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Category Archives: Rocchi’s Retro Rental
[Each week, inspired by what's in theaters or in the news or even just by random firings of neurons, 'Retro Rental,' by film critic James Rocchi, looks at an older film on disc or download that links up to the here-and-now ...]
Charlie Sheen is in the news with his new FX show ‘Anger Management‘ playing a screw-up therapist; Martin Sheen is in theaters with ‘The Amazing Spider-Man,’ playing Uncle Ben. And so, in a world of converging Sheens that, not coincidentally, led up to the 4th of July, I was of course driven to re-watch ‘the Dead Zone,’ perhaps for the first time in years, and marvel not only at how good Martin Sheen is in it, but also at how chill and cold and sharp it is, a 1983 Stephen King adaptation made by David Cronenberg that, a lot of people would argue is the the best King adaptation on the big screen … (Look, ‘Shining’ fans, I can appreciate your point-of-view that film is great Kubrick, but ‘Dead Zone’ is better King, if that makes sense.)
To briefly recap ‘The Dead Zone’ — a novel written by King in his earliest and best years, published in 1979 — it’s about a schoolteacher, Johnny Smith, who has a pretty good life .. until a car accident puts him in a coma for five years. When he awakes, he and the world are different — his girl got married, his parents grew older. And, brushing the hand of a nurse helping him, Johnny ‘sees’ her little girl, across town, threatened by a fire: Call an ambulance, he says. There’s still time. And there is.
(I wish there were some juicy story behind the end of this column but 1) As much as I love RRR, it was one of my lowest-paying gigs; 2) It fell, I think, in part to post-Sundance burnout and, most importantly of all; 3) I started RRR with Eve Batey (who’s left the Chronicle organization while still handing me off the the gracious and kind Zoe Stagg) as a way to get a foot into the door of the Arts section of the daily paper (which is slowly dying yet still crippled by rigor mortis in many ways) in San Francisco (where I don’t live anymore). When you have to apply that many parenthetical clauses to your reasons for doing something, it’s time to go. Anyhow: So long, Rocchi’s Retro Rental.)
Rocchi’s Retro Rental: It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
In the course of this column, I’m going to tell you three things you don’t know right now. They’re not secrets, exactly, but they all have a point, I assure you, and they all come together in the end. So let’s start with the first one, which might be the toughest one to admit for someone like me who makes something like a living writing about film: Now and then, it can be hard to like the movies you love.
Take It’s a Wonderful Life; I grew up watching that film as a boy in Ontario, Canada, loving it, the mix of corn and comedy, the sincerity and phoniness, the way it earned the happy ending that made your eyes mist up; we remember George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) surrounded by his friends and family, but we often forget the torment that made that salvation necessary. (Hitchcock put Jimmy Stewart through a lot, but it was nothing on how Frank Capra put him through the wringer.) And growing up in Canada, it was a great glimpse of America, even if I knew that Bedford Falls was a never-was vision of the world. And then I grew up, and started thinking about the things I love, and realized a few weird things — like how in the universe where George had never been born and Bedford Falls is the wicked, evil Pottersville, there are a lot more people of color. Or how in the hell that is Pottersville, George’s wife Mary is … an old maid! Unmarried! At 25! The horror! I love It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s one of those movies where you can — and you should — question the assumptions in it. And that’s part of why I write about movies — to do that, for anyone who reads this stuff, but a lot of the time just for me.
The second thing you didn’t know when you started reading this is that I became an American citizen last week; I’ve been here for 12 years with a green card, and, to be blunt, part of my motivation for my becoming a U.S. citizen was feeling stupid about paying taxes and not being able to vote, as well as the simple, ugly fact that if I didn’t become a citizen at some point, then I’d have to keep wrapping my head around the fact that if I were ever arrested for any reason — jaywalking? littering? — it would have been completely legal to detain me without counsel and ship me anywhere imaginable with no right of habeas corpus as a foreign national. It would be unlikely, yes, but not impossible, and if the Bush years were anything, they were a chronicle of unlikely-yet-not-impossible ugly events.
But I didn’t just do it out of frustration over not voting and fear over possible legal nightmares; I really became a U.S. citizen out of a sense of optimism and hope, and with an eye towards giving something back. It’s not like Canada-to-California is the archetypal arduous immigrant journey, but I grew up dreaming about America after a thousand movies and songs, and thinking about it with a perspective-creating border between me and it, and I filed the paperwork and answered the preliminary interview questions asking if I was a prostitute or a gambler with a straight face, cleared the background check and took the oath last week. So now It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t part of some other culture, or rather, I’m now part of the culture that It’s a Wonderful Life is part of, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around that as I keep writing about movies.
The third thing you don’t know is that this is the last Rocchi’s Retro Rental; after two years of this column (with the first installment on Feb. 6, 2007), I think it’s time to move on. I’m still writing about movies, yes; I don’t think I know how to quit that, even in the melting, manic world of modern media where exclamation points run rampant, graphics replace complete sentences (“Look! The Little Man is happy!”) and knowing what you’re talking about is seemingly becoming an impediment to a career. But even with the faith and grace and patience of editors Eve Batey (who first gave me the chance to write these columns) and Zoe Stagg (who took over for Eve) having sustained me for a while, a break will do me well — and besides, while I don’t mean to sadden the four of you who actually read Rocchi’s Retro Rental on a regular basis, now that I’m a citizen, I might want to spend less time watching movies about the American experience and more time getting some experience as an American, crazy as that sounds.
This was never a column that got comments — which are, depressingly, becoming the sole currency for measuring a piece of writing’s worth these days — but I like to imagine that’s because you read these entries and said “Wow, that sounds like a good movie; I think I’ll try and see that … ” and made a note to go to your local mom-and-pop store to rent it or added a film to your queue and went about your day; I certainly hope you did. (If one of you saw Last Night or The Court Jester or Thin because of this column, well, I’m pretty happy, and that means I did what I was supposed to here.) I also hope I can convey my appreciation to you, constant reader, for joining me on this clumsy walk through the history of cinema over the past two years: it’s been a pleasure, and it’s helped me see old films with new eyes, which is what I also hope you got out of it. There are a lot of bad movies, yes, but the good ones are amazing, and, more interestingly, the great ones still offer plenty to think about and talk about and question if you’re willing to truly look at them. Growing up in Canada, both the movies and America told me it’s a wonderful life, and yet that’s not really true; now that I’m much older, I can share the scariest, most hopeful thing that the movies and America taught me, something I’m trying to figure out for myself in this scary, hopeful world as I say goodbye to you all: It can be a wonderful life, if we’re willing to work to make it that way.
If you’re a movie person — and, really, if you think you’re not, you still are — you have movies you go to in times of sickly need with such regularity that they might as well be stored, metaphorically, beside the blankets and the thermometers and the aspirin so they can easily be located when you get sick. I have a friend who swears by the Underworld films when she’s unwell, and another who busts out any Austen adaptation as a vital part of the home healing process; we all have movies we treat as cinematic chicken soup, high on comfort, low on nutrition and fiber. This weekend, after a bunch of traveling, I was hit with some kind of virus that’s still lingering as I write this — sore throat, body aches, throbbing head, what-have-you — and I found myself hydrating and blanket-swaddled and watching The Incredibles.
Released in 2004, Brad Bird’s computer-animated family fantasy manages to be cutting edge in terms of its animation and post-modern spin on superhero pop culture, but it’s also comfortingly retro (for lack of a better word) in how it references everything from Jack Kirby and Stan Lee comic-book concepts to ’60s Bond film designs. But while The Incredibles looks great, and is amazingly clever, that’s just the icing on the cake; like most Pixar films, the technical majesty involved in The Incredibles is carefully draped over an iron-strong foundation of amazingly well-structured story. (People always think the Pixar films are amazing because of their computer animation, but the real Pixar secret is storytelling so superb that you could tell the tale with sock-puppets and it would still have you captivated.)
I hesitate to recap the story of The Incredibles, if only because you’ve probably seen it; at the same time, there’s a chance that you’ve avoided it because it looks like a kid’s movie or a comic-book movie and you have an irrational knee-jerk reaction against kid’s movies and comic-book movies, in which case you’re kinda denying yourself a very real pleasure. In a retro-futuristic world where superheroes are real — but driven underground by legal coasts and liabilities from the property damage induced in their derring-do — Robert Parr (Craig T. Nelson) works as a cube-drone in an insurance company. Bob used to be costumed crime-fighter Mr. Incredible — super-strong, super-tough, super-cool — but his adventuring days fighting crime alongside compatriots like Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) are over. Bob got out of the game, got married — his wife Helen is his old costumed comrade Elastigirl — and tries to be a good husband and father to his kids Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack, even if he occasionally breaks the rules to do a little off-the-books crime-fighting. But trouble’s coming, even if Bob doesn’t know it. …
And that summary doesn’t delve into the film’s nicely-tuned structure, or talk about the perfection of the vocal performances, or the meticulously timed comedy in the film, or the expertly-drawn characters and impressively real family dynamics between the four lead characters. The Incredibles also has a nice, subtle message to it — that great abilities have to be used for the greater good, not squandered on petty vanities or minor tasks — that sits just under the glee and exuberance of the movie. The Incredibles is one of those movies — those rare movies — so good that you can forget how good it is while you’re watching it and just enjoy it for the pure pleasure it is.
Writer-director Brad Bird went on to salvage Ratatouille for Pixar, and he’s working on a live-action film about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which I very much look forward to, but somewhere deep down I hope that Bird at some point gets inspired to go back to the world of The Incredibles. I know, I know — in an entertainment landscape where tedious, unwanted sequels like Without a Paddle 2 and The Pink Panther 2 clog DVD shelves and theaters, why would you want a talented filmmaker like Bird to go back to territory he’s already explored? The long answer would involve articulating my belief that Bird’s so talented, smart and smooth that if he did make an Incredibles sequel, he’d only go back because he wanted to, because he had a story to tell, because he had something new he wanted to say; the short answer is because it would be awesome. Next week I’ll be at the Sundance Film Festival– hopefully without this cold/flu/whatever — taking on a steady diet of angst, apprehension and anomie mixed with dire documentaries and edgy experiments, but this week, sickly and pasty and wrapped up in a fleece, The Incredibles was a welcome reminder of how a movie that’s far better than you’d think can make things better than they are.
I know, I know — I wrote about a crime film last week. And there’s always the danger of turning this column into a constantly rotating memorial, where whichever notable personage in the world of film who passed that week gets written up. But Donald Westlake died this week — on New Year’s Eve, heading for dinner — and all I could think about was Point Blank.
Westlake is an unsung hero of crime fiction, probably because he actually wrote good, superbly-made crime fiction back before it was a way to find fame and fortune by churning out serial killer novels as inept as they are grisly. (Really, can someone stop James Patterson? Anyone?) Westlake wrote fun, crackling caper novels — where there was a sense of risk but never a sense of menace, where there were stakes on the table and still sparkle in the dialogue. Many of his stories revolved around a hapless professional burglar named John Dortmunder, whose criminal career felt like a day job, full of petty disagreements and annoying setbacks and the same annoyances any working stiff puts up with. Lots of the Dortmunder novels have been turned into films, some of which are enjoyable (The Hot Rock, Why Me?) and some of which are horrible (What’s the Worst that Could Happen?).
But Westlake had another set of novels — which, as he noted, he wrote when it was rainy — published under the name Richard Stark, mostly revolving around another career criminal named Parker. Parker — no first name — was not a likable scamp trying to get by; he was (and is — Westlake never stopped writing Parker novels as Stark) a grim, blank-faced force of nature who pulls jobs and takes other people’s money. The Parker novels all revolve around a similar axis: Parker is engaged in a robbery, and then Parker’s latest set of collaborators steal his share of the take from him, or something goes wrong with the job and Parker must put things right with decisive action and rough justice. Yet, there’s something reassuring in how mechanical they are, something as clean and crisp of the snick-snack you hear when a well-oiled automatic cycles a round into the chamber. Many directors have turned the Parker novels into movies, but one of the best is Point Blank, John Boorman’s slick, nasty thriller based on the first Parker novel, The Hunter.
Lee Marvin plays Walker — an entirely appropriate re-naming, as Marvin stalks through the film like a haunting ghost — who we meet wounded, ruined, and battered. He’s been robbed and left for dead, and he is dragged back from death’s door and full of purpose: He wants his money. His old confederate who left him for dead took Walker’s share from their heist and used it to get back in with “the outfit.” Walker wants his money. That’ll involve taking on the whole mob, just as a matter of principle. They’ll set traps for him, friends will become enemies, hard men with murderous intent will be placed in his way.
Walker wants his money.
Lee Marvin’s great in the role — there’s no backstory, no discussion of what made Walker who he is, just headlong forward motion like a bullet filmed in slow-motion, the passing seconds just adding to your sick feeling of what’s going to happen when he gets to where he’s going. Character actors like Keenan Wynn, Carol O’Connor, and John Vernon play the men in Walker’s way, tough guys who find out the hard way that they’re not as tough as they think they are, or at least as not as tough as Walker. The DVD of Point Blank is terrific — superbly restored, along with a commentary track by Boorman and Steven Soderbergh, who in many ways paid tribute to Point Blank with The Limey. It’s a movie that holds up on its own merits as Westlake’s — or, rather, Stark’s — elementally pure story goes from threat to murder to threat to murder as Walker, stone-faced and cold-blooded, tears down a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise because someone stole $93,000 from him. (Point Blank was remade as Payback, with Mel Gibson in the lead role, but trust me: This is one of those cases that serves as the foundation for the cliche about how remakes are inferior to the originals.) Westlake wrote on a manual typewriter, wrote constantly — he has at least one book slated for publication — and if you want to get a sense of just why crime fiction aficionados were feeling down on New Year’s Day, Point Blank can give you an excellent understanding.
With the holidays coming, I’m thinking of one of my favorite traditions — not the trimming of the tree or the annual Dec. 24th viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life, but rather the annual tradition where, in the quiet, sated stillness of Boxing Day, you make a turkey sandwich from the day before’s leftovers and watch a really, really long movie. I mean, really long — the director’s cut of The Abyss is always a good choice, as is Lawrence of Arabia, or even both parts of The Godfather. (I say ‘both parts’ because I like to pretend The Godfather III simply doesn’t exist. Don’t you?) This year, though, with Valkyrie in wide release, I think the day’s epic is going to be the mighty, burly, nearly-three-hour-long war epic A Bridge Too Far.
Much like Valkyrie‘s attempted assassination of Hitler, A Bridge Too Far revolves around a series of events that, if successful, would have changed history … and that, of course, were not successful. Operation Market Garden could have ended the war in Europe in 1944, with a plan revolving around dropping paratroopers into Holland to seize the bridges near Arnheim and strangling the Nazi supply routes across the Rhine; all the paratroopers and Allied soldiers had to do was seize three bridges — far being enemy lines, without armor, and with not much more than fervent prayers that the weather and their luck would hold.
A Bridge Too Far, released in 1977, straddles two very different eras in war-film theory and practice. It comes after the big, showy sweep of old-school, big-cast films like The Longest Day and Is Paris Burning?, but before the digital tricks and techniques that made war epics like Saving Private Ryan and Flags of Our Fathers possible. Directed by Richard Attenborough, with William Goldman adapting Cornelius Ryan’s book, A Bridge Too Far is a great piece of analog filmmaking, where the tanks you see are tanks, the planes are planes and the swarms of human beings are flesh-and-blood extras, not computer-generated throngs created with the click of a mouse.
One of A Bridge Too Far‘s pleasures is the huge, big-name cast; seriously, there’s a question of if it’s easier to enumerate who’s in the film or who isn’t. Robert Redford is a determined American Officer; Ryan O’Neil the commander who gives him a suicide mission. Elliot Gould, barking Brooklyinsms, is a hard-living dogface; James Caan’s a G.I. who goes the distance to help a wounded comrade. And that’s just the American side; you also get Gene Hackman as a Polish officer, Sean Connery as a Scots paratrooper, Michael Caine as a reluctant warrior, Edward Fox as a jaunty, devil-may-care officer and Anthony Hopkins playing another reluctant officer at the tip of the spear. Lawrence Olivier and Liv Ullmann play Dutch civilians, while Maximillian Schell hits the right note of reptilian grandeur as a Nazi officer. That’s just the top-line cast; there are also blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments from actors like Ben Cross and John Ratzenberg in minor early roles and old-school actors like Dirk Bogarde.
They don’t make movies like A Bridge Too Far anymore, which is simultaneously a good and bad thing; I have a hard time wrapping my conscience around any war film that looks like too much fun, but at the same time, good heavens, A Bridge Too Far is great to watch — big, sprawling, messy, full of tricks and nonchalant moments of heroism and bravery. Goldman, who also wrote All The President’s Men and The Princess Bride notes in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade that he had to cut so many amazing true stories from Ryan’s book that it broke his heart, just because there were too many moments of dumb luck, brilliant decision making and impossible bravery at Arnheim to get into a three-hour movie. A Bridge Too Far, like Valkyrie, is a movie that turns a known historical fact into a great suspenseful game of coulda, shoulda, woulda, where anything — a shift in the wind, a single shot fired at the right time — could have changed everything, and didn’t. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s so big and sprawling and wholly dedicated to being entertaining that it’s pretty much the perfect choice for three hours of widescreen diversion as you digest the holidays.
I spent some of the holiday week catching up with books I had missed, in part because the barrage of end-of-year-screenings had left me a little movie-d out — or, rather, end-of-year-screenings plus Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories, about which less said, the better. One of the books I’ve been idly leafing through is A Third Face, Samuel Fuller’s memoir — “My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking,” as the subtitle elaborates. You may have never seen a Sam Fuller movie, but plenty of people who you respect as moviemakers did — Martin Scorsese provides the introduction for A Third Face, and the just-released DVD of White Dog, shelved for decades due to controversy, is one of the hottest discs of the year. Fuller’s not exactly a name that springs to mind when we think of the great directors of the past, and at the same time, he’s got a real style — whether you’re watching one of his Westerns (I Shot Jesse James), or his war films (The Big Red One) or his dramas (Shock Corridor) or his two-fisted crime films — like this week’s Retro Rental, a movie I went back to after reading Fuller’s book, Pickup on South Street.
Pickup on South Street was released in 1953 and it nicely — and nearly perfectly — combines 40s-style black and white crime-movie crackle and pop with the more rich, subtly shaded melancholy of ’60s cinema. We open in a crowded, jostling subway car in New York as a man and a woman are shoved together but the push and crush of urban life; they make eyes at each other, veiled intent in his gaze and open invitation in her every sigh and glance … and all of this is as irrelevant as it is mesmerizing, because the real action’s happening out of sight; as her eyes move up and down his face, his hand is slowly, stealthily, moving into her purse. …
Richard Wildmark is squirmy and steely as Skip McCoy, a three-time loser of a pick-pocket; the next time he goes away, he goes away for good. He’s who we see pulling the dip in the opener; the woman is Candy, played by Jean Peters, and while she’s Skip’s latest mark, she’s not the usual mark. Skip doesn’t just lift Candy’s wallet; Skip takes a roll of microfilm she’s carrying, microfilm loaded with an industrial secret that the other side wants… then one of the tough-talking cops chasing Candy asks the question we’re asking: “So, the Commies are mixed up in this?” They are, and Skip doesn’t care about Red versus Red, White, and Blue; he just wants to make a little green, fully aware he’s got something a lot of people want — and he’s not afraid to play both sides against each other.
Pickup on South Street has the zing and snap of ’40s crime films, and it gets a lot of flavor from that; it also has the essential plot structure of late ’50s and ’60s Hitchock classics, where the protagonist is doing something bad and stumbles across someone doing something worse. Wildmark’s espionage-interrupting thief Skip isn’t that far from Jimmy Stewart’s murder-catching voyeur in Rear Window. (In fact, Thelma Ritter, so sassy and fun in Rear Window, has a great part in Pickup as a worn-down stool pigeon.) Pickup on South Street has that retro zing and snap to the dialogue — like when police captain Dan Tiger warns Skip: “You’ll always be a two-bit cannon. And when they pick you up in the gutter dead, your hand’ll be in a drunk’s pocket.” It also has a world-weary, ’60s sense of bleak nihilism to it: the ‘hero’ is a petty crook trying to graduate to treason in the name of a payday; the person in the film who’s closest to decent gets a lead-jacketed reward for their trouble.
Fuller was an artist and a craftsman; some of Pickup on South Street is superbly cut and edited, like a grim escape in a tight spot — and other shots have the clean, elegant simplicity that you get when a director knows enough to step out of the way of the story. Fuller’s book is great reading — from his Army service in war to the Army movies he made — it’s a great overview of his career. If you want to watch just one 87-minute movie that explains why you should care about Fuller’s career — a nice, lean, mean, old-fashioned and yet meanly modern crime film — you should pick up Pickup on South Street.
Valkyrie opens soon — Bryan Singer’s historical action-epic about the plot to kill Hitler (Spoiler alert: they don’t pull it off …), and I’m kinda looking forward to it, in part because I’m a fool for World War II action and also because the script is by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. McQuarrie’s best known for writing The Usual Suspects, but he’s also the director of a great action-crime film, the wildly underrated The Way of the Gun. Released in 2000, The Way of the Gun looked like — and it was certainly sold as — a wacky post-Tarantino flick, fast-talking sing-song ping-pong dialogue and adrenalized Mexican standoffs that actually take place in Mexico. It’s actually far, far better than that, if you’re tough enough to take it.
The Way of the Gun stars Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro as Mr. Parker and Mr. Longbaugh, two low-rent dirtbags on the lookout for an easy score, some quick cash, something to make a little money. Waiting in a fertility clinic (they’re looking to, uh, make a deposit to generate some cash), they overhear a phone conversation where the receptionist mentions a woman who’s being paid a million dollars to carry a child to term for a well-off couple; Parker and Longbaugh, smelling cash, put together a kidnapping plot that’s equal parts desperation, inspiration and improvisation…
Parker and Longbaugh don’t know that the surrogate, Robin (Juliette Lewis, who’s surprisingly good), is working for crime boss Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson) and his trophy wife Francesca (Kristin Lehman) — who’s perfectly capable of carrying the child, but just can’t be bothered — and that while Chidduck can probably pay, he’s also a dangerous man to tangle with. Obecks and Jeffers (Nicky Katt and Taye Diggs), the men who were guarding Robin, have a different perspective on how to turn the kidnapping into a net positive; Chidduck’s trusted bagman, Joe Sarno (James Caan, majestic and aged like fine wine) has his own plan, and his own reasons.
And, yes: This all sounds like the set-up to a perfectly good crime thriller. What makes The Way of the Gun a great movie is how it carefully, deliberately provokes and prods at our assumptions about movies like the film it seems to be. Parker and Longbaugh are not good men, to be sure; they know it, we know it. But in The Way of the Gun, we, and they, find out the hard way that they are not as bad, or tough, as they think they are; in fact, everyone in the movie learns that lesson, and occasionally at great cost. The action in The Way of the Gun is great and exciting, but it’s also real; McQuarrie choreographed all the gunfights with his brother, a Navy SEAL, and there are a couple moments here that take simple Hollywood action cliches — diving for cover, the high-speed chase — and spin them on their head with brute, brisk authority.
It’s also a superbly acted film; it’s the best thing Phillippe’s ever done, while Del Toro not only showcases the very masculine cool that’s become his trademark, but also gets to undercut and refute it in a few choice scenes. Caan is terrific; he knows he doesn’t look like much, but he also knows that’s not true: “The only thing you can guess about a broken down old man is that he is a survivor.” Katt and Diggs are scary-competent (as Lewis notes, “They don’t care about dying, only losing…”) and throw some nice curves into the plot, and have some thrown at them. Lewis and her doctor (played by Dylan Kussman) — both of whom have more going on than you first think — serve as the heart and soul of the story, fighting to protect the child inside her as greed, guns, and ill intent explode around them. In that way, yes, The Way of the Gun is a great piece of Christmastime counter-programming; a child is soon to be born, and he must be protected, for while this child may not be our savior, he does offer a chance — a slim chance, but a real one — for our ‘heroes’ to achieve salvation, to do the right thing for once, to dare to be decent in a wicked world, even though that may cost everything. The Way of the Gun looks like a snap-crackle, rock’em, sock’em thriller; look closer and you realize that it’s one of those rare, rough films that tells you truths you didn’t want to know.
Looking back at the last few weeks of this column, I noticed a slight trend going on: Richard Nixon, the Great Depression, inequality in the ’50s and the here-and-now, ruined romances, the heartbreak of monsters — as the kids might say (or, actually, as the kids would have said 10 years ago), all downers, man. All downers. Part of that is environmental as the days get shorter and the nights get longer, part of that is second-hand disgruntlement over our modern age, and part of it is just soaking up the bleak, brutal “importance” of Oscar season like milk picks up strong flavors in the fridge. But, really, I need a laugh. You probably need a laugh. And so I give you one of my favorite forgotten comedies, a brilliant piece of stupid-smart literary revisionism called Without a Clue.
You may never have heard of this film — and that’s fine — but trust me, it’s worth tracking down for a variety of wonderful reasons. Released with minimal fanfare and unavailable on DVD for years, Without a Clue stars Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine as Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. As we all know from Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories of detection and observation (and the dozens of big-screen and small-screen adaptations they’ve inspired) Dr. Watson is the faithful companion, the dedicated chronicler, the aide and ballast to the moody, brilliant, inspired and inescapable crimestopper Holmes; Holmes is the tormented genius, the incisive mind, the inspiration and mentor to the steadfast Watson. Except in Without a Clue, because the simple, delightful pitch of the script is that Watson not only wrote the stories, but he also solved all the crimes. After inventing the figure of Holmes for his stories so as to prevent the flamboyant task of crime fighting to stain his career as a respectable surgeon and doctor, Watson found that editors and others wanted to meet Holmes. So Watson went out and hired an actor — a drunken, irresponsible, thick, dimwit lout of an actor — to play the part of Holmes. Watson (Kingsley) solves crimes and sells the tales of the exploits; Holmes — who is in fact Reginald Kincaid — gets a paycheck and the glory.
It’s an arrangement, but not an especially stable one. Watson would like a little glory, thank you, and Holmes would like to actually earn the glory he’s getting by being good at something, anything, instead of standing around and doing what Watson tells him to. Without a Clue actually does a great job of combining the literary worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle and P.G. Wodehouse; there’s something very Jeeves and Wooster in how Watson and Holmes interact in this film, and the film’s contrast between high society manners and low behavior is also something Wodehouse always loved to get a laugh from. The script is full of Holmes trivia and touches, but you don’t need to be a Holmes nut to get the joke; everything you need to know to follow this film has already seeped into your brain by being exposed to English-speaking pop culture. More importantly, the script is full of great jokes, perfectly-timed bits, delightful turns of phrase and a superbly turned structure guiding everything along.
And if you ever want to watch two actors — two actors who are not necessarily known for being funny — nail every possible part of a comedy, whether it be line delivery, pacing, physical acting, or reactions, Without a Clue is like a masterclass in funny stuff. Kingsley’s usual fierce intelligence is here, but it’s combined with a kind of exasperation that makes Watson both enviably competent and pitifully overlooked. Caine’s Holmes is a reprobate, a drunkard, and a fool — and Caine plays all that to the hilt — but he’s also, later in the film, almost willing to admit the error of his ways, and given a chance to, yes, actually do something in the solving of a case. (The fact that Without a Clue gives two great actors the chance to play men who are themselves bad actors is just another part of why it’s so good.) If you could use a laugh over the holidays — and really, couldn’t we all — Without a Clue is a gem and a jewel of a film, a comedy about humility and forgiveness and friendship that happens to have great swordfights, an inspired riff on an icon of popular culture, plus funny, funny jokes.
Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon opens this week in limited release, a film adaptation of the play that recounts how British talk-show host David Frost faced down ex-President Richard Nixon in a series of interviews whose genesis was as unlikely as their affect. Frost/Nixon is remarkably enjoyable, thanks in no small part to Frank Langella’s work as Nixon — the bullying charm, the elegant vulgarity, the mix of insecurity and arrogance that ooze from Nixon like poison from some squat, unblinking toad. Frost/Nixon is a great stage-to-screen adaptation, but it’s not the first occasion where a stage play about Nixon’s life and times was turned into a film; after seeing Frost/Nixon, I wanted, or rather needed, to go back to Robert Altman’s 1984 film Secret Honor — a film adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-man play, which stars Phillip Baker Hall as Nixon.
Frost/Nixon is in many ways a modern-media procedural, and also a drama about maneuvering and manipulation. There’s a huge cast of characters around Frost and Nixon, and the film builds to the interviews — the conversation between the British chat-show host aspiring to respectability and the American ex-President hoping to redeem himself and return from his exile. In Secret Honor, we just get Nixon, speaking into a tape recorder, reciting his memoirs and recanting his stories, remembering his past, and re-writing his history. Frost/Nixon benefits from the cool remove of several decades’ distance that lets us enjoy it as bravura acting and writing; Secret Honor, coming just a few years after Nixon’s resignation, has the raw, blood freshness of a new wound. Nixon is played by Phillip Baker Hall, a great American actor who’s never quite gotten his dues — but do not for a second think that Secret Honor is stagy or still or slow because it’s a one-person show. Hall is magnetic and pure and terrifying in one of the greatest pieces of acting ever committed to film, committed to a performance that’s a bleak marvel and a horrifying thing of wonder.
Hall may be best known for playing the deadpan “Library Cop” on Seinfeld — an injustice on par with only knowing Warren Zevon for “Werewolves of London” or Ileana Douglas from Ugly Betty. Hall’s given brilliant performances in Hard Eight, Zodiac, Magnolia and even livened up trash like Air Force One and Rush Hour; he’s always great when he can bounce off other actors, working with his stars to great effect. In Secret Honor, though, Hall’s not able to work off of anyone; his Nixon rants and raves and drinks and thinks, swearing to his good intentions and swearing like a sailor. Frost/Nixon only features one scene with the raging, profane Nixon in full, poisonous flower, but Secret Honor shows us Nixon in the terrifying grip of rage and regret as he tries to re-write his past. Nixon tells us that he will now reveal ” … the reasons behind the reasons … ” of Watergate, as he tries to put his actions, and his crimes — which, of course, he does not see as crimes — in a context that would absolve them. It doesn’t work, and part of the pleasure in Hall’s performance is that you can see it not working, even for Nixon himself.
Robert Altman directed Secret Honor while he was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan; the film’s shot in a redecorated student dormitory, and obviously on a budget, but the camera technique is pure Altman, and priceless. The camera moves, sinuous and serpentine; Altman uses the TV monitors and the windows and the simple study set to give us brilliant, dislocating shifts in perspective. Surrounded by portraits of people from his past, Hall’s Nixon spits oaths and accusations at his old partners Eisenhower and Kissinger, and uses a few props — a gun, a tape recorder, a bible and a glass constantly being refilled with Chivas Regal — to build the moment and focus the scene.
But the most important figure in the success of Secret Honor isn’t Hall or Altman or even the playwrights; it’s Nixon himself. Hall and Altman are simply trying to depict, through fiction, the reality of Nixon’s life and times and crimes. When Hall gets on his knees and prays, we’d reject it as fake but for the fact that we know Nixon had done that in real life; when he recites a letter he wrote to his mother, signing off as “your faithful dog,” you could mock it as the worst kind of artistic invention — except that it’s real. In Secret Honor, Nixon trips and stumbles through the past, remembering and reinventing and excusing and qualifying everything he’s done. “I dream of failure, and that is my secret,” he says, trying to explain the fears that drove him to such fearful ends. In Secret Honor, Hall’s Nixon remembers the praise he received for playing Hamlet in high school: “I could always cry in public.” It evokes another Shakespeare line from Henry the Sixth, where Richard of Gloucester — later to seize the crown and rule in Richard the Third — explains “I can smile, and murder while I smile; and cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart; and wet my cheeks with artificial tears; and frame my face to all occasions…” Secret Honor isn’t history or fact — an opening title defines it as ‘a political myth’ — but, like Frost/Nixon, it imagines what was behind Nixon’s public mask, and then asks us — forces us — to think and wonder about everything about Nixon we still don’t know, and still don’t understand.
It is, for a film critic, that most, and least, wonderful time of the year, when studios release the big Oscar-level, could-be-Best-Picture contenders they’ve been saving up; in modern Hollywood’s broken and bleak philosophy of releasing films, you present the vegetables and meat in November and December after 10 months of serving snacks and dessert. Many of these films aren’t just released as Oscar contenders; they’re released solely as Oscar contenders, with the slick, flabby bloat of aspiration the only thing putting meat on their bones. Take, for but one example, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, a movie designed to pose and preen and seem high-minded, but which is instead made of a flurry of images borrowed from other movies, ham-fisted overacting and a moral tone that somehow manages to be both condescending and incompetent.
I needed something to knock Australia out of my head — something straight and bracing and unflinching that didn’t come with the guarantee of a happy ending. So, I found myself watching the grim and lovely — and, all things considered, entirely appropriate — 1969 Sydney Pollack film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Based on Horace McCoy’s novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? has a fairly simple set-up: In Depression-era California, a group of desperate people gather to take part in a dance marathon. There’s plenty of money for the winner, and nothing for the losers. The master of ceremonies (Gig Young, in a part that won him an Oscar) is also the man in charge; as prospective candidates line up before the competition starts, he throws a young man out for having a serious medical condition. “Sorry,” he tells the boy’s partner, the tense and terse Gloria (Jane Fonda). “That’s what he said,” she snaps back, “but that’s not gonna buy me coffee and cigarettes.” But Gloria finds a new partner, the detached, dark-eyed Robert (Michael Sarrazin), and away they go. And go. And go. …
Gloria and Robert talk as they dance — to kill the time, to stay alert — and after a while, we get to know them, and some of the other contestants: the older sailor (Red Buttons) the would-be actress (Suzannah York), the hard-times husband (Bruce Dern) with his pregnant wife (Bonnie Bedelia). The contest goes on, and includes wicked improvisations to liven things up — footraces that can result in elimination, or the band swinging into a polka as the dancers are at their lowest ebb. There are breaks, occasionally, where the contestants try to sleep or lash out — at each other, at the organizers, at themselves.
Pollack’s career has somewhat fallen out of sight in the sheen and shine of his later work as a producer and even as an actor, but his older films — Three Days of the Condor, Jeremiah Johnson, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, most notably — remind you of what a significant talent he was behind the camera. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is intimate — often to a riveting, raw degree — but it’s also vulgar and vibrant and big, as we’re dragged into the rush and crush of the dances, or the clawing exhausted frenzy of feelings playing out between the competitors and the organizers. The film’s also a lot more complicated than it looks, flickering to the future and going back to the past as events unfold. While the action may barely leave the seaside pavilion dance hall, the world — the hardscrabble realities of the depression, the nervy hum of the looming possibility of war — is never far away.
Both Sarrazin and Fonda are amazing. He’s a bit of a cipher, a blank, a question mark — but the film fills him in, as we and he both learn what he’s there for. Fonda’s never been better; there’s something flinty and horrible in Gloria, some hideous strength, some dark material in her spirit that needed this crucible to test it. The marathon’s a pretty blunt metaphor — Winner take all! Last one standing! — but it’s as stark and plain as hunger or leg cramps or exhaustion in this film, and neither Pollack or his actors pull any punches as the dance goes on and on and on. A modern version of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? would probably end with some big finish — a surprise victory, a declaration of love, the comeuppance of the competition’s promoters. But you don’t get that here. Bad things happen. Worse things happen. And the music keeps playing. At the end of a year of great change, with the equally terrifying possibilities of deliverance or doom in the near future, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? isn’t a soothing spectacle; it’s a sharp shock of tough truth, which is often far more necessary than a beautiful lie.