The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

thedeathandlifeofmarshapjohnson_posterToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

On June 6, 1992, a body was pulled out of the Hudson River onto a West Village pier.  Bystanders quickly recognized it as that of Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known figure in the neighborhood and one of the most visible – and colorful – personalities in the ongoing movement for gay and transgender rights.

Born in New Jersey as Malcolm Michaels in 1945, Johnson had moved to New York at 18, where she became a fixture in the drag balls and street life of the Village.  By 1969 she was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, and she was a key participant in the landmark riots that began there when police raided the bar in the early morning hours of June 28 that year.  Popular legend has maintained that she was the first, or one of the first, to fight back – though she herself disputed that claim, stating that she had arrived well after the conflict had already started.  Regardless of the details, it’s undeniable that she was central to the events of that night and the nights that followed, and that she emerged as a leader in the Gay Liberation Movement that sprung out of them.

Consequently, at the time of her death, the local LGBTQ community responded with surprise and outrage when the police, without any substantial investigation, officially declaring her drowning a suicide – despite insistence from friends and witnesses that she had been a victim of foul play.

This still-unresolved controversy lies at the center of filmmaker David France’s new documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a film whose title both misleads and tells you exactly what you are about to see.

Rather than presenting a straightforward profile of the beloved LGBTQ activist, France’s film instead focuses its attention on a less famous heroine – Victoria Cruz, a case worker on the verge of retirement from New York’s Anti-Violence Project.  Dedicating her final days on the job to the pursuit of long-overdue justice, Cruz is shown re-examining the files and evidence surrounding Johnson’s untimely death.  She interviews the late icon’s family and friends – such as longtime roommate Randy Wicker, who reported Marsha missing nearly a week before her body was found.  She pores through old news clippings and footage, tracks down retired law enforcement officials, and petitions for autopsy reports long hidden in police storerooms.

Like France’s previous film, “How to Survive a Plague,” this movie is not merely a chronicle of events; rather, in following Cruz’ search for truth and justice, it evokes the spirit of activism that Marsha embodied.  The investigation into her death becomes a springboard into not only a retrospective of the struggle for rights and recognition that defined her own life and times, but into an indictment of our culture’s relationship with violence against its marginalized populations – and in particular, transgender women.

Part of the backdrop of the contemporary segments is the 2016 trial of James Dixon for the murder of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman from Harlem whom he had beaten to death after friends teased him for flirting with her.  The highly-publicized case provides a somber observation of how things have changed since Marsha’s nearly-anonymous death, yet also how much they have not.  Dixon’s defense – that he had been humiliated by “being fooled” – has eerie parallels to stories told by Marsha herself about “tricks” who became enraged after discovering her true gender (even after being repeatedly forewarned), and is a common refrain echoed in similar cases before and since.

Ultimately, as the film makes clear, it is uncertain whether Marsha met her end in such an incident, and it is beyond France’s scope to delve deeper into the issue of anti-trans violence.  Nevertheless, “The Death of Marsha P. Johnson” gives it enough of a peripheral glance to serve as a grim reminder of how far our society has yet to go in its protection of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet although it is, at its core, a film about tragedy, it’s also about the resilience of those determined to rise above it.  France gives us plenty of Marsha at her audacious best, displaying the kind of dignity and character that belied her status as one of society’s outcasts – a fringe-dweller forced to make her living as a sex worker even as she was being photographed by Warhol and lauded as one of the LGBTQ movement’s foremost campaigners.  Marsha had it tough, but she devoted herself to making life better for an entire community whose existence was a daily struggle.

Reinforcing this theme of dedication, the movie devotes considerable screen time to Sylvia Rivera, another social justice pioneer who was Johnson’s closest friend.  Archival footage documents not only their side-by-side efforts for the trans community, but also her own fall into alcoholism and homelessness before reclaiming her role as one of the movement’s greatest heroines.

Watching these two “drag queens” (their own preferred self-identification), presented alongside the modern-day saga of Cruz and others who carry their torch, brings home the point of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”  Though France provides the biographical background we expect, and piques our interest with a true-life detective story, his true purpose is not to inform or to intrigue – he wants to inspire us, even incite us.  His movie is no less than a call to action.

Though she never referred to herself as “transgender,” Marsha was nevertheless a fierce activist and vocal advocate for the trans community, and has been embraced as one of their most revered icons.  At a time in our history when the powers that be are pushing back hard against trans acceptance and equality, David France’s film is an important reminder of the humanity at stake.

By using her life – and death – as a means to spread that message, he does Marsha P. Johnson proud.

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Goodnight Mommy [Ich seh, Ich seh] (2014)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

With Halloween right around the corner, most of the cool kids will want to include an outing to a nice, creepy horror flick amongst all the other seasonal festivities.  If that includes you, but you are bored to death by variations on the “Found Footage” formula (and their perfunctory cheap scares), you might want to seek out a showing of Goodnight Mommy.  Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, it was Austria’s 2014 submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards.  It didn’t get the nomination- but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing it.

Set at an isolated house in a deceptively tranquil woodland, Goodnight Mommy evokes a modern-day Grimm’s Fairy Tale as it introduces us to Lukas and Elias, a deeply-bonded pair of twin pre-teen brothers whose mother has just returned home from having extensive facial surgery.  Almost immediately it becomes apparent to them that more has changed about her than just the features still concealed beneath those intimidating bandages.  Her personality is different: she is colder, harsher, and, worst of all, inexplicably intent on driving a wedge between her two sons.  Gradually they become convinced that she is an imposter, and they begin an effort to expose her- but soon it becomes clear that the biggest question may be how far they are willing to go to discover the truth.

There are a lot of things that grab you right away about this movie.  The opening sequence, in which we first see the twins roaming together through a cornfield, immediately sets the tone.  They (and we) are inside a vast bubble of isolation, one which seems serene and peaceful but is in fact alive with unseen and vaguely unsettling activity- revealed by the carefully orchestrated soundscape of buzzing insects and rustling winds, just the beginning of a soundtrack which favors natural ambience over the use of music.  There is a score, but it only emerges for brief and infrequent intervals, and is all the more effective for it.  Then there is the cinematography, the opposite of what you see in the Paranormal Activity movies and their ilk.  Instead of a herky-jerky handheld camera, we get the stately elegance of widescreen, 35mm photography with the kind of artful framing and clean lines that make the film as good-looking and stylish as the country house of its setting.

All this technical excellence makes it clear that Goodnight Mommy is not a film made by hacks, but it would count for far less if the content were not on the same par.  The directors make sure that it is: their script is complex and tantalizing, doling out clues and hinting at secrets even as it provokes us with new mysteries and confronts us with surprises.  We know from early on that we are being manipulated; Franz and Fiala show us the world only through the eyes of the two young protagonists, carefully filtering our perceptions through them and making us both dread and anticipate the shift in perspective which we sense must be coming.  This sense of impending menace is compounded by the performers: real-life twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz are perfectly cast, exuding both sweet sadness and a kind of otherworldly distance which makes them the perfect blank slate upon which to hang the audience’s expectations; and Susanne Wuest, as Mother, walks the thin line between being menacing and sympathetic with dexterity, keeping us unsure, almost until the very end, whether we should fear her or feel for her.

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a horror film if there were not also some outright creepy, maybe even gruesome imagery along with all the psychological unease, and although I don’t want to give anything away, I can promise that it delivers (and that if you are squeamish about bugs, you might want to be prepared to look away a few times).

Goodnight Mommy does have its flaws.  The cost of keeping its characters ambiguous enough to preserve our uncertainty is that sometimes it’s hard to connect with- and therefore care about- any of them; and like many horror films, the story hinges on a gimmick, one which will probably be fairly obvious to most savvy moviegoers pretty early on.  Nevertheless, the film works superbly because it doesn’t rely on standard elements of genre formula to have its unsettling effect.  Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but Goodnight Mommy disturbs because it reveals real-life horror, the kind that makes us lie awake at night and worry about those we love.  In the end, it seems more tragedy than thriller.

That said, it’s still pretty thrilling.

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/

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 shocker about a series of gruesome murders at an out-of-the-way roadside motel.  Based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, which was in turn inspired by the real-life case of Ed Gein, a deranged Wisconsin farmer who stole numerous bodies from a local cemetery and murdered several women while living with the corpse of his long-deceased mother, it was heavily deplored by most- but not all- critics at the time.  Thanks, however, to Hitchcock’s sensationalistic marketing strategies and his popularity as the host of the then-current TV anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it was an enormous box office success; it played an important role in changing the film industry’s outdated standards for “acceptable” subject matter and spawned scores of imitators, paving the way for the “slasher” sub-genre of horror films and wielding immeasurable influence over generations of subsequent filmmakers.  Its critical reputation quickly grew, and it is now almost universally recognized as one of the greatest movies of all time, or certainly, at least, one of the most important.

Psycho is one of those films that is so widely known as to be ingrained in the cultural consciousness; it is hard to imagine that anyone in 2012, whether they have actually seen it or not, would be unfamiliar with the once-notorious plot twist that prompted Hitchcock to implore movie audiences not to reveal the ending after they had seen it.  However, on the assumption that there are such people out there who might be reading this, I offer fair warning that beyond this point you will encounter “spoilers,” and you might want to stop here.  Psycho begins in Phoenix, Arizona, with a lunchtime tryst in a cheap hotel between Marion, a secretary, and Sam, her divorced lover from out of town, who cannot afford to marry her because of his crippling alimony payments.  Later, at the real estate office where she works, Marion’s boss entrusts her with $40,000 in cash, instructing her to take it to the bank on her way home; seeing a chance to put an end to the dead-end arrangement of her love life, she instead packs a bag and takes the money to start a new life with Sam, heading down the highway towards Fairvale, the small California town in which he lives.  When a blinding rainstorm makes driving unsafe, she stops for the night at an isolated motel off the main highway, operated by an awkward but sweet young man, Norman, who lives with his elderly mother in a Victorian house on the hill behind the office.  Norman is warm and polite, inviting his weary guest to join him at the house for a light dinner; but after Marion overhears a heated argument between her host and his mother, who angrily refuses to let him bring a female guest into her home, he instead brings a plate of sandwiches to the motel, and the two of them share a meal in the office parlor.  During their conversation, Norman tells Marion that his mother is mentally disturbed and prone to fits of anger, but that he feels obliged to care for her, though it means sacrificing his own freedom, because “a boy’s best friend is his mother.”  When Marion returns to her room, she decides to take a relaxing shower before going to bed- only to have it brutally cut short when the dark figure of Norman’s mother creeps into the room and stabs her to death with a butcher knife.  Upon discovering his mother’s savagery, Norman decides to do the dutiful thing and clean up the mess, disposing of the body and all evidence of Marion’s ill-fated visit- including the stolen cash, still wrapped in a newspaper- in a nearby swamp.  A few days later, in nearby Fairvale, Sam is visited in his hardware store by Lila, Marion’s sister, who has come in hopes that she will find her missing sibling there; they are quickly joined by a private investigator named Arbogast, hired by Marion’s boss to retrieve the stolen money without involving the authorities.  When it becomes clear that Sam is as ignorant as they are to Marion’s whereabouts, Arbogast begins to canvas the area looking for signs of the missing girl’s presence; eventually he arrives at Norman’s motel, where he quickly deduces the young man is hiding something.  After sharing his suspicions in a phone call to Sam and Lila, he sneaks into the house in search of Norman’s mother, thinking to get more information from her, and quickly becomes the next victim in the deranged woman’s bloody rampage.  With Arbogast’s disappearance, Sam and Lila decide to take the investigation into their own hands, and head to the motel to seek answers- but neither is prepared for the dark secrets they will uncover before they can solve the mystery of Marion’s disappearance.

As detailed in the current film, Hitchcock, Psycho was a major departure for the legendary director, a small-budget, black-and-white, sordid and sensationalistic shock piece that no studio wanted to touch.  Even with his prestigious reputation and his popular status as a television star in his own right, Hitchcock had to finance the film himself in order to make it.  It was a risky venture, to say the least, but one which paid off for him in a very big way; the film broke box office records, becoming the highest-grossing release of his career and making him a millionaire.  Its success forced critics to re-evaluate it- those who had been initially dismissive of it as a tastelessly lurid, low-budget shocker, beneath the usual standards of the “master of suspense,” soon praised it enthusiastically and included it on their “best of the year” lists, and it was ultimately nominated for numerous awards (including four Oscars).  In the end, Psycho rewarded its director with the late-life revitalization of an already extraordinary career, made him an even greater power player than he had been before, shattered industry taboos against depictions of sexual and violent content, and won him a new generation of fans- and all at a cost of less than a million dollars.

It was no accident of fate, either; the canny Hitchcock understood exactly what he was doing, and he exerted his meticulous craftsmanship on every aspect of the production in order to achieve the kind of visceral, ground-breaking effect he knew would electrify audiences seeking a new kind of thrill.  To this end, he had chosen his source material for its deeply unsettling subject matter, as well as for its deliberate and merciless manipulation of readers’ sympathies. To keep the budget down, he chose to shoot in black-and-white, using mostly the personnel from his TV series; a few trusted collaborators, however, were also hired, such as graphic artist Saul Bass, editor George Tomasini, and composer Bernard Herrmann, whose previous contributions to his film work had proven invaluable.  He cast the roles with familiar and experienced actors, but avoided using big stars, both to keep salaries down and to prevent personality from overshadowing the story; and- after rejecting an initial screenplay by James Cavanaugh, who had written several scripts for his TV series- he hired screenwriter Joseph Stefano (who had only one previous writing credit, but possessed extensive personal experience as a patient in psychotherapy) to adapt Bloch’s book for the screen.

Stefano’s screenplay remains fairly faithful to the novel in its plot, though a few changes were made to accommodate the requirements of the cinematic medium; most significantly, the central character of Norman Bates was transformed from an overweight, middle-aged alcoholic to a youthful, squeaky-clean boy-next-door.  This was Hitchcock’s direct input, designed to make the character more readily sympathetic to the audience; his likability was crucial for the director’s purpose, which involved tricking the audience- and here’s the big spoiler, for those who care- into identifying with a psychotic murderer.  Indeed, the narrative of Psycho is one piece of trickery after another, enhanced by Hitchcock’s casting of his biggest star, Janet Leigh, as a character who is killed off a third of the way through the movie, and his other biggest star, Anthony Perkins, as someone who not only covers up her death but ultimately turns out to be her killer.  The crucial plot twist- that Norman’s mother is in fact her stolen, mummified corpse and that he himself suffers from a split personality in which he commits the murders while assuming her identity- is kept hidden by shrouding the mother figure in mystery, keeping her offscreen except in shadow, silhouette, or oblique camera angles, and hearing her conversations with Norman from off-camera- which has the added effect of making the audience feel like an eavesdropper.  This is another important element of Psycho, the sense that we are clandestine observers of some forbidden ritual, and it of course constitutes the biggest trick of all- Hitchcock turns us into voyeurs, getting our cheap thrills by peeking through windows, listening at doors, and sneaking into private rooms.  It’s a now-familiar tactic, used extensively by filmmakers wishing to enhance our connection to their subjects and to subvert our affectations of propriety, and Hitchcock was certainly not the first to use it; but in Psycho, he brought it out of the art house, where European and avant-garde directors had been experimenting with it, and into the popular cinema, thrusting mass audiences into a wholly subjective experience and smashing through the “fourth wall” of the camera by making it into a substitute for the eye itself.  We are subtly drawn into this personalized experience from the very beginning of the film, when the camera slowly zooms from a panoramic view of the Phoenix skyline through the window of a darkened hotel room to spy on Sam and Marion as they finish their midday liaison; throughout the rest of the movie we are kept in the action with the heavy use of point-of-view shots, scenes filmed through doors, windows, phone booths, and even a peep hole, and the theme of clandestine observation is layered in by the characters themselves, who overhear, watch, question, and spy on the actions of others throughout the film.

This voyeuristic approach was nothing new for Hitchcock, but rather the culmination of a motif with which he had long been fascinated; throughout his career he had developed techniques for enhancing the audience’s identification with the lens, emulating the natural movement of the human gaze with his camera, using the same point-of-view perspectives and many of the other tricks which would become the dominant mise-en-scène of Psycho.  Likewise, many other of his favorite thematic elements are contained within the narrative- doubtless one of the reasons he was attracted to the material.  Many of Hitchcock’s films feature problematic relationships with domineering parents (sometimes played for laughs, but always containing a decidedly dark undercurrent); his heroes are frequently flawed, even seriously broken, and often unsympathetic, while his villains are usually charming and likable; law enforcement figures are mostly ineffectual or downright incompetent, and “polite” or “normal” society is generally seen to be a hypocritical veneer for hiding any number of unsavory character traits; and, of course,  there is the ever-present icy blond, a beacon of inaccessible beauty, repressed sexuality, and, usually, possessed of a compromised virtue which must be regained.  All of these are deeply embedded in the fabric of Psycho– there are even two icy blonds- and used relentlessly to undermine the audience’s ingrained expectations.  The heroine is a thief, but her victim is a fatuous boor, and her motives are understandable, if misguided; her sister is prudish and severe, while her boyfriend is morose and belligerent; the police are condescending and dismissive, the private eye pushy and sardonic; Norman, however, is shy, kind and endearing, even if his hobby of stuffing birds is a little weird, and he is, of course, the epitome of the dutiful son.  In any standard narrative, it would be clear where our sympathies should lie, but here everything is turned upside down; we root for Marion, and when she is suddenly and cruelly taken from us, we easily transfer our affections to her killer.  We make this willing shift partly because we do not yet know he is guilty, it’s true, but Hitchcock has built his trap so craftily that we would likely take the leap even if we did.  By the end of the film, the director has successfully made us emotional accomplices to both grand larceny and murder, and with his final shot of Marion’s car being pulled from the mud, a lifeless shell representing all that is left of her naive hope for a happy future, he rubs our faces in it.

There is another layer to all this subversive irony, though, beyond just a trickster’s impulse to make us feel dirty.  Our willingness to empathize with first a thief, then a killer, is grounded in what we think we see, what we want to believe, and what we have been trained to expect.  There are plenty of warnings- all the information we need to see the truth is plainly given as we go along, and yet we choose to bestow our sympathy based on romantic illusion.  We want the pretty, decent Marion to be able to “buy off unhappiness,” and we assume the boyish, mild-mannered Norman to be the innocent victim of his mother’s cruelty- from which we hope he can somehow break free without repercussions for his role in covering up her crimes.  This emotional manipulation is achieved by Hitchcock’s mastery of image; he carefully arranges what we see and hear in order to place us in conflict with ourselves, torn between our direct instinctive reactions and our intellectual assessment.  It’s a master con, made possible because of our tendency to mistake image for reality, but we buy into it willingly even as Hitchcock tauntingly tips us off all the way through.  Just as he gives us indications throughout that could easily lead us to recognize the truth about Norman and his mother, he inundates us with reminders about the relationship between image and reality; virtually every scene features mirrors or windows which allow us to see both the characters and their reflections, and most of the plot’s complications arise as a result of decisions based on faulty perception of the surface.  Marion is able to steal the cash because she seems trustworthy, she trusts Norman because he seems harmless, and everyone believes in his mother’s existence because she seems to be in the house.  Even the town sheriff, upon learning about the supposed involvement of a woman he knows to have been dead for years, is uninterested in investigating further because he forms an explanation that satisfies his assumptions.  In the end, Psycho is not about solving mysteries or exposing the pathology of a homicidal personality; it is an examination of- and a warning against- the dangers of living in a fantasy derived from what we want to believe.  We, as the audience, arrange the images to tell the story we expect to see, and when we are brutally reminded by Marion’s ignoble exit from the scenario that all is not what it seems, we fall right back into the clutches of illusion by transferring our sympathies to Norman.  In the climactic revelation, the sight of Norman, shrieking maniacally in his cheap wig and dress as Sam wrestles him into submission and his desperate illusions fall away along with the last vestige of his sanity, we cannot even comfort ourselves that we had no way to see it coming.  It may be a shock, but when we re-examine what has gone before, it is not really a surprise.  We let ourselves be deluded every step of the way, allowing our preconceived judgments color our perceptions; or to put it another way, to paraphrase a key subject from the parlor discussion between Marion and Norman, we have stepped into our own private trap.  This is the true heart of the film- the self-created cage of perception that traps us each and defines the way we see the world.  The image we embrace becomes identified as our reality, but as Hitchcock loves to remind us- and nowhere more vividly than in Psycho– this is an illusion, and one which can lead to the direst of consequences.

With so many volumes having been written about Psycho, it was not my intent to add much to it; clearly, however, I have been caught up in the spell of this much-discussed classic.  Something about this movie begs to be analyzed, explored, and revisited time and again.  There is so much here to stimulate, to intrigue, to perplex.  One can watch the film simply to revel in Hitchcock’s pure technical mastery: the aforementioned ways in which he invites us to participate in his own voyeurism; his ability to build tension with his deliberate pacing and editing, utilizing long, leisurely scenes interrupted by sharp, violent shocks that echo the stabbing of the knife; his use of visual means to keep us off-balance and on edge, such as dramatic camera angles, uncomfortably extreme close-ups, overhead shots, and other signature Hitchcock touches; and of course there is the justly famous shower scene, a 45-second collage of spliced film that terrorized the entire culture in 1960 and still inspires a particular kind of fear today.  You could also focus on Bernard Herrmann’s iconic musical score, a haunting and nerve-jangling composition for strings that Hitchcock himself credited for being 33% responsible for the film’s effectiveness and has been consistently placed at or near the top on lists of the greatest film soundtracks ever written; during the opening credits, you can marvel at the way the music is complemented by the title sequence created by the great Saul Bass, a no-less-iconic jumble of broken, intersecting lines that suggest the jagged turmoil of a disturbed mind as they spell out the pertinent names and assignments of the movie’s participants.

Of course, you can also reap the rewards of Psycho if you dedicate a viewing entirely to an appreciation of the performances.  Anthony Perkins’ work here is as fine an example of screen acting as you are ever likely to see, a masterpiece of understatement with subtle nuances revealing themselves upon every repeat viewing.  It was a role that matched him perfectly, allowing an intertwining of personal experience and fictional subtext that gives Norman a rare level of authenticity and makes him as heartbreaking as he is disturbing; though the character permanently defined his career and resulted in years of typecasting, it provided the young actor with a chance to leave a legacy the likes of which few others can claim.  Often overlooked, but no less definitive, is Janet Leigh’s outstanding work as Marion Crane; offering us an utterly convincing portrait of an everyday working girl, smart and clearly independent, but hiding a desperate longing to find the happier life of which she dreams, she wins us over immediately- and not only because of the obvious sex appeal of the opening scene, in which she helped to break down the so-called “decency code” by appearing in only a bra and a slip- and makes us keenly feel along with her the frustration of her mundane life, the irresistible thrill of her impromptu escape, and the mounting distress and paranoia that comes as she begins to recognize the consequences of her choice.  She is powerfully likable, which makes it doubly cruel when she is abruptly taken from us; this was Hitchcock’s goal, of course, carefully orchestrated by expanding Marion’s story from the brief episode it comprises in the original novel and by casting his most widely-known star in the role.  Leigh was his first choice, and she eagerly agreed to the project without even reading the script or discussing her salary; she was rewarded for her enthusiasm with an Oscar nomination, and, like her co-star, she created an unforgettable piece of cinema history, a rich and layered performance that is so good precisely because it contains no overt histrionics with which to call attention to itself.  The rest of the cast, though their roles are not as complex in dimension, are equally memorable- despite the fact that the director was vocal in his dissatisfaction with John Gavin (whom he referred to as “the stiff”) and that he was, by all reports, punishing Vera Miles for her abandonment of his earlier Vertigo (she became pregnant and bowed out before filming began, forcing Hitchcock to replace her with Kim Novak) by making her character here as unappealing as possible.  As Sam and Lila, respectively, both performers actually provide exactly the right qualities to their roles, making it impossible to imagine the film any other way; and, rounding out the main cast as Arbogast, Martin Balsam is likewise a perfect fit, giving us a canny portrait of a no-nonsense professional whose blunt and rumpled exterior belie the crafty shrewdness underneath.

There is so much to write about Psycho; I could go on with discussions of the layered themes and the techniques used by Hitchcock to explore them, or the brilliance of the stark black-and-white photography and its visual symphony of light and shadow, the contrast between the unglamorous, utilitarian settings and the austere design of the now-famous Edward-Hopper-inspired house that glowers down over the motel- the list is inexhaustible.  Similarly, I could write volumes about the history surrounding the film.  The battles with the censors over such things as the raciness of the opening hotel room scene, the use of the word “transvestite,” and the inclusion of a toilet (never before shown in an American film); the painstaking creation of the shower scene, which took a week to film, and generated obvious controversy upon release as well as much future argument about factors like whether it was Leigh or a body double that was used in the majority of its shots or the extent of involvement by Saul Bass, who drew the storyboards for the sequence but later claimed to have directed it in its entirety; the depth of contribution by Hitchcock’s wife and creative partner, Alma Reville, who- as she had on every film of her husband’s career- collaborated on every aspect of the movie from pre-production to final editing; all these things and more are legendary chapters in the story of Psycho, and you can (and should) read about them in so many other places that it is unnecessary to take any more time with them here.

The most pressing issue regarding Psycho, perhaps, for the “typical” modern viewer, who may have little scholarly interest in the film as a piece of cinematic art history and probably doesn’t care about the virtually unfathomable influence it has had upon every horror film that came after it, is simply whether or not it is still holds up.  Does this seminal, deceptively simple thriller live up to its reputation for inducing terror and inspiring nightmares for weeks after seeing it?  The answer, honestly, is probably not.  By today’s standards, even the most squeamish viewer is unlikely to find any of the film’s once-controversial violence hard to take; the gore factor is minimal, even in the famous shower scene with its chocolate-syrup blood, and, with a mere two killings taking place onscreen, the body count is decidedly low.  Taking this into account, along with the fact that it is virtually impossible to go into the movie without knowing its twist ending (or at least being familiar enough with its many imitators that it becomes easy to spot from very early on), Psycho is unlikely to generate many shocks with jaded modern audiences, and indeed is more apt to produce laughter- a development, incidentally, that would likely have pleased Hitchcock, who always claimed that the film was meant to be a very dark comedy.  Still, even if it has lost its power to scare us outright, it nevertheless casts an eerie and unsettling spell; even with its now-tame level of splatter, the shower scene is a deeply disturbing psychological jolt which plays on our most primal fears and reminds us of our innate vulnerability in the most common and universal of activities, and there is an undeniable creepiness that pervades the scenario, compounding as it progresses so that the Bates Motel and its adjoining house become more ominous and sinister in the bright light of day than in the earlier scenes at night.  Furthermore, instead of a neat and positive happy ending, Hitchcock leaves us with the mocking reminder that the world’s evil can be temporarily vanquished, but it will still remain, hidden in the most innocent-seeming of places, awaiting its opportunity to catch us unprepared; the final sequence of Norman, sitting alone in his cell as we hear “mother’s” voice in his mind, undermines any sense of safe, comfortable normalcy that might have been re-established by the previous explanatory denouement in which the smugly self-satisfied forensic psychiatrist unfolds his pat diagnosis of the murderer’s tormented psyche, and the final aforementioned shot of Marion’s car being pulled from the mud reminds us of the ugly reality of her senseless death- defying any attempt that might be made to assign it a meaning or purpose.  There is no comfort here, only tragedy and a chaos so deeply imbedded it can never be excised.  The power of these observations is as tangible today as it was five decades ago, whether or not Psycho frightens on a direct level, and any viewer seeking more than a cheap, visceral thrill will soon be drawn into the movie’s seductive web of delusion and consequence.  In short, Psycho may be better approached by the modern viewer as a psycho-drama, without expectations of blood-chilling fright and nausea-inducing carnage; indeed, it can be viewed, as its director did, as a comedic exploration of the fantasies in which we wrap ourselves and the mishaps in which they might result, though admittedly this requires a particularly morbid sense of humor.  In truth, of course, Psycho was never really meant to be a horror film, though it may have horrified; as in all of Hitchcock’s work, the real purpose is hidden behind the “McGuffin,” his term for the seemingly vital element around which his plots appear to revolve but which is actually a ruse through which his true concerns can be explored.  The McGuffin here is the mystery itself- ultimately the theft, the murders, and the psychotic delusions of the central character are all merely smoke and mirrors for Hitchcock’s master plan, in which he pulls the rug right out from underneath us and leaves us grasping for support that is no longer there.  Though he dresses Psycho in the trappings of the horror genre, its real riches lie beneath that exploitative exterior, and are ultimately more profoundly upsetting than any cheap momentary shock tactics could ever be.  On this level, from which it has always, truly, derived its greatness, Psycho is as fresh and relevant as the day it was released, and remains a must-see requirement for anyone who considers themselves even a casual film fan.  Personally, I first saw it at the age of ten, alone in my second-story bedroom on a tiny black-and-white TV screen.  It didn’t scare me, much, even at that tender age, but it certainly made a deep impression, and it most likely provided the single film experience that started me on my lifetime cinema adventure.  I’ve since seen it an uncountable number of times, and each time I never fail to be drawn in and to discover something new to consider.  If you are lucky, Psycho will hook you the way it hooked me; at the very least, it will make you think twice about leaving the bathroom door unlocked the next time you shower in a motel.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054215/

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/

 

Faust (1994)

Today’s cinema adventure: Faust, the 1994 feature by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, a surrealist take on the classic German legend in which a scholar trades his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly knowledge and experience.  Set in modern day Prague and incorporating the director’s trademark blend of live action with stop-motion animation, claymation and puppetry, as well as his disturbingly textural use of sound, it represents the culmination of Švankmajer’s long fascination with the tale and stands- along with his other highly distinctive work- as a major influence on more well-known directors such as David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam.

Presenting its own loose adaptation of the familiar morality fable, Švankmajer’s film borrows elements (and, occasionally, entire scenes) from previous versions by the likes of Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, as well as from the early folk stories of its origin, more or less faithfully following the traditional structure of the narrative; but thanks to the director’s surrealist sensibilities, it recasts the tale in the form of a nightmarish hallucination centered around a nondescript middle-aged everyman who stands in for the mythic scholar.  When this hapless protagonist is handed a flyer in the street, upon which is printed only a simple map of the city with a location marked in red, his curiosity- coupled with some unusual occurrences in his apartment- leads him to a mysterious, ruined theatre; there, after donning costume and makeup, he begins to read from a charred and tattered script, setting in motion a hallucinatory cycle in which he enacts the role of Faust.  Assisted- and manipulated- by an assortment of other “actors,” human and otherwise, his own identity merges with that of the character he plays, and it becomes clear that his own fate is being determined by the scripted events of the ancient drama in which he has become enmeshed- in which he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil, to instruct him in the secrets of the universe and guide him through the pleasures of earthly life for a period of 24 years, after which he will surrender his soul to be damned into Hell for all eternity.

A dark and moralistic story like this one, born of the same dour Germanic heritage that yielded the Grimm fairy tales and other such cautionary parables, could easily be translated to the screen laden with the ponderously heavy trappings of deep tradition and humorless Puritanism; likewise, given the fact that this legend has provided the inspiration for countless adaptations and re-inventions (from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Brian DePalma’s The Phantom of the Paradise), the familiarity of its basic plot and its themes make it challenging, to say the least, for any artist attempting a new version to find a fresh approach that might prevent predictability and redundancy from undermining the proceedings- and the audience’s interest in the outcome.  In Švankmajer’s hands, however, the entire well-known saga is transformed into an audaciously non-traditional package of surprises, each one as delightful as it is disturbing, appropriately dark in tone but laced throughout with macabre, tongue-in-cheek humor, and loaded with the peculiar blend of the cinematic and the theatrical that gives this director a reputation for visual magic that is unlike the work of any other.  A self-proclaimed surrealist, Švankmajer creates a movie that captures the peculiar flow of nonsensical logic one follows in a dream, making the experience of watching Faust feel thoroughly like a visit to the realm of the unconscious; he tells the story clearly and succinctly, but he does it through a deeply symbolic progression of seeming non-sequiturs, building a mass of perplexing puzzle pieces that fall seamlessly into place as the narrative resolves itself.  By transposing the story deeply into a hallucinogenic reality in which rules of plausibility and common sense no longer apply, the director not only allows himself free use of arcane and metaphoric artistic conceits, he manages to frame his oft-told tale in such a way that every development seems completely new and unexpected, giving us the opportunity to discover its hidden meanings and significant themes by discovering them from an unfamiliar perspective.

That perspective, shrewdly, moves the Faust story out of the medieval past and into a milieu more relevant to a modern audience; Švankmajer doesn’t exactly update his drama, but rather rehearses it within a contemporary framework.  Our protagonist is established from the outset as a decidedly present-day figure, emerging amidst a crowd of commuters from a subway station- just another anonymous drone.  He is drawn into the web that will seal his fate by a pair of men passing out flyers on a street corner, a sight so mundane in our modern world we scarcely take notice; this, of course, sets up a recurring theme for Švankmajer, that of the mystical contained within the ordinary, a motif that manifests itself throughout the film and tempts us, like Faust, with the promise of secret wonders hiding just beneath the bland surface of our everyday lives.  In our demystified era of utilitarian buildings and dehumanized masses, we long for the thrill of the unknown, a glimpse of something mysterious behind the mask of our predictable, well-ordered existence; such a revelation, however, is as unsettling as it is exhilarating, a source of terror as much as enlightenment, and therein lies the essence of Faust.  To obtain the key to this secret world, we must be willing to sacrifice our very selves, to give up everything that defines us- our souls, if you will; for to be privy to the secret workings of the universe is to be torn irrevocably from our humanity, confronted with an absolute power that renders our previous understanding meaningless and dissolves our identity by shattering the precepts upon which we build our relationship with the world.  In a modern age full of the smug assumptions and easy explanations derived from centuries of scientific exploration, the idea of an unseen order to things is perhaps even more terrifying than it was to our superstitious forefathers, whose imaginations conjured the tale of Faust to warn against delving too deeply into the hidden mysteries of life.  They feared the cost of knowledge and worldly experience was the loss of the soul, but we who have embraced these things may be more frightened by the possibility that they were right.  Švankmajer’s Faust, then, is about the rediscovery of the soul by modern man, and the disturbing notion that he has already sacrificed it.

That Švankmajer conveys all this in his movie is remarkable; but convey it he does, in a manner which gives testimony to his skills as an artist and a visual storyteller.  How he does it, exactly, is beyond the power of words to describe, and at any rate is best left to be experienced firsthand. Suffice to say that, in order to bring our modern sensibility into the mystical world of his story, he takes us into the last remaining stronghold of magic, the realm of the theater.  By trapping his protagonist into a re-enactment of an ancient text, not only does he provide the obvious metaphor of man’s fate being dictated by his repetition of the patterns of the past, he opens the door for his own use of all the tricks of the trade in the service of creating his goofy nightmare.  Puppets, both life-sized and miniature, stand in for other characters- and occasionally, for Faust, too- and interchange with live actors; painted backdrops appear in naturalistic settings, and vice-versa, patently theatrical objects and occurrences manifest in the real world, and events move freely back-and-forth between the containment of the theater and the expanse of nature, underscoring Švankmajer’s dissolution of the boundary between reality and illusion; dialogue is recited, arias are sung, ballet dancers perform, and an audience observes the proceedings, though most of Faust’s key scenes take place “backstage,” at least ostensibly.  Of course, the director’s familiar techniques of stop-motion animation are directly drawn from this theatrical background, and fit in seamlessly here- particularly effective is his claymation rendition of Mephistopheles, growing from a ball of clay into a vaguely humorous demonic face that then transmutes into a mirror image of Faust’s own appearance, giving us, once again, the mystical inside the familiar.  Throughout the film, Švankmajer utilizes all these devices to draw us along on this metaphysical journey, using his surrealist tactics to provide cryptic images that simultaneously amuse and appall us- an egg baked inside a loaf of bread, a baby transforming into a skull, a severed leg wrapped in plastic, a puppet demon sexually assaulting a puppet angel, and countless other blasphemous delights- and, in the end, achieve their cumulative goal of revealing the film’s underlying mystery.  It’s worth mentioning, too, that Švankmajer also indulges his usual fascination with food, offering us numerous important scenes that revolve around eating; he also provides his trademark, hallucinatory soundscape, a collection of rustling, scratching, rattling noises that crosses the sensory boundaries to make us feel the surfaces we hear- and creeps us out, in the bargain.  The entire film, ultimately, has this effect- it’s something akin to visiting a haunted house at Halloween, in which we want to feel our skin crawl and our hair stand on end, but we want to giggle with glee over the pure silliness of it all.

Jan Švankmajer is something of a national treasure in his native Czechoslovakia, and rightly so.  His visionary work, at once quirky and powerful, represents the kind of purely artistic sensibility that is rarely found in modern cinema; with the personal spirit of a true auteur, he makes certain his films are distinctly his own, and whether or not audiences respond is not his concern.  Though much of his work has been rarely seen in the U.S., thanks to Cold War restrictions and prejudices that impaired his ability to distribute it on this side of the Iron Curtain (and, sometimes, even to produce it at all), he has gained a steady and growing following among fans of animation, surrealism, and cinema in general.  His decidedly adult adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (simply titled Alice) is partly responsible for breaking him through into Western culture, but many of his other films- including this one- have been championed by critics and other filmmakers alike, and the ready availability of the digital age has now made it possible for almost anyone to partake of the disturbing delights he offers.  Since Faust, like all of his films, is virtually impossible to describe- even stills fail to capture it, since Švankmajer’s visual sense is so connected to motion and juxtaposition of images- I strongly recommend a viewing.  I can praise it all I want, but, ultimately, it’s a movie that speaks far more eloquently for itself.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109781/

Gosford Park (2001)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gosford Park, the 2001 period mystery-comedy directed by Robert Altman and featuring an all-star ensemble cast in a screenplay by future Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes.  Set on an English country estate in the early 1930s, it uses the familiar premise of an Agatha-Christie-style whodunnit as a pretense to explore the complex social structure and interrelationships among the wealthy landed gentry and the servant class that runs their households, exposing the busy undercurrent of secrets and scandals that flows beneath the genteel and proper surface of upper class British society.  One of Altman’s most successful films, it was popular at the box office as well as with most critics, and it received a number of awards and nominations, including an Oscar for Fellowes’ screenplay, Best Film at the BAFTAs and Best Ensemble Cast (the rough equivalent of Best Picture) from the SAG Awards.

The film takes its title from the name of the estate on which it is set, owned by Sir William McCordle, where a number of guests gather for a weekend hunting party.  Most are relatives or family associates- Lady McCordle’s sisters and their husbands, daughter Isobel’s suitor, a dowager cousin- but among their midst are also a few strangers, including a Hollywood producer named Weissman and noted film star Ivor Novello.  This elite crowd, however, constitutes a minority of the population here in Gosford Park; the household is crowded with an army of servants, bustling around the clock to serve their masters, and their number is increased by the influx of personal valets and maids who attend the estate’s guests.  As the weekend progresses, rigorous adherence to decorum and tradition dominates the outward appearance of this gathering and its festivities, despite the myriad personal agendas, hidden relationships, false pretenses, secret histories, private resentments, and unseen tragedies that exist behind the scenes.  These underlying dramas are unexpectedly brought to the surface when a murder takes place, prompting the intrusion of the local police inspector whose investigation lays bare many of the dirty little secrets on both sides of the class divide- as well as some which cross that inflexible boundary.  The solution to the mystery, masked beneath layers of assumption, convention, and privilege, may be a simple crime of passion or a calculated act motivated by financial gain- or it may ultimately hinge on the conflict between an unjust social system and the most basic impulses of humanity.

Director Altman was known for his explorations of different subcultures (the military in M*A*S*H, the country music community in Nashville, the Hollywood film industry in The Player), using an interwoven tapestry of characters and events to offer social observation and commentary through the prism of these microcosmic settings; by the time of Gosford Park, his reputation was such that he had no trouble securing the impressive collection of collaborators necessary to bring to life this meticulous recreation of Edwardian country life between the wars.  Screenwriter Fellowes, an actor who had (at the time) never previously authored a screenplay, was approached by the director due to his extensive knowledge of the complex workings of the domestic management of the era and the culture of the serving class upon which it all depended; he wrote a script, and served as the film’s technical advisor as well, allowing him to rewrite and hone portions of his work on the set.  As with most of Altman’s films, some of the dialogue was also improvised during filming, particularly in the scenes involving a large group of actors, lending an authenticity to the sound of the conversations and contributing to the overall feel that we, the audience, are eavesdropping upon the characters’ private lives; even so, under Fellowes’ guidance, the entire, sprawling saga is united with a cohesive singularity of purpose and consistency of style, providing the master director a solid structure upon which to build his own vision.

Altman’s signature format, in which a focused perspective is imposed upon an almost documentary approach to the narrative, at first might seem a bit ill-suited to a costume piece like Gosford Park; we are conditioned by experience to expect a more theatrical presentation in films such as this.  However, the Altman treatment works brilliantly here, particularly given the director’s purpose; like all of his films, Gosford Park is less concerned with plot (though the story is intricately woven and ultimately, very compelling) than it is with its characters and its observations of human behavior.  Like a fly on the wall, we are privy to the public and private interactions of the denizens of this estate and their guests, but these exchanges seem part of a bigger landscape, as if they were individual trees or a babbling brook in a painting of a countryside; in other words, the concerns of the characters are details which contribute to the more significant whole, a complete portrait of a way of life.  The details of a nobleman’s financial schemes or backstairs dalliances are granted no more importance than the polishing of the silver for dinner service; indeed, the mundane details of this rarefied lifestyle are far more interesting to Altman than the various worldly concerns of the characters, and, thanks to his careful choices in focus, he makes them so for us, too.

In keeping with his detached observational technique, the director similarly places emphasis on the intricacies of his characters’ behavior and personalities.  Each individual is seen in relation to the others, illuminating their social roles and the subtleties of the relationships between the various subdivisions, even within the two primary groups.  Money, status, seniority, tradition, convention- all these and more play a part in determining the “pecking order,” and the rules of this rigid structure far outweigh any considerations based on emotion or concern for humanity; there is no tolerance for those who forget or disguise their rightful place in the order of things, and the public display of passion, particularly when it crosses the sacred class boundaries by which the entire cultural system is governed, is a greater transgression of decency and decorum than a discreetly-executed murder.  It is this obsession with maintaining appearances, of keeping all the warts and wrinkles of being human out of sight at all cost, that ultimately emerges as the over-reaching theme of Gosford Park; it is also seen, by microcosmic implication, as the mechanism for the looming downfall of this ponderous, antiquated way of life- for in the deeply buried untidiness of past scandal lies the seed of the consequence which rises from the well-hidden, forgotten depths to strike a blow against the entrenched injustice of the entire system.  In this way, despite its almost reverent depiction of an ultra-conservative world in which even the most downtrodden are contemptuous of change, Gosford Park manages to echo the anti-establishment sentiment usually associated with Altman’s work.

Such socio-political conclusions are left, however, to be drawn (or not) by the viewer; Altman adopts an objective eye, almost like a field researcher doing an anthropological study.  He records the events of the weekend with a slowly moving camera, lingering here or there to pick up an interesting detail or reveal a fact which might not be apparent to the passing eye, and trusting Fellowes’ words to carry the narrative, along with any thematic elements that may be present.  Of course, it falls to the cast to bring life to the script and give the director the behaviors with which to fill his lens; and the collection of superb actors on display in Gosford Park does so magnificently, capturing every subtle nuance of their roles and deftly providing an ocean of subtext without ever disturbing the naturalistic atmosphere that is Altman’s milieu.  Most of these players are experienced in theatre, which serves them well as Altman allows his focus to move freely amongst the characters the way the eye travels around the stage at a live performance; as they conduct their conversations, steal their glances at each other, clear the table, pour the sherry, and all the other living activities on display at a dinner party, the audience may or may not be watching- they must be “on” at all times, regardless.  They speak realistically, often overlapping dialogue and talking simultaneously, as Altman shrewdly hovers just long enough to permit us to hear the crucial bits; and in the smaller scenes, depicting the private moments spent alone or in pairs, though the emphasis is often on what is seen and what is left unsaid rather than what is spoken, the vital information is communicated, nevertheless, through the minutest of gestures and expressions.  It’s an impressive collection of performances, one of the finest examples of true ensemble screen acting in recent memory.

This incomparable cast includes a mix of actors, from the legendary to the unknown, all of whom deliver exemplary performances; a few stand out, deserving special nods, not so much because they are superior but because their roles give them the chance to shine individually. Most noticeable, perhaps, is the always delicious Maggie Smith as a snobbish and acid-tongued dowager countess (foreshadowing her Emmy-winning role in Fellowes’ wildly successful Downton Abbey series a decade later); Helen Mirren exudes the anonymous perfectionism and the crisp, selfless honor of a lifetime in service, and late in the film releases an unforgettable flood of repressed humanity that drives home everything Gosford Park is about; Michael Gambon, as the misanthropic lord of the manor, and Kristin Scott-Thomas, as his icy and discontented wife, personify the insulated ennui of the inconceivably wealthy-and-powerful upper class; Stephen Fry has a remarkable turn as the police inspector, turning the familiar stock character of this genre on its ear by being dull and sycophantic instead of brilliant and unflappable; Emily Watson gives us a portrait of youth and good nature being bent by servitude towards frustration, bitterness and cynicism, putting a human face on the socially-sanctioned exploitation of the serving class; and relative newcomer Kelly Macdonald is charming and likable as the deceptively naive young ladies’ maid who provides our window of access into the austere and intimidating world of the film.  Also lending the weight of their presence are such thespian luminaries as Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, and Charles Dance; a newer generation asserts itself through the work of Clive Owen and Jeremy Northam, and representing the American contingent are the stalwart Bob Balaban and the handsome Ryan Phillippe, as the film producer and his valet, respectively, present for the purpose of researching an upcoming movie project and concealing a number of secrets in their own right.

The three-way combination of director, screenwriter, and cast is supported by a top-notch assembly of technical and visual elements; filmed on location at several authentic English country houses and a painstakingly constructed soundstage set at Shepperton Studios, the atmosphere of Gosford Park is so completely realized that we are wholly transported to this bygone place and time.  The sumptuous production design executed under the supervision of the director’s son, Stephen Altman, and the dazzling array of costumes, designed by Jenny Beavan, all captured by the rich cinematography of Andrew Dunn- these contributions help to make the movie a total immersion in the period it portrays.  Completing the effect is the wistfully nostalgic score by Patrick Doyle, evoking the sadness of a dying age, and rounded out by the inclusion of several songs by the real-life Ivor Novello, performed exquisitely by actor Northam, both on camera and off.

With the popularity of the aforementioned Downton Abbey, many will no doubt be drawn to this previous work by its author; it should be noted that, though the intricacies of English country life are depicted with the same painstaking accuracy as in Gosford Park, the tone here is much different than in the hit series.  Altman’s style and purpose are far removed from the tone of fond admiration which pervades Downton, and his characters are less likely to incur our affections and loyalties than those to be found on Lord Grantham’s estate.  As with all of the director’s work, Gosford Park is not for every taste- the cool detachment, the oddly stylized naturalism, the oblique and almost passive-aggressive social criticism, the ironic and oh-so-dry humor, and- perhaps most of all- the constantly roving focus that makes it difficult to anchor one’s emotional perspective in the story; these are all common obstacles for many viewers who dislike Robert Altman films, and they are certainly present here.  Conversely, fans of the director’s work may be turned off by the movie’s cloistered atmosphere, a far cry from the more free-wheeling, overtly colorful setting of his usual, decidedly American subjects.  Nevertheless, Gosford Park is one of Altman’s most accessible pictures, appealing to a wide range of audiences that might not otherwise be appreciative of his sometimes obtuse approach.  In some ways his most atypical project, and in others a quintessentially Altman creation, it cannot be termed his masterpiece, by any means, but it must be ranked highly in his canon as one of his most successful films in terms of overall accomplishment of its intended goals.  Taken independently from Altman’s other work, it certainly stands as a prime example of what can happen when style, content, and execution come together so coherently that the end result is as polished and nearly perfect as a film can be.  For my part, Gosford Park is the kind of movie that makes me remember why I love movies; even if it’s not your cup of tea (to use an apt expression), it’s worth a look just to see what happens when genuine cinematic teamwork makes all the pieces fit as neatly as a good butler’s tuxedo.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0280707/

From Hell (2001)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: From Hell, the 2001 screen adaptation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s award-winning serialized graphic novel exploring the real-life Jack the Ripper case through a fictionalized story about its investigation, starring Johnny Depp as the Scotland Yard Inspector in charge of the case.  As directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, it condenses the 500-plus page original to fit a running time of less than two hours, omitting much of the book’s rich, immersive material in the process, effectively transforming the piece from an informed- if dark- historical fantasia into a pop-art horror movie with pseudo-sociopolitical overtones.  Nevertheless, taken on its own merits, it’s a stylish and intelligent thriller, offering a fairly accurate (though highly speculative and sensationalistic) depiction of perhaps the most infamous true crime story of all time, as well as an excursion into the dark underbelly of Victorian London.

Adapted into screenplay form by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, From Hell blends fact and fiction as it unfolds its narrative, set mostly in London’s seedy Whitechapel District in the fall of 1888.  It’s a miserable, economically depressed slum, populated by rough laborers, criminals, and prostitutes- the latter of who are being savagely killed in a series of increasingly macabre and horrific murders.  In charge of the investigation is Frederick Abberline, an opium-addicted police inspector with a gift for psychic visions; his prescient insights into the case bring him to suspect an even darker and more insidious motive to the crimes than is suggested by their brutality, as well as leading to his personal involvement with one of the Ripper’s potential victims.  As he gets closer to the truth, he finds himself enmeshed in a dangerous web of secret intrigue, racing against time and facing powerful opposition in a desperate effort to prevent the monstrous killer from claiming more lives- including his own.  The plot unfolds against a backdrop of late 19th-Century English society, offering a bleak and politically-charged vision of a world in which disrupting the illusion of propriety is a greater crime than murder; the privileged elite exist outside and above the law, orchestrating and manipulating events from behind closed doors while the impoverished masses endure an unthinkably cruel and desperate existence with little hope of escape or betterment, and even those sympathetic to their plight are powerless to help them.

Moore and Campbell engaged in painstaking research in the creation of their graphic novel, meticulously incorporating the facts of the Jack the Ripper case into their multi-layered fictional retelling.  That effort is reflected in the film, though in a somewhat diluted form; on the page, the historical facts are presented side by side with the story, making for an immersive experience in which the reader can participate in the process of speculative myth-making, whereas for obvious reasons this cannot be duplicated onscreen without disrupting the visual (and emotional) flow.  In addition, the panoramic view of Victorian society offered by the original has been necessarily stripped down; though the filmmakers have clearly made an effort to provide as much of this background as possible, their running time dictates the removal of all but the most cogent information.  An unfortunate side effect of this streamlining is that key plot points, which might have been better masked in a more comprehensive script, become painfully obvious, making the film highly predictable to savvy viewers, particularly those familiar to the true events of the Ripper case.  It can be argued, however, that the film’s purpose is not to puzzle us with its mystery- which is well-known as an unsolved and probably unsolvable case- but to offer a social commentary by using its plot and its setting to parallel our modern world.

To this end, the Hughes Brothers sculpt their film to highlight the disparity between the upper strata of the Victorian population and the impoverished lower classes amongst whom the Ripper’s crimes take place.  The wealthy are isolated, arrogant, and dismissive of the concerns of the less fortunate, while the poor, in their struggle to survive, are greedy, opportunistic, and cruel.  It’s not a pretty picture of mankind, and there are few examples of middle class decency on display- only Abberline and his Shakespeare-quoting sergeant represent a compassionate view towards humanity, and even they are characterized by a mistrustful cynicism which reflects their exposure to the harsh realities of the age.  The nobility and their bureaucratic allies are portrayed as smug, self-appointed guardians of a status quo that favors their continuing prosperity, and many of them seem possessed of a sadistic streak, exhibiting an unmistakable delight in their infliction of suffering and the exercise of their power over the weak.  Each and every member of the ruling class is portrayed as contemptuous of the poor, even those who seem, on the surface, to be more enlightened, and the underprivileged commoners beneath them are shown to have suppressed any noble sentiments in favor of self-preservational hostility and practical amorality.  Providing illumination on this ugly portrait of mankind at its worst, the directors give us an unvarnished look at the wretched conditions of existence to which these masses are subject- the filth, the corruption, the continual struggle for inadequate food and shelter- and the opposing luxury with which their economic superiors surround themselves.

From a visual standpoint, the Hughes Brothers make their objective clear from their opening shot, which pans down slowly from an austere London skyline at dusk, offering glimpses of the various strata of society through their lighted windows until it reaches the dark and squalid streets of Whitechapel, where an assortment of dehumanizing activities are plainly on view.  The pair also take pains to recreate the dramatic visual atmosphere of the comic book format, reconstructing the composition of panels from the original and utilizing a color palette which conjures memories of the lurid English horror classics from the fifties and sixties- many of which share a similar setting and were clearly inspired by the lingering cultural memory of the Ripper’s reign of terror.  However, although these iconic forbears were noted for reveling in an almost gleeful depiction of blood and gore, From Hell is relatively short on explicit violence, though there are certainly enough glimpses of horrific acts and their aftermath to create the impression of having witnessed a bloodbath.  Similarly, despite its title (a reference to a letter sent by the real-life Ripper to taunt the police), the film is not a supernatural fright fest, though there is a not-so-subtle implication of a dark, possibly otherworldly force at work behind the killings; this is no tale of demons at large, wreaking havoc on a weak but innocent humanity, but an indictment of mankind at its basest and the depths to which it will sink in order to preserve its own selfish desires.  Ultimately, From Hell aims to derive its real horror from the implications of its clearly-stated premise- that the gruesome career of Jack the Ripper is but a prelude to the larger scale horrors that await in the coming century, the tip of an iceberg formed by the clandestine machinations of the world’s tightly-knit power elite.

This darkly cynical sociopolitical viewpoint is familiar to anyone familiar with Alan Moore, whose somewhat radical sensibilities are plainly displayed in such other of his works as Watchmen and V for Vendetta, as well as his contributions to the Batman series.  While his leanings certainly come across in this screen adaptation, however, their effectiveness is certainly limited by its narrower focus.  Where the published work is overwhelmingly centered on his postulated notion of the killings as a symptom of a far-reaching social imbalance, supported by an interwoven tapestry of peripheral events which underline and reinforce his theme, the screen version fails to bring home the significance of this element, treating it more as a necessary conceit of the plot than as the main purpose towards which that plot is geared.  Though the writers and directors have clearly understood their task, and made considerable effort to stress the relevance of Moore’s allegorical subtext in their realization of his piece, they are ultimately defeated by the need to provide a Hollywood-style, story-driven thriller; the cold-hearted patrician gentry and the need-driven proletarian rabble are present, but the broad strokes with which they are painted render them clichéd, stock figures of the Grand-Guignol horror genre from which the film takes its cue, and the numerous scenes of social injustice and economic inequality come off as obligatory, the kind of standard fare usually found in dramas set in this period- and often presented with more conviction than we see here.  Coupled with the aforementioned predictability of the plot, the familiarity of these elements help to make From Hell feel like something we’ve seen before.

Though the film doesn’t quite live up to its potential, the actors acquit themselves admirably.  Johnny Depp is shrewdly cast as Abberline, who in real life was described by his colleagues as a highly capable officer with the demeanor of a mild-mannered bank clerk, though here he is portrayed as a decidedly more unorthodox figure, somewhat dissolute and highly unorthodox in his methods; Depp provides a perfect access point for a modern viewer, bringing a highly contemporary persona into the proceedings and providing his customary intelligence and commitment to the role, and if he sometimes seems to be sleepwalking through the film, this adds an appropriate layer of detachment to a character who is, after all, a drug addict and a visionary.  Heather Graham also brings a modern feel to her performance, though in this case it feels a bit less appropriate- she plays a prostitute who lives on the streets, and her level of intelligence and sensitivity seems a bit anachronistic; this is true of the portrayal of all the streetwalkers in the film, but in Graham’s case, given the conceit of her highly fictionalized role, it’s an acceptable disparity, and she succeeds in being likable and sympathetic in the midst of a cast of unpleasant characters.  The two stars, however, are ultimately less memorable than the host of fine British character actors who fill the supporting roles.  Particularly noteworthy are veteran character actor Ian Holm as gentleman doctor who assists Abberline in the case by providing his medical knowledge, and who may in fact possess more information than he is willing to share; and the always delightful Robbie Coltrane as the gruff but good-natured sergeant who serves as Abberline’s loyal assistant and friend.  The remainder of the cast get little chance to flesh out their characters, most of which come off as little more than ciphers in service of the story, but for the most part, they perform their tasks with a relish which goes a long way towards making the world of the movie seem believable, if not particularly compelling.

Despite the fact that it falls short of its considerable potential, From Hell is not a bad movie; it succeeds on a number of levels, not the least of which is providing a fairly gripping two hours of suspenseful- if unsurprising- entertainment.  It takes an oft-seen scenario and presents it in a form that both pays homage to the style of its former, more traditional incarnations and refreshes it with a modern and distinctive flavor of its own.  If it fails to capture the full power and ambitious scope of its source material, that is perhaps no surprise; Moore and Campbell’s creation is a complex work of art that is inherently best served by the medium in which it was first presented, and it is doubtful that any film could capture it faithfully without falling short on some level.  Nevertheless, it is a brave attempt, and if nothing else, it certainly provides inspiration for viewers to seek out the graphic novel and experience its brilliance for themselves.  Beyond that, it is a well-made, if ultimately ordinary, thriller, blessed with a talented cast and an impressive visual style; and for those who have an interest in Jack the Ripper and the world in which he existed, it’s a must-see, and as long as you don’t expect to learn anything new about the case (and you don’t mind seeing a long-disproved theory being put forward once again), you’ll probably find it a worthy rendering of this legendary chapter in the annals of human brutality.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120681/

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/