Characters and plot are as flat and blank as snowscapes in “Fargo”

Joel Coen, “Fargo” (1996)

A kidnap plot cooked up to save a car salesman’s hide going awry through sheer bad luck, incompetence and stupidity is the excuse for satirising rural Midwestern life, speech and culture in Joel and Ethan Coen’s mid-1990s film “Fargo”. John Lundergard (William Macy) is in deep financial shit and needs money fast so when he meets a couple of hoodlums (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), he sees an opportunity to fleece his father-in-law, a co-owner of the car dealership where he’s employed, for loads of money: he arranges for the crooks to kidnap his wife Jean and demand a hefty ransom. The idea is the crooks will demand a huge amount from John and John will ask dad-in-law for more than what the crooks ask for so he can cover his debts. Once the deal is agreed on, the crooks carry out their side of the bargain promptly but Jean turns out to be harder to kidnap than they first thought. Jean’s struggles come to be the first and least of their problems: while carrying her back to their hide-out, the men are forced to kill a police officer and two travellers. From here on, the crooks make more errors, demand more money from John and kill more people to cover their hides.

Enter police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), tasked with solving the various homicides and tracing the thugs’ stolen car and licence numbers to John’s dealership. Gunderson sweetly if doggedly pursues various leads which come up short: the people she interviews are too nice and polite to describe one crook, Carl (Buscemi), as more than “funny-looking” and John refuses to co-operate. Luck and chance give her the opportunity to track down the crooks to their hide-out and put police on John’s trail as a suspect in the various homicides.

Why John is so desperate that he’d stoop to dealing with lowlife types to get more money out of his wife’s dad isn’t explained. Perhaps the fact that he’s a car salesman suffices: we all know car sales reps aren’t to be trusted, right? And we also know rich fathers-in-law who own the company where their daughters’ husbands work are tight-fisted arseholes who quibble over how much they might have to fork over to save their children’s lives, right? Needless to say, the father-in-law regards John as an incompetent: another necessary part of the stereotype to get the old fella into a spot of bother when he ends up facing the business end of a gun. These and other stereotypes afflicting the crooks and various other characters – small-town and rural Midwestern folk being polite, minding their own business, being considerate of others and not being very intelligent either – help to inflate “Fargo” into a caricature of regional life in a small part of North America. What else inflates the movie into caricature is the over-use of Midwestern regional dialect and jargon: all those “yaaahs” and “naaws” that folks drop into their conversations, meant to add local flavour and help round out character development, become patronising and insulting to the Swedish heritage of the people who live in the area where the film is set (North Dakota and Minnesota).  The “niceness” with which Gunderson conducts her inquiries and fends off romantic advances from an old friend becomes very twee and there is no sense that behind her “nice” face lies a cool and calculating personality that she must surely possess to have become police chief.

It’s a pity that what’s meant to pass as an affectionate send-up of local quirkiness and eccentricity ends up looking blunt and ham-fisted and creates blank characters in a plot that is bereft of interest. There are worthy messages about how a small lie and banal personal problems end up escalating into a grand tragedy that draws in several innocent victims through chance meetings compounded by stupidity, incompetence and a mercenary mind-set embraced by several characters that puts a money value on everything including a woman’s life. The acting is very good – no one actor actually stands out head and shoulders above the rest – although the acting effort has gone into creating quaint character stereotypes rather than into developing realistic, troubled people who don’t fully understand their own motives or other factors, internal and external, that drive them to do what they do.  One would like to know whether John’s debts are partly the result of trying to give his wife and son a life-style they demand which goes far beyond what he can afford, and of trying to please his father-in-law as well, in which case the shenanigans that occur in “Fargo” might be considered a kind of dark cosmic justice and a damning commentary on how far people are prepared to go to maintain a façade.

On the plus side the snowy landscapes have an eerie beauty and give the impression of hiding many secrets in addition to the million dollars that Carl buries but is never able to tell anyone about. The natural world, looking pristine and white, serves as a metaphor for the society: apparently clean, wholesome and honest but hiding an underbelly of greed, slippery ethics and expedience.

 

 

Klute: crime thriller / psychological character study about personal control, paranoia and saving face

Alan J Pakula, “Klute” (1971)

Ostensibly a crime thriller about a prostitute who assists a small-town private investigator in a missing-person case, this film is better seen as a noir / psychological study of loneliness, paranoia and control. John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is hired by a friend Peter Kable (Charles Cioffi) to investigate the disappearance of an executive, Tom Gruneman, at Kable’s company. The only person who is likely to have any information as to how and why Gruneman disappeared is a call-girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) who initially is suspicious of Klute when he comes snooping around her apartment but she later agrees to co-operate. Klute relies on Daniels to chase down her pimp Frank Ligourin (Roy Scheider) and another prostitute Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan) to pump them for clues and leads and as the investigation progresses, Daniels becomes a kind of investigative partner for Klute and a romance blossoms between them. After Page dies mysteriously, Klute deduces her death is linked to the death of another prostitute Jane McKenna and that Gruneman most likely died also. He painstakingly works out who the real killer is – perceptive viewers will have worked out already the killer’s identity – and realises that Bree’s life is in danger.

Frankly the plot is dumber than dumb and begs a few questions about why Klute was hired in the first place (Kable  should have made sure he was incompetent at his job) and what sort of investigator he is who leaves his personal ethics at home in Tuscarora in Pennsylvania and allows himself to fall in love with Daniels who should be considered a suspect in Gruneman’s disappearance and possible murder among other things. If viewers assume that the whole film is about loss of personal control – and Bree, Klute and another significant character lose control of some aspect of their personal lives – then the plot becomes a little more credible. A slow pace and a too quick and choppy resolution in which a character conveniently ties up all plot ends and then commits suicide do not help either. The film is most credible as an exploration of Bree’s character: she alternates between being strong, confident and in control when turning tricks with her clients (though she is incapable of orgasm because that means losing control of herself in front of her client), and being fragile and frightened when falling in love. Various scenes show Bree’s need for love, reassurance and acceptance which she tries to ignore or repress by running away from Klute and doing drugs with Scheider at a party, or by making appointments to see an elderly client who runs a clothes factory. Fonda turns in an excellent performance that may be partly improvised, especially in scenes where Bree visits her psychiatrist and tells the woman her fears; the stand-out scene is near the end where she breaks down in tears while listening to a tape recording of Page being murdered. Though Fonda was a poster-girl at the time of the film’s making for feminism and other politically liberal stands on various issues, her character Bree is not a feminist figure: her issues are too personal and her desire to be independent and in control of herself is a compensation for the loneliness and emptiness she feels in her life. It should be said that her loneliness isn’t necessarily to be equated with wanting a man.

Sutherland’s diffident and enigmatic Klute is straight-man foil to Fonda’s Bree: his under-acting highlights Bree’s actions which are contradictory though they make sense in the context of her complex personality. He allows Fonda to dominate the screen when they are together but his performance seems all the stronger and more thoughtful for its deliberate under-playing. Cioffi and Scheider are suitably sinister in their respective roles and Jean Stapleton provides welcome comic relief in a very brief role as secretary to Bree’s elderly factory-owner client.

The cinematography creates a suspenseful and tense atmosphere, especially in an early scene where Klute pursues what he thinks is a rooftop stalker in the dark: the camera follows him, taking his point of view, showing nothing but blackness and spots of light that dash here and there as Klute flashes his torch about. Odd camera angles in various shots throughout the film emphasise issues of control and keeping up appearances for various characters: for example scenes in which Kable appears, whether in a high-rise building or in a helicopter, are shot in ways that stress his puppet-master persona which he obviously favours but loses control over once Klute is on his trail. Kable, Bree and Klute are also interested in maintaining their particular façades and it might be said also that New York City where the action plays out is a place where people pretend to be one thing (stylish, mod, cultured) but keep their real selves with all their insecurities and vulnerable points hidden. Even a prostitute like Bree, in the business of servicing clients’ unmet needs and providing psychological as well as sexual comfort and relief, has hidden needs that must be met or assuaged by others, either personally or through the exchange of money.

As a study of character and a reminder that once upon a time Jane Fonda really was a good actor, “Klute” is worth watching. Students of film noir may find it interesting also in that the film adheres to noir conventions and stereotypes but subverts them into something that should have made for a richer viewing experience had the plot been more logical and carefully developed. The deadpan private eye investigator, an outsider whose character never changes, takes a flawed and fallen woman under his wing and tries to save her from falling any lower in an uncaring and corrupt world; the woman is conflicted between wanting to get out of her horrible life and being attracted back into it; the woman’s involvement with the private eye endangers her life and he must rescue her from their enemies: all these conventions play out in “Klute” in a way that updated and made them appear fresh and relevant to a 1970s audience. Apart from obviously dated aspects such as clothing and acting styles, the film does not look too bad and the noir conventions hold up well. Indeed the noir conventions could have been updated even more so that Klute and Bree would have become true partners who support and care for each other.

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.

 

 

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”.

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”.

Strangers on a Train (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): film labours under director’s favourite themes and obsessions

Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” (1951)

As with many other films made by English-American director Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” plumbs the theme of two men twinned together by unusual circumstances, each man the other’s doppelgänger, and with one man blamed and pursued for the crimes of his dark twin. In “Strangers …”, the presumed hero Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is an all-American good guy: born into the working-class, through talent and hard work he becomes a successful and famous amateur tennis player who through his friendship with a senator’s family is destined for a career in politics; the villain Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is a spoilt high society playboy who stalks Guy and tries to blackmail him through his murder of Guy’s wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers aka Laura Elliott). Had the film been directed by anyone else in the 1950’s, the roles of Guy and Bruno would be clear-cut: the naive Guy might make mistakes of judgement that would compromise him and draw him into Bruno’s web of blackmail and threats, but would learn from his errors and be a better, stronger person at the end, and Bruno might be a one-dimensional sinister criminal from the underworld. Under the Hitchcock blowtorch, these two men, their backgrounds and their relationship become a running commentary on American politics, culture and society of the time and turn conventional Hollywood movie notions of love, sexual attraction, good guys and bad guys on their head.

Guy and Bruno meet accidentally in the dining-room part of a fast train, sitting almost opposite each other casually, as we might do in a crowded food-court at a shopping mall for lunch, and Guy’s foot accidentally brushing against Bruno’s. A subtle homoerotic sub-text is set up immediately and it’s significant that Guy initiates the meeting unconsciously. Bruno already knows much about Guy from reading the newspapers and is aware of the athlete’s unhappy marriage; he proposes that he, Bruno, can get rid of Miriam if Guy can get rid of his (Bruno’s) brutal father. Guy wants no part of the arrangement but his resistance is weak and is interpreted by Bruno as agreement. After this meeting, the movie then explores the nature of Guy and Miriam’s marriage in some detail and viewers learn that Miriam refuses divorce because she wants to live off Guy’s earnings and stop him marrying Anna Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator (Leo G Carroll) whose patronage Guy might need. Already we see Guy will benefit from Miriam being out of the way; and a phone conversation between Guy and Anna, interrupted by background train noises, reveals Guy’s unconscious wish of strangling Miriam. Bruno soon carries out his part of the “deal” and starts pressuring Guy to complete his part or to reject it and have Bruno tailing him and reminding him of his “guilt”.

As portrayed by Granger, Guy is a conventional, well-meaning but rather naive bunny lacking in moral fibre and strength: Granger definitely isn’t leading-man material but his style and lack of charisma work for the role. Guy is obsessed with keeping up appearances, keeping his public image squeaky-clean and safeguarding his entry into politics, all of which make him vulnerable to Bruno’s suggestions. Walker all but walks off with the movie: he clearly revels in his role as spoilt, rich mummy’s boy Bruno who lives off his parents and dreams of remaking the world either through half-baked inventions or murder according to his particular pseudo-Nietzschean moral code. His mind works methodically, logically: in conversation with two society matrons at a ball, he deftly steers the talk to committing the perfect murder and demolishes the two crones’ suggestions of the best way to knock off people with persuasive yet obvious counter-arguments. Having killed Miriam, he kindly posts a gun, a key and instructions to Guy to help him murder his own dad; innocent that he is and conscious of his wish for Miriam’s death, Guy keeps the weapon and instructions instead of turning them over to the police. Bruno is both sinister and amusing: his murder of Miriam, viewed indirectly as a mirror image in the victim’s dropped spectacles in the grass, is cold-blooded and vicious enough but from then on, the memory of the killing starts to play on his conscience with darkly hilarious and gruesome results at the aforementioned party. He pops up in Guy’s life at unexpected moments: at the evening ball, at Guy’s home and at his tennis matches – in one memorable if fantastic scene, Bruno sits in the middle of a crowd watching the tennis and is the only person who stares straight ahead at Guy on the sidelines while others around him are following the flying ball with their heads; the scene is suggestive on different levels and on one level, Bruno could be said to be a free-thinking, independent individual in a herd of sheep who follow every political trend.

The film encourages audiences to sympathise with Bruno: who doesn’t feel like popping a child’s balloon when rudely accosted by its owner? if you drop an expensive cigarette lighter down a grate, wouldn’t you also bust an arm to get it out? and on watching someone’s wife flirt shamelessly with two strange men she’s picked up off the street and who expect sexual favours from her, wouldn’t you think you were doing the husband a favour (and maybe the hussy as well – she might get raped) by killing her?

The acting support shines in “Strangers …” by flavouring the backgrounds of Bruno and Guy, enriching their relationship and conflict. Bruno’s mother (Marion Lorne) seems dotty with more than one foot in the land of the fairies but this may be a mask for denying her husband and son’s natures; only the portrait she paints of Bruno’s dad hints at the man’s brutality and explains why Bruno is so keen for Guy to kill him. From Bruno’s viewpoint, both he and Guy are oppressed by the institution of Family and they should help free each other in ways that won’t attract the attention of the incompetent police force in the movie. Miriam and Anna’s characters together are a comment on Guy’s attempt to transit from one world to another: Miriam is a free spirit, uninhibited and independent while Anna, otherwise cluey and smart, is demure and knows her place in the Washington DC social set. Interestingly Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock – yes, Hitchcock gave his daughter a job) seems a lot like Miriam in looks, character and tendency to speak out so there’s a possibility that Guy might end up two-timing Anna with the young sister in a life beyond the movie’s confines. Though Miriam and Anna appear older than Guy – the contrast between their characters and Guy’s indecisive nature might be intentional – their actors achieve a good balance between delineating the women, playing up their contrasts which are as much due to social class differences as in individual outlook and psychology, on the one hand and overshadowing Guy’s passiveness on the other.

Stand-out scenes in “Strangers …” include Bruno’s pursuit and murder of Miriam, filmed as a shadow play; the alternating scenes of Guy’s drawn-out tennis match and Bruno striving to retrieve Guy’s cigarette lighter from under the grate, each man pitted against the other in a cosmic joke duel which drags the tension out and bogs the movie down while it lasts; and the hysterically over-the-top climax in which a merry-go-round is accidentally set on overdrive as Bruno and Guy leap onto it and punch each other over the incriminating lighter. The sexual connotations of the whirring merry-go-round (complete with a little old guy crawling underneath it so he can get to the lever in the middle and turn it off, and all those wooden horses pumping up and down on the poles), who punches whose lights out first and the whole contraption crashing down and mortally crushing one of the two men, sending him off into something resembling a post-orgasmic dream reverie, are screamingly funny! Indeed the whole lead-up to and the carousel climax, starting with Anna’s report to Guy that Bruno has his lighter, plus the death scene, might be seen as an act of homoerotic consummation.

For a movie that initially looks and runs like a mainstream popcorn thriller, there’s a lot happening under the radar that comments on aspects of early 1950’s American society as Hitchcock found it. My impression is he went over the top himself and loaded too many themes and issues that took his fancy onto the film: in common with other Hitchcock movies, the plot comes over as implausible and the movie ends up a bit lightweight because of the heavy layering of symbolism. The merry-go-round climax does look like a jokey, self-indulgent afterthought and its slapstick nature doesn’t really fit in with the low-key suspense and subtle comedy in the rest of the film. In a way it’s a pity that “Strangers …” is a black-and-white film (technically speaking): colour would bring out a lot of the visual puns and the scenes relying on shadow play might even be creepier with layered shades of dark and black rather than just grey. The movie’s worth a look at least for Walker’s riveting performance as Bruno.

Vertigo: a beautiful film with disturbing themes of obsession and control

Alfred Hitchcock, “Vertigo” (1958)

For a mainstream Hollywood drama, this famous film by Alfred Hitchcock, regarded by some as his greatest work, features some very disturbing themes of which some are applicable to the Hollywood film industry and even to the man himself. In an age when romantic love, marriage and family life were held to be worthy ideals for the public and it was usual for film studios and even directors to mould actors, and especially female actors, into particular stereotypes that emphasised physical attractiveness, a healthy heterosexuality and availability for marriage within the limits of a sexually puritanical society, “Vertigo” subtly undercuts these notions and exposes their sinister implications while blandly appearing to uphold them. Revisiting and idealising the past, bringing it into the present to determine the future, converting a real object or person into its ideal, and that notion’s dark twin of fearing something and trying to suppress it yet being drawn to it and allowing it to define your life and dominate your thoughts and behaviour: these two polarisations form the basis of the vertigo that engulfs former police detective turned private investigator John “Scotty” Ferguson (James Stewart) and the women Madeleine and Judy (both played by Kim Novak) whom he loves.

Scotty has recently retired from the police force after his partner’s death from a roof-top fall has left him with a morbid fear of heights. An old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), commiserates with him and hires him to follow his wife Madeleine who’s been behaving oddly and may be suicidal. Scotty follows the woman closely in his car as she visits a florist, a museum, an art gallery and other landmarks around San Francisco city. He discovers she is obsessed with the life of a young 19th century woman, Carlotta Valdes, Madeleine’s great-grandmother, who suicided when young. After he saves Madeleine from suicide herself, they fall in love but Madeleine continues to be haunted by Valdes and a recurring dream of a Spanish mission church with a bell-tower. Scotty identifies the building as one just on the city outskirts and takes Madeleine there, hoping this encounter will stop the nightmares. The visit ends tragically when Madeleine climbs to the top of the bell-tower and falls to her death while Scotty, crippled by his phobia, watches helplessly.

He is cleared of murder by a court which declares Madeleine’s death to be a suicide. Scotty becomes depressed and his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) cares for him for a while. After he recovers, he revisits places that Madeleine had frequented and meets a young woman called Judy. Scotty becomes obsessed with recreating Judy in the image of Madeleine despite the girl’s protestations and when he has made her over, takes her to the church to retrace Madeleine’s death scene. In this way, he hopes to cure his acrophobia and to confirm whether Elster has taken advantage of his illness to stage a suicide scenario to mask his murder of the real Madeleine.

The ingenious plot with its surprising twist may be too clever to take seriously and perhaps there should have been a few clues thrown to viewers early on that Madeleine isn’t all she appears to be. Perhaps the clues are in plain view and repeated viewings of the film are needed to find them all. For one thing, Madeleine should have been aware of someone following her by car and on foot and she should have been afraid – but if she’s acting out a prescribed role, then her lack of concern becomes understandable. Scotty’s discovery of Judy’s dual nature seems hurried and forced as well: how, apart from seeing Judy wearing jewels similar to what he saw in a painting of Carlotta Valdes, does he know he’s been duped? One scene where he’s waiting for Judy to come back from the beautician and the hair salon, during which he could have ruffled through her wardrobe and discovered an incriminating grey suit or gone through her wastepaper basket and pieced together scraps of her confession note, is all that’s needed to give the plot more credibility. On the whole though the plot is spare and easy to follow and it allows for considerable character development and investigation of the movie’s themes of obsession, control of women, and the ease with which fantasy and ideal notions of love can interfere with and harm reality.

Both Stewart and Novak readily identified with some of the film’s themes and threw themselves enthusiastically into their roles; their acting which encompasses some of the noblest and worst of human behaviours is among the best audiences will see in Hollywood films of the 1950’s and brings some credibility to what is a far-fetched story. Viewers will sympathise readily with Scotty’s attempts to deal with his phobia and rebuild his life after Madeleine’s death but will find his intense obsession with Madeleine and his control of Judy’s appearance creepy and repellent. Stewart as both romantic hero and monstrous anti-hero brings the polarities of his role together with ease. Is Scotty any better than his manipulative friend who murdered the real Madeleine? For that matter, can Judy still retain Scotty’s love once he realises she has manipulated him emotionally as he has manipulated her physically?

Geddes’s character Midge who secretly loves Scotty but rejected a past marriage proposal and who acts as his confidante is an interesting person and a counterpoint to the remote Madeleine. She disappears after the movie’s halfway point when Judy enters Scotty’s life and while her absence is much missed and gives “Vertigo” a top-heavy feel, it highlights the extent to which Scotty is unhealthily consumed with draping Madeleine’s image over Judy.

The film’s bright colours and the San Francisco cityscape that includes the bay and the city’s surrounding natural environment where the sea meets land and a church is perched on wide lawns provide a beautiful backdrop to the film’s events. A softening filter is often placed over most scenes in a way reminiscent of romance films of the 1950’s and 1960’s and gives the movie a dreamy fantasy look. The musical score by Bernard Herrmann is by turns dramatic, suspenseful, highly emotional and romantic; it heightens tension in long stretches of the movie where there is no talk. The real and the unreal co-exist and bleed into each other, boundaries between reality and fantasy collapse and the imagined becomes more real than reality. This is illustrated in particular in Scotty’s remarkable dream sequence which includes a cartoon animation of a bouquet falling apart and other animated montages in which Scotty falls into an open grave or falls into the centre of the screen. Another very strange scene where the real intersects with fantasy occurs when Scotty follows Madeleine into a deserted alley and into a shabby backroom of a rundown building. He opens a door and sees Madeleine in a surreal, plush world of flowers, polished floors and wealthy shoppers; the door he is holding happens to be a mirror support. It is as if he has opened a portal into Wonderland.

The film’s structure more or less divides into two, with Madeline dominant in the first half and Judy in the second, yet the second half of the film echoes the first half: landmarks and places visited in the first half of the film are revisited in the second, and even Scotty’s viewing of Judy opening a window in her hotel echoes his sighting of Madeleine opening a window in the McKittrick hotel. Even the manipulation and duplicity of the film is duplicated: Scotty is maniulated by Elster and Madeleine in the film’s first half; in the second half, Scotty himself manipulates Judy. The circularity motif echoes also in the hairstyles of Madeleine and Carlotta in her portrait, and in the flower bouquet which Madeleine buys and which appears again and again in the film.

The film’s pace can be glacial, at least until the second bell-tower scene where, as audiences realise the extent of Scotty’s derangement and start to fear for Judy’s life, the tension skyrockets but otherwise “Vertigo” is well-made with excellent performances. On the plus side it’s beautiful and intriguing to watch with many surprising and innovative technical flourishes.  For a movie with a spare plot and small cast, it lends itself to many interpretations and touches on many aspects of human psychology that will continue to intrigue audiences.

Borat movie tells more about film-makers’ biases and prejudices than those of its subjects

Larry Charles, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2006)

Using the narrative form of a naif travelling in a foreign land, investigating and commenting on its customs, to satirise your own society or another society has been a tradition in English-speaking societies at least since Jonathan Swift published “Gulliver’s Travels” around 1726. The form gets a post-modern workout in Sacha Baron Cohen’s mock-documentary “Borat …” in which one of his alter-egos, Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakhstani TV news reporter made famous on Cohen’s TV show “Da Ali G Show”, takes a small crew with him across the United States to film a government-sponsored documentary explaining the society and culture of American people to the folks back home in Kazakhstan. Initially landing in New York City and content just to stay there, Borat is watching TV one night when he sees Pamela Anderson as CJ in an episode of “Baywatch” and promptly falls in love with her. Learning from a group of feminists that Anderson lives in California, Borat becomes determined to find and marry her. He persuades his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) to go to California with him on the pretext that this trip is necessary for the documentary. Azamat’s not keen to go by plane so they buy an ancient ice-cream van and drive across the country instead.

The film splices together a road movie and a series of scenarios for the documentary in which Borat investigates various customs, rituals and issues in American society and elicits a range of reactions from mildly embarrassed to openly hostile and aggressive, depending on the topic being satirised. This is usually American attitudes on social and cultural issues such as homosexuality, religion and the status of minority groups. The road movie adds pranks and incidents in which Borat either makes assumptions, behaves in certain ways or reacts to what he sees and hears around him based on his Kazakhstani values and prejudices which are nearly always socially backwards from a modern Western cultural point of view. All the reactions Borat gets suggest that Americans are nowhere near as tolerant, egalitarian or culturally, socially or politically aware as they might think they are; some people he meets even glory in their ignorance and extreme prejudices. The two interwoven strands of the plot take place within a third narrative which describes Borat’s family and village background and the conditions in which he grew up and still lives in. This information primes viewers for the culture shock Borat and Azamat are certain to get, not to mention the culture shock his interviewees and hosts get from meeting him!

The satire works best and is at its funniest when Borat throws people’s pomposity or stupidity back at them as in the scene where he “converts” to Christianity by speaking in tongues or invites an under-dressed prostitute to a genteel dinner party. It does not work so well where the film-makers take for granted that certain groups of people are prejudiced against Jews, Muslims, gays or other minorities and by baiting such groups, Cohen and company simply have their assumptions confirmed, as in the rodeo scene where Borat sings the Kazakhstani national anthem to the tune of the US national anthem. There are pranks done seemingly for cheap and cruel laughs at their victims, as in the scenes that take place in Borat’s home village. The village scenes are meant to mock viewers’ own prejudices about people living in remote and impoverished post-Communist countries but may have the unintended opposite effect of reinforcing such views. Audiences may have the impression that some gags were deliberately stage-managed, with participants like Pamela Anderson in her autograph-signing session and the actor playing the prostitute Luenell knowing ahead what’s going to happen. Most of Borat’s trek across the US takes place through the so-called Deep South, an area often stereotyped in mainstream US culture and elsewhere as culturally backward, racist, homophobic and hostile to all who are not Protestant Christians. The film’s bias is obvious: people in Los Angeles and southern California should be just as ripe for ridicule as are the Southerners, Washington DC politicians and New Yorkers yet curiously there are no interviews or incidents set up with the Angelenos once Borat arrives at his destination.

Perhaps the film tells us more about its creators’ biases and attitudes than it does about American people’s prejudices: as a university student, Baron Cohen did research on Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960’s and wrote a thesis on the murders of three civil rights activists, two of whom were Jewish, in Mississippi state in that period. Perhaps in the guise of Borat he was curious to see if people’s attitudes toward race and religion had changed. However, mocking attitudes does have a flaw as a form of “reserach”: it tends to over-inflate their importance and gives the impression such views are widespread and deeply entrenched when perhaps only a very small minority of people still hold them. So the picture the film-makers and the audience get of racial and anti-Jewish prejudice may be the complete opposite of what actually exists. There is also the possibility that when Borat expresses extreme views, his victims politely try to ignore him or just go along with him, hoping that he’ll drop the topic if they say nothing. Their silence or apparent acquiescence tends to encourage him more and, when filmed in certain ways so viewers can’t see because of editing whether they can defend themselves or not, makes the victims look foolish.

The genuinely funny moments include spoofs of various movies like “The Blair Witch Project” and scenes where Borat’s innocence and prejudices get the better of him as in his first encounter with a tortoise and his purchase of a bear. The scene where Borat and Azamat stop at a bed-and-breakfast place for rest and discover that the couple who run it is Jewish is hilarious because the joke is on the guests themselves with their fears and beliefs about the supposed malevolent powers of Jews. Two scenes where Borat meets some gay activists and a group of black teenage boys are funny for the same reason. Though if Borat had asked the gay men or the teenagers the same questions about women that he posed to the white college boys in their holiday van later in the movie, their answers and opinions might have been just as depressing. Borat’s friendship with Luenell the prostitute is very touching and underlines the film’s message that, beneath surface appearances and differences in social class, everyone is human and deserves to be treated fairly. Though Baron Cohen’s choice of targets – overwhelmingly white Anglo-American and politically conservative – might suggest that he still views American society as it was in the 1960’s when Jews, blacks and other disadvantaged minorities more or less worked together to combat the prejudices white Anglo-Americans had against them and were prepared to overlook their political, social and cultural differences. This situation may not exist now.

This is the kind of movie you see once as it relies heavily on surprising and confronting viewers with their own prejudices, and much of the comedy arises from people not knowing what Borat will do in the situations presented. After that, the appeal fades and the genuinely funny comedy moments are few and far between in contrast to the comedy that sticks in your craw because it exploits people’s ignorance.