Friday, February 25, 2011


The early 1990s marked the emergence of two independent filmmakers who were seen as possible heirs to Woody Allen’s cinematic legacy: Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) and Whit Stillman. The latter filmmaker, in particular, has often been cited in the same breath as Allen’s films. They both mine the same social strata — affluent, Upper East Side New Yorkers — for comedy. Stillman’s debut, Metropolitan (1990), is his most Allen-esque, right down to the simple opening credits sequence (using a font similar to the one Allen does in his films) accompanied by jazz music. Stillman’s characters, like Allen’s, also speak witty dialogue loaded with literary references. However, this is where the similarities begin and end. In Allen’s films, he presents upper class characters that are narcissistic and self-absorbed while Stillman tends to gently parody these qualities.

Completely by random, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), whose name sounds like something right out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, shares a cab with Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) and his friends coming out of a debutante party. Tom is inadvertently invited to a gathering at Sally Fowler’s (Dylan Hundley) where he becomes a part of her Rat Pack, a group of affluent twentysomethings. Tom catches the eye of Audrey (Carolyn Farina) and they eventually bond over a discussion about Jane Austen. Audrey is a sweet, virtuous girl, just like the heroine she admires in Austen’s book, Mansfield Park. Audrey loves Austen’s prose while Tom prefers good, literary criticism because, as he puts it, “that way you can get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it ever really happened. It was all just made up by the author.” The first party sequence does an excellent job of establishing this world and the characters that inhabit it.

Even though their group is known as the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, Nick is their unofficial leader, dominating many of the conversations with his caustic wit. Tom is seen as something of an intriguing outsider (at one point, Nick notices that he lives on the Upper West Side). He’s not as rich as the others but is able to hold his own intellectually. Charlie (Taylor Nichols) doesn’t like Tom because he has a thing for Audrey and knows that she fancies this social interloper. Throughout it all, Nick is Tom’s way into the group and lays out the social rules for him (he shows him the proper etiquette and gives him fashion tips). Tom is obviously the audience surrogate and along with him, we are immersed in this rarefied social milieu.

Metropolitan takes place during the Christmas holidays and depicts the inevitable decline of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, much as Charlie theorizes early on in the film, confirming his fears of the decline of their generation. He even attempts to define it and frets that they are doomed to decline financially, lamenting the inevitable demise of the Preppie class. He also comes up with the term “Urban Haute Bourgeoisie” or UHB (pronounced “UB”) to describe his class but, in reality, it is just another word for Preppie. Initially, the characters in the film may seem pretentious but I believe that Stillman wants us to see past this facade to the anxiety-ridden personas that lie beneath as typified by Charlie.

Sally’s initial party is chock full of amusing statements, such as how Jane (Allison Rutledge-Parisi) mentions to Tom that a classmate of hers was influenced by his theories on agrarian socialism and that “since then she’s joined the Red Underground Army. If she blows herself up, it’ll be your fault.” Tom admits that he’s a committed socialist who believes in the writings of 19th-century French social critic Charles Fourier. It also is during this sequence that Chris Eigeman gets some of the film’s best lines, such as when his character, Charlie and Tom talk about the effect that divorced parents and broken homes have on their group. Nick mentions that Jane’s father died suddenly the year before. Tom laments that it must’ve been awful for her to which Nick deadpans, “Yes. It was tough on him too.” Eigeman is the master of sarcasm as his character offers caustic observations and quips about those he doesn’t like, chief among them Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), an arrogant aristocrat. Eigeman was born to spout Stillman’s dialogue as is evident in the way Nick offers a hilarious argument as to why Tom should continue to attend deb parties. Stillman obviously thought so too and has cast the actor in every one of his films.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1973, Whit Stillman went into book and magazine publishing. In the early 1980s, he moved into film, representing Spanish films for foreign sales. During this time, he began writing the screenplay for what would become Metropolitan in 1984. At first, all he had was a setting and an image of young people in black and white evening clothes “set against the cream and gilt of New York interiors.” Stillman drew on his memories from his days at Harvard where he read the works of 19th-century reformer Charles Fourier. He ended up writing the monologue about the upper classes being doomed to failure at a restaurant during the 1985 Cannes Film Festival while promoting Spanish films. At the time, he was feeling marginalized and channeled it into this speech. In 1988, Stillman snuck into a debutante party just to make sure they hadn’t changed much and so they’d be accurately depicted in his film.

Like Tom, Stillman felt like an outsider amid the Park Avenue debutant set and he also lived with his mother after his parents divorced. Initially, Tom was the focus of the script but then Stillman got sick of him as “the typical male ingĂ©nue,” and audience surrogate. He put the script away for awhile and decided to shift the focus to Audrey and this balanced the story, opening it up so that Charlie and Nick’s roles grew.

Stillman deliberately set his film during an ambiguous time period. He said, “I wanted it to be somewhat in the past, but also timeless so it would not be pegged to one year.” He decided to shoot it in New York City because he could “have an expensive-looking film without actually paying any money for it.” Having very few film contacts, he approached his friends to help finance the film. Stillman used his uptown connections during filming, which began in December 1988 with a cast that had no prior film experience. For example, scenes set in a posh living room were shot inside the Lehrman Institute. Metropolitan was made for less than $100,000 and finished for an additional $300,000.

Metropolitan received fairly positive reviews when it was first released. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars out of four and said of Stillman, “He has made a film Scott Fitzgerald might have been comfortable with, a film about people covering their own insecurities with a facade of social ease. And he has written wonderful dialogue, words in which the characters discuss ideas and feelings instead of simply marching through plot points as most Hollywood characters do.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Particularly funny are Mr. Nichols, as the pessimistic Charlie, who talks of doom and downward mobility, and Mr. Eigeman's Nick, who has a snap judgment for every occasion.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Whit Stillman, who wrote and directed this anthropological comedy of manners, approaches his material with both an insider's affection and contempt for his own kind.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum found that the film “has its awkward moments, but the charm of the actors and the wit and freshness of the dialogue (which touches on such subjects as Jane Austen, romance, and class consciousness) keep one interested.” Finally, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Instead of a full-bodied comic portrait of the coming-out-party set, Metropolitan offers a thin, cartoon version. Then it uses that cartoonishness to make everyone on-screen seem irresistibly cute.”

There is a certain timeless quality to the film with no real indication of the time period it is set in and this makes Metropolitan the most enduring of Stillman’s three films, which include Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) — forming a loose-knit trilogy of doomed Preppies in love. With Metropolitan, Stillman has created an esoteric film that isn’t afraid to name drop Fourier, discuss the advantages of detachable collars and lament the decline of the Preppie class due to downward social mobility. Twenty years since its debut, Stillman has created a fully realized world with well-written characters that he has real affection for and this is something that doesn’t always come through in a lot Woody Allen’s work (at least not recently).


Holden, Stephen. “Rich and Poor in One World of Film.” The New York Times. March 16, 1990.

Kaufman, Anthony. “Down and Out on Park Ave.” Filmmaker.

Stanley, Alessandra. “Metropolitan Chronicles Preppy Angst.” The New York Times. July 29, 1990.

Sussler, Betsy. “Whit Stillman.” Bomb. Winter 1991.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

DVD of the Week: Sweet Smell of Success: Criterion Collection

While Sweet Smell of Success (1957) was a hit with film critics at the time, it was not a box office smash as fans of the film’s two leads – Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis – were put off seeing their matinee idols portraying unlikable characters. Based on Ernest Lehman’s novelette and adapted by Clifford Odets, Alexander Mackendrick’s film is a cynical love letter to New York City – seen as a dog-eat-dog town with a richly textured film noir look courtesy of legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. Sweet Smell’s reputation has only grown over time and is now generally regarded as one of the best-written films with quotable dialogue and also one of the finest takes on tabloid journalism.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is an unscrupulous press agent, a bottom feeder who does anything he can to get his clients mentioned in mainstream publications like The New York Globe. For some time, he’s been trying to get in the good graces of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the most influential newspaper columnist in the city. He’s even willing to break up the romance between Hunsecker’s kid sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), an up and coming jazz musician, by planting a story that her boyfriend dabbles in drugs. Falco sees Hunsecker as “the golden ladder to the places I want to get,” which is a position where he’s the one calling the shots instead of spending all of his time hustling.

Odets’ much celebrated hard-boiled dialogue crackles with energy and intensity as evident in the scene that introduces Hunsecker. “You’re dead son. Get yourself buried,” is how he casually dismisses Falco. “Match me, Sidney,” is another witty remark courtesy of Hunsecker. Falco gets his own clever remarks as he tells Hunsecker at one point, “Cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” In a film like Sweet Smell of Success, words are weapons which men like Falco and Hunsecker use to destroy people with no remorse.

The film was quite a risky venture for both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster at the time. They were popular box office draws and their roles in Sweet Smell of Success were very different from what their fans were used to seeing. Curtis, in particular, wanted to shed his pretty boy reputation by taking on more substantial material while Lancaster was a maverick within the industry and formed his own production company in order to generate personal pet projects like Sweet Smell.

Right from the opening shot, Mackendrick presents New York as a busy, claustrophobic and noisy place drenched in noirish shadows. It’s a place where heartless individuals like Falco and Hunsecker prey upon the weak. While the latter was based on infamous gossip columnist Walter Winchell, he is also a predecessor to muckraking gossip hounds of today, including websites like TMZ and feared industry insiders like Nikki Finke. Sweet Smell of Success, with its snappy acerbic dialogue, anticipates the stylized tough guy banter of David Mamet and the fast-talking characters in Aaron Sorkin’s television shows. It was one of the rare, uncompromising films from the 1950s that dared to be critical of the establishment and still get made and released within the system. The folks at the Criterion Collection have given this cinematic classic the deluxe treatment it so richly deserves.

Special Features:

Time to throw away the bare bones MGM DVD that was released years ago as this new edition features a pristine transfer that restores the Sweet Smell of Success’ exquisite black and white cinematography, and includes several wonderful extras.

The first disc features an audio commentary by film scholar James Naremore who wrote the BFI Film Classics book on Sweet Smell of Success. He offers excellent analysis of various aspects of the film and also provides biographical detail on the principal cast and crew. In addition, Naremore provides important details on Walter Winchell, the inspiration for the character of J.J. Hunsecker. He also takes us through the genesis of the film in this engaging and very informative track.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with “Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away,” a 1986 documentary about director Alexander Mackendrick that runs 44 minutes in length. Contemporaries, like Burt Lancaster, and fellow filmmakers, like John Milius, speak highly of the man. Mackendrick himself talks about his beginnings in advertising thanks to his aptitude as an illustrator – a skill he applied to his filmmaking. This doc sheds light on this often-forgotten film director.

“James Wong Howe: Cinematographer” is a 1973 documentary that features the Academy Award-winning director of photography giving a tutorial on film lighting. In addition, he also tells some entertaining filming anecdotes from his illustrious career and shares his approach to cinematography.

“Gabler on Winchell” takes a look at the columnist that inspired Hunsecker in the film. We learn of Walter Winchell’s importance to American journalism, including the notion of celebrity and the concept of personal style in reporting. He grew to great prominence in the 1930s and wielded a lot of power with the ability to make or break people’s careers.

Finally, there is a 25-minute interview with director James Mangold (Cop Land, Walk the Line) who was one of Mackendrick’s students. Mangold recalls his initial impressions of Mackendrick and what drew him to the man. He says that in his teachings, Mackendrick stressed the ability to tell a story, an understanding of acting, and how a scene worked. Mangold speaks with obvious affection for his mentor in this engaging extra.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Untouchables

Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) is a film that asks the burning question: is police brutality ever justified? It is when you’re dealing with the likes of Al Capone and Frank Nitti – gangsters that had no problem blowing up children and killing nebbish accountants to get what they wanted. The film doesn’t exactly adhere to historical fact opting instead to go with John Ford’s famous credo of printing the legend and in doing so raising the characters and their exploits to mythic status. De Palma’s adaptation of Eliot Ness’ 1957 memoir of the same name had all the makings of a powerhouse production destined for greatness. It featured a screenplay written by legendary playwright David Mamet, expert cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (Rumble Fish) was behind the camera, master composer Ennio Morricone was scoring the film, and Robert De Niro and Sean Connery were signed on to play larger-than-life characters. The result was an exciting, action-packed epic that helped revitalize De Palma’s struggling career (after the critical and commercial failure of Wise Guys) and earned Connery his first Academy Award.

It is 1930 and gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) controls most of the illegal business in Chicago with a ruthless, iron fist. After a ten-year old girl is killed in a gang-related incident, Federal Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is brought in to clean up the city. His first attempt is an embarrassing failure so he tries a different approach. He decides to form his own task force of three men to help him take down Capone and his empire. He picks a veteran beat cop named Malone (Sean Connery), who knows the city and becomes Ness’ mentor. He also selects Stone (Andy Garcia), a cop fresh out of the academy and ace shot with a pistol. Rounding out the group is Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a bookish FBI accountant who figures out a way to nail Capone. Together, they form an incorruptible group determined to bring Capone to justice.

De Palma and Mamet make it clear right from the get-go that The Untouchables isn’t going to be some half-assed, sanitized gangster film as they proceed to have Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) blow up a bar with a little girl in it. This shocking sequence, juxtaposed with Capone lying about not using violence to enforce his will, sets an all-bets-are-off tone as we get an idea of just how brutal life is in Chicago and how far Capone is willing to go to make a point. This is then contrasted with Eliot Ness’ blandy-McPlainWrap home life with a loving and dutiful wife (Patricia Clarkson) and cute-as-a-button child. We see just how far removed from Chicago Ness’ home life is and what a rude wake up call he will get when he starts working in the city.

Kevin Costner is wisely cast as the stiff, idealistic Ness. He’s the least interesting character and plays the role straight, trying not to go the obvious heroic route. His all-American looks and Gary Cooper-esque style are ideally suited for the role of the last honest man in the corrupt town (which Oliver Stone would also utilize in JFK). His Ness is as straight an arrow as they come which makes the character’s arc over the course of the film an interesting one. He goes from staunch upholder of the law to someone who has adopted Malone’s by-any-means-necessary philosophy.

This allows Connery to rightfully shine as the aging cop torn between riding out his remaining time and retire alive or making a difference with Ness and his crew. Unlike Ness, Malone has grown up on and worked the mean streets of Chicago. He understands that they are at war with Capone and must do whatever it takes to bust him and break up his empire because he will be just as ruthless. Upon the first meeting, Malone imparts a valuable lesson to Ness: “Make sure when you shift is over you go home alive.” It seems obvious but is an important one to know. It is also the reason why Malone initially turns down Ness’ offer to form the Untouchables. Connery shows what a once great actor can do with the right material and this results in a truly inspired performance — arguably the veteran actor’s last great one.

Rounding out his trilogy of memorable cameos in the 1980s (including Brazil and Angel Heart), Robert De Niro put on the pounds again (which he first and most famously did for Raging Bull) and transformed himself into Al Capone. Like Tony Montana in De Palma’s Scarface (1983), Capone is surrounded by luxury and opulence but is still just a cruel thug at heart. In the few scenes that he has, De Niro makes them count and it is a thrill to hear a great actor say Mamet’s tough-guy dialogue (listen to how he says the word, “enthusiasms,” in a scene). The actor clearly relishes the role and treats the dialogue like he’s enjoying a rich meal and each word is a juicy morsel that he savors.

The supporting roles feature some fantastic actors, chief among them Billy Drago who exudes just the right amount of oily menace as Nitti. For example, there is a scene where he cordially threatens Ness and his family. On the surface there is the appearance of civility but we know what is true intentions are the it doesn’t take Ness much time to figure it out by then Nitti is speeding off in his car – he’s made his point. Drago doesn’t get many lines or a lot of screen time but makes the most of the what he’s given, making a fine addition to De Palma’s roster of cinematic sociopaths.

Speaking of Mamet’s dialogue, it crackles and pops with intensity and provides many of the film’s classic scenes, perhaps none more memorable than Malone’s famous speech to Ness where he tells him how to get Capone. “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.” Sean Connery delivers this speech with the passion and conviction that rightfully earned him an Oscar. The other scene of classic Mamet dialogue is Capone’s infamous dinner table monologue where he talks about teamwork before braining a hapless flunky with a baseball bat for not being a part of the “team.”

Brian De Palma’s stylish direction is perfect for this epic story: long, uninterrupted takes, slow motion and excellent compositions within the widescreen format. He may well be one of the greatest practioners of this aspect ratio. Just look at a simple set-up in the scene where Malone takes Ness to a church and lays it all out for how they’re going to get Capone. Both men take up most of the foreground occupying either side of the screen. The camera is low looking up at them so that we also see part of the beautifully ornate church ceiling. It is this kind of shot that would be totally destroyed when shown pan and scanned on television. Then there is the much-celebrated train station shoot-out, which was a shameless homage to a famous sequence in the legendary film, Battleship Potemkin (1925). It’s a bravura sequence that is beautifully orchestrated by De Palma as he builds the tension leading up to the shoot-up for what seems like an unbearable eternity. The entire sequence is a brilliant lesson in editing and camerawork.

Although, De Palma does go a little over-the-top (even for him) with the Ness-Nitti show down at the end, which features the director’s obligatory homage to Alfred Hitchcock. There is also silly bit of business where we see two old cops duking it in a rainy alleyway as Connery and veteran character actor Richard Bradford laughably beat each other up in a scene that I could’ve done without. Also, Malone’s prolonged death scene drags on for what feels like an eternity but these are really minor flaws in an otherwise unimpeachable stone cold classic as De Palma does his best to distract us from these histrionics with giallo lighting in the Connery fight scene and suspenseful point-of-view steadicam work in the death scene.

In 1984, producer Art Linson met with Paramount Studio’s president Ned Tanen about adapting The Untouchables television series into a film. Tanen liked the idea but Linson did not want to do a sequel, a remake or a parody. He wanted “to create a big-scale movie about mythical American heroes.” Linson needed a screenwriter and thought of David Mamet, fresh from just having won a Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway play Glengarry Glen Ross. He met with Mamet and the writer agreed to do the film. The screenwriter was a native of Chicago and something of a gangster history buff. He envisioned a story about “the old gunfighter and the young gunfighter … It occurred to me, what happens if this young innocent, who’s charged with defending the law but only understands that in an abstract way, meets an old disenchanted veteran, the caretaker of the law, soured at the end of his career because of the corruption in the city?”

Mamet asked Paramount to show him two episodes of the original series and he liked them but felt that “there was nothing I could use in the movie.” Mamet wrote an original story after realizing that the real events – Capone being caught for tax evasion – were not that dramatic. Mamet created the character of Malone and gave Ness a family (he did not have one in real life). After eight months, Brian De Palma was approached to direct by Linson after Mamet wrote the third draft of the script. The director liked that the script was more about the characters and did not see it as a gangster film but more like The Magnificent Seven (1960). He felt that the project was “different from anything I’ve done in the past, because it’s a traditional Americana picture, like a John Ford picture.” He, Linson and Mamet worked together on it with De Palma emphasizing the Capone character more. According to De Palma, the film “reflects upon the incredible pressure we place on our police by not equipping them to adequately fight criminals. Why are we surprised that some of them go overboard?”

For the role of Eliot Ness, Linson and De Palma initially considered William Hurt and Harrison Ford, but, according to Linson, they wanted “someone with the right combination of naivetĂ©, earnestness and strength.” They ended up casting Kevin Costner who wanted to do the film because it was so different from the television series and Ness “has to ask for help. It’s the more modern notion that a smart man takes a step back sometimes – that to be a hero you don’t have to be Rambo.” For Jimmy Malone, the filmmakers wanted Sean Connery but assumed that he would not want to play a supporting role and take a pay cut. However, Connery was drawn to the project because of Mamet’s script and the chance to work with Robert De Niro. He ended up signing on for a percentage of the profits. For the role of Al Capone, De Palma wanted De Niro. Paramount initially balked at the actor’s asking price of $1.5 million but relented.

The principal actors rehearsed together for a full week and Connery tried to remain in character even when the cast was relaxing. By the time principal photography began, whole scenes had been blocked and unworkable ideas rejected. A rapport between the actors playing the Untouchables had also been established, which definitely shows in the film. In preparation for the film, De Niro put on 30 pounds between the end of his Broadway run in Cuba and His Teddy Bear and his days of filming scheduled at the end of the 70-day production schedule. He analyzed old Movietone newsreels in order to get Capone’s voice, movements and mannerisms. On an interesting note, the famous scene in the church between Ness and Malone as originally written, took place on a street, but Connery suggested it take place in a church – the only place left in the city where they could speak freely.

Principal photography started in mid-August 1986 and utilized over 25 separate locations in Chicago with the border raid sequence shot on the Old Hardy Bridge spanning the Missouri River because of its period look. The train station shoot-out cost $200,000 to light because extra light was needed to shoot the sequence in slow motion. It took six days to shoot the scene, which cost an additional $100,000. Not surprisingly, staging this sequence like the one in Battleship Potemkin was De Palma’s idea. The budget escalated from $17 million to $24 million thanks to the cost of production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein transforming an entire block of LaSalle Street in Chicago into the 1930s complete with 125 costumed extras and 60 period cars.

The Untouchables received mixed reviews from critics back in the day and is best summed up by Pauline Kael, a fan of De Palma’s work, who wrote, “It's not a great movie; it's too banal, too morally comfortable - the script is too obvious. But it's a great audience movie - a wonderful potboiler. It's a rouser. The architectural remnants of the era (including solid traces of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright) have been refurbished to provide a swaggering showcase for the legend.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Sean Connery’s performance: “In any other movie, this, too, would be a pretty ordinary role but, as written by Mr. Mamet, directed by Mr. De Palma and played by Mr. Connery, Jim Malone becomes something like the original on which all similar roles were patterned.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “Such riches abound in this film, but it is as parable, not parody, that it grips us. The Untouchables all begin as archetypes of American goodness. And they do triumph over evil; they send Capone to prison. But the cost is death or loss of innocence, for it is only by adapting crime's methods that they can defeat it.”

Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars and was disappointed by De Niro’s performance: “All of the movie's Capone segments seem cut off from the rest of the story; they're like regal set-pieces, dropped in from time to time … There isn't a glimmer of a notion of what made this man tick, this Al Capone who was such an organizational genius that he founded an industry and became a millionaire while still a young man.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “But you're too much aware of the director's manipulations; his virtuosity become oppressive. Our only interest really is in whether the filmmaker can sustain the feat. It's the kind of stunt that turns filmmaking into a kind of sideshow. It's stunning but in the way that great jugglers or magicians can sometimes be stunning. But it's not art, and, at least in the case of The Untouchables, it's only marginally entertaining.”

The production design for The Untouchables is fantastic, especially the opulence of Capone’s headquarters with Morricone’s score resembling a 1930s riff on the music from De Palma’s Scarface. This film is one of those rare big-budget, star-studded blockbusters that actually works. All of the right elements came together at just the right time and place and resulted in an incredibly entertaining motion picture. The Untouchables shows what a master filmmaker like De Palma can do with a director-for-hire paycheck movie. He may not be making a personal statement with this film but he still gives it his all in terms of style and virtuoso camerawork. This film certainly set a high standard for period gangster films, casting a long shadow over future endeavors like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) and the HBO T.V. series Boardwalk Empire.

Also, check out Mr. Peel's excellent look at the film over at his blog, and also John Kenneth Muir's top notch analysis of De Palma's epic over at his blog.


The Untouchables Production Notes. 1987.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Michael Mann Blogathon: The Keep

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is a part of the Michael Mann Blogathon going on over at the Seeti Maar - Diary of a Movie Lover blog. If you get a chance, check it out as there are all kinds of amazing contributions so far.

Let’s get this out of the way – The Keep (1983) is not a good film. It is, at times, an interesting one that has its inspired moments, but it is a narrative mess with lackluster performances. It is the equivalent of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) – a big budget folly beset by production problems and an uncaring studio that butchered the film before its release. And like Lynch, the experience was so painful for Michael Mann that he has never revisited it since. It’s all George Lucas’ fault. The success of Star Wars (1977) motivated all kinds of directors to dabble in the science fiction, horror and fantasy genres. For example, in the year The Keep was released, Peter Yates directed Krull, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg tackled Stephen King adaptations with Christine and The Dead Zone, respectively, Tony Scott’s directorial debut was the gothic vampire tale The Hunger, and there was also Something Wicked This Way Comes. These films, however, were overshadowed by the third installment of the Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, which dominated the box office.

After Thief (1981), Mann was offered all kinds of urban crime films. He was not interested in repeating himself and wanted, instead, to do something like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude that would allow him to make a film that was “non-realistic and create the reality.” He worked briefly on the screenplay for Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983) but left that project to make The Keep, an adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s novel about a mysterious force within a Nazi fortress. The film begins with a transition from a black screen to blue sky and then pans down to the action. Mann would do the exact same thing at the beginning of Manhunter (1986) three years later. As is typical with the beginning of a Mann film, the opening sequence is devoid of dialogue. A convoy of trucks filled with Nazi soldiers drive through desolate countryside. They arrive at a small village in the Dinu Pass in the Carpathian Alps in Romania circa 1941. The town’s inhabitants look at these intruders suspiciously. Out of the fog, the convoy arrives at the Keep, which is to be their new base of operations. The commanding officer, Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) proudly proclaims to a subordinate, “Now we are the masters of the world. Doesn’t that enthrall you?” The irony of this statement is that it is said before the Nazis invaded Russia and failed.

The Keep is a massive, imposing structure. Mann used vintage arc lamps from the 1920s and 1930s to get “a certain kind of hard blue shaft of light coming through all the openings in the keep.” The village outside of the Keep was shot with very bright light and in white in order to represent innocence. However, something is not quite right and this is symbolized by the fact that none of the rooftops are symmetrical. In contrast, everything inside the Keep is dark. Mann said, “We exposed for the highlight and let all the shadows go. Instead of a flood or a wash of light, there are very defined shafts of light. It’s only in those shafts that we can see things.”

Father Fanescu (Robert Prosky) is the caretaker of the Keep and warns Woermann that he and his men should not stay inside the structure because bad dreams drive out people who attempt to stay too long. Naturally, Woermann scoffs at such notions. He is an overconfident antagonist like Leo in Thief, Waingro in Heat (1995) and Thomas Sanderford in The Insider (1999). Fanescu also warns them never to touch the many metal crosses embedded in the walls. Of course, two greedy soldiers on night watch try to pry one out, believing that it hides some kind of treasure. In doing so, they uncover the vast interior of the Keep and a powerful force that kills them. They have unknowingly awakened a being known as Molasar (Michael Carter). This even awakens a man by the name of Glaeken (Scott Glenn) who lives in Greece. He quickly packs his things and goes to Romania. This man is a loner, much like other Mann protagonists. He is a man of few words, driven by intensely personal reasons to do what he does.

Reinforcements arrive led by a vicious officer, Major Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) who starts killing villagers in retaliation for the mysterious deaths of five soldiers. He finds inscriptions on a wall in a language that none of them can decipher but Fanescu knows of a scholar who can – Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen). He and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are summoned from a concentration camp. When two soldiers try to rape Eva, they are eradicated by Molasar and enveloped by smoke. In comparison to the cold, calculated Kaempffer, Woermann seems much more reasonable. He is smart enough to fear this unknown force and has enough compassion to send Eva to the local inn. Kaempffer is weak of mind, like Freddie Lounds in Manhunter and Van Zandt in Heat. Kaempffer thinks too rationally and deludes himself into believing that he is in control.

For Molasar, the more it kills the more of a physical presence it has. It makes a deal with Dr. Cuza that if he carries out the talisman that keeps it imprisoned in the Keep, Molasar will kill all of the soldiers. However, Glaeken knows that if Molasar is released, it will destroy the world. Glaeken is not just a traveler, as he describes himself, but also watches over the Keep and makes sure that Molasar does not get out.

As the film builds towards its climax, Woermann confronts Kaempffer and tries to appeal to his conscience one more time:

“All that we are is coming out, here in this Keep. And what truth do you see, what are you discovering about yourself, Kaempffer? I murder all these people. Therefore I must be powerful. Smash them down because only that raises you up. It’s a psychotic fantasy to escape the weakness and disease you sense in the core of your soul ... You have released the foulest that dwells in all men’s minds. You have infected millions with your twisted fantasies. And formed millions of diseased mentalities that worship your twisted cross.”

This is not only an indictment of the Nazi philosophy but also the godlike mentality alluded to by Hannibal Lecktor to Will Graham in Manhunter. Dr. Cuza has become corrupted by power like those he hates – the Nazis. When Molasar heals him of his diseased state, he loses sight of what is good and evil.

Producers Gene Kirkwood and Howard W. Koch, Jr. optioned F. Paul Wilson’s book for Paramount. Not surprisingly, Mann was not interested in a straightforward adaptation. He did not want to make a traditional horror film. As he said in an interview at the time, “What it is overall is very dreamy, very magical, and intensely emotional.” Mann admired fairy tales and was drawn to Wilson’s best-selling novel as a way to make a fairy tale movie for adults.

The filmmaker did not use Wilson’s book as his starting point, but it was actually a meeting with Otto Skorzeny in 1969. Skorzeny was a former member of the S.S. and one of World War II’s most successful commandos. He led the raid that rescued Benito Mussolini from Italy in 1943. At Nuremberg, Skorzeny successfully defended himself and was acquitted. After the war, he ran a mercenary operation out of Spain. Mann was fascinated by Skorzeny’s psychology. Mann said in an interview that “the overt politics interest me less than the states of mind: the specific kinds of aberration that explain why a lower middle-class bourgeois in Munich would be attracted to the Waffen SS in 1933.”

Mann also read The Walter Langdon Report, a document commissioned by the Office of Strategic Services to psychoanalyze Adolph Hitler. Walter Langdon was a New York doctor who had talked to many people that knew the dictator before the war. This portrait of Hitler and how he reflected the psychosis of whole nation fascinated Mann. Another primary influence on the film was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which posits the theory that fairy tales were complex morality fables. Bettelheim argues that myths have clearly defined heroes and usually end in tragedy, while fairy tales were universal with happy endings. It goes on to propose the theory that most enduring children’s stories do not teach moral messages as fables do but deal with action and horror in a way that allows children to deal with real world horror over time.

Mann first scouted locations in Romania but was unable to find a mountain pass of black rock in Pyrenees or the Alps. He then asked experts at a nearby university to use their geology computer to help him find the location he wanted. With the help of production designer John Box, Mann found an abandoned slate quarry in Wales. The quarry was 150 feet deep and a lift or a crane had to take people in and out. Cinematographer Alex Thomson placed his lights on cherry pickers around the edge of the quarry and at one point 80 miles per hour winds threatened to knock the lights in.

Mann first wrote the screenplay and then made additional changes while shooting the film. “Now the words are plastic, flexible,” Mann remarked in an interview at the time. He constantly rewrote dialogue before shooting which frustrated his actors. Two days before a scene was shot the actors would get new pages. Then, a day before they got additional new pages. Mann storyboarded the entire film only to get on the set and realize that the lighting was different and so he threw them out, opting instead to work on a more instinctual level. On the set, Mann listened to the music of Tangerine Dream and Laurie Anderson. He was particularly taken with Anderson’s vocal stylings and wanted Glenn to speak like she does in her songs.

By certain accounts, the shoot was a particularly grueling one. The crew worked 16-18 hour days in cold, rainy weather. In particular, make-up artist Nick Maley remembers that he had to change make-up effects three times in one week. He claimed that Mann did not listen to more experienced crew members and that eight of them suffered nervous breakdowns as a result of the film’s demanding schedule. Maley also claims that he was exhausted a lot of the time from the miscommunication he experienced with Mann over prosthetics for Glaeken. Six weeks into filming, Mann changed the color of Molasar’s final costume, which meant some scenes had to be re-shot.

Mann described Molasar as the essence of “just sheer power, and the appeal of power, and the worship of power, a belief in power, a seduction of power.” This is a description that could easily apply to future Mann antagonists, Francis Dollarhyde and Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter. Mike Carter played Molasar and spoke highly of Mann: “His direction was simple and clear—always the best. The physical presentation of Molasar was always carefully worked out. The way in which I played Molasar was pretty much my decision. Obviously he would have changed things if he didn’t like it.” However, Carter was not blind to the problems that Mann faced on the film: “We went over budget and over schedule, but he was trying to make a particular kind of film, almost a German Expressionist movie, and I’m not surprised it was as long and expensive as it was. It needed to be a big-budget movie.”

There was a six-month delay because of the death of special effects expert, Wally Veevers two weeks into post-production, forcing Mann to rethink the film’s effects after the cast and crew had departed. Without Veevers to provide the needed opticals for Molasar, the creature resembled the Michelin Man as opposed to an ominous force of evil. To make matters worse, Veevers had not made any storyboards for his vision of the movie and no one knew his methods. The production went over schedule by 22 weeks and tens of millions of dollars.

When it came to the finale, Mann chose between two different endings. Glaeken versus Molasar in the dark cave of the Keep or on its summit. The director went with the former but was forced to scale it down. Originally, he had wanted a more visually elaborate, ending with Glaeken fighting Molasar with a giant laser coming from the Keep that evolved into something akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). After Veever’s death, Paramount did not give Mann enough money to finish the film and he had to abandon certain sequences. French artist Enki Bilal was brought in to help design Molasar. He traveled to Shepperton Studios five or six times and felt that the film was ruined during the editing process. Special effects make-up artist Bob Keen felt that one of the biggest problems was the long, grueling shoot and that by the end of it a lot of the crew members had left.

The current version of the film runs 90 minutes but rumors say that the rough cut ran over two hours. The Keep was released on December 16, 1983 in 508 theaters, grossing $1 million in its opening weekend. It went on to make $4.2 million in the United States and was a commercial and critical failure. In his review for Time magazine, Richard Corliss wrote, “It boasts some pictures as pretty as any to be seen on a gallery wall, and, in narrative terms, it is a mess.” Vincent Canby, in his review for The New York Times, wrote, “The movie makes no sense as either melodrama or metaphysics, so that its expensive special effects go up in smoke. Literally ... At the screening I saw, the film's soundtrack, as stuffed with talk as with ominous sounds and music by Tangerine Dream, was so sibilant that I longed to stuff cotton in my ears or, at least, to hear a character who lisped.” At the time, Mann felt that The Keep was “emotionally deeper because it tries to get at the way you think and feel in the way dreams work.” However, after many years had passed, Mann admitted, “The Keep was really hard because I did something I swore I’d never do again. And that is that I went into pre-production without a completed screenplay.”

Author F. Paul Wilson joined in on the critical bashing of Mann’s film and dispelled the rumor that it might have been the victim of studio interference. “The film followed his (bad) script pretty faithfully. He simply decided that he wouldn’t mention the word ‘vampire,’ anywhere in the film. Of course, that’s the major red herring in the story.” Wilson felt that Mann did not understand the novel or how to adapt it. “He did not build character. He did not tell a coherent story. When I read the script, I wrote to him and I pointed out all of this to him in a very gentle, non ego trampling way, I thought. But he ignored me.” To put it mildly, Wilson was not happy with Mann’s film as he commented in an interview, “the dialogue was wooden, dumb, phony and stupid. And the direction, all those pregnant pauses ... And I would have chucked that stupid looking monstrosity that passed for Molasar. What a joke!” However, like what happened to Lynch after the soul-crushing failure of Dune, Mann went back to familiar subject matter and ended up making one of the best films of his career, Manhunter. I admire Mann’s ambition to tackle a new genre for him at the time but he was clearly out of his depth and it shows in the final film. Since The Keep he has wisely stuck to his strengths – urban crime films and historical biopics.

Also, check out this excellent analysis of the film over at the Wonders in the Dark blog and this comprehensive fan site.