"...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, August 26, 2016

The Outsiders

I was just the right age for S.E. Hinton’s young adult novels in the early 1980s. It was at an impressionable age that I read and re-read The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and Tex (for some reason I never warmed up to That Was Then, This Is Now). I loved getting lost in the worlds she created, often about teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks facing real problems. I liked that she didn’t sugarcoat things or talked down to her readers. There was an authenticity to her work that deeply affected me, especially The Outsiders, the novel of hers I read the most.

As luck would have it, the ‘80s would see film adaptations of her first four novels, starting with Tex (1982), but the one I really looked forward to the most was The Outsiders (1983). At that young age I had no idea who Francis Ford Coppola was or the mostly unknown cast of young actors but I knew that they brilliantly brought Hinton’s novel to the life on the big screen almost exactly how I imagined it when I read it. The film affected me so strongly that the characters in the novel and the actors that portrayed him became indistinguishable.

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” And so begins Hinton’s classic story about troubled youths in 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) is a young teenager from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s a Greaser, Hinton’s romanticized version of poor, white trash. He and his best friend Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio) go to a drive-in movie theater with fellow Greaser Dallas Winston (Matt Dillon).

What is so striking about these early scenes is how much Matt Dillon commands the screen with his cocky swagger and mischievous attitude as he half-heartedly chases a trio of little kids across a vacant lot while “Gloria” by Them plays on the soundtrack. The actor portrays his character like a playful variation of Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild One (1953). He really gets to have some fun when Dallas, Johnny and Ponyboy arrive at the drive-in and decide to sit behind two beautiful girls – Cherry (Diane Lane) and her friend Marcia (Michelle Meyrink) – who left their drunk Soc (rich white kids) boyfriends. He starts hitting on Cherry and initially it’s funny and we see genuine chemistry between Dillon and Diane Lane (that would continue in two more films they made together) but things go south quickly when he gets nasty and she tells him to get lost. It’s an enjoyable bit of acting on Dillon’s part as we see how easily Dallas can go from rascally to crude in a few moments. Lane is also decent as Cherry goes from playfully flirting to angrily offended, telling off the nasty punk.

After leaving the drive-in, the focus shifts to Ponyboy and Johnny who take refuge in vacant lot when the latter discovers his parents fighting at home. This scene shows the close bond these two boys have and how tough life is for them, especially when they have to deal with Socs. Ralph Macchio is particularly moving in this scene as Johnny breaks down and laments, “Seems like there’s got to be some place without Greasers, Socs. Must be some place with just plain, ordinary people.” He says these words with a heartbreaking vulnerability reminiscent of Sal Mineo’s doomed teen in A Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Their lives are changed forever when they hang out at a local playground and cross paths with a carload of Socs – the same ones that are boyfriends to Cherry and Marcia and that beat Johnny pretty badly awhile back. They attack Ponyboy and Johnny, trying to drown the former until the latter kills one of them with a switchblade. Fearing that they’ll get in trouble with the law (because Ponyboy’s parents are dead, he’ll be taken away from his brothers) even though it was self-defense, they have Dallas get them out of town. He sends them out to an abandoned church in the country and for a spell the film becomes a two-hander as Ponyboy and Johnny spend the days playing cards and reading Gone with the Wind to each other. This is The Outsiders at its most romantic as they watch sunrises and remark at the stunning colors as Ponyboy quotes a Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Over the course of the film, Coppola extends the metaphor to the friendship between the two boys.

Coppola gets truly wonderful performances out of his young cast, in particular C. Thomas Howell and Macchio, as evident in the portion of the film where their characters are hiding out in the country. There’s one scene where Ponyboy gets upset when the realization of how much trouble they’re in sinks in. Their friendship is the heart and soul of The Outsiders with the sensitive Johnny being the Greasers’ unofficial mascot that everyone looks out for – even the jaded tough guy Dallas. Watching this film more than 30 years later it is amazing to see how many actors got their start or that this was their first major role. Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze, and Tom Cruise were all relative unknowns and went on to greater fame after the success of this movie.

Coppola has always had an uncanny eye for casting and this is readily apparent with The Outsiders, which features an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the cast. Lowe and Swayze play Ponyboy’s older brothers, both of whom had to drop out of school to get jobs to make ends meet with the former playing the disciplinarian and the latter, the easy-going peacemaker. They, along with Howell, are believable as brothers, given little screen-time to convey a tight bond between their respective characters.

Howell delivers a thoughtful performance, capturing the dreamer quality that is essential to Ponyboy, a character who reads Gone with the Wind and enjoys sunsets. Estevez is a funny scene-stealer as Two-Bit Matthews, always cracking jokes. Initially, Dallas appears to be the toughest, most cynical of the Greasers, but by the end of the film it is revealed that under that hard exterior is someone with a big heart and when the one thing that keeps him in check is taken away, he spirals out of control, which allows Dillon to go full-on Method scenery-chewing in a powerful, show-stopping, operatic exit that is worthy of the 1950s melodramas Coppola is celebrating.

With the help of cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, Coppola creates a richly textured world shot in glorious widescreen with a look that evokes another epic about troubled youth, A Rebel Without a Cause. The Outsiders is also drenched in the golden hues of warm sunrises and sunsets like something right out of Gone with the Wind (1939). The Outsiders is clearly Coppola’s homage to Rebel and other melodramatic teen movies of the ‘50s. The screenplay is peppered with the occasional grandiose statement like when Dallas dedicates the upcoming rumble with the Socs, “We’ll do it for Johnny,” like a declaration of war that seems anachronistic and cheesy by today’s standards but would not seem out of place in a James Dean film.

One of the themes that drives The Outsiders is a loss of innocence. Despite his poor upbringing, Ponyboy is an idealist who believes in the basic decency of people – even Socs. It is Johnny who keeps him hopeful, to “Stay Gold,” to paraphrase the Robert Frost poem they both love. Ultimately, the film is about looking beyond one’s socio-economic class and judging people by their actions. Although, it is pretty obvious that Coppola’s sympathies lie with the Greasers as opposed to the selfish Socs.

That being said, there’s a nice scene late in the film when Ponyboy has a private conversation with Randy (Darren Dalton), the Soc that was friends with the boy that Johnny killed. He lets his guard down and tells Ponyboy in a moment of rare candor, “You can’t win, you know that, don’t you? It doesn’t matter if you whip us, you’ll still be where you were before – at the bottom and we’ll still be the lucky ones at the top with all the breaks. It doesn’t matter. Greasers’ll still be Greasers and Socs will still be Socs.” It is an important scene in that it not only humanizes Randy but also underlines the fundamental truth about this world – the characters will forever be defined by their socio-economical class. It is this realization that makes the Greasers’ victory over the Socs in the film’s climactic battle ultimately a hollow one. This is compounded further by the tragic demise of two people close to Ponyboy.

S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was 15-years-old, based on the social differences she witnessed at her high school. Viking Press published it two years later in 1967 and it quickly became a cultural phenomenon, kickstarting the Young Adult genre. It immediately struck a chord with young readers who identified with its honest depiction of teenagers and became a staple at school classrooms around the country. In 1980, Francis Ford Coppola received a paperback copy of the novel accompanied by a letter written by Jo Ellen Misakian, a librarian at Lone Star School, Fresno County. Apparently, a petition had been started at school to get the book made into a film and they selected Coppola as the best director for the job.

In her letter, she wrote, “I feel our students are representative of the youth of America. Everyone who has read the book, regardless of ethnic or economic background, has enthusiastically endorsed this project.” Coppola asked his producer Fred Roos to read the book and let him know if it was suitable for cinematic treatment. He read it from cover to cover and recommended Coppola make it. In addition, the novel had sold four million copies since 1970 and this convinced Coppola of its potential for box office success – something that he needed at the time. Roos met with Hinton in the summer of ’80 and found out that she wasn’t a fan of Coppola’s Godfather films or Apocalypse Now (1979) but being an admirer of horses loved The Black Stallion (1979), which he produced, and felt that it demonstrated he and Roos “had some affinity for young adult fiction,” according to the latter.

Hinton asked $5,000 for the rights but at the time Zoetrope, Coppola’s production company, was struggling with massive bank debt when his passion project, the ambitious One from the Heart’s (1982) budget ballooned to $25 million. She agreed to a $500 down payment. He was able to get a distribution contract from Warner Bros. and on the strength of that, Chemical Banks gave Zoetrope a loan and a completion guarantee from Britain’s National Film Finance Corporation, which resulted in a $10 million budget.

Coppola hired young writer Kathleen Rowell to adapt the novel but the filmmaker felt that their screenplay was “too much soap opera” and shelved the project. He would soon return to it, reading the book and feeling that making it would be a way to escape his trouble with Zoetrope: “I used to be a great camp counselor, and the idea of being with half a dozen kids in the country and making a movie seemed like being a camp counselor again. It would be a breath of fresh air. I’d forget my troubles and have some laughs again.” He would end up writing 14 drafts with Hinton. The Writers Guild of America wouldn’t give her credit for her contributions and in protest, Coppola temporarily quit the organization.

To prepare for filming, Hinton drove Coppola around Tulsa, showing him locations she thought of while writing the book. To help the cast get into character, Coppola separated them by social class and so all the Greasers stayed on the same hotel room floor and hung out together while the Socs had nicer rooms. Furthermore, the actors playing the Socs received their scripts in leather-bound binders while the Greasers had them in denim notebooks. Actor Ralph Macchio remembers that Coppola had “a very theatrical way of working.” In early March of 1982, the cast spent two weeks rehearsing, improvising, and doing acting exercises, which helped everyone bond with each other. He then videotaped a dress rehearsal with the actors in front of a blank screen. He would superimpose stills of exterior locations sites in Tulsa and shots of interior sets so that by the time principal photography started on March 29, he had a good idea of how each scene would look. C. Thomas Howell remembers, “We were all raw and young and very impressionable, so it was a good time for us to have a mentor like Coppola.”

Filming finished on May 15 as planned and Coppola began editing it during the summer. He approached his father Carmine to compose “a kind of schmaltzy classical score” that would embody the Gone with the Wind for teens vibe he wanted: “It appealed to me that kids could see Outsiders as a lavish, big-feeling epic about kids.”

While performing strongly at the box office, The Outsiders was not particularly well-received by critics with Roger Ebert giving it two-and-a-half out of four stars. He wrote, “The problem, I’m afraid, is with Coppola’s direction. He seems so hung up with his notions of a particular movie ‘look,’ with his perfectionistic lighting and framing and composition, that the characters wind up like pictures, framed and hanged on the screen.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “To those of us who can’t buy Mr. Coppola’s inflated attempts at myth making, it’s a melodramatic kidfilm with the narrative complexity of The Three Bears and a high body count.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Between the aimlessness of the plot and the marshmallow sponginess of the sentimental content, Coppola is left with ingredients every bit as defective and softheaded as the ones he overrated in One from the Heart.”

Coppola’s original version was quite faithful to Hinton’s book but in 2005, he decided to revisit the film and put back in 22 more minutes of deleted scenes, most noticeably at the beginning and end of the film. This new footage opens up the film more. We are introduced to the Greasers much earlier on now that Coppola isn’t reined in by the dictates of test screenings. Another significant change has Coppola replacing all of his father’s beautiful, classical score in favor of period rock ‘n’ roll music. In some cases, like the opening scene where Ponyboy is jumped by some Socs, it works and in others, like the whimsical surf music that plays over the scene where the Socs jump Johnny and Ponyboy, it feels awkward and out of place. Part of the film’s original charm was its moments of ‘50s style melodrama, as epitomized by the film’s orchestral soundtrack, and this is diminished by the newly inserted period music that could be right out of an episode of Crime Story. Hinton’s books are timeless with their universal themes and the original music reflected that. This new music, while accurate for its time period, contributes to a loss of some of the timeless feel.

Throughout the ups and downs that Ponyboy experiences, what matters most is the bond he has with his brothers and his fellow Greasers that are an extension of his biological family. They stick up for each other and this is a large part of the film’s (and book’s) appeal – a story dominated by teenagers with little to no adult presence. When you’re a kid and always being told what to do by your parents, teachers and other adults, a story where kids your own age are the protagonists has a very definite allure – a form of escape that speaks to the reader in a way that feels honest and true. This is why the novel and its film adaptation continue to endure and speak to successive generations of young people.


Cowie, Peter. Coppola. Da Capo Press. 1994.

Dickerson, Justin. “An Inside Look at The Outsiders.” USA Today. September 19, 2005.

Gilliam, Mitch, Joshua Kline, Joe O’Shansky and Michael Wright. “Making The Outsiders.” The Tulsa Voice. August 2016.

Harmetz, Aljean. “Making The Outsiders, A Librarian’s Dream.” The New York Times. March 23, 1983.

Phillips, Gene D. Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola. University Press of Kentucky. 2004.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Big Sleep

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Film Noir Blogathon over at The Midnite Drive-In Blog.

The Big Sleep (1946) is often considered one of the quintessential classic film noirs and with good reason. Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name by none other than William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett and directed by Howard Hawks, it stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall who had previously appeared together in To Have and Have Not (1944). The studio wanted to capitalize on the undeniable chemistry between the two actors and the public’s fascination with them. The end result is an atmospheric private detective story masterfully told and expertly filmed.

Philip Marlowe (Bogart) arrives at the Sternwood house to speak to its patriarch about a job. While waiting in the foyer he meets the youngest daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers), who coyly flirts with him. “You’re not very tall are you?” she says and without missing a beat he replies, “Well, I try to be.” She practically throws herself at him but he wisely and politely rebuffs her playful flirtations.

Marlowe meets with General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) in his greenhouse and the man is a no-bullshit kind of person that has no problem speaking his mind. He’s being blackmailed by a man named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) and the man who usually took care of these matters has disappeared. It seems that Carmen owes a sizable amount of money to Arthur Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), a rare book dealer. Sternwood hires Marlowe to get rid of Geiger and so begins his journey into a shadowy criminal underworld.

Before leaving, Marlowe visits with Vivian (Bacall), the eldest daughter, and it gives us a chance to see the sparks fly between Bogart and Bacall as their characters engage in some wonderful verbal sparring until Marlowe delivers a lengthy zinger:

“I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me, drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

Bogart delivers this dialogue clearly and quickly with just the right amount of withering sarcasm that puts Vivian in her place. The Big Sleep is full some of the best-written, snappy dialogue, like a memorable exchange early on between Marlowe and the Sternwood’s butler (Charles D. Brown):

Marlowe: How did Mrs. Rutledge know I was here?
Butler: She saw you through the window, sir and I was obliged to tell her who you were.
Marlowe: I don’t know I like that.
Butler: Are you attempting to tell me my duties, sir?
Marlowe: No, just having fun trying to guess what they are.

While the butler delivers his lines emotionlessly, Marlowe has a wry smile on his face as he enjoys messing with the man. Writing clever dialogue and having someone talented enough to say it has become a lost art and this film is a potent reminder of just how entertaining it is to watch a film that is so well-made.

After doing some legwork, Marlowe trails Geiger to his home and we get the first proper noir set piece as the private investigator hangs back while his target makes his way in the pouring rain at night. Time passes, the rain stops and a flash of light goes off in the house followed by a gunshot forcing the P.I. into action. No more playful flirting for Marlowe as he becomes embroiled in a convoluted mystery.

I was never a big fan of Humphrey Bogart’s but watching The Big Sleep again made me rethink my stance on him. Watching the actor deftly shift gears in a given scene, changing tone from comedy to drama and back again, is seeing a very skilled thespian masterfully plying his trade. He could play a ladies’ man, coyly flirting with women, and also be a tough guy, like when Marlowe finds himself in a dangerous situation.

Bogart’s Marlowe is quite the ladies’ man, flirting with nearly every woman that crosses his path, from the Sternwood women to a cute librarian (Carole Douglas) to a sexy bookstore proprietress (Dorothy Malone) who all happen to be gorgeous knock-outs. It is interesting to see the number of women from all walks of life that Marlowe encounters – a reminder that it took place during World War II when many men were overseas fighting. With the amount of flirting that goes on in this film maybe it should have been called The Big Flirt.

Lauren Bacall plays the quintessential “tough dame” that often populated film noirs. She more than holds her own against Bogart considering their difference in age and acting experience, but she had natural ability and a screen presence that is always interesting to watch. She even gets to sing in one scene – “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine” – which provides an enjoyable moment of levity. She is more than capable of handling the screenplay’s twisty dialogue and portraying a sophisticated woman.

The scenes between Bogart and Bacall crackle with sexual tension as their characters flirt with each other and, as it turns out, they were in love with each other in real life. It is easy to see in the way they look at each other in a given scene – that is genuine chemistry between two people. It is also a large part of the film’s appeal.

After the success of To Have and Have Not, Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner wanted to find another film for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to star in after audiences responded to their on-screen chemistry. He asked Howard Hawks, who had directed them in To Have and Have Not if he had any ideas. He had been talking with William Faulkner about possibly adapting Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

In 1939, Warner Bros. had toyed with the idea of buying the film options to the book but feared that the subject matter (pornography, nymphomania, homosexuality, etc.) would never get past the censors. Hawks assured Warner that he could get a screenplay that would pass the censors. Enticed by the re-teaming of Hawks with Bogart and Bacall, the studio chief green-lit the project.

Hawks employed Faulkner to write the script and while he tackled the plot, the director hired first-time novelist Leigh Brackett, whose novel No Good from a Corpse impressed him, to work on the dialogue. Hawks told his writers, “Don’t monkey with the book – just make a script out of it. The writing is too good.” They proceeded to soften or omit the less savory aspects of Chandler’s novel to appease the censors. It took them only six weeks to produce a shooting script.

Principal photography began on October 10, 1944. There was tension between Bogart and Bacall, who had an affair while making To Have and Have Not, when, before filming, he told her that since his wife had stopped drinking, he was going to give their marriage another try. This made Bacall very nervous during filming and she relied on Hawks to make it through the endeavor

The emotional toll of his turbulent marriage affected Bogart, who still loved Bacall, causing nights of little sleep and heavy drinking. His on-again-off-again relationship with his wife put terrible strain on him to the point that in one instance he was unable to report to work. Fortunately, Hawks covered for him with the studio. It got so bad that by November, the film was 17 days behind schedule.

Illness and injuries to various cast members also slowed down filming as well as continual rewrites of the script. Eventually, Faulkner burned out and left the production and Hawks brought in Jules Furthman to sharpen dialogue, reshape scenes and come up with a new ending. To make up time, the director shot faster and cut pages from the script. Principal photography finished on January 12, 1945. It took 76 days to film – 34 more than had originally been scheduled.

The Big Sleep had its world premiere in the Philippines in August 1945 and by October it was being shown to United States servicemen in several bases overseas. Hawks felt that the Marlowe-Vivian relationship needed more work. In addition, Bacall’s film Confidential Agent (1945) was released and bombed with the actress receiving bad notices. Worried that this might affect The Big Sleep, it was felt that three to four additional scenes of her and Bogart together would improve the film. Philip Epstein, co-screenwriter of Casablanca (1942), was hired to write these new scenes.

The new version, which debuted in 1946, featured 18 minutes of new material but was actually two minutes shorter. In addition to the scenes between Bogart and Bacall, another one was added with Marlowe and Carmen. Cut from the 1945 version was a scene where the facts of the case are reviewed by Marlowe and Chief Inspector Ohls (Regis Toomey). As a result, the version we know and love came across as a tad confusing or “enigmatic” as Leonard Maltin put it.

With the atmospheric sounds and memorable score by Max Steiner, coupled with Sidney Hickox’s richly textured black and white cinematography, Hawks creates a fantastic mood and, at the right moments, a sense of danger that is vintage noir. The common complaint is that at some point it becomes impossible to figure out what The Big Sleep is about but for me I hardly notice it because I get caught up in what’s going on, enjoying a given scene – the interaction between characters and the snappy dialogue that is bantered back and forth, which makes the film such a pleasure to watch again and again.


Grimes, William. “The Mystery of The Big Sleep Solved.” The New York Times. January 9, 1997.

McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. Grove Press. 1997.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Spanish Prisoner

“A fellow said, ‘We must never forget that we are human. And as humans we must dream. And when we dream we dream of money.”

This line of dialogue is spoken early on in The Spanish Prisoner (1998) and establishes one of the most important themes of David Mamet’s film: greed. The allure of money is what motivates all of the characters in the film save one – its protagonist, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott). He is not only at the mercy of other people’s greed but also their deception, which is another significant theme of this film.

Joe Ross and his friend and business partner George Lang (Ricky Jay) have invented “The Process,” a complicated formula that controls the global financial market. While pitching it to their boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) at a resort somewhere in the Caribbean, Joe meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a wealthy, well-spoken man who offers $1,000 for Joe’s camera. The two men become friends and Joe is gradually drawn into a world filled with elaborate facades where no one can be trusted.

Campbell Scott is first-rate as the innocent man embroiled in a scheme where Joe is at the mercy of situations beyond his control. He is not dumb – just not savvy but he wises up soon enough. Joe is the classic patsy, set-up in an elaborate frame job that is so beautifully orchestrated that we wonder how he’ll get out of it. The actor handles Mamet’s wordy screenplay with ease and his calm, even voice is perfectly suited for the filmmaker’s dialogue.

Steve Martin not only slides effortlessly into this dramatic role, but is also adept at speaking Mamet’s dialogue. He has a tough role in that he plays a charismatic wealthy man who turns out to be a master at the long con, gaining Joe’s trust by giving enough believable personal details in an affable way to gain his (and our) trust. It isn’t until late in the film that we realize just how much we’ve been taken in by Jimmy. At one point, he tells Joe, “People aren’t that complicated, Joe. Good people, bad people. They generally look like what they are.” This is, of course, a lie as Jimmy is nothing like what he seems.

In a mannered performance, Rebecca Pidgeon plays a chatty femme fatale that uses her incessant chatter as a smoke screen. Not for one second do we believe she’s the eager beaver, low-level secretary she pretends to be and even tells Joe at one point, “Who is what they seem? Who in this world is what they seem?” Again, she is conning both Joe and us because her annoying perchance for verbal diarrhea throws us off guard – there’s no way she could be in on the con even when she makes a point of warning us.

Known for playing the obnoxious dad in the popular sitcom Married…with Children, Ed O’Neill is cast against type as a no-nonsense FBI agent along with a pre-Desperate Housewives Felicity Huffman. Long-time Mamet collaborator Ricky Jay is exceptional as Joe’s business partner, getting the bulk of the film’s memorable lines in the first third of the film. Ben Gazzara also has a memorable turn as Joe’s somewhat enigmatic boss whose behavior only adds to our hero’s paranoia.

Not surprisingly, The Spanish Prisoner is chock-a-block with classic Mamet-speak with such gems as George telling Joe, “Here’s what I think, you know – worry is like interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.” Another keeper is when Jimmy says to Joe, “A man said, it’s alright when your hobbies get in the way of your work but when they start to get in the way of each other…” And finally, this gem: “Beware of all enterprises, which require new clothes,” says George at one point. The film is an unusual thriller in the sense that everyone speaks eloquently and intelligently in the very distinctive cadence of Mamet’s style.

The Process is the film’s MacGuffin, a thing that everyone values highly but is never fully explained or revealed but is apparently capable of generating a large amount of money, which is also never revealed. The characters dance around what it is exactly and Mamet does this intentionally because it is ultimately unimportant. Its purpose is to get Joe embroiled in a complex web of lies and deceits from which he tries to extricate himself.

One of the first images in the film is of luggage going through an x-ray machine. Mamet is cleverly foreshadowing one of the film’s central themes, which is the nature of perception and how some things are hidden even when they seem to be visible. The first time we watch The Spanish Prisoner we are like Joe – unaware of just how much he’s being manipulated by others. It isn’t until the second time around that we look for the signs that this is all an elaborate ruse. Joe, a man of numbers and formulas, is oblivious to these manipulations because he is so focused on The Process. It isn’t until it is stolen that he gradually becomes more self-aware.

The idea for The Spanish Prisoner came from a time when David Mamet and his wife were on vacation in the Caribbean. It was raining the whole time and he was looking at a little lagoon from his porch and saw a large 140-foot yacht with a helicopter on top: “And I wondered what someone would be like who came off that yacht. Then I started wondering, what if someone came off the yacht and you weren’t sure if they came off the yacht.” He decided to make a light thriller in the style of Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Donen. He had also wanted to work with actor Campbell Scott since he saw him in Longtime Companion (1989) and felt that he would be right for a “clean-cut, patrician, Leyendecker, Arrow-shirt” role.

The con employed in the film is an actual one called the Spanish Prisoner and still done today: “It’s a fairly long con and involves getting a substantial amount of money off a person and putting the person ‘on the send.’ Making a connection with the guy and sending him off to get some money and come back,” Mamet said in an interview.

The Spanish Prisoner received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The Spanish Prisoner is delightful in the way a great card manipulator is delightful. It rolls its sleeves above its elbows to show it has no hidden cards, and then produces them out of thin air.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The splendid inspiration of Alfred Hitchcock is much in evidence, with Mr. Scott as a latter-day James Stewart coping with the most subtly extraordinary of circumstances and later reeling from surprise after surprise. He and Mr. Martin especially display the debonair sang-froid that the material warrants.” The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “The ultimate seriousness of The Spanish Prisoner is validated by the rueful self-flagellation of the hero, and his recognition that the world itself is awash in chaos and corruption. Hence, there is no real Hitchcockian moral closure, no probing into the depths of the soul for the evil that lurks in us all.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “In The Spanish Prisoner, a tight, mathematically pleasing exercise in con-manship, Mamet returns to the coolly observed turf he knows well, and pulls off another fine, bitter, intellectual heist.” However, the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “The Spanish Prisoner ends as abruptly as it began slowly. Its rhythms, therefore, feel violated, it just stops, rather too conveniently, with the intrusion of still another level of conspiratorial force far beyond what has gone before.”

Like the protagonist in another Mamet film, House of Games (1987), Joe must navigate a series of challenging con games. However, The Spanish Prisoner is much more complex in its plotting so that the scams perpetrated on Joe are layered in such a way that he is never sure who he can trust. As Joe is being conned by various people in the film so are we by Mamet as he playfully manipulates our expectations of the genre. As Mamet said in an interview, “Well, writing a movie like this is exactly the same as if I were developing a con, because I am developing a con. The filmmaker has to get something from the audience – their belief, their credulity – which they wouldn’t [give] if they were thinking about it.” We think we know which way the plot is going to go only for him to pull the narrative rug out from under us. Some may be put off by The Spanish Prisoner because it doesn’t try to endear us to any of the characters or be sentimental. It’s a logical, methodically plotted thriller, seemingly from another planet and this is due in large part to Mamet’s idiosyncratically written dialogue and stylized direction.


Covington, Richard. “The Salon Interview: David Mamet.” Salon. October 1997.

Pride, Ray. “Con Artist.” Filmmaker magazine. Spring 1998.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Being Evel

For many kids growing up in the 1970s, Evel Knievel was a real-life superhero. He became famous for performing death-defying stunts that usually involved him jumping over something (or many things) with a motorcycle. He was the pioneer of what would later be known as extreme sports, inspiring a generation of kids to push the envelope with what was possible on skateboards, bicycles and so on. Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine helped create a very popular reality television show called Jackass, which was, in part, their tribute to Knievel. Years later, they helped produce a documentary on the man entitled, Being Evel (2015), directed by Daniel Junge. It chronicles Knievel’s rise from very humble beginnings to being rich and famous until fame consumed him – with help from a sizable ego, precipitating an alarming descent that left him financially destitute.

Right from the get-go, one gets the feeling that this was a passion project for Knoxville who is the first talking head on-screen as he lays out the film’s thesis: “I didn’t know the story of the man and it was pretty complex. I’m a grown-ass man and some of the stuff is hard to reconcile. It’s a crazy story.” The documentary proceeds to examine Knievel’s colorful life as told through vintage footage of his most memorable stunts both on and off the motorcycle and interviews with his family, friends, contemporaries, and admirers.

Knievel grew up in the rough and tough mining town of Butte, Montana without parents, raised by his grandmother. He learned early on how to fight and never backed down from a challenge. As a teen, he discovered motorcycles, raising hell with them at every opportunity. He committed all sorts of petty crimes over the years before eventually settling down and getting a job selling insurance, but when he realized that there was no room for advancement he quit and moved away with his wife Linda and their kids.

He sold motorcycles and then got the idea to start jumping things with them. He and his family settled in California and started a stunt riding show. It was at this time that he started developing showmanship techniques that would serve him well in the future.

Being Evel takes us back to the heady days of ABC’s Wide World of Sports with its iconic introduction that everyone who saw it back in the day could recite by heart: “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” with the shot of the ski jumper wiping out that everyone remembers, memorably illustrating “the agony of defeat.” As ABC Sports producer Doug Wilson says, “We were in the business of sports theater. Sports was drama. Sports was a story.” It was one of the biggest shows on T.V. at that time and was a program that Knievel was perfect for. He was able to get on it by jumping over 15 cars.

The documentary takes us through some of Knievel’s greatest hits, like jumping the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas (scamming the casino’s owner in order to get permission to do it) and the infamous Snake River Canyon jump, which was a high-profile debacle, often with mixed results as the footage of the former shows him crashing and breaking several bones. Not only did he not make the latter jump (in a rocket-powered vehicle no less), but things got ugly among the tens of thousands of people that showed up to witness the event, some of whom belonged to various motorcycle gangs. It was “the evil twin of Woodstock,” as someone puts it. A high school band tried to play and were accosted, outhouses were knocked over and set on fire, women were raped, and fights broke out. Amazingly, no one was killed.

Knievel was breaking new ground and, as a result, was making it up as he went along or, as Knoxville points out, in regards to the stunts: “He dreamed up and sold before he even knew was possible and then on the day, he’s got the crowds there and he doesn’t know if he can make it. He’s just got to go for it.” The film explores how Knievel became an overnight popular culture sensation by putting it in a historical context. The United States was just coming out of the Vietnam War, which was a very dark period of American history. The American public had become very cynical and needed a hero. Knievel, with his white, star-spangled jumpsuit, stepped up and gave people someone to look up to. He was so popular that his stunts were among seven of the top ten rated shows in Wide World of Sports’ 37-year history.

Knievel quickly realized that he drew more crowds when he crashed then when he successfully landed a jump, telling a friend, “Nobody wants to see me die but they don’t want to miss it if I do.” His stunts literally embodied Wide World of Sports' credo of “The thrill of victory,” when he made it, and “the agony of defeat,” when he didn’t. This understandably not only put a great amount of stress on him but also his two sons and first wife Linda who recalls how nerve-wracking life was back then, not knowing if her husband would survive a given jump or not.

Junge deftly juxtaposes archival footage of Knievel talking himself up and espousing his worldview to anybody who’d listen, with his family and friends reflecting on what he was like in private and it wasn’t pretty. He cheated on his wife constantly and the painkillers he took to keep his numerous injuries in check affected his behavior, causing him to act irrationally and paranoid at times. Over time, Knievel crafted a persona and began to believe it, especially once he became rich and famous, adored by millions. As his daughter says at one point, “He forgot how to be Bob and when he became Evel it’s like the world took him away from us.”

The doc is chock-a-block with memorable anecdotes, like actor George Hamilton recounting a time when he was forced to read a screenplay for a movie version of Knievel’s life (written by John Milius no less!) with a gun pointed at his head by the man himself! For all of its hero worship, Being Evel tempers it by showing how the man’s monster ego and hubris proved to be his downfall, culminating in an incident where he attacked Sheldon Saltman, the promoter of the Snake River Canyon jump, with an aluminum baseball bat for writing a relatively tame tell-all book about the tour leading up to the event. Apparently, it was a little too truthful for Knievel.

The doc ends by touching upon Knievel’s legacy and how he lives on with guys like Tony Hawk, Travis Pastrana, Robbie Maddison, and Mat Hoffman who embody his daredevil spirit and theatricality, while the Jackass crew represent the flipside – his numerous crashes and wipeouts. Evel Knievel – daredevil superhero or charismatic con man? This is the dichotomy that Being Evel wrestles with and ultimately embraces in its fascinating portrait of one of the cultural icons of the ‘70s. Towards the end, one gets the feeling that this film has been something a cathartic experience for Knoxville as he forced himself to take a good long look at his hero and concludes, “I still think he’s a superhero. I know a more complete story, now. And some of the stuff is really heartbreaking, you know? But to me, what he did transcends that.”