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”.

M (dir. Fritz Lang): an ordinary film with sharp social comment

Fritz Lang, “M” (1931)

During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Germany played unfortunate host to some extremely vicious serial killers, one of whom, Peter Kürten, inspired this psychological thriller drama by Fritz Lang. Kürten terrorised the city of Düsseldorf with his hideous murders of men, women and children that sometimes included drinking their blood; he was convicted of nine murders and was executed for his crimes in 1931. The reality that was Kürten is considerably toned down in “M”: the serial killer Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, preys on young schoolgirls in the city of Berlin and most of his crimes have already occurred when the film opens and he is seen buying a balloon and sweets for his latest victim. The movie concentrates on the search for Beckert by both police and organised crime gangs: the police believe Beckert is hiding among underworld criminals and put pressure on them to yield him; the criminals, feeling the heat and concerned for their reputation(!), try to find him and mete out their own justice.

The film does drag out during the search for Beckert who is captured by the criminals about 80 minutes into the movie: the pace is slow and leisurely and there’s no sense of rising tension as Beckert becomes aware of the pursuit and hides in an abandoned office building with both police and crooks on his trail. At least viewers can see how police in the 1920’s conducted their investigations into serial murders: finger-printing was still a new science then and forensic methods based on the use of DNA were in another universe altogether; all the police could do in those days was comb through known criminal networks and perhaps find out from psychiatric hospitals or prisons if they had released anyone or reported any escapes before the killings began. Naturally the police search is hardly scientific; indeed, it’s not even well co-ordinated as two police officers argue and fight over the case, and the inspector himself is sloppy in the way he oversees it. The criminals are faster and more efficient if more violent and thuggish in the way they find Beckert and promptly haul him before a kangaroo court baying for his blood.

Visually the film is a treat: the influence of 1920’s German Expressionism is strong in the use of shadows to suggest menace and suspense, and in one bizarre shot of the inspector talking on the telephone that forces audiences to look up his trouser legs at his face! There is one very good montage sequence of scenes in the disused office building where the criminals have rampaged looking for Beckert, with a voice-over of a police officer exclaiming at the destruction left behind. Another excellent montage sequence indirectly shows a victim’s assault: the montages show the empty place at a dining-table and a play area where the victim should have been had Beckert not attacked her. The mood throughout the film as suggested by the images is one of paranoia as Berlin is gripped in fear by the vicious murders and the police resort to intrusive searches through flop-houses and other places where underworld elements and society’s various down-and-outs and other outsiders frequent.

The film picks up during the mock trial scene in which Beckert confesses his guilt and admits to deep, primal instincts that drive him to kill even as he is revolted by them. Lorre delivers an incredible if hysterical and screechy performance of a man compelled by an inner sickness to carry out gruesome acts. Beckert is not entirely insane; he is lucid enough to remind his accusers that they exercise free will in carrying out their crimes while he is beholden to forces he can’t understand or fight.  His “defence lawyer” pleads on his behalf, arguing that Beckert can’t be held fully responsible for his crimes on the basis of his psychology. The mob, swept up in its hysteria and triumph at capturing Beckert, and not at all pleased at being told the plain truth about itself, proclaims the death sentence on him and prepares to carry it out. Astonishingly, viewers will find themselves in sympathy with Beckert, creepy and abhorrent he might be, having to face the fury of an emotional crowd locked in groupthink. Lorre’s acting virtually carries “M” from just another so-so cat-and-mouse chase to a movie that’s worth watching: there can’t be very many other films made since motion pictures began whose reputations rely so much on one actor’s performance in one scene. Unfortunately Lorre’s role as Beckert was to typecast the actor permanently as a sinister or creepy villain for the rest of his career.

As cinema, “M” doesn’t rate well in telling its story: the plot is self-explanatory yet surprisingly threadbare and so for most of its running time, the movie lacks direction, tension and pace. As a medium for social comment, the film makes pointed barbs about how the less privileged strata of society are targeted by the police for investigation and punishment whenever something out of the ordinary occurs, and how easy it is for the rights of individuals to be crushed totally, whether by institutions of law and order or by vigilante groups, especially in situations they can take advantage of and benefit from. The society as portrayed in “M” is one easily swayed by emotional frenzy and irrationality in a context of chronic stress, insecurity and fear for the future, and as a result is a society whose sympathies could be exploited and directed by an individual, an organisation and an ideology for more murderous gain than even Beckert and his demons can achieve. The parallels with the situation in the United States after the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001 are not at all hard to see.

Not long after making “M”, both director Lang and lead actor Lorre fled Germany for Paris (Lang in 1934, Lorre in 1933) when the society so portrayed in the movie became reality.

Blade Runner: movie remarkable chiefly for visual impact and theme

Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner” (1982)

The curious thing with this movie is that as it recedes back in time – 2012 will be its 30th anniversary! – it appears less science fiction and more film noir in spite of its subject matter: a specialist police officer known as a blade runner comes out of retirement and is given a mission to hunt down and execute four half-human / half-machine beings or “replicants” that have hijacked a space-ship in and returned to Earth. Certainly the emphasis on atmosphere and a dark, downbeat mood throughout the film has always been very strong but now even little details like ceiling fans in rooms, derelict buildings in crowded cities and people puffing away on cigarettes, which to some viewers might seem quaint or contradictory, add an extra touch to the pessimistic mood. As the science fiction appears less incredible and more possible, “Blade Runner” now emerges as a futuristic film noir piece with a distinctive visual style. Once viewers become accustomed to the movie’s look and the backgrounds, the movie’s plot appears as threadbare with dialogue so spare the storyline nearly collapses. The characters are not nearly as fleshed out as they should be as a result. All that is left is a long movie with a pace so slow that any sense of tension drags away. The pivotal confrontation between the blade runner cop Deckard (Harrison Ford) and the rogue replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) seems very drawn out and its climax is too brief by comparison.

The movie does look beautiful with its vision of a futuristic Los Angeles as a chaotic, crowded city where different and often contradictory, even retrogressive ways of life co-exist with sophisticated technology. Scenes often appear in a hazy blue light and there is plenty of interplay between intense light and dark shadowy interiors in various parts of the movie which encourages a sense of paranoia and dread. Society as it appears in “Blade Runner” is highly stratified: the wealthy have moved to colonies in outer space where their needs are attended to by replicant slaves, the poor eke out a living as best as they can on Earth but mind their own business and aren’t bothered much by the authorities who carry out regular aerial patrols. The suggestion is of an all-seeing police state, confident in its stability to the extent that it feels no need to regiment and order the little people who scurry about like rats. The rebel replicants are able to insinuate themselves among the population as circus performers or beggars, all the while trying to gain entry into the massive Tyrell Corporation building and to beg their creator to give them more life before their 4-year guarantee wears out.

And why do the replicants only have a lifespan of four years? As police supervisor Bryant (M Emmett Walsh) explains to Deckard, this is to prevent the replicants from acquiring emotions and a desire for independence. What is implied is that if beings that are half-human and half-machine can rebel, then full human beings might be inspired to rebel as well. Bryant’s threat to Deckard if he refuses his mission suggests Deckard is as much a slave of his society as the replicants are. When viewers first meet Deckard, he seems lethargic and burnt-out in his retirement, with no enthusiasm for life; we presume his work as a blade runner has disgusted him and dehumanised him in some way. Indeed, later in the film when he flushes out replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and kills her, the experience exhausts him as Bryant comments when he comes to see the corpse. The point made here, which many fans of “Blade Runner” may have missed, is that the police state has made humans like Deckard less than human and reduced them to the level of replicants; the irony is that the replicants, in seeking more life, are seeking to be more human than humans themselves are allowed to be.

An even greater irony is that it is the replicants themselves, in particular Batty and Rachel (Sean Young), modelled on the niece of the head (Joe Turkel) of Tyrell Corporation, who restore humanity to Deckard. The subplot in which Deckard falls in love with Rachel and teaches her to love him (an idea likely borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville”, also a dystopian sci-fi / noir film) is important to Deckard’s reawakening as a human as it is for Rachel in learning how to be human. The division between replicant and human becomes irrelevant but in teaching love and trust to Rachel, Deckard puts her life in danger and so in the film’s coda, they flee his apartment. (In the original cinema release in the United States and Australia, the coda was a happy one that provided definite closure to the film’s events and was ironically closer to the “Alphaville” ending.) Deckard’s love for Rachel is paralleled by the open affection and love the replicants Batty and Pris (Daryl Hannah) express in their brief time together on screen.

Ford underplays his role as Deckard, as is appropriate for a character long out of touch with his emotions and what it means to be human; he rediscovers his humanity gradually through his encounters with Rachel and Batty. Rachel reawakens his capacity for love and Batty teaches him how to feel physical pain again and how to fear for his life. By film’s end, with his humanity restored, Deckard is finally able to crack a smile when he finds the origami unicorn left behind at his apartment by his police minder Gaff (Edward James Olmos) to indicate that the police know that Rachel is hiding inside and that they know that when he dreams, his mental processes are being monitored by the authorities. The conventional interpretation of the origami unicorn scene and its relation to the unicorn dream that Deckard has had earlier in the film – and this is supported by director Ridley Scott himself – has been that Deckard himself must be a replicant and the dream was implanted into his brain just as Rachel’s childhood memories are implants. If that’s so, then Gaff himself might also be a replicant – how else would he know of Deckard’s dream? – and by implication, so must Bryant. The whole rationale for “Blade Runner” falls over: if replicants aren’t allowed to be on Earth, then why is Deckard working there as a blade runner in the first place if he’s a replicant too? An alternative explanation is that the all-pervasive surveillance technology is sophisticated enough that the regular aerial patrols are “reading” people’s mental processes when they are asleep and able to capture any images generated and relay them to the police. This explanation reinforces the view of “Blade Runner” that society in the future will be ruled by a police state highly dependent on technology that not only spies on people but moulds them physically and mentally; it also continues the paranoid ambience of the film right to the end.

Of the other actors, Hauer plays his role as Batty subtly, sometimes child-like and sometimes authoritative and menacing, in the manner of a fallen angel, a motif used frequently with variations in connection with the character throughout the film. Emotions flit across his face and sometimes he inclines his head shyly as if playing at being an innocent, which in some respects he is. His final soliloquy at the film’s climax is very moving though viewers do have to pinch themselves to remember that the speech might be an implant. Young perhaps seems one-dimensional as a femme fatale stereotype who is also an innocent victim of the corporate police state created and sustained by her uncle in part and who needs to be saved and freed from that state to become “human”.

The background texture of the movie, against which the anti-hero Deckard chases the replicants, is the most outstanding feature: the society seems more fully realised here than in most other science fiction movies set in a future dystopia and the theme of what it means to be human and when does someone become human or non-human plays out well. The flimsy plot does allow the background to protrude into viewers’ awareness more than a complicated story with many twists  would. The dialogue could have been bulked a bit more to make Deckard and Rachel’s romance more credible. “Blade Runner” remains a standard by which science fiction film and television should be judged for visual impact and the way it portrays a police state in operation; it’s a pity that the plot doesn’t quite meet the standard of its background context.

L.A. Confidential: well-made with convoluted plot about deception and illusion

Curtis Hanson, “L.A. Confidential” (1997)

Based on the novel by James Ellroy and named after an actual 1950’s magazine which focussed on celebrity scandal, “L.A. Confidential” is a well-made retro noir movie set in early 1950’s Los Angeles about three police officers investigating a horrific mass murder shooting at the Nite Owl coffee shop which draws them into a bigger scandal of police and political corruption, drug-trafficking, pornography and prostitution, racial prejudice and chequebook journalism. The three officers who are the focus of the movie deal with the case in particular ways that reflect their personalities and values, and which bring them into conflict with one another and then with their real enemy with tragic consequences. The plot is convoluted and layered, and viewed from different angles can say different things about the world these men live and work in.

Sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is an ambitious stickler for rules who is conscious of his father’s legacy as a police officer and is determined to prove that he is better. The other officers in the force dislike him for having testified in a case of police brutality against a group of Mexican prisoners and forcing the dismissal of officer Stensland as a result. Stensland was the partner of Bud White (Russell Crowe), a hard-man plainclothes officer with a penchant for violence against wife-beaters, who vows revenge against Exley. White accepts a job from the police head Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) to intimidate criminals wanting to set up shop in Los Angeles. Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is an easy-going detective who gives technical advice to a TV crime show and feeds information to the editor Sid Hudgens (Danny de Vito) of Hush-Hush magazine. The magazine gives kickbacks to Vincennes for staging arrests of famous people caught with drugs or in flagrante delicto. All three men are drawn into the Nite Owl coffee shop incident in different ways: Exley is the first to receive the call of the shooting and goes out to investigate; White discovers the murder victims include his old partner Stensland and a woman, Susan Lefferts, whom he has met before; and Vincennes investigates a pornography racket linked to the Fleur-de-Lis prostitution service that supplies girls altered by plastic surgery to resemble famous Hollywood movie stars. The officers’ independent investigations bring them in contact with call-girl Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) and her employer Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) who runs Fleur-de-Lis. Eventually Exley and White realise their investigations have brought them together in a set-up manipulated by powerful forces to get Exley out of the way and in spite of their differences the two officers agree to co-operate to rid the police department and city government of the true corruption they realise exists.

The film recreates and captures the colourful glamour of Los Angeles and Hollywood during their Golden Age, enhanced by the smoky jazz music soundtrack and Hudgens’s voice-over narration which presents the city as a paradise where little crime occurs and the police are always clean. The exotic atmosphere fades about halfway through the movie as the plot becomes more complicated with the officers often doubling up on one another’s investigations to the exasperation of some suspects and the body count begins to pile up quickly. Hudgens dies so there is no more voice-over and the music starts sounding like generic soundtrack music. Los Angeles is not such an unspoiled, gleaming “Garden of Eden” after all where people can reinvent themselves and start with a clean slate.

What character development exists is restricted to the three officers Exley, White and Vincennes. The fact that viewers see them changing their views about one another and the world around them is testament to the actors’ abilities as well as the screenplay. Crowe is believable as a thug with a soft spot in his heart for vulnerable women threatened by violence and it’s possible that the character of White is close to the actor’s own personality. Exley undergoes the biggest transformation of all three characters, starting as a rookie detective who sees the world in black and white, prepared to play politics and disdainful of White’s violence but later realising that surface appearances don’t necessarily reflect the true nature of people and events. He comes to appreciate White as a loyal friend who responds in like manner. Pearce pulls off a career-defining performance going from bookish and cold to a warmer, more fully rounded character. Spacey has limited time on screen as Vincennes who undergoes a mini-transformation from corrupt cop to determined crusader after a minor character dies; he pays the price for his change of conscience when he comes too close too quickly to the real centre of corruption. Of the support cast, Basinger stands out for playing a stock stereotype blonde babe of blemished background who needs saving; Basinger invests a basically passive character with more emotional substance than it needs.

There’s perhaps too much plot for audiences to digest in one sitting and repeated viewings are needed though Exley does provide a quick potted explanation of events starting with the Nite Owl cafe shoot-out all the way to the bullet-ballet climax at a deserted motel near the end. It’s clear that deception and illusion are at the heart of the plot of “L.A. Confidential”: the city as paradise where dreams come true; the police as always moral, clean and fair; Bud White as thuggish and thick; Jack Vincennes as easy to buy off and corrupt but coming round to fulfilling his duty as police officer. Black people and organised crime gangs are implicated in the Nite Owl massacre case but the three investigating officers discover their findings lead to their own force. Exley, White and Vincennes learn something about themselves and one another and rise beyond their differences, dislike of one another and their separate police jurisdictions to combat the real evil.

The ending is Hollywood-style happy which is a major let-down in an otherwise credible noir film: some of the city’s corruption has been cleaned up but nowhere near enough. The city officials’ reaction to the death of a crooked police officer is to portray him as a hero in his newspaper obituary. The final scene could be changed slightly to two characters fleeing Los Angeles forever (in the manner of the science fiction movie “Blade Runner”) instead of going on a holiday. Even so, “L.A. Confidential” is a good film in the style of retro noir.

Alien 3 (dir. David Fincher): potentially interesting psych horror / slasher flick in space is a mess

David Fincher, “Alien 3” (1992)

At least in this third episode in the Alien series, people finally figured out a new original way of killing the monster other than just flushing it out through a space-ship’s airlock into deep space where eventually the thing would join similarly executed critters in the Great Alien Skeleton Garbage Patch circling a distant planetary system. Beyond that, the options for the sequel to two very different movies were limited: the first having been a space horror movie, the second being an action adventure movie, where can the third go? It goes into a film noir / slasher flick scenario set in space in which an emergency forces an escape pod containing Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her surviving companions from “Aliens” to separate from the spacecraft Sulaco and crash-land onto a remote planet where the only human beings live in a maximum security prison. Ripley is the only survivor of that crash-landing and almost immediately has to contend with a group of condemned men, hostile and uncertain as to how to treat this “alien” in their midst, while they wait for a rescue craft to pick her up. As Ripley tries to negotiate her way through the surly all-male prison society, unusual and violent deaths begin to occur and Ripley realises that an alien of the type she’s only too familiar with must have stowed away on the Sulaco and then on her escape craft. Chaos erupts and everyone starts to panic as the alien picks off the medic and the prison supervisor and as usual Ripley has to take charge and devise a plan to get rid of the creature before the rescue craft arrives.

The only really original element is the concept of an isolated factory prison where not only are all the inmates men with violent criminal pasts, they also are followers of an apocalyptic religious cult. This means the action takes place in a claustrophobic environment of industrial machinery, huge underground tunnels, galley ways, steel catwalks and long chains: dark, moody, full of foreboding. Viewers should feel dread and abandonment throughout this film. The religious flavour adds a superficial Gothic feel with close-up shots of lit candles; nearly all the cast are skinhead monks in drab dark colours and even Ripley falls in line with the hair and clothing fashions. Unfortunately constant studio interference in the making of “Alien 3” has made for a muddled mess in which the potential offered by a prison scenario of mad misogynist monks is never properly realised and the film retreats into a re-run of “Alien” in which people scurry around the labyrinths of the prison alternately flushing out the alien so it can be destroyed and trying to avoid being killed by it. The plot starts to stretch and drag halfway through when an early attempt to trap and kill the creature ends in disaster and everyone collapses in despair and self-doubt before slowly and painfully resuming the job.

Whatever character development exists in Ripley in “Alien 3” is limited to a black sense of humour and wry one-liners: “This is a maximum security prison and it has no weapons?!” or words to that effect. The prisoners she has to deal with, played by Ralph Brown, Charles Dance, Charles S Dutton, Brian Glover, Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Webb among others, are one-dimensional characters or character stereotypes who get very limited screen time: Dance and Glover’s characters exit early and Webb, playing Morse, doesn’t even become prominent until near the end of the film. The one character who shows signs of being more than a one-note role is Dillon (Dutton), the hard man who enforces discipline and leads prayer, and who in his own way has a soft spot for Ripley and sacrifices himself to give her time to kill the alien.

The theme of how institutional religion and a bureaucrat mind-set can restrict people’s viewpoints and limit their capacity for action, especially in a context where they have to deal with an unforeseen and unpredictable threat to their security and existence, and a parallel theme of how people in despair learn to cope and deal with an extreme enemy, using the few resources they have, are strong but help create a plot that can be slow for audiences used to the fast and convoluted pace of “Aliens” and who expect sci-fi movies to fit the kinetic action adventure mould.

Had Fox Studio allowed director David Fincher more freedom to make “Alien 3”, the film most likely would have developed in a way similar to Fincher’s later movies like “Se7en” in which protagonists negotiate their way through a situation, the rules of which aren’t clear, and battle their own character limitations and flaws as much as they fight through their dilemma. In Ripley’s case, she not only must learn the rules of prison society as they apply to her, she must fight against her fears about the alien and her own body which now harbours an alien embryo. (How this happened and how Ripley knows the embryo is a “queen” embryo aren’t clear in the movie.) This might have made “Alien 3” an interesting noirish psychological study of characters in crisis but it wouldn’t have resulted in the kind of box office success the studio expected.

Chinatown: film noir addresses serious issues of political and moral corruption

Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” (1974)

Chinatown” was Roman Polanski’s foray into the private eye / film noir genre and his last major film for Hollywood. A few years after making this movie, Polanski was arrested and charged with having unlawful sex with an underage teenage girl; though what he did cannot be condoned, his situation was complicated by the excessive media attention at the time which put pressure on the presiding judge, anxious for his reputation as a “hanging”-type judge, to ignore the recommendations of both Polanski’s legal defence team and his victim’s lawyers that Polanski serve a short time in jail, submit to a psychiatric test and evaluation (both conditions which he fulfilled) and then do a year’s worth of community service. The judge determined to put Polanski away for a long time which would have wrecked the film-maker’s career and tarnished the reputation of the law in California where the offence took place – in short, the judge would have acted corruptly. No wonder then, at the first opportunity, Polanski fled back to Europe where he continued to direct movies but always with his reputation under a cloud.

No small irony then that “Chinatown” deals with political corruption: in particular, with the selfish monied interests of a wealthy elite versus the public interest over the allocation of a necessary resource (water) and how politicians and public servants can be bought by rich individuals while honest hard-working poor people and communities (farmers in a valley north-west of Los Angeles where the movie is set) face the loss of livelihood and an uncertain economic future. Though “Chinatown” takes place during the Depression years of the 1930’s, its central message about political corruption and the misallocation and mismanagement of land, water and other resources is still relevant to us, especially in an age where in many countries water and electricity are being privatised and their control is no longer subject to public scrutiny, and in which cities continue to grow, putting pressure on their surrounding hinterlands and the communities there to share or supply more water from diminishing sources.

Initially the plot is straightforward and spare: private detective J J Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray to spy on Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), an engineer working in the Los Angeles city water department, and ascertain if he is having an affair. Gittes quickly discovers that Mulwray is indeed seeing a teenage girl and that he is opposed to the construction of a new dam. Gittes follows Mulwray and finds that Mulwray has unearthed a scam which involves the dumping of fresh water into the ocean even though Los Angeles is suffering drought conditions. After Mulwray’s “infidelity” is exposed in the newspapers, the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) brings a lawsuit against Gittes and Gittes realises he has been set up. He convinces Mrs Mulwray that he is an innocent party and she reveals that her husband and her father Noah Cross (John Huston) were former business partners who privately owned the city’s water department.

Hollis is later found murdered and Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate her husband’s death. He does so and finds it connected to a land grab attempt by the LA city water department to force farmers to sell their land cheaply to the investors who bought land bonds. The “investors” are revealed to be residents of a nursing home who know nothing of what was done in their name – by none other than Noah Cross who owns the home through his Albacore Club. Gittes’s continuing investigations bring him into conflict with Cross who wants him to find Hollis Mulwray’s supposed teenage lover, put his life and career at risk, and culminate in a tragic climax in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles.

The narrow focus of the screenplay on Gittes’s investigations and Polanski’s smooth and sure direction give Nicholson plenty of space and freedom (and there is a lot of space in the movie, in the homes of the wealthy and their playgrounds, in the countryside, along the roads and the coasts of southern California) to develop his character as a louche and likeable private eye who, beneath the rakish and sometimes violent exterior, is actually a thorough, dedicated and morally principled man who observes the spirit of the law and justice if not their letter and who fights on the side of the weak against the powerful. Viewers quickly appreciate how Gittes has come to work for himself rather than continue working for the police. His relationship with Evelyn Mulwray becomes personal and complicated and partly because of this, by the end of the film he becomes a broken man. Nicholson’s performance as the multi-faceted Gittes is brilliant and convincing, flavoured with the actor’s own slightly raffish style. The rest of the cast provides excellent support, in particular Dunaway as the rich and sophisticated yet vulnerable wife hiding a terrible family secret, and Huston as her father, jovial and gracious, sinister and greedy. Polanski himself, perhaps in homage to the English director Alfred Hitchcock who sometimes played small cameo roles in his movies, plays a small role as a vicious thug who disfigures Gittes’s face.

The film might not look very film noir – it has a slightly soft yet clear look, there is plenty of blue sky and the surroundings look beautiful and clean (even the Chinatown district looks bright and not at all seedy in spite of rubbish in its streets) – but its surface appearance hides a rotten core and the film adheres to a number of noir genre conventions and subverts them as well. The hero is a disillusioned outsider with moral flaws often working on the wrong side of the law which is corrupt and which he comes into conflict with; he tries to save a victim, usually a beautiful woman who is both innocent and morally compromised somehow; and in pursuing justice, he gets roughed up by representatives of evil and corruption so that his further investigations become a test of his moral character and principles. His work may uncover yet more corruption. The world he moves in is morally dark and unsavoury. The hero might not succeed in beating back the forces of darkness, and so it is with “Chinatown”: the forces of corruption win and the hero realises his efforts were all for nothing. The victim turns out to be the teenage “mistress” of Hollis Mulwray and Gittes fails to save her from Noah Cross’s clutches. Cross is an interesting if repulsive character whose sexual abuse of his daughter Evelyn and what we can presume he’ll do to the young girl symbolise his utter disregard for what we might call “natural law” in pursuit of self-interest and immediate gratification, and parallels his greed for land and money and disregard of human-made laws.

The use of film noir and its conventions to address and investigate an issue of continuing contemporary political and social importance as well as Polanski’s other concerns about social justice and the place of outsiders in society, makes “Chinatown” a very powerful film that still packs a lot of punch. The surprising thing is that the plot is easy to follow, with no sub-plots, and includes a soap opera element. Polanski is faithful to historical detail in people’s dress, the cars and technology they use, the architecture and interiors of buildings, homes and offices, and the social and ethnic segregation almost to a fault; even his small role recalls the fact that many people in the underworld at the time were Eastern European Jewish migrants. His direction is plain, almost blank, and forces viewers to judge for themselves what the film’s events say about the world they live in. Some viewers may be unhappy that, by film’s end, nothing has been done to expose the water supply scam and that it’s a sideshow to the Cross family soap opera but Gittes’s failure is in keeping with the film noir genre and the film’s own logic. If an experienced and knowledgeable expert like Hollis Mulwray knew what was happening but was powerless to stop it and ended up being killed for his trouble, how could an outsider private eye with few resources other than his own intelligence and investigative skills succeed?

Alphaville: Lemme caution you, it’s a sci-fi flick like no other

Jean-Luc Godard, “Alphaville”, Athos Films (1965)

On the surface “Alphaville” is just one of many episodes in the career of stereotypical hard-boiled trenchcoat-suited detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine). Caution’s immediate mission is to search for another agent, Dickson, in the city of Alphaville. Inititally the film plays ball in a straightforward film noir manner with stark backgrounds that take advantage of the black-and-white film, with a choppy cartoon musical motif, just what you’d expect of this kind of film. However, listen closely to the early dialogue and you’ll find Caution’s in a city like no other: on arriving at his hotel, a young woman leads him to his room, informing him all the while that she is his specially assigned state prostitute; he contrives to get rid of her and her hidden pimp-enforcer, only to have another young woman, Natasha (Anna Karina), assigned to him. It becomes apparent that Alphaville is a city organised along purely scientific-technocratic principles formulated by the brilliant scientist Von Braun and carried out by his supercomputer Alpha 60.

The citizens of Alphaville live and behave strictly in accordance with these principles which admit no expression or indication of emotion or reasoning that goes against the city’s rigid logic. Much of  the movie’s first half is exposition as Natasha takes Caution on a tour around the city; among other things, he sees law-breakers being punished for being emotional or irrational. Caution progressively drops his nom de plum and his purported reason for visiting Alphaville, and  reveals his real mission: to find and kill Von Braun and destroy Alpha 60; in order to do so, he must understand the nature of the city and how it oppresses its inhabitants and Natasha, and ultimately himself

Quickly the viewer becomes accustomed to director Godard’s deliberate use of modernist concrete and glass buildings and interiors, and the bleak highways and neon signage of Paris of the mid-1960’s, both as the cityscape of Alphaville and as a metaphor for the direction Western society is heading in. The speed with which the viewer accepts Godard’s conceit itself may say mountains about we readily accept authority and authoritarian guidelines even when they contradict human nature and impulses. Raoul Coutard’s camerawork enhances the futuristic aspect of the contemporary Paris landscapes: there are long tracking shots of passages that go on and on and on, suggesting the illogicality of a place ruled by pure logic; there is effective use of Paris nightscapes to suggest an all-seeing mechanised Big Brother; and scenes inside buildings are shot in high contrast to emphasise the alien quality of Alphaville.

The most unnerving aspect of the movie though is the voice of Alpha 60 itself: deep, gravelly and just how you’d expect an obese toad grown to elephant height to talk if such a being could talk, with a clicky machine quality as it draws breath. When Caution finally confronts Alpha 60 in a booth, microphones glide around his head move in stiff but sure movements: the movements of a detached, automated order that grinds down its followers. This is a chilling yet comic scene as Caution defeats Alpha 60 quoting lines of poetry – quite strange for a man of his occupational background

Small details in the movie reference recent European history and literary and film sources: Caution discovers Natasha carries a serial number on her neck; the scientist who created Alphaville is surnamed Von Braun after the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who switched his allegiances from Nazi Germany to the United States in order to realise his dream of manned space flight; the hotel used in the movie is one that was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War; scenes of long passages recall Franz Kafka works like “The Trial” and “The Castle”. The computer voice of Alpha 60 (voiced by a man with an artificial larynx that replaced his cancer-ravaged one) is an influence from a 1930s film. I understand there are several references to Jean Cocteau’s works, none of which I’m familiar with, and one of these is the flight of Caution and Natasha from the oppressive city which is inspired by the Cocteau film “Orphee”, a retelling of the Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice set in 1950s Paris. (Thanks, Wikipedia

I’ve heard “Alphaville” itself was a major influence on Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and I can see many parallels between the two: “Blade Runner” combines film noir and sci-fi elements in having a hardboiled detective in a future society who, like Caution, submits to a computer test and meets an innocent young woman who, like Natasha, is forced by the detective to confront her “robot” reality and transcend it by learning how to love. Like Caution and Natasha, these two characters flee for their lives once the detective’s mission is completed but the “love conquers all” theme is missing and the mood is tinged with the detective’s knowledge that the woman faces an early death which he is helpless to prevent

Admittedly “Alphaville” isn’t immediately enjoyable – it can induce sleepiness in its first half – and it does look dated due to its settings and its depiction of the technology then current. But some of its themes and ideas are perhaps more relevant to our day than in 1965. This may say something about what Godard had in mind while making the movie; evidently he detected certain trends in Western society which he takes to their logical and sometimes comedic, sometimes horrific extremes in “Alphaville” and some of these trends are well on the way to being realised in our times: they may look sharper, glossier, not so clunky but nevertheless they’re on the march. As long as we have corporate fascism masquerading as capitalism to enforce its “logic” across nations and continents, these tendencies such as dehumanisation of people in a technological society and rule by ideology against human nature will continue. For this reason “Alphaville” continues to have historic didactic value and most folks should see it at least once.  Some may end up watching it again and again whenever the opportunity arises