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

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

Friday, May 12, 2023

Miami Blues

"The Sunshine State is a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout.” – Carl Hiaasen

Author Charles Willeford has been called “the progenitor of modern South Florida crime novel” with his last four novels chronicling Miami’s shift from vacation paradise destination for retirees to “the nation’s capital of glamor, drugs, and weird crime,” inspiring writers such as Carl Hiaasen and James W. Hall, and filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino. It was his 1984 novel Miami Blues that started it all, featuring the first appearance of grizzled police detective Hoke Moseley who would go on to appear in three subsequent novels. Their commercial success eventually roused interest in Hollywood and Miami Blues was adapted in 1990, part of a fantastic crop of neo-noirs that also included The Grifters, The Hot Spot, and After Dark, My Sweet. A passion project for both its writer/director George Armitage and producer/star Fred Ward, it sadly did not do well at the box office, was coolly received by critics, and has become largely forgotten, despite its profane dialogue and sudden, often violence that anticipated the films of Tarantino two years later.
Frederick J. Frenger Jr. a.k.a. Junior (Baldwin) is an ex-convict flying into Miami from California, armed with someone else’s driver’s license, and ready to wage a one-man crime spree on the city. He gets off to a roaring start right out of the gate – literally, when he tries to steal another passenger’s luggage but misses the opportunity. Undaunted, seconds later, he bribes a small child and makes off with another piece of unattended luggage and for an encore, breaks the finger of a Hari-Krishna follower who subsequently dies from shock.

We meet homicide detective Hoke Moseley (Ward) negotiating money with a blind informant, which is the kind of colorful introduction that tells us a lot about his character. He and his partner (Charles Napier) investigate the Krishna murder and the scene illustrates the short-hand between these two men who have obviously been partners for a long time, while showcasing the film’s black humor: “Your turn to notify next of kin,” Hoke says to his partner who replies, “No way! I did the fat lady that sat on a kid. That’s good for two.” It’s great fun to see these two veteran actors share a scene together, lobbing dialogue back and forth. One almost wishes a prequel had been done about these two characters.
Junior checks into a hotel and quickly arranges for a hooker and meets Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He doesn’t want to have sex, but instead sells her clothes out of his stolen luggage. He takes an immediate shine to her. He hasn’t been with a woman in a long time – and initially it looks like he’s going to be rough with her – but instead is very tender.
Miami Blues is a battle of wills, fused with a cat-and-mouse game, as Hoke pursues Junior. He questions him early on at Susie’s over a dinner in a fantastic scene that’s crackling with subtle tension simmering under the surface, as the cop knows the crook is lying about the dead Hari Krishna, but puts on airs for Susie’s benefit. It is a wonderfully acted and staged scene as she is oblivious to what is going on while Hoke and Junior sniff each other out.

Junior is a career criminal who sees the world as a playground. If he wants something he takes it. Someone gets in his way he removes them. He is all about taking short cuts. The first third of the film mostly focuses on Junior’s exploits as we see him spotting a two-man pickpocket team and follows the guy with the loot into a public bathroom, beats him up, and takes the money. He’s a ballsy crook, buying a realistic looking water gun and then robbing a bunch of guys on the street. Baldwin looks like he’s having a blast playing Junior as a legend in his own mind as he sits in his hotel room at one point with a bunch of money, pretending he’s Al Pacino in Scarface (1983). He is excellent as a clever crook whose fault is that he never plans his crimes ahead of time. He’s spontaneous and this works for awhile but eventually catches up to him.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Susie as a naïve innocent who falls in love with Junior but is blind to his true nature. The actor conveys an earnest vulnerability. Susie sees Junior as a way to a better life – the house, the white picket fence, kids, and so on. Juniors taps into this when he tells her, “Let’s go straight to the ‘happily ever after’ part, okay?” She is the one ray of hope and optimism in his otherwise cynical world.
Ward’s Hoke is a broken-down detective on the outskirts of retirement but he’s smart and a student of human behavior, sussing Junior right away, correctly figuring out he’s an ex-con by the way he protects his food while eating dinner. He’s also pissed that Junior is running around with his badge impersonating him and makes it his mission to take the guy down. It’s a fantastic role that showcases Ward’s considerable talents and rare opportunity to headline a film. It’s a shame that Miami Blues wasn’t a bigger hit as it would’ve been great to see him reprise the role again in another adaptation.

Associate producer William Horberg gave Miami Blues to Fred Ward soon after it was published. After reading it, he thought it would make for a great film. “It has a certain irony about it, a certain dark comedy that I like. It’s a little absurd. There’s a random violence in it that I thought was very real,” Ward said in an interview. He optioned the book rights for a two-year deal with $4,000 that the actor paid out of his own picket. He brought it to friend and filmmaker Jonathan Demme, with whom he had worked with on Swing Shift (1984), in the hopes that he’d direct. Demme, just having shot Married to the Mob in Miami (1988), demurred but suggest another friend of Ward’s – George Armitage – to direct instead. Demme knew Armitage from when they were starting out, making films for Roger Corman. He read the book and loved it, going on to write a spec screenplay and agreed to helm it with Demme producing along with Gary Goetzman. Ward had pitched the project to Orion Pictures on two occasions and was turned down both times until he showed them Armitage’s script. They agreed but only if a young actor was cast in one of the lead roles.
Originally, Ward wanted to play Junior with Gene Hackman playing Hoke. The two men met and Hackman was interested but when Alec Baldwin came in to read for the part of Junior, he was so good they cast him in the role, and Ward decided to play Hoke. Early on, Leigh Taylor-Young (Jagged Edge) was originally cast as Susie but dropped out for unknown reasons. Jennifer Jason Leigh was later cast in the role and to prepare, she cut her hair short and isolated herself from the rest of the crew to replicate the loneliness of her character. She also went to Okeechobee, Florida, attended her first football game, and hung out with local high school girls to learn the dialect, their attitudes and aspirations.
Miami Blues received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, “The movie wants to be an off-center comedy, a lopsided cops-and-robbers movie where everybody has a few screws loose. But so much love is devoted to creating the wacko loonies in the cast that we're left with a set of personality profiles, not characters.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Miami Blues is best appreciated for the performances of its stars and for the kinds of funny, scene-stealing peripheral touches that keep it lively even when it's less than fully convincing.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Armitage, a Demme pal, has been struggling to escape B-moviedom for the past decade. But Miami Blues, panicky and sleek as a fire engine, is more than a snappy comeback. It's a centered lament, a screwball thriller about making ends meet, about how even an armed robber can't afford the American Dream.”

In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman wrote, “By the time Miami Blues winds into its crushingly bloody, absurdist finale, the only question of any urgency is, Which actor has become harder to watch: Baldwin with his histrionics or Fred Ward flashing those naked gums?” The Los Angeles Times’ Peter Rainer wrote, “This is the problem with the action-filmmaker’s anything-for-a-jolt ethos: Whatever doesn’t jump-start the story is skimped. In fact, in Miami Blues, the story is all jump-starts. I realize that this may be all that most people require from a glorified programmer like Miami Blues, but the film has so much finesse, and its best moments are so freakishly dippy, that you regret the devaluation.”
Miami Blues presents a heightened reality of a city where danger lurks behind every corner, where a veteran police detective is assaulted in his own home, and where an opportunistic crook can wage a one-man crime wave posing as a cop. As Hiassen has said, the film presents “a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout.”
Fisher, Marshal Jon. “The Unlikely Father of Miami Crime Fiction.” The Atlantic. May 2000.
Leung, Rebecca. “Florida: ‘A Paradise of Scandals’.” 60 Minutes. April 17, 2005.
Mitchell, Sean. “Exploring the Dark Side.” Los Angeles Times. April 15, 1990.

Pinkerton, Nick. “Interview: George Armitage.” Film Comment. April 28, 2015.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Miami Splice.” The New York Times. September 30, 1988.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Fred Ward’s Blues.” The New York Times. April 20, 1990.
Weinstein. Steve. “The Transformation of Jennifer Jason Leigh.” Los Angeles Times. April 29, 1990.

Monday, January 16, 2023

A Flash of Green

What is the price for one’s soul? Is it ever worth the price, to betray loved ones, those who matter most to you? This is the dilemma that newspaper reporter Jimmy Wing (Ed Harris) wrestles with in A Flash of Green (1984), Victor Nunez’s adaptation of John D. MacDonald’s 1962 novel of the same name. As with all of the filmmaker’s films, this one is, first and foremost, a fascinating character study with a conflicted protagonist at its center.
Jimmy is a reporter for a local Florida newspaper in 1961. Developers are trying to buy Grassy Bay, a body of water in the heart of Palm City. Their goal: fill it in so that they can build homes on it, making a lot of money in the process. Some of its residents, however, have formed a committee called Save Our Bay (S.O.B.) to stop it, citing egregious environmental damage if it goes through.
Jimmy meets with Elmo Bliss (Richard Jordan), a county commissioner, to get the skinny on the development. He is told that the plan is to create an island, populating it with homes; as he puts it, “We’re going to manufacture a paradise.” Elmo is tired of being a commissioner and is going to run for the governor’s mansion. He plans to use the money he makes from Grassy Bay to fund his campaign. He wants Jimmy to spy on the S.O.B.s and dig up dirt on them … for a price, of course. He lays it all out for the reporter when he tells him, “World needs folks like me. Folks with a raw need for power. Without us, wouldn’t anything ever get done.”

Initially, Jimmy stays neutral, giving Katherine Hobble (Blair Brown), one of leaders of the eco-group, a heads up and she begins to rally the locals to stop it. He checks in on her and her two children from time to time as her husband - his best friend -- died a year ago. The steady income from Elmo, however, sways Jimmy, who is adrift in life. Adding to the weight of this decision is his wife, Gloria (Tiel Rey), who suffers from a degenerative brain disorder that her doctors understand little about and from which, it appears, she will never recover. The rest of the film plays out his moral dilemma – help Elmo for the money and in doing so betray Kat, the woman he loves but is afraid to admit it, even to himself.
Ed Harris delivers a memorable turn as a man faced with a conflict, a crisis of conscience. The deeper Jimmy digs for dirt for Elmo, the more morally compromised he becomes. He passively watches as his friends are railroaded by local politicians. Why is Jimmy willing to do this? Has his wife’s medical condition left him so cynical that he doesn’t care about anything? Kat and her kids humanize him, give him something to care about – a life he’d like to have. Jimmy’s actions are ruining people’s lives … good, decent people he’s known for years. Even those closest to him, like Kat, are being harassed on the phone by religious zealots, surreptitiously employed by Elmo to scare of members of the S.O.B. Harris does an excellent job conveying the guilt that plays across Jimmy’ face when the S.O.B. fall apart, knowing that it is because of his actions.
Richard Jordan does an excellent job of expressing Elmo’s passion for the development deal. He’s honest with Jimmy about his ambitions but not about how far he will go to realize them. Jordan is a fascinating actor to watch as he so effortlessly disappears into his character, something he did often in such diverse films as The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Mean Season (1985), and The Hunt for Red October (1990). In A Flash of Green, Elmo is the obvious villain of the film, but Jordan resists the urge to play him that way, even when he obliquely admits to sending guys to beat-up Jimmy repeatedly in the hopes of ‘persuading’ him to leave town after he turns the tables on Elmo. It is hinted that these two men have known each other for many years, the only reason why Elmo doesn’t have Jimmy killed.

Blair Brown is also very good as a woman still struggling with the loss of her husband, raising two children, trying to protect the bay from greedy developers, and sorting out her feelings for Jimmy. She has a lot on her plate and Brown’s intelligent, layered performance results in a fascinating character. At times, it is painful to watch her and the other committee members struggle against more powerful forces that they have no hope of beating. Brown resists any urge to inflate Kat’s fight to heroic heights, as one would see in a Hollywood movie, and instead opts to have that be only one of many aspects of her rich character.
There are also memorable minor roles, such as George Coe as a fellow journalist who doesn’t have the stomach for the darker stories that he and Jimmy sometimes cover. His response is to get so drunk that Jimmy must take him to his wife who cares for him. Even his character has his own arc and finds a way to redeem himself as he does his own part in the unfolding drama.
Sam Gowan, who had worked on Victor Nunez’s first film, Gal Young ‘Un (1979), went on to work at the University of Florida Libraries as the assistant director for special resources. Part of his division was the John D. MacDonald repository. MacDonald was a successful crime author, both critically and commercially, with his series of Travis McGee novels, and 1957 novel The Executioners adapted into film twice, in 1962 and 1991. Gowan and his wife enjoyed the man’s novels and she suggested asking Nunez to adapt one of them. Warner Bros., however, owned long-term options on all the Travis McGee novels, save for a couple of the early ones, which were available. He contacted MacDonald’s agent in Los Angeles and worked out a deal that required a small payment up front and a loaded backend, whereby if the film did well financially, the author would be paid more.

The budget for A Flash of Green was $750,000, ten times larger than Gal Young ‘Un. Half of the budget came from a small group of local investors with PBS American Playhouse covering the rest, who had been impressed with Nunez’s first film. To keep costs down, the entire cast worked for Screen Actors Guild minimum.
At the time the film was cast, Ed Harris turned down a chance to extend his run on Sam Shepard’s off-Broadway success, A Fool for Love (for which he won an Obie Award), and an offer from Paul Newman to appear in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, to go to Florida and act in Nunez’s project. Harris said, “I loved Victor’s sensibility and his cinematic tastes, his knowledge and how he films.” The actor was also drawn to the character of Jimmy Wing:
“I really appreciated the subtle character study that this guy is. He goes through so many changes. He’s someone who gets caught up in events that sort of catch him and sweep him away and he really has to climb his way back. He was a character I could really explore.”
To this end, the actor worked with the filmmaker on the screenplay, and during rehearsals, he frequented local stores for his character’s outfits. Harris’ hands-on approach extended to other cast members. Richard Jordan helped get period-specific props for the film and remarked on the challenge: “That era is too recent for anyone to collect and a lot of what you’d want to use has wound up in garbage cans.”

Critics of the day gave A Flash of Green generally favorable reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "A Flash of Green is attentive to the compromises of daily life, and it understands how people can be complicated enough to hold two opposed ideas at the same time." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "A Flash of Green is not perfect, but it is provocative and nearly always intelligent." The Washington Post's Lloyd Grove wrote, "Nunez, who also worked the camera with an eye for faded beauty, has made Palm City a self-contained world where there can be no appeal to a higher authority. While sometimes he's a bit heavy on the symbolism -- having Wing, at one point, fiddle with a two-faced doll -- he usually handles the material with admirable subtlety, letting the story all but tell itself."
The worlds in Nunez’s films feel fully fleshed out and realized, populated by readily identifiable people with compelling dilemmas. In the case of A Flash of Green he also creates a real sense of place; the attention to period detail on a budget is fantastic, with vintage cars and clothes used sparingly and matter-of-factly. He achieves it with small details, such as the cluttered office that Jimmy works in or the Spartan wood interior of Elmo’s office. Nunez also has a great ear for dialogue, accurately capturing the way people talk, evident in the scene where Kat debates with her friends about the development of Grassy Bay, with one arguing that developing the land will help the depressed local economy. The film presents several different points-of-view and then shows them in conflict with one another.
Nunez does a deft juggling act of showing how parts of Florida are being ruined by greedy developers and the toll it is taking on the residents, without being preachy about it, and by focusing on the relationships between them. A Flash of Green might be the most low-key crusading journalist film ever made. There are no heroic, epic speeches, moustache-twirling villains, car chases or gun battles – just people trying to protect their own little piece of the world. Much like John Sayles, Nunez is interested in telling stories about everyday people trying to get by, finding that their personal dilemmas are just as worthy of telling as any epic tale. For the people in his films, what goes on in their small world means everything to them. Life is about the choices we make and having to live with them. Jimmy has to live with the choices he has made. They were tough decisions that took their toll on him physically and emotionally. Jimmy finds that it isn’t easy buying back even a part of his soul. It is a long, hard journey but by the film’s end, there is hope that he is on his way to redemption.

Crandell, Ben. “FLIFF Reunites Old Friends Ed Harris, Victor Nunez.” South Florida Sun Sentinel. November 17, 2015.

Fein, Esther B. “Shaking A Hero Image.” The New York Times. July 22, 1985.
Gowan, Sam. “My Life in Movies.” The Gainsville Sun. April 1, 2004.
Maslin, Janet. “At the Movies – Jordan Assembled Props.” The New York Times. June 28, 1985.

Friday, October 28, 2022

High Plains Drifter


From The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) to Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) to Unforgiven (1992), Clint Eastwood has made all kinds of westerns. High Plains Drifter (1973) is one of his more intriguing efforts in the genre – it takes the enigmatic Man with No Name gunslinger from Sergio Leone films such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), fusing it with the gothic sensibilities of the Don Siegel film, The Beguiled (1971). It starts off as a typical lone gunfighter-for-hire story. In this film, Eastwood’s mysterious character is part avenging angel and part vengeance demon, determined to punish the people of a town for a crime that is gradually revealed.
The Stranger (as he is referred to in the credits) literally materializes out of the hazy, shimmering horizon like an apparition while Dee Barton’s eerie music plays on the soundtrack. After Eastwood’s credit and the film’s title appears, the score transitions into a more traditional western motif, reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western soundtracks.
High Plains Drifter starts in typical western fashion with a hired gun wandering into the town of Lago looking for work. After quickly and efficiently dispatching three mercenaries who challenge him, he’s offered a job by the town elders. Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis) and the Carlin brothers, Dan (Dan Vadis) and Cole (Anthony James), have just been released from prison. They tried to steal gold from the town and whipped Marshal Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) to death. Now, they aim to return, take the gold, and exact revenge on the townsfolk.

The Stranger agrees and is given unlimited credit at all of the town’s stores and proceeds to exploit their goodwill, starting off by giving two American Indian children candy they were eyeing and a pile of blankets to their grandfather, right after the store owner berated them with racial slurs. He goes on to accumulate material items for free – new boots, a saddle, and cigars. He then uses his leverage to humiliate the town elders by making Mordecai (Billy Curtis), the town dwarf, the new sheriff and mayor, and has the hotel owner’s barn stripped of its wood to build picnic tables, much to their chagrin. They have to go along with it, lest they lose the only person standing between them and the vengeful outlaws headed their way.
The film’s big question: who is The Stranger and what is his motivation? Within minutes of being in Lago he has killed three men and raped a woman (Marianna Hill). Initially, it appears to be a nasty, misogynistic streak in the character but, as we learn more about the town and in its denizens, the more we understand what this mysterious gunslinger is doing. His motivation begins to shift into focus early on when he dreams of the Marshal being whipped to death while the whole town watched and did nothing. The haunting music from the start of the film comes on as we see Bridges and the Carlin brothers whip Duncan at night. He pleads for help while all the townsfolk stand and stare, the camera framing them in near-dark shots, some almost in silhouette, which creates an ominous mood. As the poor man is whipped to death he mutters, “Damn you all to hell,” which is exactly what The Stranger plans to do to the complicit townsfolk.
Interestingly, the second flashback to what happened to the Marshal that fateful night is predominantly from Mordecai’s perspective. He takes us back and this time, we see the townsfolk’s faces more clearly. Unlike The Stranger, he was there and saw what happened. Eastwood also cuts back and forth from shots of the outlaws’ evil faces, the residents, and the Marshal’s point-of-view. In doing so, he makes the man’s pain and suffering more personal and we see the townsfolk’s reaction to what is happening more clearly – some are indifferent, some afraid, and some malevolently approving. It is Mordecai, however, who seems the most upset and remorseful.

Who is the Marshal to The Stranger? It is never clear. The hotel owner’s wife, Sarah (Verna Bloom) even asks him: he is coy with the answer, refusing to confirm or deny his relationship with the dead man. Everything he does in the town, from making a mockery of its elders to getting carte blanche with all of their resources, is to punish the townsfolk, not just for their complacency but for their sins. As the film progresses, we also learn more about what motivates the town elders – why they are so distrustful of outsiders, why they are so eager to cover things up, and why they hired The Stranger to protect them from Bridges and the Carlin brothers. The scenes with them illustrate the corruption inherent in the authoritarian structure – something Eastwood has been distrustful of his entire career – as The Stranger’s abuse of power eats away at the relationship among the town elders until they begin to turn on each other.
Future members of Eastwood’s informal repertory company of actors, Geoffrey Lewis, Anthony James, and Dan Vadis are well cast as the grungy, amoral outlaws that kill three men in cold blood as soon as they are released from prison, stealing their horses and clothes. These consummate character actors have no problem playing dirty, unrepentant, evil criminals and, over the course of the film, we anticipate their inevitable confrontation with Eastwood’s gunfighter. The key to his films is to have someone who is a formidable threat to his character and Lewis, with his character’s ruthless drive to exact revenge, is completely believable in that role.
Clint Eastwood received a nine-page treatment from Ernest Tidyman, known mostly for writing the screenplays for urban crime films such as Shaft (1971) and The French Connection (1971). The primary inspiration for the screenplay was the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York in 1964, in which 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack and failed to help her or call the police. The starting point for Eastwood was, “What would have happened if the sheriff in High Noon had been killed? What would have happened afterwards?” Once he agreed to do it, Tidyman took these two ideas and developed the treatment into a script that was subsequently revised by Eastwood’s go-to script doctor, Dean Riesner, who added, his trademark black humor: early in the film, one of Lago’s hired guns says to The Stranger, “Maybe you think you’re fast enough to keep up with us, huh?” to which he replies curtly, “A lot faster than you’ll ever live to be.” The biggest mystery of the film is The Stranger’s identity. Eastwood later admitted that the script identified him as the dead sheriff’s brother and that “I always played it like he was the brother. I thought about playing it a little bit like he was sort of an avenging angel, too.”

High Plains Drifter was put into production in late summer of 1972. The studio wanted Eastwood to shoot the film on its backlot but Eastwood decided to shoot on location. He originally considered Pyramid Lake, Nevada but his car ran out of gas before he got there. The American Indian tribal council were divided about a film crew shooting on their land. Someone in the production suggested Mono Lake in California, which Eastwood had visited in the past. Once he arrived, the filmmaker found a point overlooking the lake and decided that would be the site for the town. He went on to find all the other locations within a four-minute drive save for the opening shot, which was done outside of Reno. Production designer Henry Bumstead and his team built the town of Lago in 28-days. They assembled 14 houses, a church and a two-story hotel. These were complete buildings so that Eastwood could shoot interior scenes on location.
The Stranger has the townsfolk literally transform Lago into Hell by painting of all the buildings red – a striking image to be sure – which not only evokes hellish imagery but also symbolizes the blood on the hands of the townsfolk who were all culpable in the Marshal’s death. The climax of High Plains Drifter is where the film goes full-on horror as The Stranger leaves, letting the ill-prepared townsfolk “handle” Bridges and the Carlin brothers. Naturally, they put up little to no resistance as they are too scared to shoot and run away or as in the case of Drake (Mitchell Ryan), the mining executive, are shot and killed.
Later that night, Bridges and his crew terrorize the survivors, exposing their hypocrisy. It is at this point when The Stranger reappears, that, just like the Marshall, as Cole is mercilessly whipped to death with The Stranger framed with nightmarish flames of the town burning in the background. The two surviving outlaws walk through the town on fire – hell on earth indeed – only for Dan to be whipped around the neck and hung. Bridges still has not seen The Stranger until he hears the words, “Help me,” (sounding very much like the murdered Marshal) and turns to see him standing in front of a burning building for the final showdown. He easily guns down Bridges who asks The Stranger’s identity – and gets no response.

Late in the film, the motel keeper’s wife, Sarah (Verna Bloom) says, “They say the dead don’t rest without a marker of some kind.” High Plains Drifter ends on an emotional note as The Stranger observes Mordecai naming the Marshal’s previously unmarked grave before riding out of town, disappearing into the hazy horizon like a ghost with a reprise of the unnerving music from the opening credits. The dead Marshal can finally rest: those responsible for his demise have been punished. The film is a scathing indictment of how greed can corrupt those in positions of power. It is also a powerful critique of bystander apathy, as embodied by a town of cowards and petty, greedy tyrants that let a good man die. The Stranger embodies the dead man’s spirit and his search for vengeance.
Gentry, Ric. "Director Clint Eastwood: Attention to Detail and Involvement for the Audience.” Clint Eastwood: Interviews. University of Mississippi. 1999.
Hughes, Howard. Aim for the Heart. I.B. Tauris. 2009
McGilligan, Patrick. Clint: The Life and Legend. Harper Collins. 1999.
Schickel, Richard. Clint Eastwood: A Biography. Alfred A. Knopf. 1996.
Wilson, Michael Henry. “’Whether I Succeed or Fail, I Don’t Want to Owe it to Anyone but Myself’: From Play Misty for Me to Honkytonk Man.” Clint Eastwood: Interviews. University of Mississippi. 1999.

Friday, August 19, 2022

White Squall

For a filmmaker as prolific as Ridley Scott he’s bound to have a lot of hits and misses. For every Gladiator (2000), there’s a few Someone to Watch Over Me’s (1987). It is some of the fascinating yet flawed outliers in his filmography that are the most interesting. Case in point: White Squall (1996), a dramatic recreation of the doomed school sailing trip lead by Dr. Christopher B. Sheldon on the brigantine Albatross, which sank on May 2, 1961, allegedly due to a white squall, killing six people. Adapted from Charles Gieg’s book The Last Voyage of the Albatross, the film received mixed reviews and, despite its cast, featuring a bevy of young, up-and-coming actors, performed poorly at the box office.
The film follows Chuck Gieg (Scott Wolf) as it opens with the young man giving up his last year of high school to sail on the Albatross. His brother got into an Ivy League school on a scholarship and it is hinted that he doesn’t have the grades to do the same. The rest of the boys are loosely sketched and it’s up to the talented young cast to breathe life into their respective characters. You’ve got Dean Preston (Eric Michael Cole), the bully who thinks he’s cooler than everyone else; Gil Martin (Ryan Phillippe), the meek one; Frank Beaumont (Jeremy Sisto), the spoiled rich kid who doesn’t want to be there, and so on.
We meet most of these boys as they are prepared to board the Albatross for a year-long voyage at sea where they’ll learn everything they need to know about operating a boat while also keeping up with their academic studies. They are immediately greeted by McCrea (John Savage), the grizzled English teacher who quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest to them. They go below decks and are greeted by boys already there. True to Social Darwinism, a pecking order is quickly established but as they will find out, everyone answers to Captain Christopher Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) a.k.a. The Skipper who sets the ground rules when he addresses them for the first time: “The ship beneath you is not a toy and sailing’s not a game.” In this scene, Jeff Bridges tempers his innate likability and charisma by playing the Skipper as a no-nonsense disciplinarian who demands his students follow the rules. This is further reinforced in the next scene when he finds out that Gil is afraid of heights and browbeats the young man to climb up the rigging and in the process not only traumatizes him but humiliates him in front of the other boys.

Scott shows us what it takes to get a boat such as the Albatross ready for sea, how everyone works together, and how a rookie mistake almost costs Chuck his life when he hangs himself on the rigging only for the Skipper to rescue him. Early on, the boat hits a rough patch of water, a foreboding taste of what’s to come, and we see everyone act as a team to rescue one of boys who is tossed overboard. To make up for the deficiencies in the lack of character development in Todd Robinson’s screenplay, Scott includes several scenes showing the boys bonding, whether its’s Gil’s tearful recollection of how his brother died or Dean admitting he’s a poor student that doesn’t know to spell. We slowly begin to care about what happens to these boys, which is crucial later when they are put in peril with the storm.
Everything has been building to the film’s climactic set piece – a massive white squall that threatens to sink the Albatross. Scott and his crew create a harrowing scene that rivals the nautical disasters depicted in Titanic (1997) and The Perfect Storm (2000), only he did it with practical effects while those other films leaned on CGI to do most of the heavily lifting. This gives the sequence a visceral impact as it looks and sounds real. This isn’t some CGI creation but an actual thing that Scott captures in vivid detail. It’s a powerful visual reminder of the true power of nature and that we are insignificant compared to it. Every so often we are reminded of this fact.
Chuck provides the film’s voiceover narration, taken from the journal he kept during the journey. He is the wide-eyed idealist that is the calming influence on the rest of the boys and takes to the Skipper’s tough love style of leadership without losing his humanity. Scott Wolf channels a young Tom Cruise as he delivers a strong performance as the audience surrogate. After the survivors are taken back to land he breaks down in a moving scene, and then Chuck attempts to clear the Skipper’s name in the ensuing tribunal, Wolf delivering a passionate speech expertly. Chuck is the film’s social conscience as he struggles to do the right thing. He stands up for the Skipper when it looks like he will be blamed for what happened.

It is easy to see why the name actors in the cast such as Ethan Embry, Ryan Phillippe, Jeremy Sisto, and Wolf went on to notable careers. They are most successful at making their characters memorable but there is also Eric Michael Cole who plays the bully in the group. Channeling a young Matt Dillon his character is full of swagger and we eventually discover what’s behind the bravado as delivers an impressive performance that should have garnered him more high-profile roles.
White Squall, however, falters in its depiction of the Skipper. At one point his wife, Alice (Caroline Goodall), says to him, “You know, Sheldon, sometimes, not often, you act almost half human.” Therein lies the problem with this character – there’s nothing human about him, just some glowering Ahab that not even Bridges’ ample charisma can make a dent in. We get zero insight into what motivates him beyond running a tight ship. The actor tries his best but he’s not give much to work with, such as a scene where Frank inexplicably harpoons a dolphin. To punish him, the Skipper tells him to finish off the poor animal and when he refuses, does it for him. It’s an unnecessarily, ugly scene that provides no insight into either character.
This being a Ridley Scott film everything looks beautiful from the Albatross docked at dusk silhouetted against the sky to the slow-motion glamor shot of Dean diving off the highest point of the ship with the skill and grace of an Olympic athlete. We get a seemingly endless number of exquisite shots of the boat at sea with the sunlight hitting it at just the right angle.

Screenwriter Todd Robinson met Chuck Gieg while on vacation in Hawaii and the latter told him the true story of the Albatross. Inspired by it and the book Gieg had co-written about surviving the incident, Robinson wrote the screenplay with his close involvement, to ensure it stayed true to the actual events, and took it to producers Rocky Lang and Mimi Polk Gitlin. They shopped it around to various directors but they all wanted to change it to fit their vision. The producers finally brought it to Ridley Scott who bought it before Christmas 1994. At the time, he was considering directing Mulholland Falls (1996) but after reading Robinson’s script in 90 minutes he immediately wanted to do it. He was drawn to the lack of sentimentality and the coming-of-age aspect of the script.
As was his custom with films based on real-life incidents, Scott strove for authenticity and brought Gieg and the real Captain Sheldon on as technical advisors. For the ship, the production used Eye of the World, a 110-foot topsail schooner from Germany. He did not want to shoot the sea sequences in a giant water tank, common at the time, as he felt that the waves never looked large enough or realistic. He studied documentary footage and water patterns to see how they moved and reacted. He and director of photography Hugh Johnson shot mostly with hand-held cameras to get the raw look they wanted. To this end, they filmed four months on the seas, starting in the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, where on the first day got 30-foot seas, “because the crew was so well-versed by then in terms of leaping around this boat and getting camera positions, we dealt with it pretty easily actually,” Scott said. From there they spent most of the time in the Caribbean with shooting the land scenes on the islands of St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada.
Scott eventually had to concede using water tanks for the climactic storm sequence that sinks the Albatross. He waited to film this sequence until the end of principal photography as he was dreading it “like a big monster. I didn’t want it to be a 9-minute, crash-wallop-bang and everybody’s in the water. I wanted to experience the whole process of what it means to be shot out of the blue like that, to be trapped, to see people that you got to know quite closely just taken away from you.” He used two water tanks in Malta – one that held six million gallons of water and was 40 feet deep and the other held three million gallons of water and was eight feet deep. Initially, wave machines were used but they did not produce strong enough wind effects for Scott so he brought in two jet engines to do the job. As he said they “basically blew the shit out of the set – 600 mile-an-hour winds.” The storm sequences took five days to film with the production constantly having to worry about the cameras getting wet.

Filming the sequence wasn’t without its peril as Jeff Bridges recalled, “I’ve had some real-life close calls when I’ve been surfing, and I know that feeling of fighting for your life in the water. During the storm scene there were some long takes where we were being hit with wind and waves and being knocked underwater. You don’t worry so much about acting then--you just want to survive the take.” Scott remembered one day of filming: “We got the water pretty churned up and I saw Jeff sticking his arm rigidly in the air with his fist clenched. I thought he might be screaming, ‘Right on,’ but it turned out he was screaming, ‘Stop, I’m going under.’”
White Squall received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "The movie could have been smarter and more particular in the way it establishes its characters. Its underlying values are better the less you think about them. And the last scene not only ties the message together but puts about three ribbons on it." In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Written by Todd Robinson and photographed against beautiful blue skies by Hugh Johnson, White Squall improves when it takes on the daunting job of replicating the title storm. Mr. Scott manages to capture pure, terrifying chaos for a while, and this slow-moving film finally achieves a style of its own." The Washington Post's Richard Leiby wrote, "It's disappointing that a director with the vision of Ridley "Blade Runner" Scott and an actor with the depth of Jeff "Fearless" Bridges conspired to produce such a sodden venture, but Hollywood never seems to tire of flushing multimillions down the bilge pipes." In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Jack Mathews wrote, "The 20 or so minutes we spend with the Albatross in the squall is high adventure, to be sure. Everything else is ballast." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "White Squall is lovely to look at, but frustrating to behold. These boys are fine specimens of American manhood. But they’re unreachable, like ships in a bottle."
White Squall takes more than a few pages out of Dead Poets Society (1989) playbook – a coming-of-age story populated with a cast of young, aspiring actors, most of whom would go on to memorable careers. Scott’s film falters when it tries to replicate the heartfelt, emotional ending of Peter Weir’s film but instead feels forced as the soulless Frank suddenly redeems himself and all the surviving boys rally around the Skipper. It feels false as the film has done nothing to achieve this moment unlike in Dead Poets where its satisfying conclusion was the culmination of everything that came before. Also, the Skipper is such an unlikable character throughout the film it is hard to see why the boys admire him enough to rally to his defense at the end unlike Robin Williams' teacher in Dead Poets who gradually gains his students trust and admiration. Sometimes there is a good reason why a particular film is an outlier in a director’s filmography – it’s not very good. Such is the case of White Squall, a beautifully mounted film, pretty to look at but ultimately with an empty core.

Clarke, James. Virgin Film: Ridley Scott. Virgin Books. 2010.
Crisafulli, Chuck. “Stirring Up a See-Worthy Squall.” Los Angeles Times. January 28, 1996.
LoBrutto, Vincent. Ridley Scott: A Biography. University Press of Kentucky. 2019.
Williams, David E. “An Interview with Ridley Scott.” Film Threat. April 26, 2000.
Wilmington, Michael. “White Squall Director a Visionary without Visual Strategy.” Chicago Tribune. March 15, 1996.

Sunday, July 24, 2022



Danny DeVito is quite the accomplished character actor, starring in television shows such as Taxi and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and highly regarded films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Get Shorty (1995). What isn’t talked about nearly enough is his directorial output, which is not as prolific but does contain some notable efforts. In the 1980s, he directed back-to-back hits with the Hitchcockian goof Throw Momma from the Train (1987) and the pitch-black divorce satire The War of the Roses (1989). Both films demonstrated his stylistic flare behind the camera and decidedly darkly humorous worldview.
DeVito parlayed the box office clout he accrued from those two films into Hoffa (1992), an epic rise and fall historical biopic about controversial labor leader James R. Hoffa, who led the powerful International Brotherhood of Teamsters union and eventually ran afoul of both organized crime and the United States government, disappearing on July 30, 1975 never to be seen again.
The success of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) kicked off a golden age of historical biopics in the 1990s with the likes of JFK (1991), Bugsy (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Quiz Show (1994), and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) among many others populating cinemas during this time. Stone’s The Doors (1991) and the aforementioned JFK, however, paved the way for Hoffa to get made – that, and the machinations of the film’s producer Edward R. Pressman to put together the team of legendary actor Jack Nicholson in the titular role, getting Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet to write the screenplay, and DeVito to direct.

This was going to be the latter’s magnum opus that would garner all kinds of awards and catapult him into the rarified air of the likes of Steven Spielberg and Stone. Some critics, however, bristled at the lionization of Hoffa as a hero, raising more than a few more eyebrows as the man was known for employing controversial tactics to get want he wanted. Hoffa failed to make back it’s $40+ million (which reportedly rose to close to $50 million) budget, received mixed reviews and picked up a few, scattered award nominations. What happened?
The film begins at the end of Hoffa’s (Nicholson) life – the last day he was seen alive with the rise and fall of his career seen through the flashback reminisces of Robert Ciaro (DeVito), a long-time friend and an amalgamation of several real-life associates. We see how the two men met, while Ciaro is on the road making a delivery and Hoffa pitches him a membership to the Teamsters, then a fledgling organization. At the time, truck drivers were overworked and underpaid. Hoffa shows up to the loading docks one-day spouting Mamet’s profane dialogue, telling the workers to go on strike, which starts a massive brawl. In doing so, he also costs Ciaro his job and later that night he ambushes Hoffa only to be held at gunpoint by one of his associates, Billy Flynn (Robert Prosky). “Life’s a negotiation. It’s all give and take,” Hoffa tells Ciaro as he apologizes and explains him motives.
We see Hoffa’s early, botched strong arm tactics, such as firebombing a local business that results in the death of Flynn. We see Hoffa mixing it up, yelling at scab drivers crossing picket lines, getting into scuffles not just with the cops but also the mafia. The strike is cutting into their profits and Hoffa cuts a deal with them, which not only aids in his rise to leadership of the Teamsters, but also, ultimately, led to his downfall. The film shows early on how Hoffa wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, helping a trucker change his tire while he pitches membership to the Teamsters, natch, and getting bloody while fighting in the strikes.

At times, David Mamet’s Midwest tough guy dialogue feels like it could have come from one of fellow Chicago native Michael Mann’s films but it has his distinctive cadence in such gems as “Because I’m sitting out here to meet with a fella,” or “What’s out the car is my guy. What’s in here is you watching the phone.” Another memorable bit of dialogue: “Are we talking words, here, we usin’ words? That’s what we’re doin’.” The cast, in particular Nicholson and DeVito nail the sharp, clipped style of Mamet’s dialogue.
Unlike the cast of The Irishman (2019), Nicholson, et al were cast at just the right time in their lives to play younger and older versions of their characters credibly. Nicholson does an excellent job delivering several of Hoffa’s fiery speeches. He fully commits to the role compared to Al Pacino’s take on the man in The Irishman where the legendary actor seems to be playing himself rather than the man. Nicholson certainly captures the bluster and swagger of Hoffa, a man with charisma and confidence to spare. One of the joys of his performance is watching him spout so much of Mamet’s dialogue – no easy feat – and he does it while adopting the Teamster’s distinctive tone and way of speaking. Some of his best scenes are the ones where he squares off against Robert Kennedy (Kevin Anderson) as he reduces their conflict to the working man versus the rich elite. Nicholson does get a few reflective moments in the scenes on his last day seen alive as he and Ciaro reflect on their friendship over the years.
Nicholson and DeVito are surrounded by a hell of a supporting cast with Anderson’s uncanny take on Kennedy, nailing his distinctive accent. J.T. Walsh shows up as one of Hoffa’s close associates who is initially loyal until he gets a taste of power and turns his back on his mentor at a crucial moment. A young John C. Reilly shows up as another one of Hoffa’s associates who worships him early on but eventually betrays him by testifying against him during the trial for labor racketeering. Armand Assante also pops up as the mob boss that Hoffa makes a deal with to gain more power within the Teamsters. The veteran actor wisely downplays his performance next to Nicholson’s acting pyrotechnics. He doesn’t need to chew the scenery as his mere presence exudes power and authority. His performance is a sobering reminder of how much his presence is missed films such as this and Sidney Lumet’s Q & A (1990). There are also small parts for Bruno Kirby and Frank Whaley, who was on quite the run at the time with pivotal roles in The Doors, JFK and Hoffa.

The film is ambitious in its scale and scope as evident in the scene where Hoffa leads a strike that turns into a massive brawl involving hundreds of people. DeVito captures the chaos masterfully as trucks are overturned, people are viciously beaten and even a mother is separated from her child all the while the corporate bigwigs can be seen watching safely from their lofty vantage point. It’s a tough, brutal sequence that is unflinching in its depiction of ugly violence. The epic look and feel of Hoffa is due in large part to his direction with the help of legendary cinematographer Stephen H. Burum as he digs deep into his stylistic bag of tricks including crane shots, split diopter lens, sweeping 360-degree camera moves, God’s eye overhead shots, point-of-view shots, and masterful framing of shots and scenes via 2:35.1 aspect ratio that rival the likes of Spielberg and Stone at the time.
Joe Isgro was a top record promoter making a reported $10 million a year but in 1989 a grand jury indicted him on 51 counts of payola and drug trafficking. The charges were dismissed a year later but the damage to his reputation had been done and he decided to pivot into the film business. Just before this legal mess he had been approached by Frank Ragano, former Hoffa attorney, and Brett O’Brien, son of Chuckie O’Brien, Hoffa’s adopted son. The former claimed he had obtained the film rights from the Hoffa estate, however, not long after Isgro signed a letter of agreement to do the film, O’Brien told him that they didn’t have the rights and their option had expired. Isgro told O’Brien the deal was off and made a new one with another production company for the rights to Chuckie’s story, which was used as the basis for the screenplay written by Robin Moore, who had authored The French Connection, and interviewed several members of the Teamsters union about Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975.
Isgro approached film producer Edward R. Pressman with Moore’s script hoping that Pressman could convince Oliver Stone to direct. Pressman liked what he read and optioned the script as well as the tapes and transcripts of Moore’s interviews. He found the script “very expositional, not fully formed as a movie but there was the raw material for one.” Caldecot Chubb, then Vice President of Pressman’s production company, pitched Hoffa to 20th Century Fox production executive Michael London in August 1989. He recalled telling London, “In America, everyone thinks they know Hoffa. They think he was a gangster, period. But he was a labor leader, a guy with courage and heroism, a guy who stood up for his men.” An hour and half after their meeting concluded, London called Chubb and told him that if he could get David Mamet to write the script they would finance the film.

Pressman had met Mamet in 1985 and called him, pitching the idea of Hoffa as King Lear. In October 1989, Mamet met with Pressman, Chubb and Joe Roth, then President of Fox. Pressman remembers Mamet telling them that his father had been a labor lawyer and he understood that world. His conditions were that they could give him and all their research material and he would give them back a finished script. He was paid in the neighborhood of one million dollars and put two other projects on hold while he spent several months writing the script.
The studio loved what Mamet wrote and told Pressman to hire a top director. His first choice was Barry Levinson but when he met with Mamet about the script in 1990, the men did not see eye to eye on the vision for the film and the director passed on the project. Pressman reportedly met with Stone and John McTiernan but they weren’t seriously considered for the film. Around this time, Danny DeVito was having lunch with Roth who was telling him about the projects they were working on and when the former heard about Hoffa he immediately wanted to do it. He met with Pressman in April 1990 and presented his vision of the film. The producer said, “It was clear to me Danny was articulate and ambitious and every bit as prepared as the best filmmakers I’d worked with.” DeVito was hired.
To play Hoffa, both Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino were considered until someone suggested Jack Nicholson. He read the script in the summer of 1990 after making The Two Jakes (1990) and agreed to do it but principal photography had to be delayed for six months while he filmed Man Trouble (1992) for Bob Rafelson. His salary increased the film’s budget dramatically to over $40 million and Roth told Pressman in the fall of 1991 that Fox would only pay for $37 million of it. Pressman sold the cable rights in France for $5 million and convinced DeVito to work for union scale, saving an additional $7 million in exchange for a share of the film’s box office receipts.

Hoffa shot for 85 days, starting in February 1992 in Pittsburgh before moving on to Detroit, then Los Angeles with the final two weeks in Chicago in June on an initial budget of $42 million that eventually came in just under $50 million.
Hoffa received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "Hoffa shows DeVito as a genuine filmmaker. Here is a movie that finds the right look and tone for its material. Not many directors would have been confident enough to simply show us Jimmy Hoffa instead of telling us all about him.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Mr. Nicholson has altered his looks, voice and speech to evoke Hoffa, but the performance is composed less of superficial tricks than of the actor's crafty intelligence and conviction. The performance is spookily compelling without being sympathetic for a minute." The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan wrote, "All the audience is left with are snapshots of repetitive tough-guy behavior, a scenario that is too limited to hold anyone’s interest for a 2-hour-and-20-minute length."
Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave the film a "D" rating and wrote, "When an actor as great as Nicholson gives a performance this monotonous, it raises the question, Why make a movie about Jimmy Hoffa in the first place? The answer, I suspect, is that it wasn’t so much Hoffa’s life as his lurid, headline-making death that hooked a major studio into backing this project. The result is somehow perversely appropriate: a massive Hollywood biopic about a man who never quite seems there." In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, "The biggest mistake is DeVito's direction. He fills every moment with soaring, weighty music and spectacle-happy cinematography. Like a kid clutching power candy, he can't let go." While doing press for the film, DeVito made no apologies for his positive take on Hoffa: “He put bread on the table of the working man. That to me is a hero.”
DeVito does lay it on a bit thick at times, such as the scene where hundreds of trucks park by the side of the road as drivers show their support for Hoffa as he and Ciaro are driven to prison with David Newman’s score swelling dramatically. Hoffa’s home life is also never seen with his wife Josephine (Natalia Nogulich) trotted out for a few moments but we get no insight into their dynamic. If the film’s portrayal of Hoffa has fault it’s that we don’t get an understanding of what motivated the man. When we meet him, he is fully-formed. He is confident of his convictions. How did he get that way? What made him such a staunch defender of the working man? Why was he so power hungry? We never know for certain and maybe no one did but it is a lack of depth in an otherwise compelling portrait of the man. For all the hero worship of Hoffa, DeVito does try to show the ramifications of the man’s actions such as him ignoring the Teamsters leadership’s orders to back off and starting a massive brawl with the scabs and cops that results in the death of several of his fellow members. There’s also the scene where he uses intimidation tactics to kill a newspaper story that will portray him in a negative light thereby damaging his chances of being elected President of the Teamsters.

Among the gold rush boom of historical biopics in the ‘90s Hoffa has mostly become forgotten thanks to its lackluster box office and mixed critical reaction. By the time Stone made Nixon (1995), large scale, star-studded historical films were no longer en vogue and by the end of the decade less and less of these films were being made with notable exceptions such as Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), but despite stellar reviews it also underperformed at the box office. Hoffa has enjoyed some renewed interest thanks to The Irishman, which features the labor leader prominently. While he is not the central character his presence casts a long shadow over the film and is nowhere near as interestingly depicted as in DeVito’s film. Perhaps there is a more definitive take on the man? A limited series that could go into more detail? In the meantime, we have this lavishly staged, well-acted look at the man who had a profound effect on labor unions and the working class.
Freedman, Samuel G. “The Captain of the Hoffa Team.” The New York Times. September 13, 1992.
Goldstein, Patrick. “A Labor-Intensive Hoffa.” Los Angeles Times. August 30, 1992.
Willistein, Paul. “DeVito’s Hoffa Salutes Top Teamster Working Class Hero.” The Morning Call. December 25, 1992.