Midnight Cowboy: satirical character study of two men pursuing their particular American Dreams

John Schlesinger, “Midnight Cowboy” (1969)

Over forty years ago when this movie was released, it was seen as gritty and ground-breaking but these days “Midnight Cowboy” comes across as no more than a straightforward urban-buddy character study of two men of very different backgrounds, each searching for his own version of the American Dream, who join forces simply to survive in the bleak and seedy underground of New York City in the late 1960’s. Naive cowboy wannabee Joe Buck (Jon Voight) leaves his dish-washing job in a Texan diner and travels to NYC hoping to make a living as a gigolo to rich old ladies but ends up being hustled out of money and shelter by various odd characters. He meets up with a small-time crook Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who offers him shelter and together they scrape a living on the hard streets of NYC.

The film consists of various episodes in which Joe tries his luck as a hustler and repeatedly fails. At one point in the film, the men’s luck takes a brief turn for the better as they get an invitation to a party and Joe gets an assignment with a rich socialite type (Brenda Vaccaro). Generally though the direction in both men’s lives is down, down, down as Rizzo’s health steadily deteriorates and Joe does what he can to get money for food and medicines. Eventually they scrape and steal enough moolah to pay for the coach-trip to Miami but even there Fate deals a cruel blow to both men and Joe finds himself pretty much back where he started near the beginning of the movie when he first got off the coach.

Although Voight and Hoffman put everything they have into their characters, Joe and Rizzo do come over as rather stagey and a bit over-acted at times to the point where they are caricatures. At least Joe has enough back-story in various flashbacks that explains among other things his over-reactions to the would-be pimp who turns out to be a religious fanatic and the businessman who offers him a religious icon. Joe’s sensitivity towards Rizzo and his violence towards others are quite credible. The script doesn’t flesh out Rizzo’s background much beyond stating that his father was a shoe-shiner but “Midnight Cowboy” is very much Joe’s story after all. What character development exists seems to be very small though the impression I have by film’s end is that Joe the starry-eyed naif has become more hardened when it comes to surviving yet in a way has learned something about true friendship and the corrupt values of the world. By the time he and Rizzo arrive in Miami, he’s no longer thinking about hustling for a living and is talking about taking on a real job for a change.

The film may be seen as a satire of the American Dream and of capitalist society and its values. Joe imagines he can make easy money by selling his body to bored rich people. Sex is the only thing Joe is good at – his ex-girlfriend has told him so – so that’s what he tries to sell by trading on his “cowboy” image … which only attracts homosexual men. Even then, selling sex requires Joe to, uh, “position” himself correctly in the market and research what his would-be clients require, and that’s what he fails to do. Rizzo dreams of leaving New York and making easy money in Miami doing the kinds of odd jobs Joe was doing in Texas (that’s an irony). Of course the reality is that life in The Big City is hard and unforgiving and grinds down the individual. Only by bonding together do Joe and Rizzo survive (but only just). Money is the only thing that gives the men an entree to the life they dream of. There is an underlying subtext of Joe not coming to terms with his latent homosexuality as a result of his upbringing and a past traumatic experience of gang rape.

The use of flashbacks (mostly in black and white) with quick editing is very good and the party scenes are psychedelic as would be expected of films made in the late 1960’s that feature parties where guests spend most of their time smoking joints and popping pills. The movie is very colourful, maybe too colourful actually, and scenes of poverty and desperation might have come across better if they had a more bleached or grey-ish look.

Overall this film is a modest effort at recording something of the marginalised underbelly of New York City in the 1960’s. If it had covered some of the poverty and discrimination faced by other individuals, particularly other gay men, black people or other minorities, the movie would have been a more valuable historic snapshot of what conditions were like for the underprivileged.

Marnie: rehash of many Hitchcock themes, ideas and methods showing the master in decline

Alfred Hitchcock, “Marnie” (1964)

Not a bad psychological thriller / character study of a compulsive kleptomaniac with deep-seated fears and flashback memories, this film is very like the earlier “Vertigo” in some ways but shows evidence of a decline in Hitchcock’s film-making powers. The look of the film is of a beautiful and quite epic fantasy though the subject is highly personal and on paper best suited to a scaled-down approach. The title character Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is a young woman who works for one employer after another using various assumed identities with intent to steal from each employer she works for. At the beginning of the film she’s just fleeced one employer, Strutt, changed her appearance and name, and then applies for a job with another employer, little knowing the connection it has with Strutt. She’s accepted by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) at the firm and starts work as a typist but in a short while she’s gone and pilfered money from the company safe. Rutland quickly discovers the theft and, intrigued by her nature, forces Marnie to marry him. He discovers she has various psychological issues and determines to find out the cause of them so that she can be healed and become a normal human being.

The movie looks unreal and several scenes, in particular the horse-riding scenes, seem bizarre and old-fashioned but it’s all meant to reflect Marnie’s disturbed point of view and experience of the world around her. She is more at ease with animals and especially with horses (always a handy symbol of sexuality: in Marnie’s case the love of horses might indicate a sexual immaturity) than with humans, particularly men whom she fears and will not allow to touch her. Episodes in which she experiences flashback memories with their resulting traumas whenever she sees blood or bright red colours are highlighted with red filters over the camera lens, a ploy carried over from “Vertigo” where filters of several colours were used in the psychedelic dream sequence. The role is a complicated one and Hedren carries it off as best she can: she often goes blank in scenes where other actors might over-act and contort their faces in extreme emotion but then it’s hard to predict how disturbed individuals might react in situations that cause anxiety to them. Her icy silvery-blonde looks at least are ideal for the role: she seems a vulnerable child-woman whose normal development has been stymied by trauma, repressed memory and a neglectful mother (Louise Latham) who has little understanding of her daughter’s needs.

The other significant role of Mark Rutland is played well by Connery who combines charisma and charm with a controlling and predatory nature. His motive for wanting to protect and at the same time train Marnie to become a “normal” functioning human is never clear  and it seems he has a clinical if creepy scientific interest in changing and controlling her. He may be an investigator with an interest in animal psychology, having studied zoology, but then not all such students would apply their learning to manipulate humans! He is dead keen on finding the source of Marnie’s kleptomania, sexual frigidity and phobias and how he finds out through his contacts in Philadelphia and Baltimore about a past murder case and puts two and two together to get an answer beyond four appears rather too easy to be realistic. There is a parallel with Hitchcock’s earlier movie “Vertigo” in which a detective makes over a young woman into his ideal love object: the control over Marnie is more subtle and looks far less sinister than that movie and though it’s arguable that Marnie must some day face her fears and seek help, the way she’s forced to confront her past by Mark and the methods he uses can be just abusive as the detective Scotty’s control of the young woman Judy. Perhaps Mark is attracted to Marnie precisely because her disorders make her the intelligent, intriguing and headstrong individual she is.  The irony for Marnie is that she’ll be no different from other “normal” women (read dutiful Stepford-wife types) once she is “cured” of her disorders and Mark will get bored with her and cast her aside for another flawed woman to study and manipulate.

Of the minor characters, Mark’s sister-in-law Lil (Diane Baker) hasn’t much to do besides smoulder with what looks like desire for or resentment at Marnie – there’s possibly a hint of unacknowledged lesbian-ish desire there – and invite the Strutts for dinner behind Mark and Marnie’s backs for who knows what reason.  What Lil happens to be doing at her father-in-law’s home with her husband well out of the picture (literally) is never made clear though Dad and Mark don’t mind having her around. What the whole family is doing living together, Dad, two brothers and their presumed spouses, isn’t clear though the house has plenty of room for them all and a whole batch of guests for a fox-hunting weekend.

The Freudian psychology covered in the movie looks simplistic and is applied in a way that explains everything about Marnie’s disturbed inner world very glibly. A diagnosis that would take a trained psychoanalyst several years to reach and several hundred or a couple thousand dollars each year to be coughed up by the  patient takes several minutes for an amateur sleuth to work out with the help of a few textbooks and a visit to the patient’s mum, no fee charged. Perhaps that says something about Hitchcock’s opinion of psychoanalysis in particular and psychiatry generally! Marnie’s association with horses and what that implies about her nature, desire for freedom and individuality, and her sexuality is laboured over and over throughout the film. The scene in which Marnie is forced to shoot a horse becomes all the more shocking and tragic because in essence she is giving up her freedom.

As well as the emphasis on Freudian psychology and the subject of men’s control over women under the appearance of romantic love and attachment, familiar Hitchcock themes include the fragility and fluidity of identity (Marnie takes on and drops several identities at will); deception in the form of thievery, sexual blackmail, identity fraud; the portrayal of sexuality by symbolic means (in this movie, through horses); the association of sex with violence and bloodshed; and the influence of a mother on her child’s psyche. As in “North by Northwest” and “Psycho”, romantic attraction and sex become a business transaction: Mark blackmails Marnie into marriage on the threat of turning her over to the police.

Technically the film is very well done with a lavish and colourful style, a musical soundtrack that is romantic and sometimes very annoyingly intrusive and Hitchcock’s typical filming methods and tricks which include the voyeuristic camera sneaking on Marnie as she searches for Mark’s safe near the film’s end and a completely silent scene of Marnie on one side of the camera’s view stealing money from her new employer while on the other side of the camera’s view the cleaner is mopping the floor. (The humour behind this scene is that the cleaner is deaf, hence the complete silence.) The main flaw though is that several scenes are very long and the editing throughout the film could have been tightened up much more, chopping at least 15 minutes off the film’s 2-hour running-time. Filming techniques that were innovative and fresh when used in films like “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest” now seem repetitive, awkward and heavy-handed.

In its ideas and style, “Marnie” is a rehash of “Vertigo” which was a better film technically. “Marnie” may be a subtler creation with respect to theme but in other respects it repeats some of Hitchcock’s themes, ideas and motifs from “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “Psycho” in a ham-fisted way. If only it weren’t so long and repetitive, “Marnie” might have been a great film: the acting performances are very good if not great and the sets are colourful and hyper-real. The world in which Marnie and Mark move is a place of glamour, wealth and privilege where money can buy freedom, keep people away from police and solve problems.

 

 

Crash (dir. David Cronenberg): dark comedy satire on Western obsession with technology and material culture

David Cronenberg, “Crash” (1996)

Based on the eponymous 1973 novel by J G Ballard, this film can be viewed as a companion to it rather than a close adaptation. The novel examines how technology and its products transform human psychology and culture, with one result being that people become obsessed by media products such as forms of celebrity worship; the film focusses more narrowly on the fusion of human psychology and technology as expressed in the characters’ sexual fetishisation of cars and car crashes to the extent that this philia becomes the motivator in their lives. Toronto-based TV producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) have an open marriage which is a cover for their unsatisfactory and cold relationship. One evening, driving home late, Ballard collides head on with Dr Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) in her car, the accident killing her husband. In hospital with his leg in a metal brace, Ballard meets a researcher Vaughan (Elias Koteas) who keenly examines his injuries and metal braces. Ballard and Remington start an affair, making out in cars; to understand why they have become a pair through the car crash and why they are sexually aroused only in cars, they turn to Vaughan who invites them to see a simulated performance-art re-enactment of 1950’s Hollywood star James Dean’s fatal car crash and then to his hidey-hole where they meet Vaughan’s friends who include Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) whose legs are permanently embraced in steel braces.

Ballard quickly becomes Vaughan’s faithful groupie, driving his guru around in Vaughan’s Lincoln convertible to pick up prostitutes and later Catherine for sex every evening. On one such trip they come upon a pile-up of cars and Vaughan discovers one dead person in the wreckage is a follower of his in the middle of a Jayne Mansfield death re-enactment. Ballard also dallies with Gabrielle, using an old scar on her leg as a vagina substitute. Eventually Vaughan turns his attention to Ballard and the two engage in homosexual intercourse which sets them up for a climax in which at least one of them must die in order to consummate their relationship and fulfill Vaughan’s desire to live his philosophy of the car crash as a whole-body experience incorporating sexual intercourse, orgasm, fulfillment and death.

The film adopts a low-key, matter-of-fact approach to its subject and the actors do well in portraying cold, emotionless characters in thrall to their psychological urges. Koteas in particular steals the show as a manipulative messiah who knows what Ballard needs and uses him for as long as he needs. The only flaw in Koteas’s portrayal of Vaughan is that the character is more creepy than charming and his recruitment technique is more likely to repel than attract. Spader may not be leading-man charmer material but his colourless approach and boyish looks suit his character who is essentially passive and desires to obey Vaughan. In this, Cronenberg is following the novel fairly closely: in most of J G Ballard’s novels and short fiction, the hero usually is a passive man, often manipulated, through which Ballard expresses his ideas and beliefs about the effects of technology or cultural innovation on ordinary human thinking and feeling. Viewers need to watch Spader closely in the carwash scene to realise how subtle his acting can be; his face is blank, he says nothing but his hand movements express his arousal and reaction to Vaughan shagging Catherine in the backseat of the car. The female actors get through their parts efficiently if not outstandingly: Unger seems to spend most of her time with the fairies, Hunter is merely determined and Arquette is  hilarious in a scene that sends up car advertising strategies.

In a film like “Crash” which deals with obsession, the overall look and attention to details are important: Toronto is sleek and glossy in parts, grimy and industrial in others, yet always hollow and lacking in depth and warmth in some way. Much loving attention in the form of numerous close-ups is paid to cars, their style and surfaces, grilles, bumper bars, driver controls and, most importantly, any dints they get. This suggests that the characters are the products of a society that’s spiritually dead and which substitutes technology for warmth, human bonding and communication. It’s no accident that Cronenberg makes his main character a TV producer whose role is to make shows that influence people’s thoughts and feelings, promote certain social values and attitudes, and encourage folks to pay continual homage to their lares and penates with their remote controls. The role of the media in encouraging people to be obsessed with famous actors and other celebrities is downplayed: Cronenberg seems uninterested in investigating how psychology and the products and systems of technology interact to reconstruct and determine cultural values and definitions about the nature of fame and how it affects worshippers and the objects of their worship alike. Media attention on famous stars not only can encourage fan obsession, it can lead to fans stalking (and sometimes killing) the objects of their desires. In the novel Vaughan is obsessed with the actress Elizabeth Taylor; in the film only famous dead stars such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield have meaning for Vaughan and his followers for having died in car collisions, their lives before their crashes and whatever it was that propelled them to fame being of no concern. Perhaps the intention is to send an even more chilling message about the motivations of Vaughan’s group: they are completely self-obsessed to the point of drifting away from reality and relate only to others who share in their peculiar interests. But what is reality anyway? – it is other people who are just as equally obsessed with their particular gadgety toys or the products of technology.

There is a banal quality to the plot and characters due to their obsessive and repetitive behaviour: the thrill of car crashes and being close to death (because it makes them come alive) is short-lived so they must repeat the experience again and again. Only when they come close to losing each other – the film’s ending can be ambiguous – do Ballard and his wife finally find love but even here their obsession intrudes and it’s likely beyond the film that they’ll risk killing each other again just for that fleeting moment when they most feel alive. At this point viewers realise just how far gone the two are: their relationship has recovered its warmth but at what cost to their future together and individually? This part of “Crash” where a particular technology finally occupies central place in two characters’ lives and determines their future behaviour must be the film’s true horrific climax.

As might be expected of a film that marries cars, death and sex, there is plenty of sex and nudity but though tastefully done the sex scenes are cold and not at all erotic. One sex scene in which Ballard and Catherine are having sex and Catherine asks him about Vaughan’s body and sexual response is comic.

If there’s a lesson to learn from “Crash”, it’s more in the dynamics of human group behaviour, especially in the context of cult groups following a guru who uses his followers’ guilt or obsessions to control and mould their thoughts and behaviours. If ever people want to know the dangers of getting involved in little cliques that follow and worship their leaders uncritically, “Crash” is required watching. On the other hand it makes no moral comment on the fusion of technology with human psychology and physiology. The whole film can be viewed as a dark comedy and satire on Western society and its preoccupations with material culture at the expense of values centred on human relationships and spiritual life.

Eraserhead: fascinating and hilarious dark horror film about social and religious pressures on struggling families

David Lynch, “Eraserhead” (1977)

Five years in the making from 1971 to 1976, “Eraserhead” was David Lynch’s full-length directing debut feature. Based on his experiences in Philadelphia in the late 1960’s, its themes revolve around fears and anxieties of being a parent and the death of innocence that parenthood implies; the film also focusses on an individual’s alienation in industrial society and the decay and stagnation that can exist in families in such a context. There is reference to mental illness which often can be a result or a symptom of alienation.  With such themes it’s no wonder that “Eraserhead” is such a dark film and yet there’s a lot of absurdist humour which may derive from surrealist art influences.

The plot is straightforward: Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a printer by trade and on “vacation”, is hustled into a shotgun marriage by girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents when she gives birth to a premature mutant baby. The new family take up residence in Henry’s apartment but the baby’s constant whining drives Mary home to her parents (some viewers may follow suit) and Henry is left to care for the infant. Alone in his cramped surroundings which include a double bed, an old radiator, piles of dirt and dead worm-infested plants, Henry drifts into fantasies about a girl with hamster cheeks (Laurel Near) living in his radiator and the beautiful girl (Judith Anna Roberts) who lives next door. His fantasies send him into a dark dream about his head being chopped off and ending up as raw material for a pencil-making factory. After waking up, Henry still finds himself stuck in his room with the baby.

All very mundane but that’s beside the point – what makes the mundane so mesmerising to watch is the dream-like quality of the narrative and the nature of its context. Henry lives in a town that’s seen better and more prosperous days; factories still exist and machines within still grind on but they are on the slow road to decay and deterioration. They produce less and less and their output probably isn’t needed – they work just for the sake of working. In like manner, Mary’s family still holds to the nuclear-family ideal: her mother demands to know if Henry and Mary have slept together. Other members of the family either pine for the “good ol’ days” or have lost track of time. Henry still dresses for work and makes attempts to leave his apartment sometimes but the baby’s needs subvert any notions of returning to work and Henry gets no calls from his employer about being late or taking time off so viewers can assume his “vacation” is permanent. Henry’s fear of not being wanted may be mirrored in his dream of the pencil factory: all his knowledge, skill and memories, everything that makes him what he is and no-one else, are swept away in the pencil shavings that the factory owner swipes off his table and which billow away into nothingness.

There is a wider story too of the struggle between forces of good and darkness, represented by the Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) working his levers and the Radiator Girl who beguiles Henry and tempts him to join her. The Man in the Planet may well be responsible for the strange events that befall Henry: perhaps he is testing Henry in some way. Is there a message about religion as well? Certainly Henry and Mary try to do the “right thing” by getting married and trying to bring up a sick baby. They fail but get no support from Mary’s relatives or society generally. The  baby’s severe deformities – it has no skin or skeleton to cover and protect its internal organs under the bandages – remind Henry of its sinful conception and his responsibilities as a father. Social pressures and rigid expectations, the lack of help and Henry’s own social and physical isolation combine to test his sanity and behaviour towards the baby.

The first half of the film rolls by at leisure to introduce viewers into Henry’s insular world and its inhabitants, and how they think and behave. After Mary abandons Henry and the baby and Henry’s dream sequence begins, the action does bog down: the scene where Henry and the beautiful girl kiss and have sex is drawn-out and isn’t necessary to the plot. (Things that happen in dreams rarely are necessary to the plot but the rest of Henry’s fantasies are important as illustrations of the movie’s themes.) For a first-time feature film the technical effects are good – the animated sperm worms which represent temptation to sin and Henry’s guilt are fascinating to watch – and well-mastered, particularly in the scene where Henry Junior froths up and his head goes swollen, really swollen, and the electricity in the apartment starts freaking out. The scene alternates among shots of a giant head popping up in odd places around Henry’s apartment and shots of electrical sparking and burns. At this point in the film good and evil are fighting each other – the Man in the Planet suffers burns while furiously working his levers – and the baby, itself the scene of the battle, swallows up the screen and everything is killed off. A scorched, lifeless planetoid floats in space and Henry finds himself in another realm altogether.

The film’s expressionist sets, dreary at times but also quaint, are part of its charm along with the music-hall appearance of the radiator’s internal workings. The Man in the Planet and his working environment suggest the kind of work railway station workers did before computers made moving rail tracks on sleepers through and around stations easier. This in itself hints that traditional religious beliefs which force Henry and others like him into hasty marriages to preserve social respectability are also stagnant and in decay. The soundtrack, a mixture of industrial-factory ambience and old-fashioned pipe-organ melodies, is eccentric but fits the style of the movie.

A personal and self-indulgent project “Eraserhead” may be but it’s fascinating and often hilarious to watch despite its supposed darkness. At the same time, traditional religion, social expectations, a changed and degraded economic environment and how these affect families may strike a serious chord with viewers who themselves may be experiencing similar pressures.

Blue Velvet: satirising American suburbia as cartoony more important than plot, characters and issues of exploitation

David Lynch, “Blue Velvet” (1986)

A beautiful film to watch with noirish elements and a lot of symbolism yet oddly not very suspenseful or satisfying. “Blue Velvet” is set in some vague representation of 20th century small-town America with a mix of white picket fences surrounding wannabe Cape-Cod houses with manicured green lawns and lush gardens. A middle-aged man watering his patch suddenly suffers a stroke and keels over. The camera tracks down close and low and fixes its gaze on a horde of ravenous beetles tearing at a carcass deep in the garden’s undergrowth amid a soundtrack of roaring chainsaws. The message is clear: no matter how gleamingly clean and tidy a community looks, its core is bound to turn out grimy and seething with corruption. The early scene is a metaphorical introduction to the community of Lumberton, a showcase of Tidy-town suburban Americana, and it’s here that college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns on hearing that his father is in hospital. He visits Dad and is relieved to see he’s recovering so he goes home, cutting across a field. He discovers in the field a severed ear and brings it to the attention of a police detective (George Dickerson) whose daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) he meets for the first time. Sandy already knows of the Case of the Severed Ear – the police seem unable to solve it – and tells Jeff that a night-club singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) may have a connection to the ear. Egged on by Sandy and keen to investigate and solve the case himself, Jeff poses as a pest exterminator to enter Dorothy’s apartment and steals the singer’s spare key; he uses this key later to enter the apartment again late at night while it’s vacant but Dorothy comes back early and catches him. She attempts to seduce him but then a strange man, Frank (Dennis Hopper), enters the apartment so Jeff is quickly stashed into Dorothy’s wardrobe. Through slats in the wardrobe doors, Jeff watches Frank, an apparent drug addict and local criminal, abuse and rape Dorothy. Perhaps at this point Jeff realises amateur sleuthing is going to be more difficult than a diet of crime mystery novels and thriller movies has led him to believe.

Quite why Jeff believes he can succeed where the police have failed isn’t explained; maybe he’s studying forensic science and psychology at college and wants to put his knowledge to work. His involvement however takes him into the town’s underworld of violence, trafficking of illegal substances, kidnapping, blackmail and exploitation of women dominated by Frank’s gang, the local brothel owner (Dean Stockwell) and a police officer Jeff calls the Yellow Man; but the real underworld may be in his own psyche as uncovered by Dorothy when she attempts to seduce him a second time and begs him to beat her. Jeff resists at first but goaded by Dorothy, he ends up slapping her. From this point on Jeff is torn between two women, Sandy and Dorothy, who are polar opposites in many ways, and must choose one or the other if he is to fight Frank and a corrupt police force to solve the Severed Ear case .

An overarching meta-theme of polarities is evident everywhere in this film: good paired with evil; perfection paired with decay, corruption and rot; innocence paired with its loss and the psychological burden that fills the vacancy left; the good girl paired with the bad woman; love and romance paired with oppression and exploitation leading to violence. There’s a suggestion that if one of the pair exists, the other also exists. In trying to do good, Jeff also has to confront his dark side; he can keep it in check but this demands vigilance. Sandy presents as the “good woman” – loving, caring, forgiving, supportive – but perhaps also bland and sexually unadventurous; Dorothy the “bad woman” awakens Jeff’s sexuality and makes him aware of his own potential for violence and corruption. The acting reflects the love triangle as presented: MaLachlan and Dern are understated to the extent of appearing wooden though there are occasions in the film when they both break down and cry and it’s then you realise they’re not bad actors, they’re just following director’s orders. Rossellini puts in a credible performance though she seems awkward in her role: as a night-club singer, she’s a better model and reporter (Rossellini’s former occupations before she took up acting) and her early encounter with Jeff looks clumsy. Perhaps this is due to her character being a disturbed and frightened woman forced to submit to degradation in order to save her husband and son. The film never explains why Frank is holding the family hostage.

A plot filled with holes, loose ends and discontinuities (like severe knife-cuts to the face healing in less than 24 hours without leaving scars) eventually leads to a definitive resolution and a happy and idealised coda which jars with the ideas and themes presented. The forces of evil are held at bay, temporarily perhaps. Dorothy appears healthy and happy with her son; in real life, without therapy and support, she’d just find another Frank and the vicious cycle of exploitation and degradation will start again. Jeff might be sadder and wiser but keeps his feelings and thoughts in check as Sandy drags him from resting in the garden into the kitchen to look at a robin with a beetle in its beak. Has Jeff become sloth-like and domesticated? Might he not welcome the occasional secret tryst with Dorothy behind Sandy’s back? Lumberton appears as squeaky-clean as ever but would Jeff be satisfied living a life with Sandy, having tasted something of the world Dorothy has revealed to him?

The film’s style is low-key in keeping with MacLachlan and Dern’s underplayed characters who dominate the film. The early half of “Blue Velvet” tends to be quiet with not much background music, lending the plot an air of oppressiveness. Most of the action takes place at night when the town is asleep and the underworld awakes; the film emphasises dark colours, greys, shadows, hints of things unseen but lurking in the background. Dorothy’s apartment may have pink walls but the colour looks muted, even dark, and the red curtain by the open window is always moving. Maybe it’s fidgety. Maybe it’s a metaphorical invitation to sexual activity. Maybe the whole apartment represents a womb. Scenes in the apartment involve voyeurism, a tableau of two dead men and one scene where all the action happens in the bathroom right at the back of the set viewed in the left-hand corner of the screen while nothing happens in the foreground. Throughout the movie shots of industrial decay and close-ups of machines or objects are inserted into the action for no apparent reason other than to remind the audience that death and decay are ever present behind life and perfection. Perfection itself is presented in clear and bright though saccharine colours and imagery which suggests a view of Lumberton and its prevailing culture as perhaps childish and dumbed-down; the other more likely possibility is that Lumberton denies that corruption exists within its boundaries at all.

For all the foregoing, the film is remote and lacks suspense. The plot degenerates into a predictable series of highs and lows culminating in a stand-off between Jeff and Frank over Dorothy which astute viewers can see coming from a mile away. In spite of the film’s forays into voyeurism, the deliberate and subdued woodenness of Jeff and Sandy’s characters make viewer identification with them difficult and their odd behaviour at certain points in the movie – kissing each other just after a murder right in front of them? – might leave not a few viewers cold. The happy ending is unrealistic for characterrs like Jeff and Dorothy: you simply can’t imagine them, after all they have gone through, settling into tranquillity unless they undergo brain transplants. The symbolism present and the importance of close-ups of machines and various objects to the plot may easily pass over audiences’ heads.

It seems that Lynch is more interested in sending up small-town suburbia and exposing what rot and corruption may exist behind it – as if other directors before had never thought to do anything the same or similar – than in crafting credible characters to demonstrate the corruption, how it affects their psyches and behaviours towards others, and call attention to how exploitation and abuse of others plus their consequences occur in the absence of love and empathy. This does an injustice to Rossellini and Hopper in particular who were willing to play highly disturbed characters whose actions and experiences could have affected the actors deeply. Indeed Lynch didn’t even have to invent an underworld for Lumberton to find a dark side – the cartoony Tidy-town character of Lumberton itself is a symptom of social and cultural decay – but then I guess there’d be no “Blue Velvet”.

Assassin of Youth: “educational” soap opera that titillates with flashes of sordid behaviour

Elmer Clifton, “Assassin of Youth” (1937)

It’s a laughable anti-marijuana screed but “Assassin of Youth” at least has a comic drama going for it. A reporter, Art Brighton (Arthur Gardiner), goes undercover in a small US town to investigate a gang of marijuana dealers intent on corrupting the teenagers there. In particular these fiendish fellas are in cahoots with a local woman Linda Clayton (Fay McKenzie) who wants to discredit her cousin Joan Barry (Luana Walters) so that the girl can’t claim her inheritance of money from her grandmother’s will, subject to a morals clause, and the cash will go to Linda and her husband instead. The way Linda will discredit Joan is to feed her with marijuana through smoking and cakes, encouraging the lass to misbehave at wild parties and get involved with strange folks of dubious moral reputation. Joan falls for every ploy and scheme Linda can dream up, sullying her reputation as a good girl until there’s more mud clinging to her than little sister Margery who at least attempts to murder another girl at a party. Brighton conceives a daring plan that will get Joan off the hook and incriminate Linda and the no-good drug dealers she’s getting the grass from but the police interfere, Joan ends up in the slammer, Brighton himself is whisked back to the office by his employer and the reading of the will happens to take place the next day. Can Brighton get back to town in time to stop Joan from being deprived of her inheritance and the money going to her undeserving cousin?

Essentially a soap opera, the film is slow for much of its running time: one after the other, there are several parties where the kids do little more scandalous than get Joan bathing nude in a lake (while Linda is burning her clothes), smoke pot, dance a lot and keel over from the effects of the drug. There’s a diversion into a film screened by Brighton’s employer for the reporter’s benefit in which a narrator bangs on about the history of marijuana, its early uses and its current evil effects on young vulnerable people. Action perks up when Brighton hatches his bold plan and gets Joan to co-operate. Plenty of comedy is provided by local milkbar owner, “Pop” Brady (Earle Dwire), who hires Brighton in his undercover disguise and who exposes the local gossip Henrietta (Fern Emmett) as having been less than snow-white virginal herself as a teenager and the judge (Henry Roquemore) as the man who might have deflowered her all those years ago, at the court hearing. The acting is competent enough for the film’s requirements; McKenzie as the glamour-puss blonde schemer and Dwire, who creates havoc in the court-room to delay the hearing so that Brighton can get there in time, are the most memorable actors. Production values are quite bad with some scenes hard to make out due to poor lighting conditions at the time, and the quality of the film stock used and the way it has aged do not help either.

Modern audiences will get a chuckle out of the shock-horror tactics used by Clifton to hammer home the anti-marijuana message. All kinds of evil, deviant behaviour like skinny-dipping in a lake at nights, trying to knife a girl smooching with your boyfriend, and falling into a coma and being at death’s door are detailed to the extent that any real side-effects cannabis might have become invisible. The snooty pedant in me sniffs that the kids’ behaviour is due to being in a group free from adult restraint in environments where small-town customs and traditions no longer matter.  It seems very likely that audiences in the 1930’s didn’t take this film seriously and simply watched it for the melodrama with its promise of nude bathing, youngsters imbibing alcohol, female violence and a teenage girl sleeping with a strange man in a hotel room. In those days of strict censorship and alcohol prohibition in the US, film-makers there wanting to titillate audiences with racy stories that would get past the censors made so-called “educational” films about the dangers of drugs or sexual intercourse outside marriage and this may well have been Clifton’s intention.

Worth watching at least for the attitudes and social mores of the period in relation to drug addiction and teenage freedom and sexuality, and how American society, in particular small-town society, might have dealt with issues affecting adolescents. Some aspects of American youth culture and fashion may interest the social historian in some viewers. Apart from this, don’t expect  much in the way of fine acting, cinematography or direction – just sit back and enjoy the fluff.

Little Shop of Horrors: dark horror and farce in trashy 1960 cheapie

Roger Corman, “Little Shop of Horrors” (1960)

Here’s a cute comedy horror piece made on the cheap in just two days in 1960 that speaks to anyone and everyone afraid of demanding pets and children with ravenous appetites, rejection in love, overbearing hypochondriac mothers and dentists who go out of their way to inflict maximum pain on your gums! The film’s production values may have dated badly but its tale is as plaintive today as it was then. Nerdy and none-too-bright Seymour (Jonathan Haze) works in a florist shop in a poor section of Los Angeles or some other town in southern California. The shop is owned and run by Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles) who bosses Seymour about. There is another employee, Audrey (Jackie Joseph), for whom Seymour carries a torch, so one day when Mushnick threatens to sack the young fellow for messing up a client’s floral arrangement, Seymour, afraid of losing Audrey, lets slip that he’s been caring for a tiny, frail hybrid plant that he bred. Mushnick allows him to bring the plant to work the next day. The poor little thing isn’t thriving despite the loving care Seymour has lavished on it.

By accident, Seymour discovers the pet plant partakes rather too much of its combined butterwort / Venus fly-trap inheritance and after several days feeding on salty protein liquid the wicked weed’s tremendous growth to gargantuan proportions with the appetite for, uh, more fertiliser to match forces the now borderline-anaemic Seymour to go farther afield and commit manslaughter. Two police detectives, so hard-boiled that when one of them suffers a family tragedy, he merely shrugs his shoulders and says, “Them’s the breaks”, turn up at Mushnick’s shop to enquire about the disappearances of a railway employee and Mushnick’s dentist. Mushnick himself is suspicious of the hybrid’s amazing growth and is aware of its secret (and even finds it useful for getting rid of a robber) but because the herbaceous horror is bringing his shop attention, business and money, he hesitates to tell the police what he knows and believes. In the meantime Seymour and Audrey start going steady but the plant’s demands – the freak can speak and can hypnotise people – soon drive the couple apart. When the monster finally comes into bloom and reveals to a crowd what Seymour has been feeding it, the put-upon young fellow, who had hoped to profit from the plant financially and win Audrey’s hand in marriage but now finds himself wanted and pursued for multiple murders, resolves to kill the flowering Frankenstein.

The acting and film-editing are nothing special – the editing’s just enough to eliminate obvious gore while still suggesting that various people help keep the plant well-fed – and the plot has many holes. If the plant can force Seymour to hunt for victims by mesmerising him, why can’t it stop him from killing it? Lashings of humour, in particular from Mushnick who exchanges droll repartee with the plant and from Seymour’s mother, and an array of hilarious characters that include a regular customer (Dick Miller) who eats flowers and a dental patient (Jack Nicholson in his debut acting role) who finds pleasure in pain and walks off with capped teeth (that’s capped as in knee-capped) enliven the basic narrative of the little plant that becomes a flesh-eating monster. Although Nicholson has only 5 minutes in the movie, his creepy-campy performance steals the show from nearly everyone else except the plant and maybe Mushnick’s Yiddish humour. The romance sub-plot provides further comedy and suspense which could have been milked a lot more for laughs and thrills: imagine if the plant had got jealous of Audrey and tried to lure her with hypnotism to its maw!

Somewhere in this schlocky horror picture show there’s a stab at how greed can get the better of what you know is right and how a person can be driven to derangement by accidental murder, love found and lost, and the bizarre results of home-based DIY genetic engineering that’s best left to Monsanto and its ilk. (Maybe not even that.) For a trashy cheapie made over half a century ago there’s a lot of energy in it and the dark horror aspects of family life, eating and symbiotic relationships between plants and animals are treated for laughs. How else to explain the enduring fascination this black comedy tale holds for people to the extent that it was remade as a stage musical in 1982 (on which the 1986 film musical and the 1990’s children’s cartoon series are based) and was slated for remake as a pure feature film in 2009? The dreaded dicotyledon continues to exercise its mesmeric abilities across the spatio-temporal divide long after its final bloom droops.

Palindromes: dark comedy fable of Western society’s exploitation of children and value of life

Todd Solondz, “Palindromes” (2004)

A dark comedic fairy tale about a girl trapped in a life that goes around in circles, “Palindromes” does have the air of something unfinished (as it should, I suppose) but features some very strong and delicate acting performances. Aviva is a young girl on the verge of puberty who desperately wants to have a baby: we don’t know why as she never gets the opportunity to properly express her reason but we suspect that a baby would give her the unconditional love that Aviva’s parents assure Aviva they give. She loses her virginity to a family friend’s son, Judah (Robert Agri), and becomes pregnant. Aviva’s mum Joyce (Ellen Barkin) hits the roof and, between tearful bouts of smother love and shrill histrionics, forces the unwilling girl into having an abortion at a clinic. Complications during the procedure render Aviva permanently sterile and after the operation, she runs away from home. She hitches a ride with a truck driver, Bob (Stephen Adly Guirgis), who abandons her at a motel. Aviva wanders around the countryside and finds shelter and comfort in a foster home for disabled children run by a Christian evangelist, Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), and her husband (Walter Bobbie).

Aviva is accepted into the family and even joins the children’s pop-singing group but soon discovers Papa Sunshine has engaged the truck driver, Bob, to kill a doctor who performs abortions. Aviva, infatuated with Bob, leaves the family and accompanies him on his assignment. They drive into a suburban neighbourhood and pull up at the home of the doctor who performed Aviva’s operation. Bob accidentally shoots the doctor’s young daughter as well as the intended victim and he and Aviva flee to a motel. The police soon surround them and Bob, anguished about what he has done, commits police-assisted suicide. The cops return Aviva to her parents who celebrate her 13th birthday by throwing a family party. Some time after the party, Aviva again meets Judah, now named Otto, and the two have sex. Aviva, believing she is pregnant, is happy and at peace.

The choice of eight actors to play Aviva illustrates how the character of Aviva essentially stays the same despite the different opinions others may have about her, how Aviva might feel about herself as her body undergoes puberty, and how changes in her circumstances might affect her behaviour and responses to people and situations. Such differences are reflected in the height, age and general appearance of the actors who play Aviva. Viewers quickly pick her out even when she lies to Mama Sunshine and her brood, and says her name is Henrietta. The girl seems passive and easily influenced by others, and her vague, generic character (her name is Hebrew for “life” so she must be taken as a representative of humanity generally) won’t endear her to viewers, though near film’s end when she meets her cousin Mark (Matthew Faber), who tells her free will and the ability to change are fictions and everyone’s actions are predetermined by their environment and genetic history, she argues fairly passionately in a faint, deadened way that people should have hope and can change. The most notable of the several Aviva players is Sharon Wilkins who plays the Mama Sunshine Aviva: her performance embodies the previous performances and experiences of the younger Avivas and adds genuine feeling, a sense of having suffered trauma and an attitude towards her adoptive family that varies from wariness to cautious enthusiasm in the family’s get-togethers. Though Wilkins is much bigger and taller than her fellow foster siblings in the family pop group, she conveys the sense of being a young girl so effectively that she blends in successfully with the weeny warblers.

Ellen Barkin is superb if creepy as the self-centred Joyce who, with her husband (Richard Masur), showers Aviva with toys and material possessions but fails to give her the two things she most needs: love and some form of spiritual or moral guidance. As viewers can guess, the mother is most genuine emotionally when told of Aviva’s abortion going awry; through Aviva’s dim, semi-conscious gaze as it were, we see the woman rage then collapse against the doctor. Debra Monk is also effective as the mother substitute Mama Sunshine who offers what Aviva’s mother doesn’t; her beaming smile, clucky mother-hen style and occasional tears may however mask a steely authoritarian nature that exploits her charges’ disabilities and charm as tweeny Christian pop singers for profit. Of the several child actors in the film, Alexander Brickel makes the most impression as the chirpy foster child Peter Paul who doesn’t miss a beat in cheerfulness even when he takes Aviva to the garbage dumps to look for aborted foetuses.

The film lampoons both the mainstream secular suburban life with its spiritual and moral sterility, and its mirror in the Christian evangelist family which, though accepting of people’s physical imperfections and embracing the unwanted disabled children with warmth and love, is just as much a moral desert where money and differences of opinion are involved. The extreme family types don’t seem very outlandish due to Solondz’s direction under which everyone tends towards a deadpan, almost frozen-faced standard of dialogue delivery unless a situation calls for emotiveness. If the film takes a stand at all on any moral issue, it may be to suggest that, regardless of religious or socio-economic background, children can be vulnerable victims of extreme indoctrination and exploitation by parents, especially if the parents use the children as tools to fulfill their own needs for self-worth and validation. This can create situations where children become trapped in a hell not of their own making, for which they don’t have the knowledge and resources to escape, and end up as adults recreating that hell for their own children.

Ultimately as the film’s title and the most significant characters’ names suggest, people here end up zinging between two extremes in a situation or two sides of a problem or issue but never achieve a resolution or breakthrough. Though not a work that will appeal to most people, “Palindromes” is a brave if not very successful attempt to address difficult and controversial issues about the value of life, how it is abused and exploited by others for personal gain, and the effect that such exploitation might have on people’s lives and society generally. Solondz seems to have a pessimistic view of humanity’s potential to break out of structures and patterns that no longer have any value or meaning, and this vision makes the movie bleak and hopeless.

North by Northwest: fun escapist enjoyment that encapsulates Hitchcock’s inner world

Alfred Hitchcock, “North by Northwest” (1959)

After the intense “Vertigo” which initially wasn’t a great box office success, Hitchcock chose to film a light-hearted chase thriller story featuring his familiar and favourite motifs and obsessions, a touch of romance and a climax that would take place on the famous Mount Rushmore monument. As with many of his films, the hero is an everyday man who may have a doppelgänger (in this instance, a non-existent one) and who is wrongly suspected of a crime for which he is pursued and which he is determined to solve himself. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a middle-aged New York advertising executive minding his own business when he is suddenly kidnapped by spies led by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his chief henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) who mistake him for another man, George Kaplan. Vandamm and Leonard set up Thornhill to die in a car accident but Thornhill foils their plan in a hilarious driving sequence; sozzled on too much bourbon, he’s the only one to avoid hitting or crashing into anyone and anything and everyone else, driving sober, creates the chain of collisions. Through a series of misadventures, Thornhill ends up being chased by both unseen spies and the police so to evade them, he catches an inter-state train to Chicago. On the trip he meets a passenger, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who hides him from the police while on board and while leaving the train station in Chicago. Eve arranges for Thornhill to meet George Kaplan who presumably will explain everything to him and she gives Thornhill directions to the place where he’ll meet the mystery spy.

Thornhill narrowly escapes being killed by a crop-dusting biplane in remote prairie country and makes his way back to Chicago where he discovers Kendall is in cahoots with Vandamm and Leonard at an auction, buying a small statue. Thornhill, finding himself trapped at the auction by Vandamm’s men, creates uproar and ends up being arrested by police. The cops deliver him to a man called the Professor (Leo G Carroll) who tells him Kaplan doesn’t exist but was a ruse created to distract Vandamm away from Kendall. The Professor tries to keep an eye on Thornhill and help Kendall maintain her deception of Vandamm by flying Thornhill to Rapids City, South Dakota, then to the Mount Rushmore national park in a staged ruse that puts Thornhill in hospital. Our man escapes and makes his way to Vandamm’s hide-out. He discovers that Leonard has proved Kendall’s disloyalty to Vandamm by testing her gun for blanks and the two villains plan to dump her out of their plane once airborne. Thornhill successfully warns Kendall of the plan and manages to snatch her away at the last minute from Vandamm, Leonard and another man, Valerian (Adam Williams), while they are boarding the plane. Kendall has the good sense to grab the statue bought at the auction and she and Thornhill race away with it. They are forced to climb over and down the Mount Rushmore monument with the enemy spies hot on their heels. Meanwhile the Professor, having found out that Thornhill escaped his custody, is on his way to the Mount Rushmore monument to get both Thornhill and Kendall.

On one level “North by Northwest” is good escapist fun with spectacular settings, sequences that combine comedy, danger and nick-of-time good timing, and a fine if under-used cast of actors playing roles that would be milked by the later James Bond movies: a suave and debonair hero with a flair for double entendres and one-liners; a cool mystery woman, at once capable and vulnerable, whose loyalties may be in doubt; and secret enemy agents who have as much wit, intelligence and style as they have brawn and a vicious streak. While Grant doesn’t do ordinary, everyday mummy’s boy too well – Thornhill is supposed to develop from drab, commonplace office executive with an undistinguished background to a resourceful hero who discovers strengths and talents he never knew he had – the actor manages the transition smoothly and gives credibility to a character whose details initially seem contradictory and can stretch belief. As mother’s pet, Grant’s interpretation appears more rebellious and put-upon, and as for Thornhill’s awkwardness with women, the actor has obvious difficulty with that! The character though ends up impressing viewers with intelligence, curiosity and tenacity beneath a suave, almost unflappable veneer as he tries to prove his innocence and true identity.

Saint mixes the right amount of gutsiness, duplicity and vulnerability in her role, Mason makes his silkily cultured yet sinister villain Vandamm look like a cakewalk and Landau almost steals the villains’ corner of the show from Mason with his portrayal of a tough henchman who may secretly have the hots for his boss. Interesting that three actors in the cast (Martin Landau, Leo G Carroll, Edward Platt) would end up playing significant or at least regular roles in 1960’s TV spy-themed shows (“Mission Impossible”, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, “Get Smart” respectively) which might reflect the impact “North …” made on audiences and the film industry on its release to the extent that members of its cast found themselves typecast. Even Grant and Mason were under consideration to play James Bond in the first film of the JB franchise in spite of their ages (they were both fiftysomething). This may say something for the quality of character actors Hitchcock assembled for his film.

On another level, “North …” may be a comment on deception as a tool in modern society: all significant characters in the film, Thornhill included, must pretend to be what they’re not to achieve their objectives, elude others or just to survive. Even the plot is deceptive as “North …” dives into sidelines that have no significance other than to provide extra thrills and chills up the spine, and the movie appears to lack direction. In an age in which the United States and the Soviet Union preferred to conduct their hostilities through propaganda, espionage, competing to send people into space, building up weapons and armies, and fighting proxy wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America through various client states, “North …” may be as political as Hitchcock dared to be in a commercial movie context. The auction scene in a way is revealing of the play-acting and deception prevailing in society: Thornhill intuits that the small statue on offer may not be what the auctioneers and most of the audience take it to be, and openly declares it a “fake”, not knowing its true value to Vandamm and Kendall.

As a film whose script was intended by scripter Ernest Lehman to be the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films, “North …” is laden with the familiar Hitchcockian tropes of the wronged man, the possibility that he may have a double, the feisty blonde heroine, hidden homosexuality, fear and paranoia in everyday life, a character with a mother complex, romantic comedy laced with sexual innuendo, the control of women and their bodies by men, fear or defiance of figures of authority (fathers, the police), MacGuffin objects that everybody chases but which have no relevance to the plot, a twist in the story and trains as sexual metaphor.

Though the film wasn’t intended to have any symbolism, symbolism can be found in it depending on where viewers are coming from. Thornhill’s quest is as much a quest for his true inner self as it is a fight to clear his name and find out who George Kaplan is. Trains, especially US interstate passenger trains, in Hitchcock’s movies are sites of unexpected meetings with strangers, hidden secrets and transformation. (What Hitchcock might have made of something like “Snakes on a Plane” can only be guessed at.) Even the progress of action from New York, that centrepiece of deception via diplomacy and the capital of advertising and public relations, to Chicago to South Dakota where (presumably) people are more honest and as open as the cornfield and prairie landscapes, to the climax on a bare mountain, can be construed as a gradual lifting away of the veil of deception and play-acting to reveal truth and corruption. And what could be more open – or perhaps less “open” – than the granite facade of the Mount Rushmore monument which itself carries layered symbolism in the choice of four former US presidents, themselves controversial figures even now, to honour, and in its own conception, construction history and what it represents to different groups of people? The monument is located in an area seized by the US government from the native Lakota (Sioux) owners and it was sculpted under the supervision of artist Gutzon Borglum who was a Ku Klux Klan member; the project itself was conceived to promote tourism, an industry relying on deception and exploiting people’s dreams and preconceptions. Of all the people and objects in “North …” that aren’t what they seem, Mount Rushmore may be the most deceptive of them all.

From a technical point of view, “North …” is notable for its use of moving text in its opening credit sequence, created by Saul Bass, to suggest the outlines of the United Nations building in New York and hint at the climax in which people will have to climb down a mountain face. Camerawork features aerial points of view that prefigure the Mount Rushmore climbing scenes  are noteworthy in how they emphasise particular actions and advance the plot. In one significant scene, Thornhill on an internal catwalk flicks a message to Kendall that lands on the floor; from Thornhill’s elevated point of view, viewers see Leonard pick up the item and place it on a coffee table, then Kendall scoop it up after he turns his back on her, in masterly shots that generate maximum suspense. The orchestral music score by Bernard Herrmann is florid, melodramatic and even screechy in parts. (Hitchcock fanatics who insist on watching the director’s films in chronological order can see how “North …” fits between “Vertigo” and “Psycho” in its technical details.) The high technical quality and polish evident throughout the movie, not to mention its ideas, put Hitchcock in serious contention to direct the first James Bond movie but fortunately or unfortunately perhaps the then owners of the James Bond character decided he was better off in his own little world.

Of course, “North …” didn’t turn out to be the Hitchcock film that ended all Hitchcock films and there are other Hitchcock films that surpass it in visual presentation, technical flair and overall plot originality. Perhaps it only fulfils Lehman’s prediction in that it encapsulates more of Hitchcock’s inner world than Hitchcock’s other films do. For sheer playful enjoyment though, this film is a highlight in Hitchcock’s overall body of work.

Se7en: well-made if not great film about good and evil in an indifferent universe

David Fincher, “Se7en” (1995)

“Se7en” is a well-made film with some excellent acting performances and an ingenious if implausible premise of a literate serial killer who plans and executes murders of undeserving people, or at least those he considers undeserving. What prevents “Se7en” from being a really great movie is a script that takes its leisurely time building up significant characters and the relationships among them only to try to come to a quick resolution in the last 30 minutes by bringing in the murderer who then has to rattle off on how the series of murders will be completed. The slow build-up is appreciated but perhaps it could have been cut back a bit to allow for a fuller development of the serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in his character and motivations, and his relationship to the detectives on his trail, William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt).

The action takes place in a generic city of grimy derelict buildings and social problems of poverty, crime, prostitution and drug-dealing networks. Rain falls constantly on this city and occasionally the weather brightens up to reveal a bit of sunshine but the sleaze and filth remain after repeated clean-up attempts. Here, Somerset has been investigating and solving crime but after many years he is planning to retire and move to a less crime-ridden place. In its infinite wisdom worthy of a cosmic joker or Hollywood TV crime show writers, the police department pairs him with rookie cop Mills, a recent transfer from out of town, who proves to be the complete opposite of Somerset in personality, character and approach to the job: where Somerset is level-headed, keeps his cool and does meticulous research at libraries as well as in police files, Mills is hot-headed, acts before he thinks and rarely delves into a world beyond pop culture. While sorting out their good cop / bad cop routine, the two have to grimace their way through and make sense of three crimes, two of which involve murders, each illustrating one of the Seven Deadly Sins referenced in Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”. A montage sequence in the movie that flits back and forth between Somerset and Mills doing their separate investigations establishes the two men’s differences nicely.

The detectives track down a man called John Doe to his apartment; he starts shooting at them and flees. Mills gives chase through the building and outside but is outwitted by Doe who holds him at gunpoint. Inexplicably Doe spares his life and leaves the scene. The detectives later determine from examining books and papers in Doe’s apartment that he is planning a fourth murder but they are too late to prevent it. They then discover a fifth murder which doesn’t tell them anything new about the killer.

Between investigating the crimes, Somerset becomes acquainted with Mills’ wife Tracey (Gwyneth Paltrow) who warms to him as a father figure and confidante. She tells him she is unhappy with Mills’ recent transfer and reveals that she had thought of leaving him but is pregnant. Learning that Mills hasn’t been told of the pregnancy, Somerset offers his opinion that the city isn’t a good place to raise a child and tells Tracey he once convinced an ex-girlfriend to abort her pregnancy. The diner scene in which Paltrow and Somerset talk together is very moving with Paltrow’s acting demonstrating considerable if restrained emotional depth in the short film space she is given. This scene is a pivotal one in the film as Tracey herself becomes involved in the series of seven crimes.

Freeman brings substance to a role that admittedly makes few demands on his experience and skill as an actor. Perhaps if he had played the role less straight-faced and enjoyed investigating the crimes – and perhaps the film could have shown him receiving the odd cryptic note or two from Doe about the crimes or future crimes so that there’s an indication that the two might be knowingly sparring together – Freeman’s performance might have had more depth as Somerset becomes a more morally ambiguous and questionable character and that in itself would have pushed the actor to give more to the role. Pitt plays Mills in a straightforward manner, to the point where the character becomes stereotyped, until the film’s climax where, wrestling with his emotions and Somerset’s warnings, he gives way to his impulses and literally becomes a broken man. Pitt’s performance here is at once emotional yet restrained as his character struggles with giving in to his anger and controlling himself. The scene is artfully set up: Mills ends up behaving as his nature dictates and becomes Doe’s unwilling accomplice and executioner, yet finds hollowness as his reward. The setting in which the climax takes place is significant: for some reason never revealed to the detectives or the audience, Doe has arranged for the detectives to pick up a box at a site in the open countryside far from the city near some towers. The sky is blue and the sun shines strongly. Yet the most shocking manipulation and crimes, involving the killing of innocents and Mills’s “forced” participation, occur on a bright and beautiful day just dawning.

Of the minor roles, Paltrow provides the movie’s heart and soul as a woman trapped in marriage to a selfish child-man with anger management issues and Spacey is chilling and excellent as the cold-blooded yet ordinary-looking sociopath who frees her from her particular hell. I’d have liked to see Doe’s relationships to Somerset, Mills and his wife more clearly established throughout the film: Somerset as Doe’s intellectual equal and sparring partner who understands Doe’s literary and cultural references and where he is coming from; Mills as Doe’s unwilling plaything; and Tracey as an idealisation of what Doe desires and envies. There is irony in that Doe believes Mills and Tracey have the perfect married life when in fact one of the two feels imprisoned and wants out.

There are plot details that aren’t entirely consistent and Doe must have moved around at lightning speed in the early hours of the final morning of the 7-day period over which the movie takes place. Some of the police procedural and forensic collection details may be dicey in their accuracy too. The theme of the movie – that good people can’t just walk away from the evil that exists in the world but must do what they can to resist and fight it – is strong yet the characters and events that occur constantly subvert it. Doe sees himself as a crusader who must sweep away the filth he sees: his early victims are people who have exploited others or encouraged others to sin; his choice of later victims suggests he wants the police to see that they too are corruptible and can commit sin as well. As a mentally disturbed sociopath, Doe is as self-serving as Mills is self-centred and Somerset is removed from ordinary human affairs; in a twisted way, Doe forces both Mills and Somerset to get more involved with the world as it is with all its imperfections and messiness, and perhaps to see their place in it. Mills ends up broken and Somerset reconsiders his decision to leave the police force. The world is awash in filth and grime, and what is good and what is evil may not be clear-cut and might even mimic each other, but people whose motives are uncorrupted must do what they can to make the world a better place.

Worth seeing at least once for those of strong stomach as the murders, though they occur off-screen, are gruesome and the detectives’ reactions on seeing the bodies are as upsetting as the scenes themselves. The film’s emphasis is on following Mills and Somerset’s investigations into the murders, the choices and decisions they make, and how these reflect their different personalities and characters; the result is a movie that can be slow in building up to the climax and then rushing it once Doe approaches the detectives. This could have been a great film about how well-intentioned but fallible people must try to combat complex and protean forms of evil in an indifferent universe but as it is, it’s quite a good effort when I consider that this was Fincher’s second movie after the debacle that was “Alien 3”.