"...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, February 22, 2013

Dick Tracy

After the massive commercial success of Batman (1989), rival Hollywood movie studios attempted to cash in by adapting other classic comic strips from the 1930s and 1940s with the likes of Dick Tracy (1990), The Shadow (1994), and The Phantom (1996) being released in the early to mid-1990s. With the exception of Dick Tracy, all of them were box office flops. Mainstream audiences were just not interested in retro action/adventure movies that paid tribute to classic Hollywood cinema. So, why did Dick Tracy succeed where these other movies failed?

Dick Tracy was an adaptation of the popular comic strip created by Chester Gould in the 1930s and featured the titular square-jawed police detective as he tangled with a colorful assortment of villains. He solved crimes using the latest gadgetry and advances in forensic sciences. Gould’s creation proved to be very popular and continues to be published to this day despite Gould’s retirement in 1977.

The film version was produced, directed and starred Warren Beatty in the title role, while also including his then-girlfriend Madonna, as well as Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and James Caan among many other notable character actors. With that kind of star power, how could the film not garner advanced hype? It also helped that Touchstone Pictures took a page out of the marketing techniques employed on Batman and aggressively promoted Dick Tracy with a video game, a novelization and Madonna herself advertising it on her Blond Ambition World Tour.

A lot was riding on this film, not just for the studio, who invested millions of dollars, but also Beatty, still stinging from the high-profile failure of Ishtar (1987) and who hadn’t directed a film since the highly acclaimed Reds (1981). The gamble paid off and Dick Tracy performed very well at the box office, but fell short of the kind of figures Batman registered. While the story was pretty standard stuff, Dick Tracy was visually stunning as Beatty and his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) adopted the source material’s primary color scheme, making it quite unlike any comic book adaptation before or since.

Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) investigates a gangland slaying. He knows who’s behind it – mob boss “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino) – but can’t prove it, much to his consternation. With the help of his right-hand man, the vicious Flattop (William Forsythe), Big Boy eliminates rival boss Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) and takes over his territory, which includes his girlfriend, nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).

Meanwhile, Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) wants him to accept a desk job so that he’ll stay out of trouble – something that he’s not crazy about or do any time soon, at least not as long as Big Boy is at large. If that wasn’t enough, Tracy and Tess are temporary guardians of The Kid (Charlie Korsmo), a scrappy boy who witnessed the Manlis execution and is rescued from his abusive father by Tracy.

Warren Beatty does just fine as the upstanding Dick Tracy. He certainly looks the part and does his best to flesh out the character by developing a bit of a love triangle between Tess, Tracy and Breathless. The Kid also shows a slightly vulnerable side to Tracy and thankfully Beatty doesn’t fall into the trap of making the boy too cutesy or annoying. A lot of people criticized Madonna’s performance and when she’s paired up with the likes of veteran actors like Beatty and Al Pacino, she looks out of her depth. For two people romantically involved in real life, Beatty and Madonna have little chemistry together on film. Throughout, Breathless tries to seduce Tracy with sexual double entrendes and provocatively revealing outfits (including a see-through black negligee number that somehow got past the PG rating). Madonna makes up for these moments in the song and dance routines where, naturally, she is on more comfortable ground. Beatty does have slightly more chemistry with Glenne Headly who plays Tracy’s girlfriend – a thankless role that the talented actress does her best with, especially early on when Tess and Tracy take care of The Kid in a charming montage that humanizes the lawman a little bit.

Beatty must’ve pulled a lot of favors that he accumulated over the years as so many of his contemporaries and people he worked with back in the day play minor roles with most of them buried under all kinds of prosthetic make-up. Al Pacino barks out most of his dialogue in a scenery-chewing performance that would set the tone for many of his portrayals in the ‘90s but Big Boy actually requires him to play it over-the-top on purpose, which he does with typical gusto. The veteran actor looks like he’s having a blast in the scenes where Big Boy bosses around Breathless and her chorus line. One wonders if the little slaps he administers to the sultry singer were improvised. Hell, in one scene alone you get to see Pacino berate a room full of gangsters played by people like James Caan, Henry Silva and R.G. Armstrong among others. Meanwhile, one of Tracy’s deputies is played by Seymour Cassel and the police chief is portrayed by none other than the late great Charles Durning. Beatty even cast two of his Bonnie and Clyde (1967) castmates, Michael J. Pollard and Estelle Parsons in supporting roles.

Beatty also stacked the deck behind the camera with the great Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and award-winning production designer Richard Sylbert (Chinatown) contributing to the film’s distinctive look. Not since Streets of Fire (1984), had there been such a stylized self-contained retro-world where everything is heightened in a way that remained faithful to its source material. Even the outfits that characters wear are color-coded. For example, Tracy wears a yellow trenchcoat and hat while Tess wears a red outfit. This also extends to the setting of a given scene. In the diner that Tracy, Tess and the Kid frequent the seats are all red, the walls are all white and outside the windows are saturated with green light. The end result is a visual treat on the eyes and it’s all achieved through excellent cinematography, production design, art direction, and old school visual effects like matte paintings.

For the music, Beatty got Batman’s composer Danny Elfman to work his magic and he delivers a suitably robust score even if it sounds like he basically recreated the music he did for Tim Burton’s film. For the five period authentic songs that Breathless Mahoney sings, Beatty enlisted none other than the legendary songwriter Stephen Sondheim to write them and had Mandy Patinkin and Madonna bring them to life in the film.

A common complaint among critics was that Dick Tracy’s story was a little on the simple side, but the comic strip was never that complex to begin with and so keeping things simple stayed true to Gould’s creation. The one minor quibble I have in this area is the over-abundance of bad guys, but Beatty has said that he wanted to put as many of them in the film as possible in case he didn’t get a chance to do a sequel, which, as it turns out, was probably a wise move as another film seems highly unlikely.

Warren Beatty had contemplated making Dick Tracy as far back as 1975. He had fond memories of reading the popular comic strip as a child. Producer Michael Laughlin owned the rights at the time, but gave up his option when he couldn’t drum up any interest among Hollywood studios. In 1977, director Floyd Mutrux and producer Art Linson bought the rights and got Paramount Pictures involved. Over the years, many directors circled the project, including Martin Scorsese, John Landis, and Richard Benjamin. At one point, Clint Eastwood expressed an interest in playing Tracy, but Beatty had the right to accept or reject the role before anyone else. However, even he took convincing because the movie star didn’t think he looked like the character. Beatty eventually realized that “nobody did. When I realized that I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can play this as well as the next guy.’”

Initially, Beatty had difficulty finding a studio interested in bankrolling his project because they were concerned with its commercial appeal and the movie star’s reputation as a “control freak,” but he had gotten Chester Gould’s family’s blessing, which was a good start. He almost made Dick Tracy with Walter Hill when the director was in-demand during most of the 1980s, but they differed on the approach to the material – Hill wanted to go the gritty, realistic route, while Beatty envisioned a stylized look based on the comic strip. Beatty bought the rights himself in 1985 and was soon armed with a screenplay by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. However, Beatty and Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) rewrote much of the dialogue. In 1988, he got backing from Disney, but had to work with a $25 million budget.
Once Beatty got the go-ahead, he had to figure out how to adapt Gould’s two-dimensional comic strip into a live-action film. He felt that “it could be fun to go into another world – if that world were carefully planned and carefully created.” With Dick Tracy, Beatty wanted to “look at a picture through a child’s eyes, to get back to the feeling I had when I first read Dick Tracy as a kid.” By employing such a dazzling color scheme, Beatty figured that “If I could make Dick Tracy the centerpiece of a swirl of color and plot, then maybe I could keep him from being terminally dull, which a straightforward character like that is in danger of being.”

To this end, Beatty hired three key collaborators to help him create this world: cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, production designer Richard Sylbert and costume designer Milena Canonero (A Clockwork Orange) and they all met at Beatty’s home during the summer of ‘88. Storaro wanted to go with a standard aspect ratio in an attempt to mimic the comic strip panel. Beatty told Storaro that the look of the film would be influenced by the late 1930s when Gould started Dick Tracy and asked him to study the Bertolt Brecht opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny. Storaro found that German expressionist artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix best defined the art of the ‘30s and inspired Gould’s drawings.

Sylbert drew inspiration from ‘30s era Chicago and adhered to the source material’s generic look with homes devoid of anything but permanent fixtures and costumes kept basic and repetitive. The idea was to reduce the sets to their most basic iconography. Such a stylized world required filming the entire picture on the Universal Studios back-lot where the filmmakers could create their world from scratch, hiring visual effects artists Michael Lloyd (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Harrison Ellenshaw (Tron) to create 57 matte paintings on glass that were then optically merged with the live-action.

Canonero was the one who proposed that the film stick to a primary color palette. Another important element was the make-up effects. To create the elaborate make-up of the various gangster Tracy battles in the film, the make-up artists created drawings of the characters and then hired sculptors to make models of each character. The actors portraying each one of these characters had a cast made of their face so that the right make-up and prosthetics could be created.

Dick Tracy enjoyed mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and felt it was “one of the most original and visionary fantasies I’ve seen on a screen.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Unlike Batman, though, Dick Tracy is more than imaginative decor and the sort of clever makeup that transforms ordinary actors into characters named Pruneface, Flattop, the Brow and Little Face. The movie is a gentle whirlwind of benign mayhem swirling about the staunch figure of Mr. Beatty's Tracy. As both the director and the star of the movie, Mr. Beatty is remarkably generous.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “Unlike the pretentious Batman, Dick Tracy doesn't attempt to find depth in the heroic machinations of a two-dimensional figure: it seeks simply to turn the famous cut-out into an iridescent icon.” USA Today gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Beatty, though, has taken Dick Tracy to the next level: a Sunday strip. This means color, additional artifice, and the further suspension of disbelief. And even though Batman's Tim Burton is a better filmmaker than Beatty will ever be, Dick Tracy is the movie – of all screen attempts – that most convinces me I'm watching a live-action cartoon.”

However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Dick Tracy is an honest effort but finally a bit of a folly. It could have used a little less color and a little more flesh and blood.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Dick Tracy is an ambitiously vainglorious effort, expensive, beautifully appointed, but at its core empty as a spent bullet. It asks us to read these comics without a grain of salt or a pinch of irony. Popping around in that floppy designer trench coat, Beatty looks more like the fashion police than a gangbuster. For that matter, he is the director as haberdasher in this color-coded clotheshorse of a movie.”

Along with Sin City (2005), Dick Tracy is one of the most visually stunning comic book adaptations ever committed to film and one that anticipated similarly hermetically-sealed cinematic fantasy worlds like the one the Wachowski brothers created for Speed Racer (2008). If the goal of movies, like this, is to take us away to a fantasy world, then Dick Tracy succeeds admirably. It has a look and atmosphere all its own. Sadly, a sequel has not happened as Beatty spent years in court with the company that own Gould’s strip who tried to wrest back the film rights. Beatty recently retained them and has expressed an interest in doing a sequel, but isn’t he too old to play Tracy now? Only time will tell.


Ansen, David. “Tracymania.” Newsweek. June 24, 1990.

Emerson, Jim. “Beatty Breaks the Rules in Dick Tracy.” Orange County Register. June 10, 1990. Pg. L08.

Guthmann, Edward. “Warren Beatty Speaks.” San Francisco Chronicle. June 10, 1990. Pg. P20.

Koltnow, Barry. “Back with a Simple Vision.” Orange County Register. June 10, 1990. Pg. L06.

Lowing, Rob. “Beatty’s Last Chance.” Sun Herald. June 3, 1990. Pg. 6.

Staff. “Strip Show: The Comic Book Look of Dick Tracy.” Entertainment Weekly. June 15, 1990.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Meet John Doe

The mark of a truly gifted filmmaker is when their work is able to transcend the times in which they were made and continue to be highly regarded, beloved and is still relevant to subsequent generations. Such is the case with Frank Capra who made not one but two timeless classics with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), one of the most highly regarded films about American politics ever made, and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), the quintessential Christmas movie. Meet John Doe (1941) is not as popular as these two films but it is just as important. Like the aforementioned motion pictures, it features an everyman character exploited by both corporate interests and the media, which makes it just as timely today as it was back when it was first released.

It is significant that the opening credits play over a montage of every day Americans at work: farmers, miners and switchboard operators. Then, it segues to a succession of shots that feature college students, soldiers, children playing at school, and finally a nursery full of babies. Capra brilliantly encapsulates the circle of life in the opening credits along with iconic images of America at its best – hardworking men and women, including our armed forces and our youth expanding their horizons through education. He is suggesting that these are the ideals we must live up to before telling it like it really is with his film.

We are introduced to the newly revamped newspaper The Bulletin with its new slogan, “A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era.” Along with the new era comes firings, including several veteran employees that are given the axe in rather humiliating fashion – by some young, punk kid who whistles and points at each person before making a clucking noise and making a throat-slashing gesture with his finger. The corporate hatchet man and new managing editor Mr. Connell (James Gleason) casually refers to the recent firings as “just cleaning out the deadwood.”

Among the recent firings is a resourceful columnist by the name of Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) who pleads to keep her job and is even willing to take a pay cut but Connell isn’t firing people for financial reasons. He’s trying to boost the paper’s circulation. He dismisses Ann but not before reminding her that she has one last column to finish. Understandably upset, she channels her anger and frustration into the column by writing a letter from a “disgusted American” citizen known only as John Doe. This fabricated person has been unemployed for four years and is so fed up with the state of things that he plans to commit suicide by jumping off the City Hall roof as a form of protest.

Ann’s “John Doe” letter is published and is so well-written that people believe it is real, which freaks out the powers that be, from the mayor on up to the governor. Naturally, Connell brings Ann in demanding that she produced John Doe. She admits to making it all up. Just as the editor devises a plan to sweep it all under the carpet, the savvy columnist pitches him a new scheme that she promises will boost circulation: tell John Doe’s life story over a series of columns until his suicide on Christmas Eve. Of course, they’ll have to find some patsy to pose as John Doe. It won’t be too hard as a lineup of unemployed men show up to the Bulletin offices claiming to be him. Ann and Connell interview each one, looking for what he cynically calls, “the typical American that can keep his mouth shut.”

After a series of rejects in walks Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a downtrodden yet still good-looking man with a rip in his pants and not a penny to his name. He used to be a baseball pitcher until he blew out his arm. He’s just desperate enough for work that he agrees to pose as John Doe and basically signs his life away to Connell, much to the chagrin of his travelling companion known only as the Colonel (Walter Brennan) who is afraid that money will ruin his friend. For him, being poor and homeless is to be free and happy without a care in the world. Money ruins everything because once you have it people who never gave you the time of day start trying to sell you things and that leads to all sorts of material items, like license fees, taxes, ID cards, bills, and so on. You’re no longer free. You become part of the competitive rat race – something that the Colonel wants no part of. This is all conveyed in a monologue brilliantly delivered by veteran character actor Walter Brennan. While the Colonel exaggerates somewhat for effect, what he’s saying is essentially the truth. He’s the voice of reason and his speech – one of Meet John Doe’s key monologues – is a warning, foreshadowing what will eventually happen to both Ann and Willoughby.

The Bulletin throws all kinds of money at Willoughby, cleaning him up and getting him nice clothes. Pretty soon what the Colonel warned would happen does and Willoughby becomes seduced by money and fame. This scheme has also corrupted Ann. Once a hardworking columnist, she’s seduced by fame and fortune, consumed by the hype machine she helped create. What started off as a stunt to boost circulation becomes a national movement with John Doe clubs popping up all over the place as people are genuinely moved and inspired by the fusion of Ann’s words and Willoughby’s impassioned delivery of them. The rest of the film plays out the usual Capra arc as Ann and Willoughby get consumed by the system and must find it within themselves to break free of it by being true to themselves. It’s a classic individual vs. the system story.

In her first scene, Barbara Stanwyck emanates sympathy as she pleads for her job and then tries to fast talk her way in keeping it only to return to her office in anger as she rails against her fat cat bosses. In a few short minutes, the actress conveys an impressive range of emotions that almost immediately has us on her side. Then, when Ann is summoned back to Connell’s office to explain the John Doe letter, Stanwyck displays an uncanny knack for screwball comedy as Ann banters back and forth with the new managing editor, pitching her John Doe scam.

At home, Ann thinks of nothing but providing for her family while her mother (Spring Byington) is more concerned with helping the less fortunate, like giving money to a woman who just had a baby and a family that needs groceries. She doesn’t think about herself while Ann becomes self-absorbed – so much so that she can’t figure out how to write John Doe’s first speech to the American public. It is rather telling that she can’t come up with something “sensational” to captivate the masses. It is her mother that comes up with a solution – that he should say “something simple and real, something with hope in it.” Ann’s inability to figure out what to write without her mother’s help shows she’s getting corrupted by the allure of money. Over the course of the film, the actress manages to chip away at the sympathy we felt for Ann early on as she goes from someone fighting to stay employed and support her family, to a crass opportunist that becomes consumed by her own hype.

Much like Stanwyck did, Gary Cooper elicits our empathy right from his first appearance. Willoughby walks into the Bulletin offices looking like a hobo, but there is a quiet dignity and kindness evident in his slightly apprehensive facial expressions. There is a bit of self-consciousness thrown into the mix as he’s questioned by Connell. Willoughby looks hungry and just a bit desperate, but seems smart and a bit wary about what is being proposed to him. It’s a tricky balancing act that Cooper maintains expertly. His character has an impressive arc where he goes from anonymous everyman to media-created celebrity to a champion of the people when he confronts the businessmen who built him up, delivering an impassioned speech for the ages. Then, Cooper digs deep and shows just how low Willoughby goes when the powers that be fight back, destroying his credibility in the eyes of the people. It is a dark, scary scene on par with the darkest moments of It’s A Wonderful Life.

In many Capra films, he saw corporations and their greed for profit as the enemy to the basic decency of everyday people. In Meet John Doe, this is represented by powerful publisher D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), a large, shrewd man that thinks in terms of money and strikes a deal with Ann, bypassing Connell, much to his chagrin. This is a crucial scene because it shows how Ann has wheeled and dealed her way to the top of the corporate ladder, striking a deal with one of the most powerful men in the country. Norton is a manipulative antagonist who uses his influence to manipulate the spontaneous grassroots John Doe movement to make money, using Willoughby as the means to do this. The publisher’s real agenda is the creation of a third political party and with John Doe’s endorsement he will lead it with the hopes that it will take him all the way to the White House.

Eagle eyed fans of the Coen brothers’ semi-Capra homage, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) will notice at least two things in Meet John Doe that they quoted in their own film. There is the man trying to stencil a name on Connell’s door, reminiscent of the one removing Waring Hudsucker’s in the Coens’ film. In Meet John Doe, there is a character that says at one point, “That gag’s got whiskers on it,” which Bruce Campbell’s character says at one point in The Hudsucker Proxy. Not to mention, both feature everyman characters bent on committing suicide during the holiday season, Christmas Even in Meet John Doe and New Year’s Eve in The Hudsucker Proxy.

In November 1939, writer friend Robert Presnell gave Frank Capra a treatment he had written with Richard Connell entitled, The Life and Death of John Doe. Connell and Presnell were developing a stage production of the former’s short story “A Reputation.” Capra and his business partner Robert Riskin read it and bought it the same day. Several days later, the two men began work on the screenplay. It would be the director’s first independent film and one in which he intended to earn critical praise, having grown tired of enduring derogatory remarks like, “Capra-corn.” He also wanted to show them “contemporary realities” like, “the ugly face of hate; the power of uniformed bigots in red, white, and blue shirts; the agony of disillusionment; and the wild dark passions of mobs.” Initially, he used the treatment’s title as the working title for the film. He changed it to The Life of John Doe before finally settling on Meet John Doe because the prior title might have been perceived as being based on a biography.

With Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra had fulfilled his contractual obligations to Columbia Pictures. Studio head Harry Cohn was so oppressive that Capra decided to start his own indie company with Riskin. However, they still needed a movie studio to provide them with facilities and set up a deal with Warner Bros. The first film of this new deal was Meet John Doe. Capra found it difficult running his own indie film company and ended up mortgaging his home to finance Meet John Doe. He had to do this because the director lacked cash due to heavy income tax payments. Capra was able to get a loan from the Bank of America.

Capra picked WB because they had a fantastic roster of movie stars, chief among them Gary Cooper. For the role of Long John Willoughby, the only actor Capra wanted was Cooper, but at the time he approached him there was no script. This wasn’t a problem for the actor who had read and then made the mistake of turning down the script for Stagecoach (1939), which went on to make John Wayne a movie star. Other actors followed suit – Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, and Walter Brennan – all without reading the script because Capra’s name alone was good enough to make them want to do it. For the role of Ann Mitchell, Capra screen-tested Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. The director wanted Sheridan, but was overruled by the studio because of a contract dispute. He eventually went with Stanwyck whom he had worked with on several films.

Capra and Riskin ran into script difficulties when they realized that the third act had problems – there was none. They had abandoned their usual formula and didn’t know what should happen to Willoughby at the end. They consulted with trusted friends and confidants within the film industry but still couldn’t solve their problem. So, Capra went ahead and began filming on July 8, 1940 without an ending only to eventually film and test-screen four different conclusions for critics and audiences in six major cities on March 12, 1941. After two weeks, Capra received a letter from someone called, “John Doe,” who hated all four endings. This person went on to tell the director how his film should end. Capra was so impressed that he re-assembled the cast and crew and shot yet another ending, which was the one that it is in the final film.

Meet John Doe received strong critical reaction. The New York Daily News gave it four stars. The World-Telegram felt it was “the finest film Frank Capra ever made, bar none.” The Herald-Tribune wrote, “It is a testament of faith as well as brilliant craftsmanship.” The New York Times felt that the film was a “distinct progression in Mr. Capra’s – and the screen’s – political thinking.” Finally, The New York Post felt that Capra had “made seven-eighths of a great and timely film.” It was a bittersweet victory for Capra. Due to federal law, Capra and Riskin had to pay taxes on the film’s income before the profits came in. As a result, they had to dissolve their company to pay taxes on the film.

With its John Doe clubs made up of every day folks frustrated with the rich getting richer and the poor staying poorer, Meet John Doe anticipates the Occupy movement by several decades. Or, rather, it is merely chronicles yet another cycle of discontent that often emerges spontaneously at crucial moments in history, like the civil rights/anti-war movement during the 1960s. As Willoughby says towards the end of the film, “Well when this fire dies down what’s going to be left? More misery, more hunger and more hate and what’s to prevent that from starting all over again? Nobody knows the answer to that one.” Prophetic words indeed.

Capra’s film equates the rich with corruption and dishonesty as embodied by the power hungry D.B. Norton. It warns of the dangers that comes with having too much money and how it can corrupt, making one turn their back on the things that matter, specifically basic, common decency, which Capra champions in his films. Meet John Doe shows how 99% of the population is at the mercy of the powerful and wealthy 1% and acts a warning – one that is more potent now than ever before. Like a true artist, Capra puts it all out there, wearing his idealistic heart on his sleeve. That kind of idealism may no longer be fashionable any more, but in these trying times may be it is exactly what we need.


Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. Da Capo Press: New York, 1997.

Dirks, Tim. “Review: Meet John Doe (1941).” Filmsite.org.

McGee, Scott. “Meet John Doe.” Turner Classic Movies.

Miller, Frank. “Behind the Camera on Meet John Doe.” Turner Classic Movies.

Friday, February 8, 2013


Filmmaker Joe Johnston is something of a curious anomaly in Hollywood. He got his start as a protégé of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, adopting their style of filmmaking once he became a director with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). He has since made retro adventure films his forte with the likes of The Rocketeer (1991) and Captain America (2011). Yet, for some reason, despite several of his films performing well at the box office, Johnston has managed to avoid the plaudits of his mentors. He remains unknown to mainstream audiences and generally ignored by cinephiles because he lacks a flashy, distinctive style and personality. In 2004, he released Hidalgo, which chronicled legendary long distance rider Frank T. Hopkins and his horse and their participation in an annual 3,000 mile race in Arabia, 1891. Marred by claims that it took huge liberties with the actual historical figures and events it was based on, the film was snubbed by critics and barely made back its budget. It’s too bad because Hidalgo isn’t that bad a film. On the contrary, it is a refreshing straight-forward epic action/adventure.

Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his horse, Hidalgo, are known as the greatest long distance/endurance riders in the United States. We meet the man and his horse as they casually catch up to and then easily best an opponent (C. Thomas Howell in a cameo) in a cross-country race. Afterwards, the man makes the mistake of insulting Frank’s Spanish mustang and is knocked out cold for his troubles. With these early scenes, Johnston shows us the contradictions that exist within Frank. He likes to drink and the company of women, but he also has a deep understanding of the Native American Indian (his mother was a member of the Lakota tribe).

After witnessing the aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee, Hopkins becomes a disillusioned lush working as a rodeo clown for a traveling circus run by the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody (J.K. Simmons). To add insult to injury, at one point, the circus recreates a whitewashed version of the massacre. One day, Aziz (Adam Alexi-Malle), an emissary for Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), arrives and questions Frank’ and Hidalgo’s reputation as the greatest endurance rider and horse, respectively.

Aziz challenges Frank to participate in a 1,000 year-old race across 3,000 miles of harsh, Middle Eastern terrain known as the Arabian Desert – along the Persian Gulf and Iraq and across Syria. Or, as Aziz dramatically nicknames it, “the Ocean of Fire.” Frank will race against 100 of the best riders and their horses. Initially, he isn’t interested, but his best friend at the circus, Chief Eagle Horn (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), convinces him that the race will help Frank find and ultimately redeem himself.

During this first third of Hidalgo, Viggo Mortensen does a good job portraying a flawed man wracked with guilt over what happened at Wounded Knee. We see the pain etched across his face and how he tries to hide it by drinking. Frank is adrift in life as Chief Eagle Horn tells him, “You are the one who rides far from himself, and wishes not to look home.” With his rugged good looks and low-key attitude, Mortensen is a good fit to play a man of action like Frank Hopkins. With his squinty-eyed, laconic performance, it seems like the actor is channeling a bit of Clint Eastwood while also incorporating some of Harrison Ford circa his Indiana Jones films in the way he carries himself during the film’s various exciting action sequences. After the phenomenal success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy anything that the cast did immediately afterwards was going to be scrutinized heavily. Unfortunately, Mortensen was a victim of this and Hidalgo disappeared quickly from theaters.

Hidalgo is beautifully shot in the style of an old school epic, like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) by way of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with a dash of The Black Stallion (1979) for good measure. This is the kind of film that the widescreen aspect ratio was made for as director Johnston and his director of photography Shelly Johnson (Captain America) expertly utilize it, especially once Frank arrives in the Middle East and sees these grand desert vistas. They stage the action and racing sequences mostly in classic long shots so we can see where everyone is in relation to each other. This is where the widescreen aspect ratio really shines as we see the many horses head off into the desert, which culminates in an impressive set piece where Frank and Hidalgo narrowly escape a massive sandstorm.

Johnston and Johnson do an excellent job of capturing the harsh extremes of the inhospitable Middle Eastern desert: the blistering hot midday sun and searing heat as well as the bitterly cold nights. Then, there’s the swarm of locusts as Frank and Hidalgo are engulfed by so many of them that the sky is completely blotted out. There are even the immense sand dunes and an enormous dust storm that swallows up anything in its path. Even more punishing is the seemingly endless days without any human contact – just desolate desert that goes on forever. Johnston conveys the increasingly devastating effects of this environment by gradually draining the color out of the film until the scene where Hidalgo collapses from exhaustion, which is almost monochromatic as both Frank and his horse are pushed to the very limits of their endurance.

If there are any problems with this film it feels like Johnston is trying a little too hard to prove its epic credentials. The pacing of the first third of the film is a little slow and it takes too long to get to the Middle East and the race. It’s obvious what the filmmakers were going for with this structure. The first third establishes Frank’s character and his motivations for entering the race. However, this back-story could have been conveyed more succinctly in flashbacks or through expositional dialogue — although, the latter would have been much harder with a man of few words like Frank.

John Fusco has had a long-standing affinity for and fascination with American frontier history having written the screenplays for Thunderheart (1992) and both Young Guns movies. In 1989, he was even adopted into the Ogla-Lakota tribe after spending five years on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was there that he first heard of Frank T. Hopkins while doing research into lost Native American horse bloodlines. Fusco had become close to a medicine man who told him about Hopkins and his pinto mustang in the late 1800s. He recounted stories of the rider’s long-distance racing prowess and Fusco realized that it would make a great movie.

Fusco began to research Hopkins and the horse race, but did not uncover many facts. He not only found Hopkins’ own writing and interviews, but also a “few articles in old magazines and some relevant work by historians” as well as oral histories of Native American elders. Fusco used this material as the basis for his script, which he researched and wrote over 12 years without any kind of deal in place with a movie studio.

Jurassic Park III (2001) had been a tough shoot for director Joe Johnston and he was in no hurry to go back to work. Six months later, producer Casey Silver sent him a copy of Fusco’s script. The director was still feeling burnt out and didn’t read it for three weeks. When he finally did, Johnston loved the script and wanted to make the film, envisioning it as a classic action/adventure story from the 1940s and 1950s. Silver had worked previously with Johnston on October Sky (1999) and admired his “restraint” and “stoic sensibility.”

Fusco’s script and Johnston’s approach drew actor Viggo Mortensen to the project. He had ridden horses as a child, but with less and less frequency when he became an adult. Fortunately, he picked it up again while making The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but still needed to do extensive training. He did most of his own riding and stunts. The actor worked closely with horse trainer Rex Peterson and stunt coordinator Mike Watson. Mortensen rode bareback, jumped on the horse at a gallop, fell off a few times and even got kicked, but survived with very little injuries. For the actor, it was all about authenticity, “to get something that you can’t really buy otherwise, digitally or otherwise, especially with a movie like this which isn’t a special effects driven movie, you can follow me in one shot without cutting.”

Peterson spent three months finding the right horse to play Hidalgo. The ideal animal had to look right and be “gentle enough for an actor to ride,” which turned out to be a horse named T.J. Peterson then had to find horses to double for T.J. (they would do all the tricks, jump, race, and so on) who played Hidalgo in all of the close-ups. Not surprisingly, Mortensen bonded with T.J. – so much so that at the end of the production he bought the horse.

Hidalgo received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and called it, “bold, exuberant and swashbuckling, it has the purity and simplicity of something Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn might have bounded through.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Hokey though it is, with a horse-hugger ending thrown in to boot, Hidalgo has a sweet-natured appeal that welcomes sentiment without overdoing it.” In his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “But I'll be gosh-darned if the sound of the wind in Mortensen's dyed-red locks as he races across the sand, and that squint of determination in his dust-caked, gray-green eyes, aren't just diverting enough to turn Hidalgo into one rousing, if rote, adventure.”

However, In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “The much too long, primitively plotted family action adventure Hidalgo, directed by Joe Johnston, has a handful of well-handled sequences but, given the young audience the film is intended for, the picture may be like having to finish an entire pot of broccoli to get a couple of jelly beans for dessert.USA Today’s Claudia Puig felt the film had “an old-fashioned saga with adventure writ large, grand vistas and a stalwart hero. Unfortunately, it is limited by one-dimensional, even stereotypical characters and a predictable and drawn-out plot.Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “So this not-so-ripping yarn about Western will triumphing over what Allah decrees, directed with love for scale and location by Joe Johnston and written with too much love of man-to-horse chat by John Fusco, never quite settles into its paces.”

When it was released, Hidalgo faced criticism challenging the studio’s claim that it was based on a true story. Basha and CuChullaine O’Reilly, equestrian enthusiasts who founded the Long Riders’ Guild, edited and published an annotated version of Hidalgo and Other Stories by Frank T. Hopkins, which refuted a lot of the cowboy’s claims that were included in the film. For example, their extensive research found no evidence that Hopkins ever worked for Buffalo Bill Cody, but the most damning revelation was that the Ocean of Fire race that is featured so prominently in the film never actually existed. The O’Reillys claimed that Hopkins’ was hardly the heroic adventurer that Hidalgo presents him as.

Hidalgo plugs in the usual action/adventure clichés, but does so in an entertaining manner. Viggo Mortensen delivers a heartfelt performance and continued to show his impressive range as he successfully transformed himself into a bonafide swashbuckling hero. Hidalgo is unapologetically old school, which may explain why it failed to connect with contemporary audiences. Granted, there isn’t an original bone in the body of this film, but at the end of the day, who cares? It pushes all the right buttons as a well-crafted adventure film that takes us away to an exotic land rich in detail and full of atmosphere for its entire running time. Yes, it plays fast and loose with the facts and, in retrospect, should not have been marketed as being based on a true story. Judged on its own merits, however, Hidalgo is an engaging, well-crafted film.


Desai, Anuj. “A Mirage in the Desert.” Slate. March 4, 2004.

Florence, Bill. “Ride the Sandstorm. Starlog. May 2004.

Hidalgo Production Notes. 2004.

Otto, Jeff. “Interview: Joe Johnston, John Fusco and Viggo Mortensen.” IGN. March 4, 2004.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Breakfast of Champions

Alan Rudolph’s 1999 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions is the cinematic equivalent of a stand-up comedian trying so hard to be funny only to bomb spectacularly on-stage. If it’s possible for a film to exude flop sweat then this one does. And yet, it is not some impersonal Hollywood film churned out by committee. It is a passion project decades in the making and funded by its leading man, Bruce Willis, out of his own pocket. The film was a brave attempt by the movie star to show that he had some range as an actor, but he took a book that was widely regarded as unfilmable and made something that alienated Vonnegut’s fans and confused everyone else. Breakfast of Champions played the film festival circuit only to be given a brief theatrical release on a few screens before being relegated to obscurity on home video. Perhaps this misguided mess of a film deserves this kind of fate but it is a fascinating trainwreck nonetheless.

In a nod to the crude illustrations that appear sporadically throughout the novel, the opening credits also feature them while Martin Denny’s exotic lounge music plays on the soundtrack. We meet successful car salesman Dwayne Hoover (Bruce Willis) with a gun in his mouth but he doesn’t pull the trigger because he’s called to breakfast. He talks briefly with his suicidal, television-obsessed wife Celia (Barbara Hershey) and heads off to work in Midland City. Dwayne is a man barely keeping it together. He suffers from an identity crisis but has to also deal with Hawaiian Week at his car dealership. As if he didn’t have enough problems to deal with, Dwayne is having an affair with Francine (Glenne Headly), a co-worker at the dealership. Harry Le Sabre (Nick Nolte) is the sales manager at Dwayne’s dealership and likes to wear women’s clothing. He is paranoid that his boss will find out about his kinky habit.

Meanwhile, Eliot Rosewater (Ken Campbell), of the Rosewater Foundation, writes a fan letter to obscure pulp fiction author Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney), who has written 200 novels and 2000 short stories for sleazy men magazines. He has been invited to the Midlands City Arts Festival with a $1000 check to cover expenses and the promise of becoming famous. Breakfast of Champions alternates between Dwayne’s unraveling mind and Trout’s ruminations on life and his writing as he travels to the Arts Festival.

Is it any wonder Dwayne has no idea who he is when he’s constantly surrounded by images of himself, be it the omnipresent car advertisements on T.V., or his employees that surprise him one morning at work all wearing Dwayne Hoover masks (which resembles a low-tech version of the multiple Malkovichs in Being John Malkovich). Bruce Willis does a good job playing a man rapidly coming apart at the seams, but we never get an idea of why. Very little motivation is provided and so one assumes that Dwayne simply woke up one day on the brink of sanity. He starts off trying to blow his own brains out and goes downhill from there. Eventually, he comes to the realization that the only way to get out of his existential funk is talking to someone from another planet. Enter: Kilgore Trout.

Nick Nolte is hilarious and easily the best thing about this film as the unhinged Harry Le Sabre. He’s almost as far gone as Dwayne and the film plays out like a race to see who’s going to snap their cap first. Nolte and Willis also seem to be locked into a battle of wills to see who can deliver the most fearless performance devoid of any kind of vanity. It’s close, but I give Nolte the win by a hair. If I took anything away from this film it was the unforgettable image of Nolte running across a car lot yelling, “Maui!” while wearing a red lingerie. The scenes between the two actors are the best parts of the film, especially the one where an increasingly nervous Harry tries to explain to Dwayne why he is a cross-dresser.

Albert Finney is largely wasted in this film as early on Trout carries on a meaningless conversation with his pet budgie named Bill. The veteran actor spends most of his screen-time playing the cantankerous Trout who rambles on endlessly in rather cryptic fashion. The rest of the cast doesn’t fair much better with their one-note supporting characters but they all gamely do their best with the material they’re given.

Filmmaker Alan Rudolph had been trying to make a film version of Breakfast of Champions shortly after it was published in 1973 and actually wrote a screenplay in 1975, but its unconventional satire of small-town American life was largely plotless and a hard sell to movie studios. After working with actor Nick Nolte on Afterglow (1997), Rudolph convinced him to sign on and then used his name to attract financing, but still couldn’t drum up any interest.

In 1993, Bruce Willis and Rudolph had tried to make the film together, but problems with scheduling, financing or scripting prevented it from going ahead. Finally, after making Mercury Rising (1998), Willis’ brother told him, “Every action sequence in that movie was derivative of at least three films you’ve already done.” The actor decided that he needed to “do some movies without a gun in my hand,” or, as he put it, a chance to “work a little acting into my career now and then.” His production company bought the rights to Vonnegut’s book and provided the reported $10-12 million budget. As Nolte said jokingly, “Knowing Bruce, he probably presold it in Europe first.”

Willis was drawn to playing Dwayne Hoover because the character did “the scariest thing that any human being could: take the hard look inside.” Getting the film self-financed afforded Rudolph complete creative freedom – something he would not have had with a studio. It also allowed Willis to own the negative to a film he starred in. Once the star-studded cast was in place, Touchstone Pictures agreed to distribute it. Filming took place over six weeks in Twin Falls, Idaho in February 1998.

During the editing stage, Rudolph felt that Breakfast of Champions had a chance at being a box office success, especially with the cast he had assembled. After announcing a spring 1999 release, the studio changed their mind and gave it a very limited release in the fall. In retrospect, Rudolph was glad that it took so long to get the film made “because what once was a dark satire has now become an honest reflection of American culture that’s accelerating into collective madness.”

Not surprisingly, the knives came out when critics review Breakfast of Champions. In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “In many ways, Breakfast of Champions is an incoherent mess. But it never compromises its zany vision of the country as a demented junkyard wonderland in which we are all strangers groping for a hand to guide us through the looking glass into an unsullied tropical paradise of eternal bliss.” Entertainment Weekly, on the other hand, gave it an “F” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Rudolph, in an act of insane folly, seems to think that what matters is the story. The result could almost be his version of a Robert Altman disaster – a movie so unhinged it practically dares you not to hate it.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “As it is, Breakfast of Champions is too in-your-face, too heavily satirical in its look, and its ideas not as fresh as they should be. For the film to have grabbed us from the start, Rudolph needed to make a sharper differentiation between the everyday world his people live in and the vivid world of their tormented imaginations.” In her review for the Village Voice, Amy Taubin felt that the film, “suffers from a saccharine ending, but that's hardly its worst problem. Another middle-aged male-crisis opus, it begins on a note of total migraine-inducing hysteria, which continues unabated throughout.”

Understandably bitter with the way Breakfast of Champions was received by critics and audiences, Rudolph chalked up his film’s commercial failure to American film critics “who still have the power to destroy a little movie, and who used that power to blast the hell out of Breakfast,” and also the way Disney, who owns Touchstone Pictures, released it: “In such a derisory fashion that no one knew it existed.”

With its heightened, stylized performances from a star-studded cast and a hallucinatory look, it makes one think that Rudolph saw Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) – another book with an unfilmable reputation – and decided to apply the same aesthetic to Breakfast of Champions, but it just doesn’t work because the source material is so different. Rudolph employs all kinds of zany graphics in an attempt to give us a look inside of Dwayne’s mind. As with someone of his caliber of filmmaking, Breakfast of Champions looks great, complete with atmospheric cinematography and rich set design that helps immerse us in this very stylized world.

Maybe Rudolph was inspired by his mentor Robert Altman’s absurdist ode to flight, Brewster McCloud (1970), but the end result is more like the teen comedy misfire O.C. and Stiggs (1984). The main problem with Breakfast of Champions is that it makes no sense to anyone who hasn’t read Vonnegut’s novel. It is an impenetrable collection of highlights from the book and yet I find myself admiring Rudolph and company’s chutzpah for making such a blatantly uncommercial film. Not since Gus Van Sant’s failed adaptation of another unfilmable novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), has a film squandered such talent. Like the aforementioned film, Breakfast of Champions is populated with an impressive cast as big names like Willis and Nolte who are supported by Barbara Hershey, Buck Henry and Owen Wilson in small roles. One feels that this film was more fun to make then it is to watch. I can’t totally hate it though, because it does feel like everyone’s heart is in the right place. You have to give Rudolph and co. an A for effort, but that’s about all you can do. This is for fans of indecipherable adaptations of iconic novels. All others need not apply.


Leigh, Danny. “Bullets for Breakfast.The Guardian. July 6, 2000.

Lieberman, Paul. “Keeping it Fresh with a Vengeance.” Los Angeles Times. October 10, 1999.

Stein, Ruthe. “Nolte Charms at Renovated Film Center.” San Francisco Chronicle. April 19, 1999. Pg. C1.

Wallace, Amy. “A Die-Hard Dreamer.” Los Angeles Times. October 9, 1998.

Yakir, Dan. “After 20 years, Breakfast is Served.” BPI Entertainment News Wire. September 15, 1999.