Blade Runner (1982)

zgfn3sotgl60bay4ftdnzqcxyiqWhen Ridley Scott’s dystopian neo-noir sci-fi opus opened in 1982, it was overshadowed at the box office – along with a number of other worthy films – by the juggernaut that was Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”  Consequently, it was deemed by the then-reigning Hollywood pundits to be a misfire, and critics seemed to echo that sentiment; though praised for its imaginative visual design – now regarded as influential and iconic – and its provocative thematic explorations, it was greeted with middling reviews that, taken together, marked it as an “interesting failure.”

This lukewarm reception came at the end of a tense and difficult production process in which Scott, who had been far down the list of preferred directors for this long-awaited adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” went severely over budget and seriously past due – eventually losing creative control of the final cut and being forced to bow to studio executives’ demands to cut the running time by nearly half and add a voice-over narration to clarify what they felt to be a confusing plot.

Despite its painful birthing process (and perhaps, in part, because of it), “Blade Runner” went on to become a cult favorite, with an ever-growing legion of fans, and to be re-evaluated by critics – even making appearances high on their lists of the best science fiction films of all time.  Ultimately, thanks to its growing reputation, Scott released a series of alternate versions, culminating in “The Final Cut,” released in 2007, which restored several minutes of previously deleted material and dispensed with the much-hated narration, and which stands today as the definitive edition of the film.

To those new to it, “Blade Runner” is essentially a police procedural set in a future Los Angeles.  The title refers to the name given to special officers whose job it is to track down and eliminate “replicants” – artificial humans created as an off-world labor force who are now outlawed on earth.  One such officer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is tasked with tracking down and killing a renegade group of these beings who have defied the ban to come in search of answers from their creator.  Constructed as a pulp-fiction detective story in the nostalgic vein of Raymond Chandler, the plot winds its morally ambiguous way through a shadowy underworld – replete with femmes fatale, corrupt officials, secret alliances, and deep conspiracies – towards a final showdown that forces Deckard (and the audience) to question what it means to be “human.”

Revisiting this seminal work over three decades later, those who grew up with it may find it challenging to separate its authentic merits from their fond memories; likewise, those new to its affected mix of high-concept style and gritty action may fail to recognize its impact on a genre whose subsequent development owes it so much.  There are also those, in both groups, who might find its slow-moving plot and relative lack of action sequences less appealing than the genre’s bigger, splashier counterparts.

Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons why “Blade Runner” has had staying power.

To begin with, there’s the incredible, immersive reality that Scott (along with production designer Laurence G. Paull and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumball) so painstakingly assembled to represent the Los Angeles of then-distant 2019.  Densely overpopulated with an ethnic blend of citizens (predominantly of Asian descent), lit by garish neon, and dominated by advertisements projected at massive scale in every available space, it’s a claustrophobic metropolis that is at once dazzlingly futuristic and depressingly familiar – the logical extension of corporate consumerism run wild and rampant urban decay left unchecked.  Though the causes for this state of affairs are never specifically addressed within the dialogue, the world of the film needs no words to express the volumes of social criticism inherent in its design.  It’s a magnificent example of one of science fiction’s primary functions – to serve as a warning against the worst tendencies of our own world – executed to perfection, and it has justly become a blueprint for world-building in countless films within the genre, ever since.

Then there’s the way it addresses the subject of artificial intelligence.  “Blade Runner” was certainly not the first movie to introduce the notion of an A.I. becoming sentient or developing emotion, but in its deeply philosophical treatment of the idea – and its portraits of its remarkable anti-hero, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his sidekick/lover, Pris (Daryl Hannah) – it goes beyond the usual cautionary approach to address the ethical dilemmas presented by drawing a line between human and non-human life.  These characters are vicious, violent, cruel – but they are not unsympathetic, nor are they without justification.  Rather, their behavior is easily understood as the result of exploitation, mistreatment, and disregard by a system that presumes their lives have no inherent value.  That they rebel against their oppressors is not only understandable, it is unsurprising; and the fact that, in their suffering, they have developed a sense of loyalty to each other and empathy towards others (whether or not they are governed by it) places them in stark contrast to most of the “human” characters we see in the film.  This concept of the misunderstood creation at odds with its creator hearkens back, of course, to that ancestor of all modern sci-fi stories, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but by placing it in the context of this grimly foreseeable future, “Blade Runner” reminds us that the questions it raises are perhaps more relevant than ever.

There are many other factors that contribute to the film’s lasting impact.  The commitment to its noir milieu is not only consistent, but brilliantly apt for a story set within this world of shadows (both actual and metaphorical), and the way this cinematic conceit is meshed with the stylish visual influences of the era in which it was conceived is, at times, breathtakingly artful.  Electronic composer Vangelis envelops the action (and the audience) with his lush, moody, and elegiac score, which evokes the epic scope of both the story’s setting and its philosophical ambitions.  Perhaps most importantly, the screenplay, by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, provides a solid base for the entire package; it weaves complex ideas and implications into a story which both expands upon the source material and remains essentially faithful to it, and it does so through dialogue which echoes the hard-boiled style of the cinematic movement to which it pays homage.

Of course there are also the performances.  Ford, fresh from his first appearance as Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and in between his second and third turns as Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, was at the peak of his appeal and popularity when he stepped into the title role of Scott’s movie (thought he, like the director, was nowhere near the first choice for the project); though at first his cocky persona seems somehow out of joint with the dreary world portrayed here, it is this that makes him a perfect fit for a character whose experiences will awaken the humanity buried beneath his cynical exterior.  Deckard is the direct extension of every smart-ass gumshoe portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the classic film noir of the forties and fifties, and Ford – who rarely gets the credit he deserves for his acting skills – brings that same diamond-in-the-rough essence to the role.  His performance here may not be as iconic as the ones that cemented his status as one of his generation’s biggest stars, but it is just as engaging – and considering the complexity of Deckard’s emotional journey, maybe more impressive.

Sean Young, another star whose acting talents are often overlooked (particularly in the wake of the career-stifling reputation she earned – fairly or unfairly – in the years following her appearance here), is equally well-matched to her role.  More than just a love interest provided to add obligatory romance to the plot, Rachael turns out to be an important element in the film’s brooding meditation on the nature of sentience and humanity; revealed early on to be an advanced replicant herself, the attraction she shares with Deckard becomes central to the self-discovery that parallels his investigations, and much of what makes it believable comes from Young – ethereal yet grounded, distant yet warm, fragile yet confident, she provides a perfect complement to Ford’s energy and gives their pairing a resonance that reinforces its ultimate significance to the larger saga.  She deserves as much credit for the depth of her performance as she does for the stunning beauty she brings to the screen – particularly in her signature look, the forties high-fashion ensemble she wears in her early scenes, which has become emblematic of the film.

As Batty, the replicant ringleader bent on confronting the man who made him, Hauer – previously acclaimed in his native Netherlands – became an American movie star in his own right; his intelligence, intensity, and charisma burns from the screen, putting the audience on his character’s side from his first entrance despite the seemingly thoughtless brutality of his actions.  His climactic confrontation with Deckard, which ends in the sort of Messianic epiphany that might be a difficult sell for many actors, is electric – a powerfully moving star turn that gives “Blade Runner” its greatest weight and ensures its status as a work above the level of many more ambitious science fiction dramas than this one.

Another star-making performance comes from Hannah, whose portrayal of Pris – less advanced than her cohort Batty, but every bit as remarkable – conveys the perfect combination of little-girl-lost naïveté and subtly gleeful sadism, making her as appealing as she is lethal.  As the other two replicants on the lam, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy each have unforgettable scenes of their own.

William Sanderson is heartbreaking as the haplessly unwitting ally enlisted to aid and abet the fugitives in their quest for answers.  Joseph Turkel (as Eldon Tyrell, the powerful genius behind the creation of artificial humans) captures the aloof benevolence of the untouchable elite; a major player in two of the film’s key scenes, his performance makes them all the more memorable.

Though his role is a small one, Edward James Olmos also makes a deep impression as Gaff, the police lackey who serves as a watchdog for the chief (M. Emmett Walsh, also memorable, as always); speaking mostly in a hybrid street slang – derived from different Asian languages – and occupying his hands by making origami figures that provide mocking commentary of Deckard, his sinister presence exudes the hunger of a jackal waiting for its opportunity to pounce – yet he remains inscrutable enough for us to believe that he just might, in the end, turn out to be an unexpected ally.

Whether or not he does, of course, is one of the most enduring questions generated by “Blade Runner” – alongside the possibly related one of whether or not Deckard himself may unknowingly be a replicant.  The answers to those, and myriad others which arise within this unlikely jewel of eighties popular cinema, are ultimately left to the viewer.  This tantalizing ambiguity leaves us, like Batty and his cadre of artificial soul-seekers, with a powerful yearning that has proven strong enough to justify a sequel, 35 years later.

It’s also what has ultimately made Scott’s “interesting failure” an enduring legend that can stand alongside- and, in most cases, overshadow – many of the better-received films of its era.

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Winter’s Bone (2010)

Winter's Bone (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Winter’s Bone, the 2010 thriller by director Debra Granik, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell about a teenaged backwoods girl who goes searching for her missing father within the meth-entangled and dangerous web of her extended family. Gritty, realistic, and haunting, it received almost universal critical acclaim but failed to generate much box office success, perhaps due not only to its bleak subject matter but also to its lack of well-known actors; nevertheless, the performance of its young leading player, Jennifer Lawrence, catapulted her to stardom, leading to important roles in two of 2012’s biggest movies- the blockbuster adaptation of The Hunger Games, which turned her into a household name for most of the under-twenty set, and the runaway sleeper hit, Silver Linings Playbook, which may well snag her the Oscar that eluded her here.

Set in a poverty-stricken rural community within the Missouri Ozarks, Granik’s movie (which she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini) explores the dark realities of life within an insular world of strict and deeply-ingrained ethical traditions, where the interrelated and secretive residents keep to themselves and form a tight protective ring against outsiders. In the midst of this isolated world, Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old who dreams of escaping into military service, is effectively the head of a household in which she cares not only for a mentally unstable mother but two younger siblings; her absentee father, Jessup, like many of the local men, is deeply involved in methamphetamines- or “crank,” as they refer to the drug- and is currently on bail, awaiting a court appearance for violating his parole. The town sheriff shows up at her doorstep- catching the immediate interest of the curious neighbors and initiating the lighting-fast chain of gossip that keeps the community informed about everything that happens within its confines- and warns her that Jessup has, in fact, used their house and property as collateral in his bail bond, and if he fails to appear in court, Ree and her family will lose their home. Though Ree, with the fierce and defiant family loyalty she has been raised to maintain, insists that her father will show up, she resolves to go looking for him; she meets, however, with immediate resistance from her closest relatives- particularly her father’s brother, Teardrop, who warns her to keep her nose out of a situation that is more complicated and dangerous than she knows. Not to be deterred, the strong-willed Ree continues to ask questions among the friends and family that make up her extended circle, and eventually follows her father’s trail to a more distant relation, Thump Milton- a terrifying figure who presides over the region’s illegal drug trade. Though he refuses to see her, she persists in her efforts to confront him, even after she begins to deduce that Jessup is already dead; the result of her efforts is a vicious beating from Thump’s ferocious wife, Merab, who then- along with the rest of his family- takes the girl captive. She is unexpectedly rescued by her Uncle Teardrop, who shows up and assumes responsibility for her, swearing she will keep her mouth shut or he will answer for it himself. He tells her that her father is in fact dead, killed by someone in Thump’s gang when they learned he was giving information to the sheriff in order to protect his own family, but that he doesn’t want to know who the killer was because he will then be required by family loyalty to seek vengeance. For Ree’s purposes, however, the important factor now becomes finding Jessup’s body, for if she can prove he was dead before his court date, his bond will no longer be forfeit and she can save her family’s home. Her cause seems hopeless, even when Teardrop agrees to help her despite his oath, putting his own safety at risk; but with eviction imminent, the deeply-rooted code of family honor begins to work its powerful influence, and help emerges from a surprising source. Even so, Ree must still endure a number of horrific tests to her mettle before her family’s security can be restored.

In adapting Woodrell’s novel for the screen, Gravik and Rosellini have focused tighter attention on Ree, removing details about the surrounding characters and their lives and making the teenage protagonist our sole access into the isolated society in which she lives; this allows us, like her, to discover the truth as she delves deeper into the mysteries concealed there. This world seems, at first glance, familiar enough, and straightforward in the sense that it conforms to our expectations and assumptions about the lifestyle of the people that inhabit it- at least, on the surface. So, too, does Ree believe she knows the score; she has been raised in this harsh, savage environment, and she is all-too-well-acquainted with the inflexible morality, the angry and abusive men, the suffering of their women, and the hard-scrabble existence that might better be described as survival than as life. However hardened and wise-beyond-her-years she may be, though, there are unseen depths to be plumbed here that she cannot yet fathom, and we are to accompany her on the grueling voyage of discovery she must undertake. It’s a rite of passage for her, by which, for better or worse, she becomes a fully-initiated member of her “tribe,” and by which, as witnesses, we are forced to set aside our own deeply-rooted preconceptions and see the ancient and universal patterns that tie these strange, seemingly alien people to the same core of humanity that unites us all.

To be sure, it’s a hard pill to swallow; for most of us, presumably, the world of Winter’s Bone seems a horrible, dehumanizing place, populated with people who, locked into a rigid and insulated Old Testament mentality that stretches back for generations and precludes any idea of progressive or compassionate thinking, strike us as just plain mean to the core. The men are brutal and arrogant in their assumption of male privilege, the women bitter and hostile in their endless drudgery, and the notion of equality is a moot point; the roles are proscribed by a tradition as unbendable as the unwritten laws about keeping out of each other’s business. Even deeper than the unquestioning acceptance of socially-sanctioned dysfunction, however, is the mandate against betrayal of blood; family trumps everything, and it is this imperative that fuels the conflict here, placing Ree and all of her relatives- both near and distant, ally and antagonist- in a complex moral dilemma that throws the entire social order of the community out of balance.

It is here where Winter’s Bone connects, perhaps unexpectedly, with the primal archetypes of classical mythology; both book and movie have been compared to the Greek story- as told by Sophocles in the final installment of his Oedipus cycle- of Antigone, in which the title character demands the honorable burial of her brothers’ bodies after her uncle, the king, has declared them traitors and forbidden it. Antigone decides for herself that her uncle’s decree is unjust, immoral, and contrary to the law of the gods; the kingdom suffers in turmoil and the king’s family is torn apart by the conflict, until Antigone takes it upon herself to defy the law, burying the bodies and suffering her uncle’s wrath in consequence of her actions. In Sophocles’ version, she eventually hangs herself while imprisoned, and the king is subsequently punished by the gods, suffering the loss of his own son and wife, for his hubris; in other variations of the tale, however, Antigone is saved by the intervention of the gods, and the natural order of the kingdom is restored. In Winter’s Bone, Ree enacts this same drama, standing against the injustice done to her family despite the danger of retribution from the male-dominated power structure presided over by Thump and his clan; alone among the women of her community, she has no man to rule over her, having inherited- by her father’s abdication- the role of provider and protector, and this in itself is an affront to the ordained status quo; but like Antigone, Ree transcends the social order by virtue of special circumstance, and invokes a power greater than the worldly dominion of Thump and his “kingdom,” the timeless and sacred bond of family. It is this bond that ultimately dictates the outcome of Winter’s Bone, exerting its influence through an irresistible sense of duty and honor, and overriding the unnatural dictate against compassion which has been imposed by an egocentric tyrant.

You might think that a comparative analysis between classical Greek literature and a tale about modern-day hillbilly speed freaks is a case of reading too much into a few coincidental parallels, but Winter’s Bone contains a number of clues that this connection is intended, not the least of which is a climactic journey by boat which evokes a passage to the underworld across the River Styx- a common element of many Greek myths; and should the references to pagan mythology fail to appeal to you, the plot is also rich with suggestions of Old Testament stories about strong and righteous women like Ruth or Judith, who step outside their traditional feminine roles to perform acts of bravery and heroism under dispensation by God Himself. These ancient underpinnings share a strong proto-feminist sentiment, which fits Winter’s Bone, despite its modern-day setting, by virtue of the rarefied environment in which it takes place; the characters live in a social vacuum, created by a combination of economic hardship, mistrust of outsiders, and fundamentalist beliefs, which has left the core of their cultural identity unchanged for countless generations, and though they may be surrounded with the weathered trappings of the modern world- motor vehicles, power tools, and guns (lots of guns, everywhere)- they exist only on its fringes, observing customs established by ancestors beyond their memory. In this context, Ree’s assumption of a moral authority in the search for her father, a self-appointed elevation above the accepted station of her gender, is a serious transgression against the social contract of her people, and the shock waves it creates are momentous enough to rock her entire community.

All these lofty themes and classical allusions add a great deal of resonance and weight to Winter’s Bone, but they are not its whole purpose; layered over the structure of its drama is a portrait of life as it is today for a very real segment of the population. The deplorable poverty of this Ozark community- and thousands like it- fosters an atmosphere of desperation, an attitude of disenfranchised resentment, a dog-eat-dog survival code, and an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. It’s a place where drugs offer both an easy escape from the day-to-day ordeal of living and an opportunity, for enterprising individuals, to rise above the crushing economic hardship which surrounds them; the cost of turning to this social scourge, of course, is that it turns the community upon itself and forces an even greater isolation from the outside world- a phenomenon seen time and again in poor areas from the rural south to the inner-city streets of the biggest urban centers of the world. In her movie, Gravik uses a documentarian’s approach, creating an in-the-moment authenticity to the action through improvised dialogue, hand-held camera work, and the casting of most of the extras and supporting players from real residents within the Missouri shooting locations. Her scenes play out against a backdrop of ramshackle buildings, cluttered rooms, overgrown yards, and remote woodlands, all saturated in the muted, icy tones of Michael McDonough’s cinematography and capturing the stark character of the region during the inhospitable season of the film’s title. In creating such a tangible sense of place, the director reinforces our feeling of being participants in the drama, making it harder for us to judge these people by our own sensibilities, however much more enlightened we may feel ourselves to be. Even so, the ease with which this society can be used to transpose a story reflecting the moral values of a millennia-old civilization is, in itself, a devastating piece of social commentary.

Winter’s Bone has another level, of course, a more visceral and immediate experience than the intellectual stimulation provided by its reworking of classical myth and its contemporary social observation; it is, on its surface layer, a noir-ish thriller, in which the typical urban landscape is substituted for a bible-belt backwoods setting and the hard-boiled private eye is recast as a hard-edged teenage girl.  It is here that Granik’s movie solidifies itself as superb filmmaking, keeping us riveted with its taut suspense and its constant aura of dread; it’s a testament to the director’s faith in her material that she permits the story to work on its own, eschewing showy cinematic technique or overt depictions of violence and horror. Nothing particularly horrible happens onscreen in Winter’s Bone, with a couple of notable exceptions, but there is a constant expectation that, at any moment, something could go terribly wrong; the air is pregnant with danger, even when we are unsure from whence it comes. When violence does occur, it happens in sudden bursts, catching us unaware and giving it the uncomfortable edge of realism- an approach which only reinforces our constant, nagging fear. As Ree goes deeper into the web of deceit and treachery that hides the answers she seeks, the interwoven relationships and the complexities of the situation become progressively convoluted, making the plot as opaque- and the morality as ambiguous- as in any novel by Raymond Chandler, and despite the pastoral backdrop, the drama is no less gritty. In the end, though resolution is achieved, many questions remain unanswered; in the best noir tradition, the mystery being explored here is really the human experience, and accordingly, the solution can never be complete. The real question of Winter’s Bone is not who did what to whom nor even why they did it, but how to make sense of it and give it meaning.

In all this analytical discussion, it might be easy to neglect giving credit to the cast for their substantial contributions. First and foremost, of course, is young Jennifer Lawrence’s star-making turn as Ree, a remarkable achievement for an actress of any age, in which she forgoes the temptation to sentimentalize and instead gives us an honest portrait of a steely, no-nonsense product of her environment, and yet still manages to let us see the little girl underneath an exterior forced to grow up too fast. John Hawkes is riveting as Uncle Teardrop, another double-edged figure, capturing his volatility and menace and then peeling back the layers to show us the sensitivity and compassion he is forced to repress and the sadness of a man resigned to his station and his fate. Dale Dickey is unforgettable as Merab, perhaps the movie’s most enigmatic character, the sphinx-like guardian at the gate who personifies the adamantine epitome of female power in this backwoods culture- and offers, perhaps, a glimpse of Ree’s future. Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks fame) has a touching cameo as Jessup’s former mistress, tracked down in her home by the determined Ree, and Garret Dillahunt is effective as the sheriff, whose tough-guy front fails to mask his absolute- and justifiable- fear of the people under his jurisdiction. The rest of the cast- many of them non-professional, as mentioned above- add an authentic flavor to the proceedings with their simple, glamourless portrayals; particular mention should go to Marideth Sisco, who makes a powerful appearance as a singer in a living-room bluegrass ensemble as well as contributing her haunting vocals to a handful of other traditional songs prominently featured on the soundtrack.

So, you may ask, is it worth watching? The answer, from my perspective at least, is a definite and resounding yes. Winter’s Bone is a deceptively simple, well-crafted movie that keeps you thinking for days after viewing it, and it’s virtually impossible to find a flaw in its execution, short of nitpicking about divergences from the novel or matters of personal taste. It is not, however, an easy movie to digest, let alone categorize. It presents a harsh and unpleasant vision of a world most of us would prefer not to see, and offers little hope or solace for those who like their slices of life tempered by a Hollywood ending; it will doubtless be equally unfulfilling for viewers who feel the need to walk away with a clear-cut moral stance about what they have just seen. On the surface, it might seem easy to determine the right and the wrong of the various characters’ positions in the events depicted here, but Gravik’s film, like its source novel, will not allow us to make so pat a judgment; though much of what we see may shock us or offend our sensibilities- particularly in regard to the treatment of women and the role of drugs in this community- it is soon becomes difficult to separate our feelings into comfortable black and white categories. Ree is sympathetic, but she her full indoctrination into the ways of her people is never in question- she mistrusts and disrespects the laws and authority of the outside world as much as any of the others, and she makes it clear both by word and deed that she is cut from the same cloth as the rest of her sizable clan; though she fantasizes about escape, she embraces her as a Dolly woman, and there is little doubt that after the final frames, despite the rebellious crusade she has just completed, she will carry on the unbroken tradition of this world, taking her place as a staunch and redoubtable member of the community and teaching the siblings under her charge to respect and preserve its ways. Likewise, Teardrop seems at first to personify everything that is wrong here, unapologetically snorting speed, waving his gun around the kitchen table, and physically dominating “his” women- but as the story progresses we are forced to acknowledge not only his nobility and his kindness, but his own status as a victim of the very behavioral code he represents. He is forced to be a brute, just as surely as the women are required to be subservient. Finally, though the world of Winter’s Bone seems unrelentingly bleak and inhospitable, throughout the film is a thread of the universal redemption that is offered by the shared experience of family; keepsakes, memories, and old photo albums surface throughout the story, and when we see Ree with the little brother and sister that have become, in effect, her children, the dire circumstances that surround them seem distant and unimportant. In the end, it is this sense of the importance of family that comes through, giving us a feeling, however vague, that no matter how much the world may conspire to drag us down, the eternal bond of blood still endures to give us purpose and at least a glimmer of hope that our struggles are not in vain. The title, Winter’s Bone, as explained by the book’s author, is a reference to the idea of a “bone” as a small token, or gift; the coldest season, in this sense, offers up a consolation, for those who work hard enough to find it.  In the story itself, the title is evoked by several circumstances- the most literal will be grimly obvious when it arises- but is, perhaps, finally most pertinent in the way that the tale offers up, out of its difficult and dismaying mix of complications, the clear recognition of family as the center of human existence. It may not be much, but it’s something.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1399683/

Vertigo (1958)

Today’s cinema adventure: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the 1958 psychological mystery that recently replaced Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in the #1 spot on Sight and Sound Magazine’s influential once-a-decade list of the best films ever made. Initially considered a disappointing entry to the Hitchcock canon, at the time of its release it received mixed reviews and barely broke even at the box office- an exception to the usual popularity and success enjoyed by the director’s films. Though Hitchcock himself cited it as one of his personal favorites among his films, it remained largely ignored by his admirers, even during the major reevaluation of his work by a new generation of critics that recognized the director as a true cinematic artist instead of merely a maker of popular entertainment. However, when it was withdrawn from circulation in the 1970s (along with four other titles for which Hitchcock had bought back the rights, intending them as an asset to be passed to his daughter upon his death), its reputation soared, and when it once again became available in 1983 it enjoyed a highly successful theatrical re-release and sweeping critical acclaim. In ensuing years, it has been cited by many as Hitchcock’s masterpiece (a view clearly held by the critics who vote in the Sight and Sound poll); but dissenting voices have argued that it is a flawed, over-rated, self-conscious exercise in pure technique, lacking the director’s usual polished storytelling and sense of humor. In view of this controversy (renewed and exacerbated by its recent promotion to the coveted #1 spot) I couldn’t resist the opportunity to chime in with my assessment- particularly given my own fascination with and appreciation for the work of Hitchcock, surely one of the single most important and influential filmmakers in history, whose innovations and techniques helped to shape the cinematic art form and continue to do so today.

Vertigo, prominently and famously set in San Francisco, is the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, a former police detective who has opted for an early retirement after his crippling fear of heights led to the death of a fellow officer during a rooftop pursuit. As he struggles to overcome the trauma- and his resultant guilt and depression- with the help of his best friend (and one-time fiancée), “Midge” Wood, he is approached by a former acquaintance, one Gavin Elster, to undertake a private investigation; Elster fears that his wife’s erratic behavior and mysterious wanderings are signs of a growing mental instability which may jeopardize her safety, and after some persuasion, Ferguson agrees to take the case. He follows the coldly beautiful Madeleine Elster on her seemingly aimless, trancelike meanderings around the city, gradually discovering that she has become obsessed with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who descended into madness and suicide after being abandoned by her wealthy lover; the fascination becomes more ominous when he learns from Elster that Madeleine is unaware of her own relation to the late Carlotta- or of anything about her- which has led him to suspect she has become possessed by the tragic woman’s restless spirit. Refusing to believe in ghosts (and developing his own obsessions), Ferguson continues to tail Madeleine, until, on one of her endless daily excursions, she abruptly jumps into San Francisco Bay. Forced to come to her rescue, he becomes personally involved with her; determined to help her discover the real cause of her strange psychological condition, he begins to accompany the troubled beauty on her obsessive expeditions, and the two develop a powerful attraction that quickly blossoms into an affair.  Now deeply enmeshed in a mystery- one which has taken on a new urgency with his feelings for Madeleine- Ferguson struggles to uncover the sinister cause of her strange compulsions, even as the diabolical secret of her connection to Carlotta threatens to bring on a tragedy that will once again shatter his own life.

The screenplay for Vertigo is based on D’Entre les morts, a novel by French authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose previous work, Celle qui n’était plus, had been unsuccessfully pursued by Hitchcock before being filmed by director Henri-Georges Clouzot as his masterpiece, Les Diaboliques. Though not written directly by Hitchcock, the script was prepared, as with most of the director’s films, under his strict and meticulous guidelines; an early version by playwright Maxwell Anderson was rejected outright, and a second draft by Alec Coppel was completely rewritten by Samuel Taylor- who worked exclusively from the director’s detailed synopsis to create the screenplay which was eventually used.  The resulting scenario, not surprisingly, is rife with classic Hitchcockian elements; most prominent, of course, is the focus on an icy blonde woman who irresistibly lures the hero into a web of illusion and deceit. Vertigo may be Hitchcock’s most personal statement on film in the sense that he uses the slow unwinding of its plot to explore in depth the themes which run throughout his other works. The simultaneous adulation and mistrust of women, the cynical view of romance, the Freudian emphasis on sexuality (the sexual subtext throughout is palpable, at times shockingly overt for a film produced at the time), the psychological connection between sex and death, and- perhaps most importantly- the obsessive fascination with image and illusion and the manipulation of these things to obscure the truth; all these are present, and magnified from their usual level of underlying texture to become the main concern of the film.  In “Scottie” Ferguson’s desperate attempt to fix his broken psyche by rescuing another tormented soul, he becomes fixated on Madeleine Elster as an object of desire; his sexual attraction merges with his efforts to conquer his fears and she comes to represent for him a return to wholeness- to attain her would be to repair his damaged life. However, his perception of her is flawed, partly by deliberate obfuscation, yes, but also by his own self-delusion, and his insistence on making her into his own fantasy threatens to drag him into the very madness from which he believes he is saving her- and also to blind him to the woman she really is.  It’s a dark journey, even for Hitchcock, and offers a grim counterpoint to the idealized love affairs that were so popularly portrayed in many of the glossy and sentimental romantic melodramas of the same era.

This decidedly bleak depiction of love may be one of the keys to why Vertigo failed to capture Hitchcock’s loyal followers upon its first release. His most popular formula was always a blend of romance, humor, and suspense, tinged with darkness, perhaps- even the director’s most likable characters were possessed of a few unpleasant quirks, and his villains were often more sympathetic (or at least more charming) than his heroes- but ultimately reinforcing the traditional Hollywood message that love conquers all, in the end. Vertigo was a marked departure from this tradition, even going so far as to use the audience’s expectations to lure them into the psychological trap its creator had planned,  The film’s first scene- after the expository opening in which we see the tragic rooftop incident that ends its protagonist’s police career and establishes the necessary premise of his paralyzing acrophobia- lulls us into the comfort of familiar Hitchcock territory with the playfully flirtatious banter between Ferguson and his erstwhile girlfriend Midge as he lounges in her apartment; our hero seems down-to-earth, well-adjusted and pleasant, and the tone is decidedly light- indeed, almost jarringly light, considering the gruesome events we have just witnessed.  In true Hitchcock fashion, the scene takes a foreboding turn toward the end, revealing the truth that all is not as well as it seems; but unlike most of his previous work, the ensuing drama never brings us back to the light.  Instead, the mystery into which we are pulled- part ghost story, part psychodrama- takes us deeper and deeper into uncomfortable territory, as we witness Ferguson’s spiral into desperation and obsession; as the film progresses, his banter with Midge becomes increasingly tense and forced as their unreconciled relationship falls apart, and his determination to conquer his inner demons seems more and more like denial. Though the plot is ostensibly centered on solving the mystery of Madeleine Elster, we are really watching the slow and inevitable disintegration of a man who refuses to face the truth about himself- and is therefore incapable of seeing the truth of the situation into which he has been drawn. Hitchcock’s well-known device of the “MacGuffin” (a supposedly important object or situation in the plot that is ultimately irrelevant to the film’s true purpose) is here taken to perhaps its extreme; the entire plot is in fact only a vehicle for the director to delve into the dark corners of the flawed human psyche.

That the mystery story is unimportant is made clear by the fact that Hitchcock solves it for us two-thirds of the way through- another reason for contemporaneous dissatisfaction with the movie; herein, however, lies the brilliance of the piece, for it is in the final section that the true, disturbing power of Vertigo emerges. It is difficult to discuss these scenes without giving away key story points for those yet to see the film, but suffice to say that Hitchcock uses the situation he has craftily set up in order to present an unsettling pageant of dysfunction between two people, each pursuing a fantasy (one of the past, one of the future) and deluding themselves about the true nature of their relationship, marked by psychological abuse, unhealthy fetishization, emotional isolation, and denial of the underlying issues that fuel this twisted romance.  It’s brutal to watch; we know it cannot possibly end well, and that it probably shouldn’t, but because Hitchcock is a master of transferring sympathies we desperately hope- along with these emotionally crippled characters- that it will.

From a technical filmmaking standpoint, there can be no argument against the greatness of Vertigo.  Hitchcock was at the peak of his powers here, with the means at his disposal to accomplish his vision to its utmost perfection. He tells his tale visually, with the eye for angles and composition that made him justly renowned, a fluid camera that pulls our eye subtly but unwaveringly to what he wants us to see, and an uncanny skill for timing and editing that manipulates our emotions irresistibly. He incorporates numerous subliminal means to underscore his true intentions; there is an omnipresent motif of spiraling patterns- not only in the story and in the visual design, but also in the magnificently lush, iconic score by favorite collaborator Bernard Herrmann- that continually reinforces his dominant theme of obsession, a state of mind in which endless repetition and revolution around a central focal point are the key characteristics; a heavy use of reflections to emphasize the interplay between illusion and reality (particularly with regard to identity, another important theme which is further supported by the fact that virtually all of the key characters are called by a different name from their given one); and, of course, the favorite technique of using point-of-view shots to help us identify with the characters onscreen- and, more to the point, to make us into voyeurs.

Always one to strive for full coordination of all elements towards a cohesive whole, Hitchcock’s vision extends through the work of his collaborators, never more clearly than in Vertigo.  To begin with, the legendary graphic artist Saul Bass, who also designed the movie’s classic advertising imagery, contributes a sharp and stylish opening credits sequence, establishing the spiraling motif that permeates the film.  Then there is the aforementioned score by Herrmann, a masterpiece of jangled nerves, relentless tension, melancholy longing, and spectacular release; echoing the strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde– another tale of doomed romance- but possessed of the composer’s own unmistakable aural style and distinctively struck in the modernist sound of the mid-20th Century, it is one of the most recognizable pieces of film music ever written- and one of the most effective.  The cinematography of Robert Burks is a masterpiece of late ’50s gloss, capturing not just the mood and atmosphere of the era but of San Francisco- indeed, the extensive location footage provides a dazzling view of the famous local scenery, such that Vertigo could serve as a travelogue for the city; in addition, his exploitation of various qualities of light, from the shimmering haze of a sunny churchyard to the murky gloom of a redwood forest, creates an almost dreamlike immediacy to the images on the screen.  Perhaps most noticeably, there is the stunning use of color throughout the film, painstakingly created by Burks, art directors Henry Bumstead and Hal Pereira, set decorators Sam Comer and Frank McKelvy, and costume designer Edith Head; thanks to their work (and Hitchcock’s meticulous guidance), Vertigo is possibly the most striking example of symbolic color coordination on film- from the dramatic contrast between Madeleine’s blue wrap and the red wallpaper in Ernie’s restaurant, to the jarring dissonance of her blond hair and her classic gray suit, to the surreal neon blue that bathes her apartment at night, the film delivers a magnificently lush palette of bold and subtle hues that elicit primal responses from beginning to end.  This effect is all the more powerful since a 1996 digital restoration (one of the first to be undertaken) returned the movie to its original, pristine condition after years of neglect had left it faded and almost monochromatic.  Having seen both an old print and the restored version, I can tell you it’s like watching a completely different movie, and it makes the greatest imaginable difference in the film’s overall power. Of course, any discussion of Vertigo would be incomplete without a mention of its special effects work, which includes the superb matte effects used to create several important sequences (most notably the bell tower at the mission where both of the film’s climaxes take place), the much-imitated nightmare sequence designed by John Ferren, and the famous “Vertigo Zoom,” used here for the first of countless times, in which a disorienting effect is achieved by simultaneously zooming in on a focal point and pulling back the camera.

Besides all these invaluable contributions, Vertigo benefits from the work of its cast.  Hitchcock, in later interviews, attempted to explain his film’s relative failure by attributing it to the disparity in age between his leading player, James Stewart, and the 26-year-younger Kim Novak, as well as unfairly- and inaccurately- claiming that Stewart had passed his prime and his popularity had waned (the actor actually enjoyed several more years of considerable box office success following his work in Vertigo); it’s true that Stewart may have been a factor in the public’s disappointing reaction to the film, but if so, it had to do with the fact that his character here is a far cry from the light, easy-going persona with which he was associated.  His previous work with Hitchcock had often pushed the boundaries of his gee-whiz image, as had numerous other of his later roles, but with John “Scottie” Ferguson, Stewart’s lovable personality was turned inside out; the good-natured, lackadaisical charm serves as a mask for a morose, deeply troubled psyche, full of self-loathing and capable of great cruelty.  Despite the fact that the actor’s many loyal fans had difficulty accepting him as such a flawed individual, in retrospect it is clear that Vertigo represents one of his finest onscreen achievements; he embraces Ferguson’s bitter darkness whole-heartedly, without attempting to soften it by resorting to sentimentality.  Playing on his own image, he offers a disturbing portrait of a man whose decency and humanity are eroded by depression and obsession, and his haunting performance is the driving strength of the movie- it’s impossible to imagine another actor in the role.  His co-star, Kim Novak, was not Hitchcock’s first choice for the complicated part of Madeleine- he had initially cast the young Vera Miles, who appeared in his previous film, The Wrong Man, but delays in the shooting schedule led to her having to drop out due to pregnancy- but, again, its now hard to picture anyone but Novak as the cool, mysterious, and ethereal focus of the hero’s- and the film’s- compulsive attention.  The director also later criticized Novak’s work, saying that, in retrospect, he felt she was miscast; and others have complained that she frequently seems uncomfortable, stilted and artificial.  Given the nature of her role, however (and once more I am limited by a desire not to provide any “spoilers” for those who haven’t seen the movie), these qualities seem completely apt.  Madeleine, like Ferguson, is hiding her true nature; and Novak ultimately lets us see that underlying her artifice is a sadness and vulnerability that make her heartbreakingly compelling as a tragic heroine.  She is particularly effective in the film’s final third, allowing her warmth- and her real desperation- to come through.

The supporting cast is led by Barbara Bel Geddes, as Midge, Ferguson’s gal-pal, who- though seemingly more solid and straightforward than the two leads- hides her own not-so-secret feelings for her former flame with an act of sly sophistication and smartly casual cynicism; she provides much-needed comic relief, but her own obsession- which leads to serious errors in judgment- is unveiled throughout, tempering the humor with an increasingly uncomfortable sense of emotional panic.  In addition, she represents Ferguson’s last link to the larger world outside of his fixations, and when she exits the film, with the literal slamming of a door and a slow, sad walk down a bleak and empty corridor, her absence is significantly felt; thanks to Bel Geddes’ understated, textured performance, Midge becomes one of the most memorable personifications of the glasses-wearing, “unwanted” woman so frequently found in Hitchcock’s work.  Tom Helmore, as Elster, seems the sad, impotent milquetoast in his few scenes (a characterization which ultimately adds yet another layer to the mysterious plot), and the rest of the cast- which includes some familiar character actors (Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Lee Patrick, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne) along with several unknowns- essay their deceptively small roles with just the right amount of appropriate attitude to further Hitchcock’s subtle psychological manipulation.

It should be obvious by now that I have a lot to say about Vertigo; this is no surprise, because almost everyone who sees it- critic, scholar, or movie fan- has a lot to say about this strange and beautiful film.  It has been suggested that one of the reasons it enjoys such adulation from cinema literati is, in fact, that there is so much to say about it- it is unquestionably a work of art, visually stunning and laden with layers upon layers of symbolism, subtext, and psychology.  Watching Vertigo is strongly reminiscent of viewing a painting in motion, not only because of the richness of its visuals but because of the seemingly endless amount of detail on the screen, each piece of which bears some significance to the film’s overall meaning- or rather, meanings, because like all great art, it opens itself to a multitude of interpretations.  From this standpoint, it certainly qualifies, as much as any of the other contenders, for the honor of being named as the best film of all time.  However, many less-admiring critics have pointed out that, on the more immediate level of pure entertainment, Vertigo fails to accomplish its purpose; the intricate plot is confusing, hampered by a lack of real action, bogged down by clumsy exposition, and hampered by long, uneventful sequences (such as the interminable scenes of Ferguson following Madeleine through the city in his car) that slow the pace to a crawl.  In addition, the story contains details that not only prove to be ultimately irrelevant but, indeed, make no sense; and once the mystery is solved, the central conceit on which the film’s final developments depend is so far-fetched as to pre-empt the willing suspension of disbelief required to make it work.  From my own memory of seeing Vertigo for the first time, I can freely say that all these points affected my reaction to it; die-hard Hitchcock fan as I was (and am), I could not help but be disappointed.  Yet there was a fascination for me here which I could not explain- a nagging feeling that there was something I had missed.  It was years later before I came back to it, but when I did- free from the need to follow a story I already knew- I discovered that to see Vertigo once is not to see it at all.  Dozens of viewings later, I am still discovering it.

Consider this fair warning, then- for the casual viewer, the charms of this much-hyped classic may prove to be invisible.  For those who choose to venture a second look, however, Vertigo begins to unfold itself and display its hidden majesty.  Like the beautiful woman at its center, it is not what it seems- beneath its cold and problematic exterior lies a rich and complex trove of treasures that yields new wonders upon each return visit.  You may not agree with the assessment of Sight and Sound that it is the greatest movie ever made- I can’t say that I do, either- but you would be hard-pressed to find another film which packs so much into such a deceptively simple package.  It is doubtful that Hitchcock- master though he was- consciously intended to create the myriad resonant details which arise throughout his arguable masterpiece; he second-guessed himself frequently during its making, and, indeed, wanted to make changes that were prevented by studio demands- perhaps a rare instance in which such interference resulted in a better movie.  The endless analysis to which this, like all Hitchcock films, has been subjected, would no doubt baffle and amuse a director who, after all, was just trying to make a good movie; nevertheless, as with all great art, the content of the canvas may yield more than even its creator can suspect.  Vertigo reveals much about the depths from which it came, perhaps more than its director could even recognize; it is, in this way, the quintessential Hitchcock film, in which virtually all of the filmmaker’s perennial obsessions were given full expression.  Other of his works may be more entertaining, more frightening, more believable, and more polished- but this one is undoubtedly the most personal, and as such, it is the key to Hitchcock’s universe, in all its darkly beautiful glory.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052357/

 

Chinatown (1974)

Today’s cinema adventure: Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir-inspired mystery drama starring Jack Nicholson as thirties-era private detective Jake Gittes and Faye Dunaway as a mysterious widow whose secrets lead him into a complex web of deceit, corruption, and murder. Renowned, among other reasons, for its screenplay by Robert Towne, which has been hailed by many critics and film scholars as the greatest ever written, it became an instant classic on its release and is still widely regarded as one of the very best films of the seventies, and, indeed, of all time.

Towne’s acclaimed script takes inspiration from the circumstances surrounding early Los Angeles’ complicated acquisition of water rights, fictionalizing real-life figures- specifically William Mulholland, who engineered the importation of water from the north by way of the Los Angeles aqueduct- to create a background for the film’s mystery; though the events of Chinatown are entirely fictitious, this historical context provides a connection to reality that infuses the movie with a sense of authenticity and gives it a feeling on relevance beyond its dramatic narrative. Set in the L.A. of the early 1930s, the plot follows Gittes as he works what he thinks is a routine case. Hired by the wife of Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer for the city’s Department of Water and Power, to catch her husband in an extra-marital affair, he soon finds evidence not only of Mulwray’s supposed infidelity, but of mysterious diversions of water taking place under cover of night. When Mulwray turns up suspiciously drowned and Gittes discovers he was hired by an imposter, he decides to pursue the case in order to save his reputation. The trail begins with the real Mrs. Mulwray, who has a secret connection to her late husband’s “other woman,” and ultimately leads him into a game of clandestine politics, real estate fraud, and dark family secrets; with the police and hired thugs on his trail, he must try to find the key to this complex mystery before his time- or his luck- runs out.

On the surface, it sounds like a typical scenario that could be found in any of a hundred hard-boiled detective stories from the thirties or forties, loaded with the clichés and conceits of such fiction; the wisecracking dick, the deceitful femme fatale, the oily politicians, the psychotic gunsels- all of them are present and accounted for in Chinatown. Towne’s script, however, uses the trappings of the genre as a springboard from which to explore a myriad of deeper mysteries, allowing the unfolding story to take us from the larger arena of politics, power, and greed into the more inscrutable realm of the human heart; in the convoluted skein that lies at the center of the mystery, we find that the most intimate longings are ultimately responsible for the most momentous events, and actions with far-reaching consequences are motivated by simple flaws of character or personal dysfunction. As Gittes digs deeper, he uncovers a vein of corruption that runs from the top of the social order to the very root of the family structure, soiling everything it touches in between; it’s not a pretty discovery- the dirty little secrets he uncovers are very dirty indeed, and the glimpse we are offered into the inner workings of politics (both public and personal) among the rich and powerful is one which offers a very bleak picture, indeed, of the way things really are beneath the pretty surface of prosperity.

Woven into the tale is also an exploration of fate, dictated by the hopes and fears which motivate our actions and ultimately cause us to bring about the very results we wish to prevent; it’s a theme encapsulated in the very structure of the film, in which Gittes, who carries the emotional scars of his history as a policeman in L.A.’s Chinatown, vows never to return there, and yet the trail on which he is led by his case brings him right back into its heart for the film’s climax. An ironic twist, and one of many throughout the film; true to its film noir roots, Chinatown is a movie about irony. Gittes is as worldly and cynical as they come, and yet he finds himself betrayed at every turn by his naive assumptions, and his skeptical view of human nature leads him to repeatedly misjudge whether to doubt or trust the people around him. Not that he can be blamed- in Chinatown, nothing is what it seems, and the more you see of what goes on below the surface, the less you can be sure of how to proceed.

The screenplay for Chinatown is so thematically rich that volumes could be written about it; indeed, they have been. Much of the joy of the film, of course, is discovering the countless threads of meaning on your own, a process which continues throughout multiple repeated viewings. This is due to the contribution of its director, Polanski, whose European roots give him an outsider’s perspective on the quintessentially American milieu of the story. Instead of taking for granted the familiar conditions of the noir scenario, he turns everything inside out with his observations on the culture it portrays; his sophisticated take on the characters and their foibles, the machinations of the plot and the hidden truths it reveals, and the illusions inherent in the American psyche. After all, our seemingly savvy protagonist makes his living by tearing away illusions, but in the course of the film he ends up stripping away his own. Polanski carefully transfers our identification to Gittes, who has both the intelligence and integrity to make him an appealing representative for us, revealing information only as it becomes available to him, and making our journey of discovery synonymous with his. As he proceeds, it becomes increasingly apparent that he is trying to expose a secret everyone else already seems to know, and our illusions are shattered right alongside those of our hapless hero. This lends the film a uniquely contemporary viewpoint on the old-fashioned world it presents, and effectively converts the film noir form into a vehicle for modern ideas about the underlying moral structure of our society. Much of this may seem to be the result of Towne’s screenplay, but Polanski wielded considerable influence over the project, making important changes to the material (such as removing a planned voice-over narration and significantly changing the film’s ending) that altered its structure from a more overtly hard-boiled exercise in nostalgia to a subtle, multi-layered deconstruction of the genre. On a more technical level, the director exhibits his mastery of the medium in every frame, resisting the temptation to use cinematic methods associated with noir, relying on the script and the performances to convey those sensibilities, and instead telling the story with his own, decidedly modern, visual techniques; his use of light and shadow, his framing of shots, his incorporation of symbolic elements- all are reminiscent of the classic mode of these films without directly recreating it. He invokes the spirit of the past while constantly, and subtly, reminding us that we are watching a modern film. It’s an approach few filmmakers have successfully managed, though many have attempted it.

With Polanski utilizing his more current filmmaking style, the distinctive period feel which helps Chinatown evoke its air of old-fashioned intrigue is largely provided by its impeccable recreation of vintage Los Angeles, accomplished by the meticulous costumes, sets, and decor, as well as the carefully chosen locations- all captured by the crystalline, golden-hued cinematography of John A. Alonzo, which conjures the sun-drenched aura of the setting as well as giving a sepia-tinted nod to nostalgia. To complete the package, the lush musical score by Jerry Goldsmith adds a definitive, faintly exotic blend of romance and mystery, with magnificently haunting trumpet solos expressing the mournful longing at the heart of the movie; it’s an even more impressive accomplishment because Goldsmith was called in at the last minute to write music for the film when an already-finished score was rejected by producer Robert Evans. The veteran composer had only ten days to complete his work, but the resultant score stands with the many other elements of Chinatown that are held up among the finest ever produced for the screen.

There is a tendency in films by an auteur like Polanski for the cast to be overlooked, regardless of how superb their work may be; not so with Chinatown. Inseparable from the director’s vision is his star; Jack Nicholson’s unmistakable demeanor fits Jake Gittes to perfection, as much a natural extension of his own personality as such characters were for Humphrey Bogart. He embodies the archetypal private eye character while re-inventing it, giving us the expected image of a tough guy with a strategically hidden idealistic core, but adding yet another layer underneath which reflects the more realistic, contemporary viewpoint of the film. His Gittes seems plagued by self-doubt, a fear that he is setting himself up to repeat his past failure as a cop in Chinatown, and perhaps a suspicion that he is more of a sap than he wants to admit; its an endearing and humanizing weakness which undercuts his brashly confident air, a quality that is perhaps the essence of Nicholson’s screen persona, and it makes him the ideal factor for the audience in Polanski’s de-mystification of detective fiction. The burden of carrying the plot may be on Nicholson, but the bulk of its focus is on Faye Dunaway, as that other essential figure of the noir landscape, the femme fatale, and she is more than up to the scrutiny. As Evelyn Mulwray, she, like her co-star, brings a modern sensibility to the role, a character which runs much deeper than the usual dangerous dames in these hard-boiled tales. Dunaway gives us a well-put-together woman, used to the good life, who is haughty but candid, alluring but also intelligent, tender, vulnerable, and deeply scarred- but still full of warmth and far from broken. Though the character, true to the mold, is deceitful and manipulative, Dunaway lets us see that, in a sense, she’s not very good at it; her face betrays her true feelings at every turn, though she is practiced enough to play it off; in this way, like Nicholson, she creates a portrait of a real person trying to live up to an image she’s not quite sure she’s capable of. She is also beautiful- her smooth, alabaster skin and her faintly exotic eyes give her the perfect look to capture this mysterious, seemingly untouchable woman. As for the chemistry she has with her co-star, they make a perfect pair; their inevitable but unlikely coupling seems to come from nowhere, in terms of the script- there has been no flirtation, nor any overt indication of attraction. Yet when it happens, it feels absolutely right, a chance for both of them to let go of their jaded, protective façades and be human beings again, at least for a short time. They make a great pair, and they brilliantly capture the film’s sense of longing as they play out the story of two lonely souls whose union must ultimately be thwarted by fate, becoming one of the screen’s iconic couples in the process. The third brilliant performance, and one which is sometimes forgotten in discussions of Chinatown, comes from legendary director John Huston (a fitting addition to the cast, since his 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon, arguably gave birth to the entire film noir genre), as Noah Cross, Mulwray’s obscenely wealthy business partner, whose genteel courtliness does little to hide the arrogance and sense of entitlement that defines his character; a truly great villain, he dominates every scene he is in, and though he his screen time is relatively brief, he makes such an impression that it feels like he is in much more of the movie than he actually is. The remainder of the cast- including Burt Young as a client who becomes an ally, Perry Lopez as Jake’s former police partner who is now a high-ranking detective and an antagonist in the investigation, Diane Ladd as the phony Mrs. Mulwray, and director Polanski in a cameo as a deadly knife-wielding hoodlum- all bring their own considerable contributions to the table, fleshing out their smaller roles and providing even more texture to the already intricate tapestry of the movie’s multi-layered landscape.

Chinatown is one of those rare movies that seems to be impervious to the changing tastes of time; it captures not only the era of its setting but the savvy, anti-establishment zeitgeist of the “New Hollywood” seventies, yet it seems as fresh and up-to-the-minute today as it did nearly 40 years ago. Part of the reason for this lies in the timeless nature of its themes and its subject matter- the corruptibility of man and the inexorable workings of fate will never cease to be relevant topics, after all- but a great deal of credit goes to the delicate, deceptively simple handling given the film by Roman Polanski, and the self-assured, passionate work of its stars. There are several points of interest surrounding the movie for cinema historians- it was the first film shot in America by Polanski since the tragic murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson “family,” and the last before he fled the country to avoid sentencing for his statutory rape conviction, a still-highly-controversial incident that sharply divides public opinion even today. None of these things matter, though, when watching Chinatown. It’s a movie that has something to offer for every audience, from the serious cinemaphile to the most casual viewer. The word “masterpiece” gets thrown around a lot, and I hesitate to use it, most of the time, at least in writing; but I suspect, in the final analysis of Polanski’s body of work when all is said and done, it is this movie that will stand as his crowning achievement- more accessible than his earlier, more directly artistic efforts, possibly his most universal film in scope and appeal, and less detached than his later, more meditative work. It’s the kind of movie that entices us with its entertaining surface and draws us into its complex, thought-provoking, revelatory world- a world where right and wrong are inextricably woven together and the only way to avoid trouble, in the words of more than one character, is to do “as little as possible.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071315/

Batman Begins (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Batman Begins, the 2005 action fantasy feature with which director Christopher Nolan initiated his vision of the classic comic-book hero, embodied by actor Christian Bale, re-envisioning the character and his world in a darker, more realistic vein that influenced a number of other subsequent franchise re-boots and brought a new level of depth and sophistication to the genre.  Focusing on Batman’s origins, Nolan traces the story of billionaire Bruce Wayne from childhood, when he witnesses the senseless murder of his parents by a mugger, through his recruitment and training by a mysterious organization called the League of Shadows, to his eventual return to Gotham City and his efforts to fight its rampant crime and corruption using both the skills he has learned and the high-tech gadgetry made available to him by the limitless financial resources he has inherited.  As he faces a host of opponents, he must also confront the enemies inside himself, learning to conquer his own guilt, anger, and fear in order to emerge as the symbolic hero he is driven to become.

It’s a familiar premise, by now, and one which has fueled a variety of interpretations since it was first invented by DC Comics artist Bob Kane in 1939; originally presented with a serious tone,  by the 1960s cultural “sophistication” had become such that the character had deteriorated to the level of a campy and outright comedic TV series- a classic in its own way, to be sure, but a far cry from the darker complexity suggested by the original comic books themselves and loyally embraced by generations of their fans.  Though the character was later reclaimed from this goofy image by such now-renowned graphic novelists as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, his incarnations on the big screen maintained a decidedly cartoon-like sensibility.  When Nolan was approached to resuscitate the franchise on film, he decided to take an approach more in step with the traditions of the comic books themselves.  With co-writer David S. Goyer, he fashioned an adult-oriented screenplay, centering more on the exploration of the character himself than on his far-fetched exploits- and making those exploits seem less far-fetched by infusing them with a hearty dose of realism.  The standard conceits of the story are built from the ground up, explained with a fresh perspective that makes them seem plausible; everything from the hero’s dual identity and theatrical tactics to the “Bat-cave” and “Bat-mobile” (which are never referred to as such) are presented as logical and necessary extensions of his self-creation, formed from the building blocks of his unique personal situation and the psychological forces which drive him, instead of being taken as rote.  It’s an imaginative approach that breathes life into the given clichés of the material, making the well-known mythology of the character feel fresh and contemporary.  In addition, by paying more than just perfunctory attention to the dominant themes of the Batman mythos- the importance of a father figure, the thin line between hero and villain, the relationship between fear and power, the purifying role of ethical behavior in a corrupt and chaotic world- Nolan and Goyer manage to give their film at least as much weight as most mainstream films aimed at a mature audience- and more than many.

All of which is not to say that Nolan’s vision of Batman is in any way light on action.  On the contrary, he fills his film with exciting set pieces made all the more satisfying by the care he has taken in laying a solid foundation; the various technological tools are more impressive for having been de-mystified, and the personal drama woven into the action raises the stakes and solidifies our investment in the outcome.  Furthermore, the action is structured into the story in such a way that the narrative is never put on hold; instead of digressing into extended displays of flashy spectacle, the plot advances through these sequences, making certain that there isn’t an extraneous or gratuitous moment in the film’s 140 minutes.

Much of the success of Batman Begins obviously hinges on its cast.  Nolan, drawing inspiration from classic seventies-era blockbusters like Superman, peppers his movie with an all-star list of gifted players, designed not just to lend credibility to the project but to provide the depth and complexity necessary for his conception.  It is not just the central figure that is subject to the director’s humanizing treatment; the entire array of familiar characters is infused with the kind of detail that raises them from the level of stock cardboard cutouts to three-dimensional beings with a life of their own.  Clearly, the writing plays a major part in this process, but the performances are a crucial factor, and the actors rise to the challenge admirably.  Heading the list is beloved veteran Michael Caine, whose portrayal of trusted manservant Alfred Pennyworth transforms the character from a mere source of comic relief to a powerful force to be reckoned with; thanks to Caine’s justly renowned skills, this aged gentleman’s gentleman is also a man’s man, wise and compassionate, brave and capable, serving both as a much-needed surrogate father and an indispensable ally to the troubled billionaire playboy in his charge- but grounded firmly in a reality that prevents him from ever seeming too good to be true.  As the future Police Commissioner, Jim Gordon, Gary Oldman matches Caine’s understated style in the creation of a sympathetic, powerful character, far from the pompously oblivious buffoon so often seen in previous versions; representing the traditional values of honesty, humility and family, he is an Everyman who becomes an unlikely hero, a worthy and equal partner in Batman’s fight against the forces of evil.  Liam Neeson is dangerously cool as Ducard, the mysterious figure who first becomes Bruce Wayne’s mentor and then his adversary in the fight for justice; Morgan Freeman provides his usual air of approachable dignity and intelligence as Lucius Fox, the techno-genius behind Batman’s bag of tricks; and Cillian Murphy brings an eerie, off-kilter edge to the proceedings as a corrupt psychiatrist with a dual identity of his own.  Rounding things out are Tom Wilkinson, memorable as an arrogant mob boss who finds himself a pawn in a game more powerful than his own, and Katie Holmes, earnest and likable as Wayne’s childhood friend and potential love interest.

It is Christian Bale, however, that must make or break the film with his interpretation of its iconic central character; and make it he does, going well beyond the usual troubled hero persona associated with the role and giving us a layered, remarkably specific and deeply personalized incarnation.  He fully inhabits Bruce Wayne, giving us a clear window into the young billionaire’s psyche and charting his psychological journey as he grows from an angry, vengeful youth to a passionate champion of justice; we believe in his commitment to the ideal because he allows us to see where it comes from, and because he invests so much of himself in Wayne’s emotional landscape he makes it possible for us  to identify with him- a rarity in screen portrayals of this character, which usually make him an aloof, distant figure, hard to fathom and harder to relate to.   In addition, Bale plays Batman as a clear extension of Wayne, a heightened version of his real self rather than a differentiated personality; indeed, in this version, it is the persona of the shallow playboy that seems artificial, a sham perpetrated half-heartedly by a young man for whom worldly extravagances hold no appeal and whose true nature chafes at being confined in so trivial a role- all of which, of course, serves to make us like him even more.  The only unsatisfying element of Bale’s work here is his lack of chemistry with Holmes; their relationship exhibits little of the spark that might give it meaning beyond its obligatory presence in the plot, so that when the would-be emotional payoff finally comes it feels like an afterthought.  Nevertheless, it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise wholly engaging performance.

This impressive line-up of A-listers inhabits a superbly realized vision of Gotham City, created by Nolan in collaboration with production designer Nathan Crowley, which draws heavily on visual influences from Ridley Scott’s classic, Blade Runner, incorporating the use of informed imagination in its depiction of the cityscape; featuring layered architectural styles that reflect the changing tastes of its long history and the mix of elegance and squalor that marks any major real-life metropolis, it’s a place that goes a long way towards establishing the realistic base from which Nolan draws his story.  Contrasting this claustrophobic urban atmosphere are the stately expanse of Wayne Manor and the breathtaking Himalayan landscape of the early scenes, all beautifully photographed by cinematographer Wally Phister, giving Batman Begins a distinctive look and feel that lingers in the mind’s eye.  It’s worth mentioning that Nolan chose to create the environment of his film largely through old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, using extensive footage of actual locations, soundstage mockups, and miniatures, and relying only minimally on computer graphic effects (mostly for animation of the elevated train sequences and construction of scenery using a composite of different locations layered together).  The action sequences were likewise completed with live action stunt work instead of computer-generated trickery, making the slick perfection of the film’s effects somehow even more dazzling.

The force that brings everything together, of course, is Nolan’s powerful and decisive direction.  He landed this project fresh on the heels of his surprise indie hit, Memento, and instead of choosing to helm yet another predictably generic franchise-based blockbuster, he decided to make the film his own, bringing into the mix such now-familiar trademark elements as his inventive, intricate plotting, his exploration of thought-provoking psychological and metaphysical themes, and his noir-influenced use of dark, morally ambiguous characters and situations- all of which fit the Batman milieu like a glove.  Aided by a moody, atmospheric score (jointly composed by Hans Zimmer and Thomas Newton Howard, who resist using the theme-driven formats typically found in films of this genre), he keeps the story driving forward with his heavy use of fast-paced editing and his intercutting of parallel threads, seamlessly interweaving themes and character development as he goes.  Keeping the momentum is key to Nolan’s purpose here: the film, after all, is called Batman Begins for a reason; though it has a completeness and a distinctive energy of its own, it is in fact a prologue, the first chapter of a saga that is meant to continue through a full cycle of films.  The director shrewdly provides sufficient thrills and closure to allow his film to stand on its own, but one can’t help feeling that he is holding back the use of his full arsenal to leave us wanting more.  As Batman Begins rolls to its conclusion, the final scenes feel more like a pause than a full stop, and the sequel-minded hints dropped within the final minutes only serve to feed an anticipation that Nolan has already been building from the very first frames.

As to that sequel, it will hardly be a spoiler for me to say that it was to become the single most successful movie of all time (at least until it was recently deposed by another comic-book film, The Avengers) and that its financial triumph was equally matched by its critical reception; but I’ll touch more on that subject later this week, in anticipation of the imminent release of the final installment of Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  My purpose here is to revisit the first of these remarkable, genre-defying films, which, though it falls somewhat short in comparison with at least one of its future companion pieces, gives more than a sufficient hint of the audacious brilliance that is to come.  Batman Begins is polished and powerful, a movie that treats its source material with the respect and maturity it deserves and, at long last, frees the “comic-book movie” from the assumed stigma of being second-rate schlock, opening it to the possibility of being considered as worthy and important as any “serious” genre.  It’s the first movie in which a so-called superhero (though technically, of course, this particular hero possesses no super powers) is presented in a manner realistic enough to be believable, and even if its fantasy elements are strong enough to ultimately keep it from breaking completely free of its genre, it sets the stage for its creators to accomplish that landmark feat with their next effort.  All these considerations aside, however, it’s more than enough to say that Batman Begins is a pulse-quickening piece of entertainment, fully deserving of its own considerable success and worthy to stand alongside the best this increasingly popular genre has to offer.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0372784/

Casablanca (1942)

Today’s cinema adventure: Casablanca, the 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as a pair of former lovers who are reunited amidst the turmoil and intrigue of the title city during the early years of World War II.  Frequently classified as film noir, this iconic gem is really more of a romance, though it shares many features- the cynical tone, the shadowy lighting, the focus on corruption and betrayal-  with the then-still-developing noir genre; but classification aside, the fact remains that Casablanca is one of the handful of films that can be indisputably called an iconic classic, an example of Hollywood’s golden era at its finest, and one of those cultural touchstones that never seems to lose relevance, despite the passage of years and the changing attitudes of society.  The reasons why are intangible; examining its elements individually, there seems no reason why it should have more power than any other relatively well-made pot-boiler of its time, and its production history was famously messy, with continual changes and second-guessing by its writers and producers that should logically have resulted in a complete muddle.  Instead it was, well, Casablanca.  It’s an example of one of those fortuitous combinations of people and circumstance that can only be ascribed to fate.

Though it may not be possible to fully explain the mystique of Casablanca, it is certainly easy to understand its initial success within a historical context.  It depicts a place where justice and decorum are merely a façade, creating the illusion of a level field in the deadly game of manipulation being played underneath; where sentiment and desperation are weaknesses to be exploited in the pursuit of shameless self-interest; and where law and diplomacy exist only to serve the powerful in the enforcement of their will.   In this cutthroat arena, Rick- a worldly-wise American expatriate- is the champion player, a representative of the “lost generation” who has transformed his disillusionment into a badge of honor, and who thrives in the niche he has carved for himself because he maintains a strict policy of isolationism- as he puts it, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”  It’s a strategy that works- at least until a romantic shadow from his past re-enters his life and forces him to choose between his self-protective shroud of indifference and a chance to use his position in the service of a greater good.  It was a perfect metaphor for an America that was hesitant about entering WWII after becoming jaded by the long and painful hardship of the Great Depression, and to make the allegory crystal clear, the story is populated by an assortment of international characters in various states of uneasy alliance with an ever-more-insistent Nazi presence.

Of course, if Casablanca were only notable for its heavy-handed political parallels, it would never have stood the test of time and would be remembered only as a piece of pro-war propaganda.  It is so much more than that.  The backdrop of then-timely politics serves as a stage upon which a timeless and universal drama is played, in which a man, burned and haunted by the disappointment of his past, rediscovers his humanity; and the cornerstone which allows him to do so is also the primary reason for Casablanca‘s enduring popularity- the iconic romance at the heart of the action.  Rick and Ilsa are without question one of the most famous pairs of star-crossed lovers in the history of film, perhaps even more so than Rhett and Scarlett.  Their story tugs at the heart of anyone who has loved and lost- which means, of course, everyone- and the connection is all the stronger for those who have had the experience of losing it due to the intervention of larger forces beyond their control.  Seeing this tender couple, played so perfectly and with such exquisite chemistry by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, find their opportunity to be together in the middle of the momentous events swirling around them is both bittersweet and cathartic, and their famous, final exchange on the foggy nighttime runway is surely one of the most simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting scenes in the history of cinema.

The romance may be the centerpiece of Casablanca, but Rick and Ilsa are fully realized characters on their own, too.  Bogart, though he had been active for years as a second-string movie thug and had recently made a promising splash in The Maltese Falcon, here established once and for all the screen persona which made him one of Hollywood’s most durable stars.  His Rick is the ultimate smooth operator, classy but rough-edged, sophisticated but down-to-earth, confidant but unassuming; one look and you know he is not only the toughest and most dangerous guy in the room, he’s probably also the smartest.  To complete the picture, his wisecracking irony and his stoic demeanor do nothing to hide the noble and sensitive heart that beats inside him; it is clear from his very first moments onscreen that he is a man of honor, kindness, and charity, no matter how enmeshed he may seem in the dirty politics of Casablanca, and when he is revealed as a romantic and a champion of the underdog, it comes not as a surprise but rather as a triumphant confirmation of what we already know.  It’s a role that seems tailor-made for Bogart, in retrospect, and it is virtually impossible to see how anybody else could have pulled it off.  Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, though not as defining a role for her as Rick was for Bogie, is nevertheless one of her most memorable creations; she is, of course, beautiful, but she also radiates sadness, nobility, compassion, and sophistication; at the same time, she wears her own shade of the resigned, hard-edged irony that colors Rick’s persona, and watching it melt away as their rekindled love transforms her into a passionate woman is one of the key elements of Casablanca.  Besides all that, she also deserves a lot of respect for being able to credibly deliver some of the most ridiculously corny lines ever written for an actress.

Of course, Rick and Ilsa are not the only memorable characters on the scene: the entire cast, comprised of several of the era’s most familiar stock players (many of whom were real refugees from the Nazi Reich), turns in superb and memorable performances, far too many to mention here.  It would be an unforgivable oversight, however, not to make special note of Claude Rains, as the charmingly corrupt police prefect, Renault, whose friendly rivalry and good-natured banter with Rick provides a grounding counterpoint to the love story, and whose heart of gold ultimately breaks through his cynical armor.  Also iconic are the delicious turns by film noir staples Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet; the former as Ugarte, an unlucky black marketeer who seeks assistance and refuge at Rick’s nightclub (though he knows Rick “despises” him), and the latter as Signor Ferari, a bold-facedly opportunistic rival club owner with whom Rick has a grudgingly mutual respect.  Dooley Wilson projects loyalty, patience and heart as Rick’s trusted piano player- and his warm rendition of the signature song, Herman Hupfield’s ”As Time Goes By,” is one of the most memorable aspects of the film.  Conrad Veidt serves as the primary villain of the piece, an arrogant and bullying Nazi colonel whose deference to the local status quo is abandoned whenever it stands in the way of his absolute authority; a remarkably subtle and nuanced performance in a caricature of a role, delivered by one of Germany’s greatest actors, who, sadly, passed away soon afterward. Finally Paul Henreid manages the seemingly impossible task of making the character of Victor Laszlo- the underground resistance leader seeking escape from the Nazis through Casablanca, and Ilsa’s secret husband- not only believable in his too-good-to-be-true nobility but likable in spite of his position as the man standing between the film’s beloved romantic leads.

The many other delights of Casablanca are obvious in every frame.  Most noticeable is its rich visual design, beautifully captured by Arthur Edeson’s lush black-and-white cinematography, which features a synthesis of exotic and stylish elements into a mythic landscape that contrasts modern utilitarianism with decorative antiquity, a continual and elaborate play of shadows, and fantasized notions of its mythic locale.  The Casablanca of this film bears little resemblance to the real-life city which shares its name; it is pure Hollywood fantasy, designed to evoke the danger and intrigue associated with it in our imaginations.  Rick’s café, a place where Western elegance is imposed upon the Moorish sensibilities of its architecture, provides the central base for the film- it feels familiar without being quite safe, an oasis in the harsh (but still irresistibly romanticized), foreign atmosphere which makes up the rest of the city.  It’s a triumph of artistic design, influenced by Hollywood glamour and German Expressionism, and executed by Art Director Carl Jules Weyl and Set Decorator George James Hopkins.  The costumes by Orry-Kelly similarly provide a distillation of the early forties visual milieu, giving us timeless styles flavored with fantasized exotica; in particular, the powerful simplicity of Bogart’s white-jacketed evening wear, which became an instant classic, still represents the epitome of elegance in male fashion.  The musical score, by the legendary Max Steiner, is perhaps his definitive work, with its interpolation of familiar European anthems and the romantic melody of “As Time Goes By” into his own highly flamboyant and evocative compositions, and goes a long way toward setting the heightened tone which has burned Casablanca into the collective consciousness of subsequent generations.

All this excellent artistry is in the service of the film’s now-revered screenplay, by brothers Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, based on an obscure play, called Everybody Goes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.  It is now well-known that constant rewrites kept the actor and crew uncertain throughout production, with Bergman, for instance, never knowing during filming who she was supposed to be in love with, and nobody certain of how the film would end.  This no doubt contributed to the cast’s loathing for the project at the time, and their belief that they were almost certainly making a horrible dog of a movie; fortunately, they were wrong.  Loaded with now-familiar classic lines, marked by excessively melodramatic dialogue which nevertheless wins us over by its sheer audacity and the committed, straight-faced delivery of the cast, it’s a screenplay that transforms its time-specific scenario into a tale of eternal significance, an exciting and emotionally resonant portrayal of love and idealism blossoming in a hostile environment.  The full power of these themes, however, might still have been lost or obscured without the contribution of Michael Curtiz, a versatile workman of a director who is often overlooked by cinema scholars despite an impressive and prolific body of work; with the skill of a master he weaves all the disparate threads together into a cohesive package, which revels in its intricately embellished atmosphere and its lush moods even as it drives its intrigue-laden plot at a steadily building pace towards its immensely satisfying conclusion.

Casablanca is full of memorable scenes: the capture of Ugarte, the arrival of Ilsa at Rick’s and the flashback to their romance in Paris, the cafe patrons drowning out the singing Nazis with a rousing chorus of “La Marsellaise.”  Indeed, more than almost any other film, it seems a progression of one remarkable moment after another; but, finally, it is the ending that sticks with us.  Rick and Ilsa’s farewell on the runway hits us in a place that the artificial thrills of the plot cannot, and it feels so right that it is impossible to believe that any other ending was ever considered.  Then, right on its heels, there is the not-so-surprising defection of Captain Renault from the dark side, just in time to walk off into the foggy night with Rick for “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  The emotional wallop is potent; and maybe the reason it hits us so hard has to do with the choice that affects us all, at one point or another, to serve our own needs or to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.  In a world full of suspicion, greed, and deliberate cruelty- or even just a world where nobody wants to look like a sucker- it’s a tough choice to make, and maybe Casablanca affects us so deeply because it lets us believe in the notion of “doing the right thing” even when everyone else is afraid to.  In a way, it’s a bridge between the noble sentimentality of a world long gone- if, indeed, it ever existed- and the hard-edged realism of the modern era.  We are still human, after all, even in an inhuman world, and (as the song so aptly expresses it) “the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/

Drive (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: Drive, the slick 2011 crime thriller starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic who moonlights as a wheelman for high-dollar robberies; a highly marketable package featuring a lot of action and a little romance, which garnered much praise for its visual style- a glossy mix of 1980s-flavored grittiness and edgy contemporary flash- and drew controversy for its bursts of brutal violence.  Essentially a post-modern film noir, set in a seemingly lawless Los Angeles populated and controlled by ruthless criminals, it seethes with an atmosphere of cynical amorality in which life is cheap and trust is for suckers and fools; and yet for all its hip, hard-edged posing, this movie is, at its core, pure Hollywood fantasy of a decidedly old-school nature.  In essence, in fact, it’s a modernized, urban reworking of Shane, the revered and iconic western classic from 1953.  All the plot elements are there: a loner with a mysterious past befriends a struggling family and becomes their protector against the machinations of a powerful gang of thugs, eventually taking justice into his own hands and embarking on a one-man crusade to eliminate the threat once and for all.  Though the details have been modernized and reconfigured a bit, the structural blueprint is the same, from the dominant themes of family and justice vs. power and greed to the fact that its tarnished hero doesn’t carry a gun.

If noting this obvious parallel to a cinematic touchstone sounds like a negative criticism, it isn’t: many good films are built upon a framework borrowed from great films that came before, and although its plot line is clearly second-hand, Drive certainly re-interprets the story on its own terms.  Part of the credit lies with Hossein Amini’s terse screenplay (adapted from a book by James Sallis), which cleverly updates the details of the plot and its characters while retaining the essence of its central conflicts.  The foremost contributor to the success of this re-invention of cinematic myth, however, is director Nicholas Winding Refn, a Danish-born filmmaker whose lack of native familiarity with the distinctly American setting and milieu has allowed him to approach the material with the empirical eye of an observer.  One of the consequences of his outsider’s viewpoint is the superb use of the L.A. locale, so often taken for granted by resident directors; he takes full advantage of it, not so much in his depiction of specific landmarks, but in the way he captures the character of it, particularly the Echo Park district where much of the action takes place.  He also brings a detached objectivity that somehow adds to the emotional resonance of the story, helping it to feel freshly-minted despite the echoes of its heritage that bounce through every scene.  With the help of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, he fully utilizes his locations to create an impressive visual coherence, infusing the squalid city streets with a slick, art-house sheen that echoes the feel of genre icons like Thief and To Live and Die in L.A. while still asserting Drive’s independence and modernity with its own up-to-the-minute, slo-mo/hi-res personality.  This effect is enhanced by the dreamlike electronic score by Cliff Martinez, which also facilitates the deliberate build-and-release of tension that pushes the film towards its inevitable conclusion.

On the business end of the camera is an attractive cast comprised of talented up-and-comers, seasoned veterans, and a strategically familiar collection of supporting players.  In the latter category are a trio of high-profile TV transplants: Christina Hendricks (compelling and memorable in a bad girl role that allows her to show a markedly different side than the one we see on Mad Men, but ultimately wasted in what amounts to little more than a cameo), Bryan Cranston (in a kinder, gentler variation of his Breaking Bad persona as Gosling’s employer and surrogate father figure), and Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Perlman (lending his star power and his imposing presence to a part that could otherwise be played by any tough-guy actor).  As the little family whose plight provides the catalyst for the film’s action are Oscar Isaacs (playing admirably against expectation as the ex-convict father striving to break free of his shady past, and nicely fleshing out a character which is ultimately little more than a plot device), young Kaden Leos (projecting a muted wisdom beyond his years and showing considerable onscreen chemistry with Gosling in their scenes together, which goes a long way towards providing the heart of the film), and English actress Carey Mulligan.  Mulligan has perhaps the most difficult role here, in which she is required to maintain a quiet, attractive nobility while navigating a complex subtext of resignation, repressed attraction and nagging fear.  She manages it well, inhabiting all those facets and bringing intelligence, sweetness, and dignity to the part (making it seem, perhaps, much more fully realized than it actually is), as well as creating her own chemistry with co-star Gosling; their scenes together are nearly wordless, for the most part, yet the pair infuses the silence with volumes of unspoken feeling, and when they finally kiss, the cumulative passion of their previous interactions is sufficiently powerful to warrant the highly cinematic approach with which director Refn chooses to showcase it.

Which, of course, brings us to our star: Gosling’s character (never named, but listed in the credits merely as “Driver”), like his cowboy counterpart in Shane, is rough-edged and dangerous, despite his All-American good looks and his quiet demeanor.  Yet, street-savvy thug or not, he is also possessed of a resolutely ethical core which drives him from within just as deliberately as he himself drives his own restored 1973 Malibu.  In order to successfully embody this urban paladin, Gosling must convincingly seem both too hard to be good and too good to be true- and he must do so with an amount of dialogue that can be described as sparing, at best.  He pulls it off brilliantly, managing to be believable on both ends of this extreme spectrum with a likeably stoic performance that is (appropriately enough) reminiscent of Steve McQueen at his anti-heroic best.  It’s a hypnotic performance, and watching the young actor confidently stand in the center of this film, it’s easy to see why he is one of the hottest leading men of the new Hollywood generation.

As good as Gosling is, though, the standout performance in Drive comes from a surprising source: Albert Brooks, known for his comedic work both as an actor and filmmaker, here plays against type as a ruthless gangster.  It’s a shrewd bit of casting, and Brooks takes full advantage of it, undercutting the cold-bloodedness of the character with his familiar, likeably nebbish persona; the result is a contrast between charm and menace that makes him easily one of the most chilling big-screen bad guys in recent memory.  Despite the impressive work of director Refn and the stellar turns of the other leading players, his performance is perhaps the one element of Drive which elevates it from the level of a well-made potboiler to that of a potential Hollywood classic.

As to that, only time will tell.  Drive has a dazzling quality that keeps you mesmerized while its subliminal elements do their work; fooled by the flashy surface, we fail to recognize that we are being shrewdly manipulated by the familiar undercurrents that pull our sympathies and shape our expectations.  As a result, we are more inclined to suspend our disbelief in the blatantly romantic premise at the core of the movie, a premise summed up in its tagline, “Some heroes are real;” or at least, in theory we should be.  Some viewers, however, may not be taken in by the smoke and mirrors, and may find they are unwilling to buy into a plot that, though appropriate for a larger-than-life epic of frontier justice and heroic gunslingers, seems decidedly unconvincing for a gritty tale of corruption and betrayal in the seedy urban underworld.  It should also be noted that, in spite of its family-friendly roots, this movie contains some very graphic and disturbing violence- in particular, an elevator scene (from which the aforementioned controversy resulted) that had to be edited into a toned-down version, and which is still shockingly gruesome- so more squeamish viewers should stand warned that they might want to stay away.  However, for most filmgoers- particularly those with an admiration for the nuts and bolts of the art- Drive will likely provide a rich experience, perhaps even more so for those savvy viewers who can recognize the archetypal formula from which it is derived.  Though its plot may hold few surprises (at least for anyone who has seen Shane), and though it may, in the final analysis, be unconvincing, there is still a fascination in seeing the ways in which Refn and his crew have molded it into its new form, and the attendant implications that arise from its transposition in setting, such as the differences (and similarities) in the portrayal of masculine and feminine roles, the metaphoric associations of our obsessive American car culture, and the difficulties of defining ethical behavior in a world complicated by conflicting moral standards.   Unacknowledged remake though it may be, it is nevertheless an inventive and original piece of filmmaking, and even if we already know where its taking us, it makes getting there an exhilarating ride.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0780504/