Psycho (dir. Gus van Sant): a decent remake with a different message from the original film

Gus van Sant, “Psycho” (1998)

A shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock original with much the same dialogue and even reconstructions of the original sets, this film is actually not bad at all. It somehow seems a different movie in parts because van Sant has been able to do some things with the original characters that Hitchcock was never able to do. The remake even improves on aspects of the original and may be seen as a commentary on it. Perhaps the unfortunate thing is that the remake can’t stand as an independent film in its own right but will always refer to the original and never escape comparisons: little details like the opening credits, copying the original’s opening credits in graphics and style, and the use of Bernard Herrmann’s score throughout the remake in almost unchanged form link van Sant’s homage too closely to the original. A small director’s cameo near the start of the film in which van Sant is being lectured to by Hitchcock while Marion (Anne Heche) rushes back to work also ties the two movies together for better and for worse.

Surprisingly the shot-for-shot remake has significant changes from the original. The characters of Marion and Lila are swapped over in essence: in the first film, Marion is the lovable bad girl the audience warms to, and Lila is the one-dimensional and unappealing  good girl; in the second film, Marion becomes a good girl who feels trapped in a romance going nowhere and who yearns for a bit of freedom from her routine and passivity while Lila (Julianne Moore) is a headstrong, independent woman who needs neither man nor romance to define her. As a result Janet Leigh’s Marian is punished for wanting to determine her destiny and Anne Heche’s Marian is punished for failing to take charge of her destiny. The remake shows up how much attitudes toward women’s freedom to decide their own fates and make right or wrong choices have changed in over 40 years. At the same time, Heche’s Marian is a less memorable and sympathetic character than Leigh’s was: her facial expressions and body language suggest a self-centred woman who conforms for the sake of appearances and who might be jealous of free-wheeling tough-girl Lila.

Because Lila is a strong character in van Sant’s remake, the plot becomes a more balanced creature instead of the top-heavy structure it was in 1960. Lila wants to solve the mystery of Marion’s disappearance for personal reasons: she’s a woman who wants to get to the bottom of things, whereas her earlier incarnation felt obliged to Marion’s employer to retrieve and return the money Marion had stolen. Moore’s Lila drags Marion’s flame Sam (Viggo Mortensen) along for the ride; Sam is a passive comic foil for Moore – a constant running joke through the film’s second half is Lila’s rejection of Sam as boyfriend material.

The film’s ending is less jarring than it was in the original, not least because it pays more attention to Lila’s reaction and near-breakdown when she finally hears that Marion and private detective Arbogast (William H Macy) are both dead. The psychologist (Robert Forster) is less didactic in his delivery and the atmosphere in the police station where he gives his report is soft and less intimidating than in the original film. Van Sant’s portrayal of the police is more positive than Hitchcock’s depiction: in the Hitchcock world, police and other authority figures were corrupt, unhelpful and inefficient; in van Sant’s interpretation, the police are at least diligent in enforcing the law and are generally benevolent if human after all. Even the creepy officer who rattles Marion early on is only doing his job. Significantly van Sant cuts out a church scene in which Lila and Sam appeal to the town sheriff for help a second time and the sheriff simply tells them to get on with their own lives.

The major weakness of the remake is in Vince Vaughan’s casting as hotel proprietor Norman Bates: Vaughan looks wrong for the role and is unable to convey the nervy bird-like behaviour tics that Anthony Perkins mustered so well. The role calls for someone tall, skinny and angular who can look nervous and insecure and who can change facial expressions and emotions from one extreme to the other in a matter of seconds. Vaughan tries hard in the role but looks too much like a man in control of himself and appears too self-assured. Van Sant gives his Bates a lot of back-story: the association with birds is much stronger with a live aviary and Bates is revealed as a gun-nut obsessed with fighting, war and pornography in late scenes. A masturbation scene which says very little about Bates’s inhibited sexuality appears elsewhere in the movie.

As Hitchcock used black-and-white film, van Sant goes to town with the use of colour with particular shades like green, orange and yellow used to symbolise evil and danger. An interesting use of colour comes in the setting of Mrs Bates’s bedroom: like everything associated with her son, the room is decked out in green and orange yet the windows are framed in curtains of red (signifying sexuality and passion) and when Lila opens the closet door, clothes in shades of pink, white and other colours except Norman’s signature tones appear. The wardrobe contents, the drapes and little statues around the room tell viewers that Mrs Bates probably won’t resemble the psychologist’s description of her. The green-orange-yellow motif extends to the landscape at the end of the film when Marion’s car is towed away from the swamp: it suggests that there may be many more people like Bates at large in its part of the world.

The central theme about the place of women in the world and how they are defined by themselves and their society remains strong. Van Sant’s “Psycho” suggests it is only by taking control of their destiny and defining themselves that women can survive with integrity. Marion’s brief fling with freedom and self-determination, shaken by her encounters with the police officer, the car dealer and Bates himself, ends because she retreats back into her normal routine of letting others define and control her. (As in the first movie though, her employer and his client are prepared to overlook her embezzlement.)  If only van Sant had heeded his film’s advice and made it a film independent of its Hitchcock parent: details such as the music soundtrack and the dialogue, some of which has dated as it was based on social expectations of women in the late 1950s, should have been adapted for a 1990s audience.

Taxi Driver: good study of an alienated and traumatised individual groping for purpose in a lost society

Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver” (1976)

As a character study of a lonely and alienated man whose mind collapses under the strain of the life he leads and the corruption he sees combined with a history of trauma and violence, this film has few peers. What makes it a great film is its portrayal of a society that has lost its way and of  characters other than Robert de Niro’s lead character Trvis Bickle who like him are searching for direction and purpose. The movie boasts excellent cinematography which captures the dreary and desperate life that Bickle leads as a taxi driver on night shift in the New York City of the mid-1970’s and which features a stunning mise-en-scène shot near the film’s end: this is a survey of a crime scene with two police officers standing frozen as if in shock, their hands still gripping their guns tightly. The sometimes florid music score by Bernard Herrmann (who scored several films for Alfred Hitchcock including “Vertigo” and “Psycho”) may sound a dated for the period but its languorous, repetitive swank and tight drumbeat percussion passages mirror Bickle’s obsessive, repeating fantasies and suit the film’s moods and tensions as they arise. The use of voice-over narration fits in with Bickle’s documentation of his activities in a notebook. The parallel plots of Senator Charles Palantine’s rise to nomination for the US Presidency and Bickle’s crusade to save a child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from a life of exploitation under her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) merge into each other smoothly.

Bickle is a disaffected Vietnam War veteran who takes up a job driving taxis at night to overcome his insomnia whose cause is never explained but can be guessed as a symptom of an undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder which could explain his honourable discharge from the US army. He is attracted to a political aide Betsi (Cybill Shepherd) who is working for the nomination and election of Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris) but after a couple of  dates, he takes her to see a mild porno film that offends her and she walks out of the cinema. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact Betsi, Bickle gives up and concludes she is no better than all the other people he sees in the streets. He comes across Iris looking for clients and decides she needs saving so he prepares himself for the deed by changing his life: he starts exercising and building up muscle, eating healthily, practising shooting and buying guns from a seedy dealer. He finally meets the girl through Sport and tries to convince her to leave her pimp but she hesitates. Finally Bickle takes it upon himself to rid Iris of Sport, his associates and some of her clients.

De Niro was born to play Bickle – he embodies the character’s contradictions: inarticulate and well-spoken; idealistic yet creepy and out of touch with the complex world he lives in and can’t understand; striving to be of worth and to have a good, moral purpose in life but frequenting seedy cinemas to watch porn films and implicitly approving when a passenger (Martin Scorsese in a cameo appearance) says he will murder his adulterous wife. Bickle has a narrow view of the world in which good and evil exist and there are no shades of grey between the two.  His ruminations and conversations with fellow cabbies, plus a scene where he is watching TV and another where he eyeballs a black man flaunting his wealth, suggest he is racist though one of the cabbies he hangs out with happens to be black. Bickle starts to see his purpose in life as cleaning his adopted home-town of the scum he sees on his nightly patrols. De Niro’s acting strikes a good balance between playing Bickle straight and over-acting: at one point in the film, in an inspired piece of scripting or directing (or both), he looks at the camera while rehearsing his fantasies and what he will say in them when he plays them for real, and any misgivings viewers might have about what he’s going to do are made to melt away.

The support cast is good without being remarkable but then it’s de Niro’s film all the way. Scorsese’s cameo as the jealous passenger brimming with rage at his wife’s infidelity and Keitel as the manipulative pimp make more impression on this viewer than Foster does. Foster seems a little too self-assured to play a runaway girl hesitant about leaving her pimp even though she wants to. Shepherd appears bland as Betsi but that’s the point: her wholesome blandness is mistaken by Bickle as angelic when he first sees her. Support characters including a co-worker of Betsi’s who’s keen on her but isn’t all that essential to the plot flesh out the world of “Taxi Driver”, giving the film a richer social tapestry than the plot requires.

The film probably could have been improved if Bickle had seen something in Palantine or in what the senator does that suggests he may be corrupt to justify Bickle’s assassination attempt. The film deliberately excludes any reference to Palantine’s political platform apart from the slogan “WE are the people …” which may be a weakness because there is nothing to pin him down on and demonstrate his  potential for venality. The happy ending plays as a parody of other happy endings in Hollywood dramas but some viewers will miss Bickle’s furtive look into his rearview mirror. This glance tells us that Bickle is still obsessed with his personal crusade of cleaning the “scum” out of the city and will strike hard again. Innocent people may die next time. The music could have been more ominous and repetitive than it is as the end credits start to scroll.

Would that Hollywood might once again make films about lonely people wanting to connect with society and the world but unable to do so because of their flawed, traumatised or disturbed pasts. Such folk end up being driven by forces they can’t understand and explain to themselves or to others, and by a society just as traumatised and lacking in hope and purpose as they, to commit deeds that by sheer chance turn them either into heroes or villains.

 

5 Days of War: as the movie admits, truth is the first casualty

Renny Harlin, “5 Days of War” aka “5 Days of August” (2011)

Directed by Renny Harlin and financed by the Georgian government, this drama is a Russian-bashing screed about the 2008 South Ossetia war and the events leading to it. The movie revolves around the experiences of two news reporters Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) and Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle) who accept an assignment in Tbilisi, Georgia, a year after their previous assignment together in Iraq ended badly: the two men were rescued by a Georgian military unit in that country after their car was ambushed  by militants. In that ambush, Anders’s girlfriend (Heather Graham), also a reporter, is badly wounded and dies. Anders and Ganz’s noses for news (and trouble) get them fired upon while watching a wedding at a rural Georgian inn, avoiding capture while witnessing and filming atrocities by Russian troops who have invaded the country, and ending up as prisoners of a Russian general (Rade Serbedzija). While simultaneously escaping, yet being drawn to, trouble and danger, the reporters pick up a Georgian woman, Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a guest at the wedding at the inn. Through Tatia and a collective effort to broadcast Ganz’s images to the rest of the world while keeping them away from the Russians, Anders finds a new purpose in life and a reason to go on living.

The romance between Anders and Tatia doesn’t make sense: why should the two fall in love simply because chance threw them together and put them in danger both together and individually? Any “chemistry” that might exist isn’t present and the pair’s kiss looks like an after-thought. More believable is Anders’s loyalty to Ganz when Ganz is injured in a bomb attack and apparently dying: the two have been in many intense life-and-death situations which few other people can understand and sympathise with. Both men are devoted to seeking the truth behind layers of propagandistic fog though paradoxically this search can make them vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and the military. The plot’s emphasis on safeguarding the memory stick that holds Ganz’s images and the Russians’ attempt to destroy it leaves no room for character development with the result that Anders, Ganz and their fellow journalists are cardboard cut-out beings not worth caring about.  The actors playing Russians end up perpetuating old World War II stereotypes about Soviet soldiers massacring civilians, raping women and torching farms and crops with flame-throwers. Admittedly the stereotypes are based on fact – the Soviet Red Army behaved abominably wherever it went – partly because of the debased culture that developed in the army as a result of purges of high-ranking officers ordered in the 1930s by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, a native Georgian. What irony. As the movie carries on, hackneyed plot twists appear: Tatia’s family is riven apart by internal betrayal, Ganz is threatened with torture by the Russian general’s sadistic enforcer (Nikko Mousiainen), an attempt to broadcast Ganz’s images fails when the reporters are targeted by a Russian helicopter, and Ganz is hurt in the helicopter attack. The enforcer kidnaps Tatia and forces Anders to choose between saving her life and keeping Ganz’s film.

The film could have focussed on the dilemmas that journalists in war zones face: for one thing, whether the search for truth justifies putting their own lives and the lives of innocents in danger. There are various political and ethical decisions they have to make: how closely should they work with the government or the military? how would such work interfere with their journalist code of ethics? There is a female journalist featured who is embedded with a Georgian army unit and viewers may well wonder what compromises she made to get the story and pictures she wants; it’s likely also the opinions she expresses and the images she shows will reflect her hosts’ political agenda.

The actors do what they can with the story and give at least a three-dimensional look to their characters. Andy Garcia as Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili gives the best performance, endowing his character with a dignity the real person doesn’t deserve: before the 2008 war, Saakashvili had been criticised for the use of brutal police force against protesters in an anti-government demonstration, and for declaring a state of emergency and suppressing press freedoms as a result of the protests, in November 2007. Well-known US actors Val Kilmer and Dean Cain parrot their lines and strut their respective reporter and diplomat role stereotypes, and fellow US actor Jonathan Schaek as Georgian military officer Captain Avaliani spends his screen time saving Anders and Ganz’s hides.

If the film has any saving graces, they’re in the Georgian settings: the cinematography features lovely shots of a town perched on cliffs overlooking a winding river and of the countryside with its mountains and deep gorges. A church used as a refuge gives the film crew opportunities to photograph pictures of religious icons and the wedding scene featured early in the movie gives a little insight into Georgian customs, traditional dress styles and folk dances. Curiously though native Georgians serve as extras, they are absent from the film’s lead and supporting acting roles.

By lapsing into an action-movie rut the film fails to give a near-accurate portrayal of the work news journalists do and the problems they face in unusual and intense situations where disinformation, propaganda and fear replace speech and press freedoms. The film fails to do what it purports to do: the source of the film’s financing alone puts paid to any pretence of impartiality and regard for truth. The Georgian armed forces are portrayed as decent and heroic, the Russians as cruel, barbarous and criminal: in truth, both sides were guilty of over-reaction to provocation with Georgia attacking South Ossetia first with heavy firepower and both Georgians and Russians alike committing grave war crimes. The United States doesn’t come out looking good either: since 2003, the Americans have been sending arms and military advisors to Georgia and encouraging Saakashvili to adopt a very aggressive attitude towards Russia as part of an encirclement strategy that includes ex-Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (where the US has a military base) in Central Asia, Ukraine and some former Soviet satellite nations in eastern Europe.

 

 

 

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”.