins on a comical note as the killer insists Ford has an egg salad sandwich as if he were entertaining him in his living room. The serial killer initially comes off as an affable man. He’s eloquent and honest (“People who hunt other people for a vocation all we want to talk about is what it’s like.”) and is able to become unsettlingly threatening on a dime. Kemper recounts his normal childhood and how it ran parallel to another, more depraved life. He fascinates Ford, while Tench is convinced that he’s manipulating his partner, telling him what he wants to hear. On the second visit, Ford is a little too chummy with Kemper in an amusing bit where they actually banter back and forth. They delve into the man’s past and what motivated him, which he tells in a chilling monologue. Cameron Britton does an excellent job playing Kemper. He moves little, letting his eyes convey his feelings. Kemper is someone that plays things close to the vest, reading Ford and then telling a story of how he killed his mother in a creepy, matter-of-fact monotone.

Not surprisingly, the most compelling parts of Mindhunter are the interviews with the killers. As Fincher has said, these scenes are like little one act plays as these guys tell their stories. The show wisely doesn’t resort to flashbacks, which would be the obvious thing to do, and instead lets the actors playing these killers flex their acting chops, holding our attention with their ability to tell their characters’ depraved stories and make it compelling.

Meeting Kemper convinces Tench that there is value in talking to serial killers in order to understand what motivates them and he decides to stick up for Ford when their boss chews them out for interviewing the murderer without telling him. They’re threatened with suspension and it is this confrontation that bonds Ford and Tench. By the end of the second episode they’ve finally gelled as a team. They are finally on the same page.

As Mindhunter continues, Ford and Tench begin to diverge on how the work they do affects them. The latter is increasingly repulsed by the repellent nature of the killers they talk to, while the former finds himself getting deeper into the mindset of these men, running the risk of becoming like them, treading the same line that Will Graham does in Manhunter (1986). Mindhunter shows how these cases take their toll on the men that investigate them, most significantly, Tench who doesn’t tell his wife anything about his work and this causes noticeable tension between them. This is explored in a scene where she confronts him about it. As their work continues, Ford becomes more analytical and detached while Tench is more empathetic, especially when they interact with the killers and the local cops.


Are serial killers born or are they formed? This is a question that Ford and Tench wrestle with over the course of the ten episodes. It is why they are interviewing these men in the first place. Mindhunter does a superb job balancing the procedural aspects of Ford and Tench’s work with the impact it has on their personal lives in a way that gradually makes them rich and compelling characters over time. This is thoughtful, absorbing procedural that takes the time to delve not just into the work that these men do but their personal lives as well in a deeper way that Fincher was trying to do in Zodiac but was constrained by the limitations of feature filmmaking. The medium of television has allowed him to go as deep as he wants and this results in some of his best work.