"...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

Monday, April 28, 2008

Bruno Kirby

Character actor extraordinaire Bruno Kirby was born on this day in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. He became best known for his scene stealing parts in This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), and The Freshman (1990). He excelled at playing working class characters with a distinctive voice that was pure New York. However, Kirby was able to show a dramatic side as evident in his solid performance in Donnie Brasco (1997).

The films I always remember him for include Good Morning, Vietnam where he played the terminally unfunny and unhip Lt. Hauk. The scene where he temporarily takes over Robin Williams’ show with his own brand of comedy is almost painful to watch but also very funny. There is also an amusing running gag about how no one ever salutes him despite his rank because no one takes him seriously. Kirby is essentially playing an unlikable character but you can’t take your eyes off him in every scene he’s in and that’s because he commits fully to the role.

My favorite role of Kirby’s is in When Harry Met Sally... (1989) playing Billy Crystal’s best friend. Watching him recently in this film serves as a sad reminder of how poorer cinema is with his passing. His finest moment? The scene where he, Crystal and Meg Ryan play Pictionary and Kirby ineptly guesses Ryan’s drawing as “Baby fish mouth” (?!) is priceless and makes me laugh every time I see it. Crystal’s reaction to Kirby’s guess is also very funny: “Oh, but ‘baby fish mouth’ is sweeping the nation? I hear them talking.” Here is the clip from that scene:

Another memorable scene with Kirby includes the blind date where Crystal’s character tries to hook him up with Ryan but he ends up getting involved with her best friend played by Carrie Fisher. They are at dinner and Fisher ends up quoting a line out of one of Kirby’s restaurant reviews and his reaction is so real and genuine. I would have loved to have seen a film from the perspective of Kirby and Fisher’s characters showing how their courtship and marriage played out.

A lot of people would probably cite City Slickers (1991) as his next best performance but for me, I love his role in The Freshman, as a flunky for Marlon Brando’s Mafia Godfather. His introduction, where he hustles Matthew Broderick’s naive college student, is a great example of comic timing as he fast talks his way into Broderick’s life and kickstarts the story of the film by robbing the hapless young man. Kirby’s first appearance is also Broderick’s first taste of New York “hospitality” and he learns a vital lesson: trust no one. When they first meet, Kirby wins Broderick (and us) over with his charm and the best bit of dialogue comes when Kirby describes himself as “the glue of society.” He could easily be talking about his effect on any film that he was in – he helps hold it together.

Unfortunately, Kirby died on August 14, 2006 at age 57 in Los Angeles from complications related to leukemia. He died way too young but he did leave behind so many memorable films that are infinitely richer and better because of his presence.

Here is a really nice tribute to the man. And another one, here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Beautiful Girls

There is something about turning 30 that makes one re-evaluate their life. It is that time when you are forced to grow up, find direction, settle down, and become an adult. Beautiful Girls (1996) concerns a group of men faced with this dilemma. They have been living in the past and recent events have forced them to confront it head on. This is also the late director, Ted Demme's best film in an all-too brief career. As he said in an interview at the time of the film's release, "I don't think there are too many movies about turning 30, or just about to turn 30. Those issues are whether to get married or not, whether to have kids or not, am I happy in my job, do I need to find another job, am I unsettled with myself. You're not a teen anymore, and you don't want to admit you're an adult either."

Willie (Timothy Hutton) returns to his small, Northeastern hometown for his ten-year high school reunion, hook up with buddies, and get his life in order. His mom has recently died (leaving his younger brother and father in a deep funk) and all of his friends are having relationship problems. Willie strikes up a friendship with a young girl named Marty (Natalie Portman) who has moved in next door. She is a character out of J.D. Salinger short story – wise beyond her years. Marty sets the tone for the rest of the women in the story. They are all intelligent and end up suffering with men who don't appreciate what they have right in front of them.

Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg was living in Boston, waiting to see if Disney would use his script for Con Air (1997). "It was the worst winter ever in this small hometown. Snow plows were coming by, and I was just tired of writing these movies with people getting shot and killed. So I said, 'There is more action going on in my hometown with my friends dealing with the fact that they can't deal with turning 30 or with commitment' – all that became Beautiful Girls." The resulting screenplay turned out to be quite autobiographical, with Willie being Rosenberg's surrogate.

The friendship between Willie and Marty pushes the boundaries of what is comfortable in a comfort movie but it never goes beyond it. Rosenberg's script is smart enough to be self-aware of this and even addresses it in a scene between Willie and Mo (Noah Emmerich). Fortunately, the movie narrowly avoids letting things get too uncomfortable and therefore taking us out of the captivating spell established by the movie. It also avoids clichés like the beautiful Andrea (Uma Thurman) having sex with one of the guys. Instead, she rebuffs them all because she is loyal to her boyfriend who, makes her martinis listens to Van Morrison and reads the newspaper with her on Sunday mornings – simple pleasures. She is not a perfect ideal, just on another level than these guys.

Rosenberg's screenplay is also able to juggle the various subplots without resorting to cliché resolutions. Tommy is cheating on his girlfriend (Mira Sorvino) with his high school sweetheart (Lauren Holly). When he gets beat up by her husband (Sam Robards) and his buddies you anticipate Willie, Paul (Michael Rapaport) and Mo to mobilize and kick some ass but at the last second they stop because the man's child will see her father get beaten up. This stops Mo who also has kids.

In addition to the clever plotting, Rosenberg's script also features a lot of funny, memorable dialogue. Tommy chastises Paul for getting his on again-off again girlfriend, Jan (Martha Plimpton) a brown-colored diamond when he tells him, "Buddy, you been eating retard sandwiches." There is also great throwaway dialogue like Stinky (Pruitt Taylor Vince) with his proprietor lingo, "We got apps!" or the often-used word "crease" to convey frustration at something, like when Tommy asks, "What's got him creased?"

All of the guys in Beautiful Girls are essentially the same person. Willie is just finding his luck, Paul just lost his luck as the movie begins, Tommy loses it over the course of the movie, and Mo has already found and achieved it with his family. Demme does not waste an opportunity to subtly illustrate his point. In one scene, he frames all three guys together: Paul (lost luck) is driving with Willie (finding luck) and Mo (achieved luck) along for the ride. The women counterpoint their men in this cycle: Tracy (Annabeth Gish) for Willie, Jan for Paul, Sharon (Mira Sorvino) for Tommy, and Sarah (Anne Bobby) for Mo.

The women in the movie are smarter than the guys and make them (and us) feel like they are lucky that their behavior is even tolerated much less loved despite all of their failings. This is epitomized in Gina (Rosie O'Donnell)'s famous monologue where she chastises Tommy and Willie for obsessing over the women in Penthouse magazine. She tells them, "If you had an ounce of self-esteem, of self-worth, of self-confidence, you would realize that as trite as it may sound, beauty is truly skin-deep." Gina speaks for the women in the movie when she reminds the men to forget the airbrushed ideal of women that we see in magazines and movies. They do not exist or are unattainable to any normal guy.

To counter her argument, later on in the movie, Paul delivers a monologue defending men's idealization for the impossibly perfect image of women. "She can make you feel high full of the single greatest commodity known to man – promise. Promise of a better day. Promise of a greater hope. Promise of a new tomorrow." It is a rare, articulate moment for Paul, suggesting that he may be more than some lunkhead who drives a snowplow. He may actually be a romantic. It is nice to see a film that is obviously told from a man's point of view trying to show both sides of the argument.

The women in the movie are not treated like excess baggage. They all have a soul and a brain which is rare for a film written and directed by men. There is a tendency to make them perfect or marginalized with their problems defining them. This is not the case with Beautiful Girls. This is reversed and it is the problems that define the men.

Ted Demme assembled a fantastic cast of independent character actors for his movie: Michael Rapaport, Max Perlich, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Mira Sorvino to name only a few. They all work so well together and their friendships are believable because of the preparation the director made them do. He had the entire cast come to Minneapolis and live together for two to three weeks so that they could bond. One only has to watch a scene like Andrea's first appearance in Stinky's bar as Willie and his friends try desperately to impress her that the two week bonding session paid off. There is an ease and casual nature between everyone that is authentic.

The setting is a character unto itself. Demme has set his movie in a charming east coast hamlet that is filled with little diners and bars that look so inviting that you want to go there, you want to be there. It all looks so comforting, so inviting and this is so hard to achieve properly in any movie. He commented in an interview that he "wanted to make it look like it's Anytown USA, primarily East Coast. And I also wanted it to feel like a real working class town." To this end, Demme drew inspiration from Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978). "The first third of the film is really an amazing buddy movie with those five actors. You could tell they were best friends, but they all had stuff amongst them that was personal to each one of them." Demme wanted to make Beautiful Girls more than just a buddy movie. When he read Rosenberg's screenplay he told him, "'You know, we really need to take this to another level.' If I was ever going to make a buddy movie, which I never thought I would, I wanted to make sure it had some real depth to it."

Beautiful Girls received mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "What's nicest about the film is the way it treasures the good feelings people can have for one another. They emerge most tenderly in the friendship between Willie and the 13-year-old girl." In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "But Beautiful Girls doesn't strain to accentuate the positive all that often. Thanks to those actors and to Scott Rosenberg's easygoing, colorful dialogue, it stays nicely inviting most of the time." In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, "Portman, who made such a precocious splash in The Professional, reprises her fledgling sassiness in cuter form. As a self-described ‘old soul’ who connects spiritually with Hutton (they're both existential searchers), she's the movie's most poignant and witty presence."

The Los Angeles Times' Jack Mathews wrote, "Beautiful Girls follows the boys as they work their way through these crises, and it's about as much fun as a neighborhood bar on a Tuesday night. Its crisis: not much happening." Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "C+" rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "There is absolutely nothing going on in Beautiful Girls that you haven’t seen in Diner, Singles, or any other artistic endeavor in which untethered young men and women, bound by geography and fortified by beer, shamble their way toward overdue maturity."
The film does not wrap everything up nice and neatly. Paul and Jan's subplot is not resolved in the sense that we don't know if they settle their differences and get back together. Tommy and Sharon will probably get back together but it is not spelled out. Instead, as the closing credits appear we are left to imagine what happens to the characters. It is Paul's parting comments to Willie as he is about to go back to New York City, "Come and see us any time, Will. We'll be right here where you left us. Nothing changes in the Ridge but the seasons." This is also a message to the viewer as well. Come back and see Beautiful Girls again. The film's world and its characters are comforting and making you want to revisit them again and again.


Alexander, Peter. "Scott Rosenberg: Off to a Beautiful Start." The Best Video Guide.

Griffin, Dominic. "An Interview with Ted Demme, Director of Beautiful Girls." Film Threat. 1996.

Monday, April 14, 2008

"American Cinema" Anniversary Blog-a-Thon!: Michael Mann - The Far Side of Paradise

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the "American Cinema" Anniversary Blog-a-Thon being coordinated by Adam at Film at 11.

MICHAEL MANN (1943 – )

FILMS: 1981 – Thief. 1983 – The Keep. 1986 – Manhunter. 1992 – The Last of the Mohicans. 1995 – Heat. 1999 – The Insider. 2001 – Ali. 2004 – Collateral. 2006 – Miami Vice. 2009 – Public Enemies.

For more than twenty-five years, Chicago-born Michael Mann has been making films and producing television programs. He is highly regarded by film critics and cineastes but largely unrecognized by the public at large. And yet, he is responsible for producing one of the most popular television shows of all time: Miami Vice. Like fellow filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (of whom Mann greatly admires and is sometimes compared to), Mann likes to oversee and control every aspect of his films and push the boundaries of technological innovation in order to achieve his vision. Like, Kubrick, he has a relatively small but memorable output: nine films (with a tenth on the way) that contain similar thematic pre-occupations and stylistic motifs. That is not to say his films are derivative. Mann has worked in several different genres: the horror film with The Keep, the period drama with The Last of the Mohicans, and the biopic with Ali. He is perhaps best known for his work in the urban crime thriller of which five of his films could be classified as such.

Mann’s films are obsessed with the common bond between men and the notion of professionalism between them. The protagonists in his films are the very best at their respective professions: from Frank (James Caan), an efficient safe-cracker in Thief to 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) in The Insider. These men are loners who have little time for families and personal relationships. This is perhaps best summed up with Neil McCauley’s statement in Heat: “I am alone. I am not lonely.” Family and material items only get in their way or cause the downfall of a Mann protagonist. Each one is driven by an all-consuming goal, often in the form of a dream that drives them. In Thief, Frank hopes to create a family and retiring from a life of crime. Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in Heat dreams of retiring to Fiji to see the iridescent algae that only come out once a year and light up the night. Vincent (Tom Cruise) in Collateral must fulfill his contract and kill five key witnesses in an upcoming indictment against a Latin American drug cartel. Mann protagonists are dreamers and idealists. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) in The Insider believes that telling the truth about the addictive substance in cigarettes will change things. Lowell Bergman believes that a network TV program like 60 Minutes can still tackle challenging stories and make a difference.

In Mann’s films there is always a key scene between two people in which they tell each other their dreams and personal philosophies. The conflict that each Mann protagonist faces is when their individualism collides with the desire to preserve a relationship or their family. It is a battle between their hearts and minds, between what they feel and what they think. In Thief, Frank’s feelings for his girlfriend, Jesse (Tuesday Weld) clouds his judgment and he becomes indebted to the Mob. Only when he cut himself free from these feelings and applies cold logic does he prevail. During the course of the narrative, Mann protagonists are forced to make a life-altering decision that will determine their fate and inevitably push their dreams just out of reach. If they remain true to their personal code then they survive as Frank does in Thief when he rejects all familial and material trappings in order to break free of the Mob. If Mann protagonists betray this then they are destroyed as are both Neil in Heat and Vincent in Collateral when they fail to realize their goals as a result of deviating from their desired course of action. They often sacrifice their dreams when they acknowledge and embrace their aloneness. In Heat, Hanna (Al Pacino) when realizes that he cannot be with Justine (Diane Venora) because he is consumed by his job, he is then free to catch Neil.

Mann’s films are often remembered for their distinctive visual style. There are several colors that he uses in every film that symbolize specific meanings. Blue represents romance and safety. In Manhunter and Heat when the main protagonists are home they are shown in rooms bathed in blue light. No harm will come to them in these spaces. Green is equated with danger and death. In The Insider, when Wigand golfs at night and threatened by a mysterious man, the lighting of the scene is an eerie green. The interior of Max’s cab in Collateral is green once Vincent enters it as are the alleyways of the first two hits on the assassin’s list. Red, to a lesser degree, is also associated with danger and death. In the climatic bank heist in Heat, two cops hide behind a red truck and Hanna returns to his hotel room to find his daughter, Lauren (Natalie Portman), in a tub filled with her blood. In Collateral, the exterior color of Max’s cab is red. Finally, gray and white represent authority and conformity. In Manhunter, Hannibal Lecktor’s (Brian Cox) prison cell is completely white which enhances his intimidation over Will Graham (William Petersen). Vincent’s dominating presence in Collateral is enhanced by his gray suit, his striking white hair, and facial stubble.

Mann’s films also pay particular attention to architecture and a sense of place. It is used to enhance or reflect the mood of his characters. His films are full of empty houses, lonely hotel rooms, endless oceans, and dark city streets. Mann’s urban films are populated by hi-tech buildings that are Spartan and impersonal by design, like the prison that houses Lecktor in Manhunter or Neil’s home in Heat. Characters inhabit clean, uncluttered spaces with large picture windows that often offer a view of an expansive body of water. Water represents a place of relaxation (Manhunter), a search for identity (Mohicans), and a place of refuge (The Insider) for the Mann protagonist. Thief takes place in Chicago, which resides near a lake, Will and Molly’s house is on the beach near the ocean in Manhunter, a river features prominently in Mohicans and Lowell Bergman’s vacation house is also on a beach near the ocean in The Insider. They are quiet places that the protagonist can go to think and make crucial decisions that will affect their lives.

The most common criticism leveled against Mann’s films is that they tend to favor style over substance – a charge that the filmmaker understandably bristles at as he explains in an interview with the L.A. Weekly:

“What I try to do – I mean try, because you don’t get there all the time – is to have impact with content . . . If I have an ambition, it’s that, in The Insider, I had violence – lethal, life-taking aggression – all happening psychologically, all with people talking to other people . . . So then, the excitement for me as a filmmaker was the challenge of making suspense and drama involving life and death in which everything I’m shooting is only a human face.”
In Mann’s case, the style of his films is also the content. He is a visual filmmaker who tells stories in his films with an economy of dialogue. Therefore, the way a character is framed in a scene and the color that saturates a given scene says more about what they are feeling or even thinking than any words could.

Monday, April 7, 2008


After the technically accomplished but ultimately hollow thriller Panic Room (2002), director David Fincher returned to familiar subject matter with Zodiac (2007), a dramatization of the murders perpetuated by the infamous serial killer known as the Zodiac Killer that terrorized the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With Se7en (1995), Fincher seems like an obvious choice to direct this film but those of you expecting a rehash of that film will be disappointed. With Zodiac, he faces the daunting challenge of making an exciting thriller that runs two hours and forty minutes long and where the killer was never caught. He does this by focusing on the people who investigated the case and how it affected them.

Based on Robert Graysmith’s two books on the subject (Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked), the film focuses on three men who investigated the case and how each one became obsessed with solving it to the point where their lives and those of the ones close to them were affected. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is an investigative journalist who covers the story for the San Francisco Chronicle; Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a political cartoonist for the same newspaper who takes an interest in the encrypted letters that the killer sends to the police and several newspapers, taunting them; and David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is one of the San Francisco police detectives assigned to the case along with his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards).

Zodiac begins with the murders and Fincher doesn’t shy away from the brutality of them but doesn’t revel in the gore either. He shows just enough to be disturbing, resisting the urge to glorify it like so many horror films made in the past few years. From there, the focus shifts to Avery and Graysmith – how they got involved in the case and the initial legwork they did before shifting the focus to Toschi and Armstrong who are brought in to investigate the Zodiac’s murder of a taxi cab driver. There is this shift in focus because as the two detectives investigate the case, Avery and Graysmith become marginal figures. They aren’t privy to the kind of access to information available to Toschi and Armstrong. As the years drag on, the trail gets colder and they exhaust all of their possible leads and avenues and have effectively been beaten by the system. They move on to other things and this is where Graysmith picks up the ball and runs with it and the focus changes while Toschi becomes the peripheral character as does Avery who has been beaten by his own addictions and paranoia.

Mark Ruffalo really immerses himself in the role of David Toschi, the man who inspired Steve McQueen’s character in Bullitt (1968) and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan. The actor adopts a specific voice and a distinctive look that sets him apart from the other characters but not enough to be distracting. It doesn’t hurt that he’s got great material to work with and rises to the challenge of playing a man frustrated by bureaucracy. Ruffalo has only gotten better with every performance and this may be his best one to date. Robert Downey Jr. tones down his sometimes scene-stealing style down so that he isn’t as flashy but delivers a solid performance as a jaded journalist. He gives Avery a certain disheveled charm and over the course of the film he does an excellent job showing the man’s gradual disintegration due to paranoia fueled by alcohol abuse and drugs that take their toll both physically and mentally. Jake Gyllenhaal is good as the eager Graysmith who becomes fascinated by the case and pursues it even when the trail goes cold and it seems like everyone else has lost interest or given up.

Fincher’s films have often been criticized for their lack of characterization and emotional detachment but this is not the case with Zodiac. The actors go a long way in providing an emotional connection to their characters and the director does give us moments in which to make that connection, like several between Toschi and his partner in the form of little exchanges but they all add up and build to the scene where Armstrong tells Toschi that he is transferring to another department. You really feel for Toschi from the disappointed expression on Ruffalo's face. There is also a gradual build-up between Avery and Graysmith. They are introduced together very early on and we see how they interact with one another and then there is a nice scene at a bar where Avery buys Graysmith a drink and they talk about why they are obsessed with the case. It is at this moment that these two characters connect in a meaningful way. These moments make you sympathize with these characters so that you care about what happens to them later on.
This is a film that shows people talking and doing research – hardly, dynamic, cinematic material but Fincher makes it fascinating with strong performances from his talented cast and a solid screenplay to anchor the film. Like Michael Mann’s equally obsessive serial killer film, Manhunter (1986), Fincher spends a lot of his motion picture showing offices buzzing with activity as the case heats up and we see people hard at work as the police, FBI, the Chronicle and even the CIA all try to decipher the Zodiac’s code and solve the case. He also shows the minutia of their methods while also reminding us of the limits of technology at the time (no personal computers, no Internet, no DNA testing, etc.). These people faced a monumental task of sifting through hundreds of false leads and crank calls from the substantial information that might have actually furthered the case.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Toschi and his partner are hampered by maddening bureaucracy at every turn. Because several of the murders took place over multiple jurisdictions, they have to consult with the police departments in each one in order to obtain the information that they have. Naturally, some are more cooperative than others. This only slows things down and obstructs the investigation. As the case drags on, we see the hold it has on Avery, Graysmith and Toschi. Both Graysmith and Toschi spend less and less time with their families and Avery is driven to drink and displays increasing erratic behavior, due to his frustration with the case and also because the Zodiac killer contacts him directly, making him understandably paranoid.

Stylistically, Fincher claims that he was influenced by All the President’s Men (1976) and this restrained approach permeates every aspect of Fincher’s film, from the way he frames characters in a scene to the way the Chronicle’s offices are lit to the emphasis on legwork and research conducted by the protagonists in order to catch the killer. The attention to period detail is fantastic and authentic, right down to the fluorescent lights in the aforementioned newspaper office, the cars, the clothes, and the period music that never overwhelms the film or draws attention to itself. It only helps establish the mood of the times and creates the feeling that this film was shot in the 1970s. Fincher shot the entire film digitally on the Thomson Viper (the same camera that Michael Mann most of Collateral and Miami Vice with) but it certainly doesn’t look it. He makes sure that there is nothing stylistically to distract us from the riveting content and strong performances.
Zodiac presents a wealth of information and invites you to sift through it like the three protagonists. In fact, there is so much to absorb that repeated viewings only reveal more details that might not have been caught upon an initial viewing. The film’s long running time (two hours and 40 minutes) allows you to gradually immerse yourself in the film and the story it tells. However, it never feels too long because Fincher maintains a brisk, efficient pace cramming as much detail and information as he can into every scene. The killer is a fascinating enigma and his encrypted letters, his blatant taunting of the police, and the discrepancies between murders only it makes it more interesting. It is easy to see why people became obsessed with this case. Ultimately, the Zodiac case doesn’t just leave a trail of actual bodies but also collateral damage in the form of failed marriages, ended partnerships, and substance abuse. And this is just the people who investigated the case. The toll taken on the victims who survived, their families and those of the people who were killed is inconceivable. A whole other movie could be made about them. Fincher has made a smart, engaging thriller that suggests a new direction for the filmmaker, one that places an emphasis on character and story instead of atmosphere and set design.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Warren Oates

Legendary American character actor Warren Oates died on this day in 1983 from a sudden, massive heart attack in his Hollywood Hills home in Los Angeles. He was only 54 but had packed in a lot of hard-living and a lot of memorable performances in many films in those years. Born in July 5, 1928 in Depoy, Kentucky, Oates is best known for his work with Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman during the 1970s. He also worked with other legendary filmmakers like Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night), Terrence Malick (Badlands), William Friedkin (The Brink’s Job), and Steven Spielberg (1941).

Oates served in the Marines at the end of World War II as a mechanic. He moved to New York City in 1954 and worked odd jobs in-between roles on cop dramas and westerns on television in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was on The Rifleman that he met Peckinpah. They would develop a personal friendship and a working relationship that endured for many years. Together, they collaborated on four films, most notably The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

Alfredo Garcia is the epitome of a grungy nihilism that was in vogue with many American filmmakers during the ‘70s. A calm, idyllic setting is quickly shattered when a pregnant young Mexican girl is tortured by her land baron father until she reveals the name of the man responsible: Alfredo Garcia. Her father decrees that anyone who brings him the head of Garcia will receive a million dollars. Two rich businessmen search every town and small village for any signs of the man. One day, they happen by a small-town bar where they catch the eye of Bennie (Oates), the bartender who likes the color of their money.

Bennie asks around and finds out that his girlfriend once had Garcia as a customer when she was a prostitute. Bennie strikes a deal with the businessmen. He has four days to bring back Garcia’s head or they will come after him. So, Bennie and his girl go on the road with two thugs in a beat-up station wagon tailing them. They travel through some of the most dirt-poor parts of Mexico that you will not find in a tourist brochure. Bennie becomes obsessed, not with the money but with Garcia and why his head is so valuable. He sees it as a ticket that will lead him to this answer.

Once they find Garcia’s body, their lives get a lot more bloody and violent as the film shifts gears into a balls-to-the-wall revenge picture. Bennie’s descent into murder-fueled madness is something to see. He starts talking to Garcia’s severed head. He looks in the mirror and sees a completely different man looking back at him then who he was when this all began.

Oates looks the part, with his cheap, white suit, gaudy shirt and loud tie, complete with large sunglasses — based on Peckinpah’s actual attire at the time. Oates always looks disheveled and world-weary — a life of hard-living. He has a natural, tough guy presence that you just don’t see anymore. He has a cool, don’t-fuck-with-me attitude. And no one can quite curse angrily as convincingly as Oates does. At one point, he tells two bikers (one played by Kris Kristofferson) who are about to rape his girlfriend, “You two guys are definitely on my shit list.” You don’t really like Benny but you grow to respect him and his obsessive desire for the truth.

In addition to Peckinpah, Oates also worked frequently with Hellman with Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) being their most popular collaboration. The film follows two young men who race other cars in their customized ’55 Chevy. We never find out their names and the credits list them simply as the Driver and the Mechanic. Early on, they cross paths with a rival driver (Oates) in a ’70 Pontiac GTO. Eventually, they meet GTO at a gas station and challenge each other to a cross-country race to Washington, D.C. for “pink slips,” the title to the loser’s car. Oates plays GTO gregarious to a fault, scaring off a hitchhiker by repeating the same stories twice and telling his life story, which changes with every new person he picks up. The characters in Two-Lane Blacktop never really connect with each other in a meaningful way. The Driver and the Mechanic only talk about their car, while GTO talks about his car and lies about his past.

In 1981, a year before he died, Oates appeared in the Bill Murray comedy Stripes as a gruff drill instructor. After losing his job, his girlfriend, and his apartment all in one morning, John Winger decides to enlist in the Army and straighten out his life. He convinces his best friend to enlist as well. Once they arrive at the base and meet their no-nonsense drill instructor, Sergeant Hulka (the perfectly cast Warren Oates), John and Russell realize that it’s not going to be as easy as they imagined. The casting of Oates gives Stripes a dose of gravitas and provides a certain amount of tension in some of the scenes he has with Murray. Sgt. Hulka is the ideal antagonist for the anti-authoritative Winger and their scene together in the barracks’ washroom where Hulka finally asserts his authority is filled with a palpable tension — unusual for a comedy but it works. It wasn’t played for laughs and allowed Murray to do something he hadn’t done before. Here are two memorable clips from the film featuring Oates.

Oates died of a sudden, massive heart attack in his Hollywood Hills home in Los Angeles, California on April 3, 1982. He was 54. His last two films, Blue Thunder and Tough Enough, were released in 1983 and were dedicated to him. Oates now enjoys a cult following among film buffs due to his work with Peckinpah and Hellman and counts filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater among his admirers. I’d like to raise a glass to Oates. He was a true original the likes of which we will never see again.

Here is a fantastic fan site dedicated to the man.