Friday, February 26, 2016

Diner

A great hangout movie is hard to do well. You have to have a cast of memorable characters brought vividly to life by actors with quotable dialogue. All of these elements are crucial because they often distract from the fact that most hangout movies are about nothing and by that I mean they are largely plotless. The godfather of the genre is George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), which followed a bunch of teenagers driving around in cars and goofing off. It featured a cast of then unknown actors, some of whom would go on to be big-time movie stars (Harrison Ford). It also had a fantastic soundtrack of vintage 1950s rock ‘n’ roll music. This film established a template that many others would follow – most notably Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) and Superbad (2007).

Another great and hugely influential hangout movie is Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982), which was the first of his four “Baltimore Films.” This semi-autobiographical film depicts the reunion of six twentysomethings during the last week of 1959 for the upcoming wedding of one of their own with much of the action taking place at a local diner. It not only marked the directorial debut of Levinson (who also wrote the screenplay) but also featured an incredible cast of then up-and-coming actors: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, and feature film debuts of Tim Daly, Ellen Barkin and Paul Reiser. The success of Diner would help launch their careers as well as that of Levinson’s.

Instead of adhering to a traditional narrative, Diner is comprised of a series of vignettes. We meet Modell (Reiser) at a local dance as he tells Robert “Boogie” Sheftell (Rourke) that Timothy “Fen” Fenwick (Bacon) is breaking windows in the basement of the building. We learn that Fen does crazy things as a goof and that Boogie is a smooth talker with the ladies, convincing Fen’s date to go back with him even though he ditched her. As they leave the dance for a local diner, Levinson introduces the funny, observational humor that comes out of Modell’s mouth when he tells Boogie, “You know what word I’m not comfortable with? Nuance. It’s not really a word. Gesture is a good word. At least you know where you stand with gesture.”


We are introduced to the pivotal location of the diner as Eddie Simmons (Guttenberg) argues that Frank Sinatra is better than Johnny Mathis because the former is better in every respect and this leads to a hilarious bit where Modell asks Eddie for the last half of his roast beef sandwich much to the latter’s chagrin. It is so funny to see Modell intentionally wind up Eddie only to feign innocence when his friend tries to call him on it. There’s a loose, spontaneous feel to this scene and Levinson even keeps in Kevin Bacon’s reaction to Eddie and Modell’s bickering. His laughter looks genuine – an unguarded moment of the actor breaking character.

The way the actors interact with each other suggests that these characters have been friends for most of their lives in the way they speak to each other. There is a familiarity and a short-hand that is believable. One imagines that they’ve had this same argument a hundred times before. The diner scene also establishes Boogie’s mounting gambling debt and his schemes to get inside information for his next bet while settling the Mathis/Sinatra debate by stating that Elvis Presley is better than both of them.

These guys still have a lot of growing up to do, like Boogie’s ever-increasing gambling debts or Eddie still living at home, driving his mother crazy, or Fen’s childish pranks, even going so far as to fake a bloody car accident. Only Laurence “Shrevie” Schreiber (Stern) is married but he’s hardly the epitome of maturity, obsessively collecting 45s and cruelly chastising his wife Beth (Barkin) for failing to understand his organizational system. In addition, Shrevie can’t tell Eddie if he’s happily married or not. He tries to articulate it in terms of having sex with his wife. Before they were married they talked a lot about it and spent time planning when to have it and then once they were married they talked about it less because it wasn’t a big of an issue. It basically boils down to not having much in common with her as he tells Eddie, “You know, I can come down here, we can bullshit the whole night away but I cannot hold a five minute conversation with Beth.” Male friendship is the most important thing in these guys’ lives and this is symbolized by the diner because it is the place where they get together regularly. Only William “Billy” Howard (Daly) seems to have any kind of maturity and this is a result of going to college and removing himself from his circle of immature friends.


The cast is uniformly excellent with Paul Reiser getting the bulk of the film’s funny, quotable dialogue. Tim Daly has the lion’s share of the film’s dramatic scenes as Billy reunites with an ex-girlfriend (Kathryn Dowling) and she tells him about being pregnant with his child. Over the course of the film Billy wrestles with the dilemma of what to do about it. The good-looking Mickey Rourke is well-cast as a persuasive Lothario. He’s always scheming, whether it’s placing sports bets or making moves on beautiful women. Fen is the black sheep of his family, dropping out of school, refusing to work and living off his trust fund. Kevin Bacon hints at a checkered family past and this is what fuels Fen’s unpredictable behavior. So long as he lives off a trust fund he will never grow up. The actor does a good job of portraying the prankster side of Fen and also the more troubling aspects as well.

Levinson doesn’t shy away from how badly women were treated back then, from Boogie’s womanizing tendencies to Eddie forcing his fiancée to take a quiz about football and his favorite team, the Baltimore Colts, which she must pass before he will marry her. The most troubling example of this behavior is how badly Shrevie treats Beth. He’s an obsessive record collector and freaks out at her inability to adhere to his organizational system. She is a casual music listener while it is very important to him. She can’t understand this and he doesn’t understand why she doesn’t appreciate it more. He has a very personal connection to music that she doesn’t but this argument is symptomatic of a larger problem – they don’t have much in common.

Levinson immerses us in the sights and sounds of the diner with insert shots of clean plates being stacked and ketchup bottles being refilled. There is also the fantastic attention to period detail, from the vintage cars to the occasional slang that the characters say to what they wear to the period music (a killer soundtrack featuring the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins among others). He also fills in the margins of the film with amusing bits like the guy who eats the entire left side of the diner’s menu causing Modell to quip, “It’s not human. He’s not a person. He’s like a building with feet.” There’s the guy who obsessively quotes dialogue from Sweet Smell of Success (1957). It is these moments that help flesh out this world and make it more real, more tangible, transporting us to ‘50s era Baltimore.


Barry Levinson worked on the Mel Brooks comedy High Anxiety (1977) and used to tell the filmmaker Diner-esque stories about growing up in Baltimore. Brooks told Levinson, “You should write that as a screenplay,” but he couldn’t figure out how to do it. Levinson went on to write several scripts with ex-wife Valerie Curtin and during a period where she was acting in a film he started writing Diner. It took him three weeks and during that time he figured out the framework – it takes place over a five-day period – and that it was “all about male-female relationships, lack of relationship, lack of communication.” He frequented the Hilltop Diner in Northwest Baltimore and some of the conversations in the film, like the Mathis or Sinatra debate, came out of actual conversations he had. In addition, the six guys in the film were composites of friends and family and things they did and said.

Producer Mark Johnson met Levinson on High Anxiety and originally they were going to work together on Toys (1992), which they made years later, but it didn’t happen. Johnson went on to work for producer Jerry Weintraub at MGM while Levinson wrote Diner. When he read the script he loved it and wanted to make it. Johnson gave Levinson’s script to Weintraub who set it up almost immediately at MGM. At the time, the studio had several other larger budget movies and because the one for Diner was so low ($5 million), he was left alone, able to shoot on location in Baltimore, and cast relatively unknown actors in the lead roles.

When it came to casting the film Levinson saw around 600 guys. Kevin Bacon had just quite television soap opera Guiding Light when he got the call to audition for Diner. He originally read for Billy and Boogie. He met with Levinson who asked him to read for Fenwick, a character the actor had difficulty relating to. When he came back to audition, he was quite sick with a 103 degree fever. “I had a kinda slowed down and out-of-it quality, just based on the illness, that sorta worked for the character.” He ended up using that approach in the film.


Tim Daly auditioned in New York and read for Levinson who liked him. The actor came back repeatedly and read as well as doing a couple of screen tests. The studio wanted another actor but that person didn’t want to do the film and Levinson liked Daly and cast him as Billy. Paul Reiser came in with a friend and had no intention of auditioning. The casting director saw him and thought he’d be good in the film and told Levinson who met him the next day and cast the Reiser. Levinson purposely under-wrote Modell because he knew that if he “put in more stream-of-consciousness stuff, I’d have gotten some resistance [from the studio].”

Levinson only saw one person for the role of Beth and that was Ellen Barkin. The studio didn’t want her because they felt that she wasn’t pretty enough. The filmmaker lied his way into casting Barkin anyway. According to the actress, her on-screen relationship with Daniel Stern mirrored their off-screen one: “We’ve since made amends to each other, but it was a little difficult.”

Levinson remembers that they shot the film mostly at night and this resulted in keeping an unusual schedule: “Coming back, daylight is coming up and you’re coming back to the hotel to go to sleep at the Holiday Inn. Everybody else is getting up to go to work.” One of the biggest challenges was finding the diner. He wanted to use the Double-T Diner but they wanted too much money. Fortunately, Johnson found one in a diner graveyard in New Jersey. They transported it on a flatbed truck and placed it where they wanted it, which was Fells Point.


Levinson shot all the diner scenes last so that the cast would have time to bond and “draw on the rapport they’d developed over seven weeks. By that time they had their edges, little things that bothered them about each other, and those unspoken tensions enriched the movie,” the filmmaker said at the time. This method paid off. Steve Guttenberg and Mickey Rourke became good friends during filming and at one point they told Levinson they wanted to do a scene together because they didn’t have one. The filmmaker went back to his trailer and a few minutes later came out with a scene where Eddie talks about being a virgin. They went ahead and filmed it that day.

Reiser was Levinson’s secret weapon and he allowed the comedian to improvise dialogue. For example, during the “nuance” scene, Reiser remembers Levinson telling him, “’You’re bothered by the word ‘nuance.’’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, it’s a strange word, just play with it.’” The “roast beef sandwich” scene was also completely ad-libbed and came out of the actors talking in-between takes, eating whatever they wanted.

During post-production, MGM executive David Chasman wanted Levinson to cut the roast beef sandwich scene from the film but the director refused because he “wanted the piece to be without any flourish, without anything other than basically saying, ‘This is all it was.’” The studio wanted a sex comedy like Porky’s (1981) and didn’t like what Levinson had done. As Johnson recalls, “They didn’t know what to make of it.” When it came to test screenings, audiences in Levinson’s hometown of Baltimore hated the film and even the local newspaper The Baltimore Sun gave it a negative review. It didn’t help that the studio advertised the film by putting an emphasis on the soundtrack of classic rock ‘n’ roll music (perhaps trying to ape what American Graffiti had done) but this did not appeal to test audiences. Levinson was not happy with this approach: “They were expecting Grease and they didn’t get it.”


MGM was hesitant to release Diner and didn’t set a date. One of Johnson’s mother’s best friends was influential film critic Pauline Kael. He snuck a print out and showed it to her. She loved it and called the studio telling them, “You guys are about to have a lot of egg on your face because I’m about to give this movie a rave review and it’s not going to be available.” The studio finally released it in one theater in Manhattan.

Diner started getting strong reviews and in each city the film played it broke house records but, according to Levinson, “it never went wide because they never had any belief that it could play to a broader audience.” Pauline Kael wrote, “It isn’t remarkable visually but it features some of the best young actors in the country.” Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Diner is often a very funny movie, although I laughed most freely not at the sexual pranks but at the movie's accurate ear, as it reproduced dialogue with great comic accuracy.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “These characters are individually well drawn, and they're played beautifully. Mr. Levinson has found a first-rate cast, most of them unknown but few to be unknown for long.” In his review for Newsweek magazine, David Ansen wrote, “But while seeming to traverse familiar ground, Levinson and his superb young cast are sprinkling it with sparkling insights.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “Rhythmically, Diner is uneven. The strong opening gives way to a somewhat lassitudinous half hour but, when the pace does pick up, it never wobbles – the film works slowly, but surely.” However, in his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold felt it was “an oddly disappointing nice try.”

Diner failed to connect with audiences and quietly began disappearing from theaters. MGM was prepared to write it off but then strong reviews from influential New York critics gave it a second lease on life. The studio realized that they could possibly make money off the film and re-released it in seven theaters where it managed to gross approximately $1 million. The New York Times ran a favorable review and followed it up with an in-depth article on Levinson and the film, which generated word-of-mouth business.


Levinson does a nice job of juggling each character’s storyline, whether it’s Boogie’s gambling problems, Eddie getting ready for his wedding, or Fen’s increasing erratic behavior, and having them all dovetail nicely by the film’s conclusion. They’re not all entirely resolved but that’s the point: life’s problems are not easily solved within the confines of a film and one imagines these characters dealing with the fallout of the events depicted in Diner long after it ends.

The six guys in Diner come across as fully-fleshed out characters (with perhaps the exception of Modell) with rich backstories that are only hinted at and this adds to their authenticity and how the actors portray them that invites repeated viewings. This is why Levinson’s film still holds up after all these years. Diner feels like a very personal film and this is due in large part to all the personal touches and little details that populate it.

Diner is about a group of young men still acting like boys. They are on the cusp of being adults and either make the transition willingly or are forced to through marriage. The film depicts this transitional period in their lives when they have one foot in adolescence and one in adulthood. It is a film about male friendship and examines the dynamic between these six guys and why it is more important than their relationships with girlfriends and wives. Diner excels at presenting memorable characters that are funny and real, dealing with real problems. The film is full of quotable dialogue but also deals with serious issues that aren’t glossed over and aren’t all resolved by the end credits.



SOURCES

Farber, Stephen. “He Drew From His Boyhood to Make Diner.” The New York Times. April 18, 1982.

Harris, Will. “Ellen Barkin on Great Directors and Her Favorite Roles, from Diner to Buckaroo Banzai.” The A.V. Club. August 15, 2014.

Harris, Will. “Tim Daly on Madam Secretary, Voicing Superman, and Killing Stephen Weber.” The A.V. Club. September 19, 2014.

Price, S.L. “Much Ado About Nothing.” Vanity Fair. March 2012.

Serpick, Evan. “Diner: An Oral History.” Baltimore Magazine. April 2012.


Williams, Christian. “The Diner Opens.” Washington Post. May 14, 1982.

Friday, February 19, 2016

To the Wonder

With The Tree of Life (2011), filmmaker Terrence Malick not only fully embraced non-linear storytelling but also made a semi-autobiographical film as it was partially inspired by his experiences growing up in Central Texas. The famously secretive filmmaker followed this film with To the Wonder (2012), which is loosely based on his second marriage to a Parisian whom he met in France during a lengthy self-imposed exile from filmmaking. She had a young daughter and soon the three of them moved to Austin, Texas. She tried to adapt to her new surroundings while he would leave them for long periods of time without explanation. This film uses these scant known autobiographical details as a loose structure for Malick to push the style he utilized so brilliantly in The Tree of Life to further extremes.

We meet the happy couple frolicking in Paris and very much in love. Neil (Ben Affleck) is an American traveling through Europe and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) is a Ukrainian divorcee with a ten-year-old daughter (Tatiana Chiline). Malick’s restless camera hovers close to the lovers conveying a believable intimacy between them while also marveling at the world around them – most impressively Mont St. Michel, the island abbey located off the coast of Normandy. It is a breathtaking combination of ancient architecture and expansive vistas of a beach at low tide that seems to go on forever.

At times it feels like we are intruding on these people’s most personal moments and privy to their innermost thoughts thanks to Marina’s voiceover musings. She shares her feelings for Neil: “I’ll go wherever you go,” and what she tells him: “If I left you because you didn’t want to marry me, it would mean I didn’t love you. I don’t expect anything. Just to go a little of our way together.” It is a refreshingly honest and candid expression of her feelings for him.


The couple is soon relocated to his hometown in Oklahoma and Malick manages to find visual splendor in suburbia. Olga Kurylenko is a revelation in these early scenes. Not only does Malick’s camera love her but she acts naturally in his very intimate and Expressionistic style. She also does a great job conveying Marina’s emotional fearlessness – a willingness to be honest with her feelings towards the man she loves. Marina is the kind of beautiful free spirit Malick loves to populate his films, from the childlike Holly in Badlands (1973) to Abby in Days of Heaven (1978).

Initially, Ben Affleck seems like an odd choice to star in a Malick film as his mannered style of acting would seem at odds with the filmmaker’s loose, improvisational approach. Early on, in the Europe scenes the actor comes off as a little stiff but there is definitely chemistry between him and Kurylenko, which only deepens when they go stateside. As the film progresses and Neil becomes more distant from Marina, it makes more sense why Malick cast Affleck. Like the equally mannered Richard Gere in Days of Heaven, Affleck portrays a man unable to fully embrace the little moments in life that most of us take for granted but that populate Malick’s films. Affleck is excellent at playing controlled, emotionally detached characters and so when Neil begins freezing Marina out, the actor is at his finest.

Javier Bardem appears as a Catholic priest struggling with his faith. Malick depicts him as a somber, solitary figure and this is conveyed in the poignant visual of the actor walking down a deserted tree-lined street with leaves strewn on the ground. This understated image tells us so much about the character and is further reinforced by his voiceover thoughts. Even when walking among the happy attendees of a wedding ceremony he just presided over, he looks lonely, unable to connect with anyone except on a surface level. He confesses, via voiceover, that he’s going through the motions.


Eventually, Neil and Marina drift apart and she and her child return to Europe. Some time passes and he reconnects with a childhood friend named Jane (Rachel McAdams) who is coming off a failed relationship of her own. They fall in love, sharing a similar temperament. As he did with Neil and Marina’s courtship, Malick captures the intimacy of Neil and Jane’s embryonic love affair, but he doesn’t forget Marina, checking in to see how the fallout of her relationship with Neil has affected her. Not surprisingly, she is still haunted by him.

Known mostly for mainstream Hollywood films like Mean Girls (2004) and Sherlock Holmes (2009), it is interesting to see Rachel McAdams cast in such an overtly artsy film like To the Wonder. She’s well-cast as an earthy woman trying to keep her horse ranch. Her character is a striking contrast to the more ethereal Marina. McAdams is a good fit for Malick’s cinematic world.

Malick takes more artistic risks than any other living American filmmaker, following his own unique thematic preoccupations and repeating visual motifs to the point of coming the closest to self-parody with To the Wonder than ever before, but his actors buy into his cinematic vision so completely that their commitment to it helps legitimize what he’s trying to do.



This film is an incredible exploration into the nature of relationships as Malick wrestles with the notion of how one can fail while another thrives. Why is that? Is it timing? Chemistry? To the Wonder seems to suggest that there is also a certain alchemy, an unquantifiable element that draws people to one another and also keeps them together. Some people can make it work and some can’t for any number of reasons. Relationships take hard work and Malick understands that and conveys it better than most filmmakers. It’s almost cliché to say that To the Wonder isn’t for everyone and at this point in his career it looks like Malick isn’t going to change his approach to storytelling any time soon. He is more interested in making cinematic tone poems rather than traditional linear narratives and it’s great to see someone putting themselves out there like he does with every film.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Hud

It has been said that Paul Newman was a character actor trapped in the body of a movie star. He had matinee idol good looks but was unafraid to tackle challenging roles in films like The Hustler (1961), Slap Shot (1977), and Road to Perdition (2002), but perhaps his riskiest role was that of the titular character in Hud (1963). Based on Larry McMurtry’s 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By, it depicts the conflict between an aging cattle rancher and his arrogant son with the nephew torn between his admiration for the former and his fascination with the latter. The film is a revisionist western, depicting a way of life that was becoming increasingly marginalized. Hud was a critical and commercial success while also being nominated for seven Academy Awards and winning three of them. It is also one of Newman’s signature roles and is a powerful example of his fearlessness as an actor.

The opening credits play over desolate Texan landscapes, captured in absolutely stunning, atmospheric quality by cinematographer James Wong Howe,  with a lone vehicle driving through while Elmer Bernstein’s somber, subdued score plays over the soundtrack. We meet Lonnie Bannon (Brandon deWilde), a young man who is looking for his uncle Hud (Newman) early in the morning, which may explain why the small town he’s walking through looks so deserted. He’s been enlisted by his grandfather Homer (Melvyn Douglas) to find Hud and bring him back home. Lonnie finds Hud at a married woman’s house just as her husband returns. The quick-thinking Hud covers his own ass by telling the angry man that it was Lonnie stepping out with his wife and quickly gets his nephew out of there. This scene is a fitting introduction to Hud as it tells us all we need to know about him – a lazy troublemaker not above lying to save his own skin.

Hud and Lonnie make it back to the ranch and Homer tells them that one of his cows is dead and he doesn’t know why. Homer wants to bring in the state veterinarian to check it out while Hud doesn’t want any government people on their property meddling in their affairs. The vet eventually shows up and tells Homer that he’s got a potential outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Later, Hud tells his father to sell all of the potentially infected cattle and make some quick money but Homer is a principled man and refuses. He knows that would be illegal and morally wrong. Hud doesn’t see it that way as says early on, “I always say the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. And that’s what I try to do. Sometimes I lean to one side of it, sometimes I lean to the other.”


Homer doesn’t approve of Hud’s lifestyle and in turn he believes that his father’s ways are outdated. They have spent many years in conflict with one another as evident from the tangible tension between them. The dilemma that the Bannons face is that if the cattle are infected they will have to all be destroyed and that will mean the end of the ranch because the family is broke. This casts an ominous cloud over everyone and one can’t help but feel the impending doom.

Despite all the grief Hud gives Lonnie, the young man looks up to his uncle and even has aspirations of being like him as evident early on when he tags along on one of Hud’s nights on the town. They have an interesting conversation where Hud tells him about the summer where he and Lonnie’s father raised hell and chased girls. Lonnie tells Hud that he’d like to go that route but when the latter invites the former to pick up women Lonnie demurs, which is the first indication that the young man doesn’t really want to be like Hud.

Paul Newman turns in another effortless performance as the ultimate heel. Initially, he portrays Hud as a charming rogue that specializes in married women but as the film progresses the actor reveals his character’s more troubling aspects, like his dishonest ideas for the ranch and his increasingly aggressive advances towards Alma (Patricia Neal), the Bannon’s housekeeper. Newman also shows a keen understanding of his character in the way he carries himself in a given scene. It is fascinating to watch how he interacts with objects, incorporating them into the moment and making it look natural. The actor knows how to immerse himself in a character, adopting specific mannerisms and ways of speaking. He’s also not afraid to go to dark places with Hud, especially when it comes to his relationship with Alma. Their flirting comes to an ugly conclusion that changes things between them forever. I think Homer sums Hud up best when he tells him, “You don’t value nothing. You don’t respect nothing. You keep no check on your appetites at all. You live just for yourself and that makes you not fit to live with.” Melvyn Douglas delivers this speech masterfully and Newman, ever the gracious actor, stands there and takes it, glowering at him in simmering anger.


Brandon deWilde plays a young man coming of age and finding himself torn between Hud and his grandfather. The actor does a nice job of conveying the conflict that resides in Lonnie. He instills his character with the youthful idealism of a young man who hasn’t many life experiences under his belt but gets more than his share during the course of the film. Lonnie goes from someone who follows others to someone that figures out who he is in the world. DeWilde has the fresh-faced looks of youthful innocence and this is contrasted with intelligent eyes that suggest someone who thinks about things.

Melvyn Douglas is excellent as the aging patriarch. He’s an old school straight shooter from a bygone era. He remembers the past and its importance as he tells Lonnie about two of his oldest cattle: “I just keep ‘em for old time’s sake. Keep ‘em to remind me how things was. Everything we had came from their hides: our furniture, our ropes, our clothes, our hats.” He’s a tough old guy but Douglas also hints at a physical fragility, which is juxtaposed with Newman’s vitality. There is a nice scene between Homer and Lonnie when they go to the movies and the tired old man comes to life when the audience sings along to “My Darling Clementine.”

Patricia Neal plays Alma, the housekeeper looking after the Bannon men, and deflects Hud’s occasional flirtations as they trade good-natured verbal barbs. Newman and Neal play well off each other in their scenes together and have excellent chemistry. He is all smarmy smirks and roguish charm while she conveys an earthy sexiness mixed with a world-weariness of someone who’s lived a good chunk of life and not all of it good.


The sexual tension between Alma and Hud gradually increases as their verbal sparring scenes crackle with fantastic dialogue like when he says of her ex-husband, “Man like that sounds no better than a heel,” to which she replies, “Aren’t ya all?” He says, “Honey, don’t go shooting all the dogs ‘cause one of them’s got fleas.” Both actors deliver this dialogue so well and so naturally, conveying a subtext of Alma’s attraction to Hud but knowing that it would be dangerous to act on it for several reasons.

The husband and wife screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. first worked with director Martin Ritt on The Long Hot Summer (1958), starring Paul Newman, and went on to collaborate with the director over eight films, including Hud. Ravetch found Larry McMurtry’s novel Horseman, Pass By in a bookstore, read it and enjoyed it so much he asked Frank to read it. They had enjoyed working with Newman and Ritt and wanted to do it again. Ravetch and Frank brought the novel to Ritt’s attention as a possible film. The director wanted to work with Newman again but didn’t think that there was a part for him so the writers expanded the secondary character of Hud and made him central to the story. By doing this, Ravetch and Frank were able to examine “the greed and materialism that was beginning to take over America.”

Initially, Paramount Studios balked at this rather dark material and felt that it wasn’t commercial enough. Ravetch recalled that when executives read the script, “They paled. One of them said, ‘When does he get nice?’ I said, ‘Never.’” It was this unapologetically cruel character that drew Newman and Ritt to the project. In adapting McMurtry’s novel, Ravetch and Frank made several significant changes. Hud became Homer’s son rather than stepson as in the source material. In the book, the Bannon’s cook is a black woman named Halmea and in the film she is played by a white actress and renamed Alma.


Martin Rackin, head of Paramount Studios, did not like the film’s ending and asked Ritt to change it. The director loved and refused to change it. Newman stood by his director because he also loved the ending. Before Rackin could suggest an alternate ending, audience reaction and positive critical notices convinced the studio that Hud would be a commercial success.

The demise of Homer’s cattle ranch is a symbol of the end of a certain way of life depicted in traditional westerns. He represents the past and unfortunately Hud represents the future – cold-hearted business sense. Lonnie represents a glimmer of hope as he respects the past but looks ahead to a different way of life. Hud is a moving and powerful revisionist western about a family in decline with two of its members fighting for control – one who is older and wiser and the other younger and more savvy. It’s old school versus new school with Lonnie caught in the middle. By the end of the film he has to make some tough choices and grow up.


SOURCES

Baer, William. “Hud: A Conversation with Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.” Mainly the 1950s. Spring 2003.

Levy, Shawn. Paul Newman: A Life. Three Rivers Press. 2009.


Miller, Gabriel. The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man. University Press of Mississippi. 2000.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Nighthawks

In many respects, Nighthawks (1981) is an inferior variation on The French Connection (1971) with two New York City cops tracking down a criminal mastermind in the mean streets only replacing international drug smuggling with international terrorism. In fact, Nighthawks was originally intended to be a sequel to The French Connection II (1975), but was shelved with Gene Hackman decided not to reprise his character from the first two films. You could make a list of the ways in which William Friedkin’s film is superior to Nighthawks but it has Rutger Hauer going for it, which is a big plus, and he commands the screen in every scene he’s in as a Carlos the Jackal-esque terrorist. If this movie is a French Connection rip-off then it’s a very entertaining one with plenty of exciting action sequences and a fascinating, tension-filled cat and mouse game at its core.

We are introduced to our protagonists – police detectives Deke DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) and Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams) – on decoy duty as they bust a bunch of muggers. Already the subpar French Connection aspects become apparent as Deke chases one of the muggers onto an elevated train platform but not before engaging in some cheesy tough guy-speak. If this opening scene wasn’t a good enough example of Deke and Matt’s skills as crackerjack cops, we get another one where they break up a drug den and the latter freaks out when one of the crooks tries to pay him off. It gives Billy Dee Williams the chance to do some intense yelling but also gives him a nice moment when he spots a scared little kid among the drug peddlers and that’s the reality check that cools him off.

Meanwhile, in London, England, international terrorist Wulfgar (Hauer) blows up a department store (not before interacting with a beautiful young clerk played by Catherine Mary Stewart no less). In a nicely orchestrated sequence, he’s set-up by one of his own and with ruthless efficiency kills three cops. He escapes to Paris where he hooks up with a loyal cohort known as Shakka (Persis Khambatta) and we get an amusing bit where he threatens a plastic surgeon to do some work on his face and make look “beautiful” before heading to New York City after realizing that he’s become too high-profile in Europe.


Back at police headquarters, Deke and Matt have been summoned and told by their boss (played by consummate New York character actor Joe Spinell), who’s tired of their loose cannon antics, that they’ve been reassigned to a terrorist taskforce known as the Anti Terrorist Action Command squad (or A.T.A.C.) in conjunction with Interpol. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with our heroes who’d rather be on the streets busting drug dealers and other low-lifes. When they voice their protests it gives their boss a chance to cut loose and chew them out in the grand tradition of the genre: “Understand this, sucker! You’re a cop and you’ll go where you’re assigned!” Normally, this would be eye-rolling, cliché dialogue, but Joe Spinell, god bless him, delivers it with conviction.

Soon, Deke and Matt find themselves being taught counter-terrorist techniques by Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport), a Brit and the head of A.T.A.C. He stresses that in dealing with Wulfgar they must be ruthless and kill him without hesitation – something that goes against their training as police officers. Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams play well off each other in this scene as their characters mess with each other while Hartman drones on. They’d rather be on the streets but he makes a convincing argument for them absorbing all of this information. The more they know about Wulfgar the better their chances are of finding and stopping him.

It is significant to note that Nighthawks features Stallone before he became a successful action star and he still had one foot in serious acting. You can see him mustering all the gravitas he can for the role and this is especially evident in the scenes he has with Hauer who forces Stallone to raise his game. Billy Dee Williams was also a big deal at the time, coming off high-profile films like Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Mahogany (1975), Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The actor brings his trademark easy-going charm to the role. Stallone and Williams are very believable as partners and this is conveyed in the ease and familiarity of how they interact with each other. Deke is the headstrong one while Matt is more rational and they complement each other well.


Wulfgar would be the first of three memorable antagonistic roles Rutger Hauer would play in the 1980s, along with Blade Runner (1982) and The Hitcher (1986). Each character is distinctive as he makes them fascinating due in large part to his skill as an actor and his charisma. It is also the way Hauer carries himself. In Nighthawks, Wulfgar can turn on the charm when he needs to and then become ruthless in an instant. Hauer portrays his character as a cold-hearted sociopath intent on high-profile acts of terrorism. I like that the movie shows Wulfgar doing his homework – reviewing not just the international dignitaries of his next target but also Hartman and the members of A.T.A.C., in particular, Deke. At times, you can tell that Hauer is having fun with the role, like in the scene where Wulfgar commandeers a cable car full of people and after warning them about the lethal nature of Shakka (“Do not underestimate her because she’s a woman, she has no maternal instincts.”), he compliments one of the hostage’s hat.

To prepare for the role, Sylvester Stallone and producer Martin Poll spent weeks out on patrol with decoy cops, police officers that make themselves available to being robbed or mugged and then backup arrives and arrests the crooks. Actor and producer had to sign releases not to sue if they were shot or killed. “We stayed in the backup vehicles,” Poll said. He found that many decoy cops were divorced, like Deke in the movie: “They’re out late, and it’s dangerous, and after awhile the wives get tired of waiting to see whether the men are coming home or not.” Poll remembered that decoy cops faced a lot of danger on the job. One of the men they went out with had his throat cut: “He got to the hospital, they sewed him up, and about eight weeks later, he was shot and killed.”

When it came to casting Wulfgar, Poll’s son told his father about a Dutch actor named Rutger Hauer that he saw in Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange (1977). Poll saw it and had Hauer fly to California to meet with him and Stallone. Within a minute, Poll and Stallone knew Hauer was right for the role. At the time, the actor had gotten an offer to appear in The Sphinx, a big budget Hollywood movie for more money but he found the premise of Nighthawks and the character he was to play more interesting and chose it instead. To prepare for the part, the actor read “anything that had been written on terrorist groups operating in Europe.” He was drawn to the character of Wulfgar because “I love a character who says, ‘I’m bad. You understand?’ I think it’s good to admit things about yourself, to come out with them.”


The production of Nighthawks was rife with problems. Just over a week into principal photography, Poll fired director Gary Nelson (The Black Hole) and hired Bruce Malmuth. He had been directing commercials for years and, thanks to his friendship with director John Avildsen, befriended Stallone during the early stages of Rocky (1976). The actor was impressed with his work and asked him to take over for Nelson. The studio agreed with this decision and told Poll, “It’s your picture, just don’t stop shooting.”

According to Hauer, since Rocky, Stallone had made a few commercially unsuccessful movies and “felt it was important for this one to be good. And he made everybody around him know it.” During principal photography, Hauer and Stallone had an antagonistic relationship that mirrored the one on-screen. In the scene where Deke and Matt chase Wulfgar through the New York subway system, Hauer consistently outran “fitness fanatic” Stallone, who, according to Hauer, “trained by running up the staircases of office buildings.”

Further along into production, some of the residents of Roosevelt Island didn’t want the filmmakers shooting on the tramway that connected the island with Manhattan. An injunction was granted and the production was forced to shut down while the studio went to court. The judge ruled in favor of the studio and filming continued. Stallone decided to do most of his own stunts, including a dangerous one that saw him suspended 242 feet in the air above the East River from a 1/8 inch steel cable. The day before, he saw a man jump off the bridge to his death. “I saw that, and had to go up the next day. There was a fireboat down below with two divers in it. I made the mistake of calling them ‘lifeguards.’ It was explained to me that they were not lifeguards. They were there to retrieve my body, if necessary.”


Problems continued into post-production. According to Stallone, the studio didn’t believe that “urban terrorism would ever happen in New York thus felt the story was far-fetched.” He has said that the studio lost faith in the movie “and cut it to pieces. What was in the missing scenes was extraordinary acting by Rutger Hauer, Lindsay Wagner, and the finale was a blood fest that rivaled the finale of Taxi Driver. But it was a blood fest with a purpose.” Wagner said at the time of the film’s release, “Sly and I had some powerful scenes together. But the picture was too long, and they wanted to keep the action moving. So our scenes together were cut.”

Nighthawks was not well-received by critics at the time of its release. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “It is particularly helped by the performance of Rutger Hauer, a Dutch actor who makes a startling impression as a cold-blooded fiend, and Sylvester Stallone, from whom less is definitely more.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “Nighthawks is so moronically written and directed, so entirely without wit or novelty, that there is plenty of time to wonder about its many missing explanations.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote that the film “has a dirty job to do and does it. That is not an endorsement. Thumbscrews and cattle prods are real good at what they do, too.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “In order to facilitate a grandstanding, harebrained heroic role assigned to Sylvester Stallone, the filmmakers brush off every opportunity for intelligent dramatization and authentic suspense that the plot would seem to possess.”

Nighthawks certainly has its share of exciting action sequences, like an intense chase on a subway platform and a tense cable car rescue where Deke meets Wulfgar face-to-face and is suspended precariously above the East River. The movie is a fast-paced thriller that not only harkens back to cop procedurals from the 1970s, like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) but also looks ahead to the action movies of the ‘80s that Stallone would help popularize. One can’t help but lament the movie that could have been before he and the studio got their editorial hands all over it, gutting it into the entertaining but ultimately subpar French Connection wannabe that is the final product. It is a testimony to the material and the performances of the cast that the compromised version is as good as it is, surviving the myriad of production problems to become the movie that its fans know and love.



SOURCES

Bennetts, Leslie. “Bringing a New Dimension to Badness.” The New York Times. April 19, 1981.

Chase, Chris. “At the Movies.” The New York Times. April 10, 1981.

Day, Maggie. “The Start of a Rocky Film Career.” Chicago Tribune. April 13, 1981.

Ebert, Roger. “Interview with Sylvester Stallone.” Chicago Sun-Times. July 13, 1980.

Hauer, Rutger with Patrick Quinlan. All Those Moments. HarperCollins. 2007.

Moriarty. “Round One with Sylvester Stallone Q &A.” Ain’t-It-Cool-News. December 3, 2006.


Thomas, Bob. “Lindsay Loves Move to Film.” Globe and Mail. June 15, 1981.