Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Conversation

Gene Hackman's Harry Caul is the consummate professional and his specialty is listening to people when they don't want to be heard. He takes on a job for The Director (Robert Duvall) who suspects his wife Ann(Cindy Williams) is cheating on him and wants tape of her and her lover Mark (Frederic Forrest) talking.

Harry appears in control at all times. To record a conversation, he always has plans and back up plans, and several different recording methods going at the same time.  At the beginning of the movie, recording Mark and Ann, he has a high tech listening device on a rooftop, as well as microphones hidden in the crowd surrounding them, while he monitors everything from a surveillance van. When Stan (John Cazale),one of his crew, comments that "sometimes he likes to know what they're saying." Caul responds "I don't care what they're talking about." Caul's need for control extends beyond his work. He is also obsessed with his own security, arguing with his landlord who placed a delivery in his apartment, despite Harry's triple locked doors. Harry insists that he should have the only key to his place. His knowledge of surveillance methods undermines his own sense of security.

Harry's expertise is recognized by his field and his presence is even promoted in the newsletter for a surveillance convention. The sequence where Harry and Stan piece Ann and Mark's conversation together from all their recording sources is brilliantly effective giving us snippets of conversation in the same way that Harry pieces them together. While Harry claims to only care about "the recording"  he can't help but make certain assumptions to fill in the gaps when dealing with the recording after the fact.

Harry's lover, Amy (Teri Garr) remarks on Harry's manner, observing that she always feels like he's trying to catch her at something. Although he pays her rent and they've been together for some time, Harry won't even tell her what he does for work or where he lives. He also claims, as he does several times to others, that he doesn't have a telephone. She threatens to break with him, unhappy with his secrecy and having to wait until he wants to show up.

Harry's need for precision and set routine is disturbed quickly when the Director (Robert Duvall) is absent when he delivers the tapes, although they agreed he was to deliver them to the Director by hand and person to person. The Director's Assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) takes the tapes and pays Harry instead. Harry gets agitated at this and takes the tapes back, leaving the money, deciding he'd rather wait until the Director returns to stick to their agreement. The Assistant warns Harry not to get involved because "the tapes are dangerous and someone may get hurt." He sees both Mark and Ann in the building as he leaves with the tapes and despite himself, the tapes begin to seem more personal. Harry starts playing snippets over and over again, not even realizing that his perspective is coloring what he hears. Harry has a heated argument with Stan who asks what Mark and Ann are talking about. Harry angrily reasserts that he has no personal curiosity about the job and that curiosity is making Stan sloppy. After Stan leaves, Harry becomes fixated on the snippet of Mark telling Ann  "He'd kill us if he got the chance."

Harry first admits his concerns while going to confession. He tells the priest that he's worried his recording will get people hurt and that it has happened to him before. It's also interesting that while he tells the priest about taking the Lord's name in vain, stealing newspapers and taking pleasure in impure thoughts, he also needs to mention that he's not responsible. Harry's phrasing reveals the conclusions he's drawn from the tapes. He says his work could be used "to hurt these two young people."

Harry is most at ease at the surveillance convention. Although the attending vendors are eager to have a picture of Harry in front of their wares, Harry insists that he builds all of his own equipment. At the convention Harry runs into Stan, who is now working for Moran, a competitor, who Harry feels is beneath him. While Harry does try to downplay their argument, his major concern is obviously that Stan doesn't reveal any of his secrets. Stan replies that Harry never told him any secrets and that was part of the problem. Before leaving he tells Stan that he thinks he's being followed. It turns out that the Director's Assistant is following him (or as he says "I'm not following you. I'm looking for you.") He tells Harry that the Director wants to set up a new delivery date.

After the convention, Harry has drinks with his colleagues at his recording studio warehouse. Moran brings up some questions about a past job in New York that no one can figure out how he accomplished. The details of the brutal murder that was committed as a result of the job are also brought up, clearly rattling Harry. When Stan starts giving out details of the latest job, Harry can't resist bragging about the techniques that he used, although he evades their questions about the personal details.

After Harry insults Moran, Moran plays back a personal conversation between Harry and Meredith, (Elizabeth McRea) a woman who tagged along with them. Harry is so bothered at being bugged that he kicks everyone out and despite Meredith remaining behind trying to get Harry's attention, he can't resist going back to the tape of Ann and Mark talking.. He sleeps in the warehouse with Meredith, keeping the tape playing in the background. His guilt increases the more he thinks about it and he even dreams about Ann running from him through a fog. He quotes the recording and tells her, "I'm not afraid of death but I am afraid of murder." Meredith is gone when he wakes up, along with the tape.

Harry tries to call the Director's office and is highly disturbed when Martin calls him back immediately(although no one knows he has a phone) He tells Harry that they've been watching him and couldn't risk the tapes being destroyed. He tells Harry to come to the office to get paid in full. When Harry arrives the Director is listening to the tapes, clearly disturbed by the content. Harry's collects his money and leaves the Director and Martin listening to the tapes. On the way out, he asks the Director and then Martin "What'll you do with them?" The Director doesn't answer at all and Martin only says "You'll see." Harry then tries to book the hotel room mentioned in the tape, but finding it already booked, takes an adjoining room, hoping to avert the murder he's now convinced will happen. Harry quickly sets up a listening device through a shared bathroom wall and overhears an argument between the Director and Ann.  Stepping onto the room's balcony he sees a bloodstained hand pressed against the glass in the next room  and thinks the murder has occurred. Hours later he breaks into the room and finds no evidence that anything happened until he flushes the toilet and the bowl fills with blood.

Harry again assumes the worst. The truth however is much much worse than he assumes. As Harry pieces all the parts of the puzzle together things take an unexpected turn and Harry's paranoia seems perfectly sensible. And for someone who is used to having all the answers he discovers that he had many of them wrong. Harry replays the audio clips in his mind and now the same snatches of conversation mean something completely different.  Harry, not knowing what else to do, retreats to his apartment to play the saxophone until an interruption forces him to realize that his lack of control was far worse than he thought. (And yes, I am being vague. If you haven't seen the last quarter of this movie, I don't want to completely rob you of it.)

While Coppola will always be known for the Godfather, the Conversation is such a different film that it's hard to believe the same man directed both. Everything about the fiming serves the story and the character of Harry Caul. This is a tight character study, as claustrophobic as the mind of the protagonist.The use of Harry's audio clips as part of the soundtrack really helps drive this home. Hackman is brilliant here (although he usually is.) portraying Harry as a complex character whose severe contradictions can't help but catch up with him.  While the supporting cast is populated by great actors in top form, Hackman forces us to keep our eyes on him, as much as we may want to look away from the wreck he's headed towards. While it could be seen as a warning about technology advancing beyond anyone's control, and certainly has some valid warnings about the illusion of privacy in modern life, I think it's ultimately about the difficulty that a man with a conscience invites by playing games with his own sense of morality.

Monday, February 22, 2010


I really didn't want to like this movie before I watched it. The idea of a noir type mystery being set at a high school and populated by high school students seemed more than a little ridiculous and gimmicky. And I still think it is, however, I think the film gains more with this approach than I would've thought possible and the gimmick really works. We already know how a Phillip Marlowe story works, but by inserting it into the unlikely setting of a high schooler's world, we get a great new look at the conventions of these films (noirish thrillers and high school drama) and what makes them so compelling.

Brendan Frye(Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is our teenaged Phillip Marlowe. And while he outwardly doesn't have much in common with Humphrey Bogart, he does manage to make his character believable. The set up is that Brendan's ex-girlfriend Em (Emilie de Ravin) is dead and he needs to find out the how and why of it. As with many good noirs, we start the film with a body, then pull back to fill in how Brendan arrived there. Brendan of course is a loner, doesn't belong to any cliques at the high school, but he can certainly take care of himself.

Gordon-Levitt's performance is really the key to this movie working. The rest of the cast is also great, which is fortunate, since balanced on such an absurd concept, even one bad performance could've soured the whole thing. Everyone in this movie plays their role straight and serious. But, it's the intensity of Gordon-Levitt's  presence and his mastery of the noir styled snappy patter that allow us to believe the film. He's troubled, brooding, tough and not afraid to cause trouble to get the answers he wants. His only real ally is "The Brain" (Matt O'Leary)  The Brain helps Brendan (and the audience) figure out some code words he overheard. As you might expect, the clues lead Brendan into conflict with the high school drug world.

Brendan's search starts with a panicked phone call from Em which he doesn't understand. Since he and Em had broken up he doesn't know who she's hanging around with (who she was "eating lunch with") Calling a number on an invitation he finds on Em's morror in the drama club dressing room, he gets himself an in with Laura (Nora Zenetner) the films femme fatale, who may or may not know exactly what Brendan wants, but at least knows someone who does. Laura brushes him off, so Brendan turns to beating on Dode, a small time druggie, and possibly Em's current boyfriend, for information. (and still not getting any.) He follows Dode and sees him meeting with Em, and tracks her down from there. She meets him just to tell him to forget about the phone call and let her go. The conversation reveals a lot about Brendan's character and the differences between the two of them:

Brendan Frye: So, what am I?
Emily: Yeah, I mean what are you? Just sitting back here, hating everyone? Who are you to judge anyone? God, I really loved you a lot. I couldn't stand it. I had to get with people. I couldn't have a life with you anymore.

Of course, even after this, Brendan can't let it go. Despite the fact that Em herself told him to forget about it, he's got his teeth into the mystery and needs to see what it's all about and he now has a mysterious symbol that Em dropped with "Midnight" written underneath it. He figures out the symbol in a dream just in time to find Em's body at the mouth of an open sewer tunnel in the morning. He hears someone else in the tunnel and heads towards the sound only to get punched in the dark before the unknown person runs away.

Brendan hides the body and resolves to figure out the story and make some people pay. He gets the idea that "The Pin" is connected to Em's demise, but he's not even certain that he exists.  He decides that the easiest way to find him is to make trouble higher up the drug food chain, starting with Brad Bramish, (Brian J. White) the school football hero/drug dealer. To get the Pin's attention he gives Brad a good beating. He's rewarded by being knocked out in the street by Tugger (Noah Fleiss)

Brendan soon makes a deal with the vice principal, who he has a relationship with from having turned in a drug dealer in the past to protect Em (a favor that Em did not appreciate) He agrees not to bother him for anything he isn't caught at. Soon after,Tugger tracks him down again and after beating him up a bit, decides to bring him to the Pin.

The legandary Pin is older (26) and he has his own office (a finished basement in his Mom's house with little furniture other than a desk and an Eagle statue.) The Pin wants to know why he's looking for him. Brendan can't resist being a smart ass, so Tugger chokes him unconscious, although Laura appears in the background, telling Tugger to stop. The Pin realizes that Brendan was just proving he wasn't afraid of him and they sit down for apple juice (served by the Pin's mom) to get Brendan's story. Brendan claims he has a realtionship with the Vice Principal's office, which he's willing to let the Pin benefit from for a fee. The Pin lets him leave telling him they'll either hire him or rub him out by the end of the next day. Laura drives him back to school trying to convince Brendan to trust her. Brendan tells her, 'I trust you less now than when I didn't trust you before."

He's soon attacked by a mysterious guy with a knife. After Brendan knocks him out he's picked up by the Pin who tells him he's been accepted into their group. Brendan also gets a phone call from Dode who apparently saw him at the tunnel with Em's body and is now threatening to tell people about it. The Pin starts confiding in Brendan, telling him he's having trouble with Tugger and that he's having complications from the biggest deal he's ever done. Brendan plays up his doubts about Tugger. He breaks into the Pin's headquarter's and snooping around for clues he runs into Tugger who attacks him until Brendan manages to uncover some of Tugger's doubts about the Pin. Tugger reveals that they had trouble with a missing "Brick" (heroin) Tugger claims not to know who Em is.  The Pin comes home afterwards and reveals that Tugger thought Em was his girl and that someone wants to set up a meeting with the Pin to sell them information about Em's whereabouts. He then gives Brendan a piece of paper similiar to the one that Em had the day she died to set up a meeting at the tunnel.

Brendan knows it's Dode setting up the meeting and asks Laura to keep an eye out and signal him with the horn when Dode shows. Brendan runs into Dode before the meeting and tries to tell him he's in over his head. Dode however is obsessed with making Brendan pay, revealing that Em was pregnant. With The Pin, Tugger and Brendan present, Dode tries to taunt Brendan without naming him to make sure he gets paid for the information. He manages to accidentally anger Tugger, who snaps and kills Dode. Brendan is now forced to play on The Pin and Tugger's loyalties as the Pin has now had enough of Tugger's hothead behavior and doesn't want to be implicated for murder. Brendan sets up a meeting between them, ostensibly to try and help them part ways amicably. Laura is never far away either, still trying to convince Brendan that she's on his side. He has the Brain set up a bust at the same time the meeting occurs. At the meeting Brendan acts as mediator. Things inevitably fall apart as Tugger and Pin and their two sides start fighting over the Brick (which it is discovered is missing) Brendan walks away in the middle of their fight as the cops are about to show.

He sets up a meeting with Laura on the football field. He claims that he wasn't at the meeting and Laura tells him the Pin and Tugger are dead and there was a girl's body in Tugger's trunk (Em). Brendan reveals that while Tugger killed Em, it was Laura who caused the events that killed Em. She had stolen half the Brick and cut it with junk, sending a guy into a coma. She then pinned it onto Em, and later got Tugger upset knowing that he'd get mad and snap when he found out she was pregnant. He then lets her know that he's given a note to the vice principal telling him everything and that the missing Brick is in her locker. While they're talking we see the locker being opened  and the brick is there. Laura can't resist getting in a final twist and reveals that Em wasn't planning to keep the baby because she didn't love the father and that she was three months along making it Brendan's kid.

I think that one reason the movie works is that it's true to both the noir experience and the high school experience. Seeing these characters in parts that are obviously too old for them reminds me how seriously high school students take themselves, and how overwhelming the experience can be. The Pin in particular is portrayed as both a drug kingpin and a kid trying to appear as a drug kingpin. While his cloak and his cane with a duck head would seem odd for a traditional kingpin, for the Pin, his look is all about how he wants to see himself. Brendan's character is able to start bawling in one scene remembering Emily as he goes to bed. Phillip Marlowe wouldn't have been able to get away with that. But since the age allows more vulnerability, Brendan can do this awithout appearing weak. He thinks he has everything figured out, but he can't do the one thing he wanted to, which was to protect Em.

While I don't think Brick is intended to be a strict metaphor for the high school experience, I think that there are elements in the film that work in that way. By borrowing the truth of the high school experience to inform the noir experience, we end up with an effective take on both.There are a few laughs in the film at these characters trying to fit into older shoes, (particularly at the Pin's house) but the seriousness doesn't go away because of them. The story is life or death to the characters, and young or not, nobody gets away clean. Rian Johnson makes an amazing film, particularly so, since it's based on quite a risky proposition.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Elevator to the Gallows

Louis Malle’s first feature length film is a work of beauty right from the opening close up on Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau.) She and Julien Tavernier  (Maurice Ronet) are having an obviously secret phone conversation about what must be done for the sake of their love.

They speak in urgent whispers and Miles Davis’ trumpet appears in the background, as if to inform us that we are witnessing something deep, true and tragic. Davis music, set to the beautiful black and white cinematography provides such pure mood that much of it could be told without any conversation. The lovers need to be together no matter what, however, she has a husband and he is Tavernier’s boss. Opening the film in the middle of such a brilliant moment of longing, sweeping from her face to a distant shot from the ground of Tavernier in his office building, we see the distance they're dealing with and  the murder they’re discussing almost seems a reasonable price for true love.

Julien Tavernier isn’t a typical reckless killer, he’s a retired paratrooper and war hero now working for an arms company. At several points in the film he makes clear the fact that he despises the industry, but nonetheless, he works for them. Whteher this is a stance he takes to justify murder or an actual resentment isn't clear and doesn't matter much. His plan to murder Florence's husband is perfect, and the details of it are simple but effective. He locks his office door with the receptionist outside, telling her he’s not to be disturbed. He then puts on a pair of gloves and uses a grappling hook to scale the building from the outside, up two floors to his Mr. Carala’s office. Once there, he can walk right in with no alarm, after all he’s in his office all the time, Carala won't wonder how he got there.

His boss isn’t frightened in the least when Julien puts the gun to his head. He’s an arms dealer and, as he says, he has plenty of enemies. He asks if it's about money and clearly has no idea about Tavernier and Florence. He gets a little more concerned (for a second) when he sees it is his own gun. We don’t see the murder, only Tavernier placing the gun in his boss’s hand as a little black cat passes by outside. Julien climbs back down to his office in time to take a phone call from the doorman who walks them out of the building so it can be locked up as it is every day. Witnessed as being in his own office by both the receptionist and the doorman, his alibi should be established perfectly.

When Julien gets to the street, a young couple, Veronique(Yori Bertin) a local flower shop worker, and her delinquent boyfriend Louis (Georges Poujouly), admire Tavernier’s car as he folds down the convertible top with the push of a button, getting ready to drive away. Before he does though, he looks up at the building and sees his grappling hook still attached to the outside of the building and runs back to get it. Louis convinces Veronique, to come along as he steals Tavernier’s unattended car. They drive off, passing by the restaurant where Julien and Florence were to meet after the murder. Florence can’t see the driver as the top is going up, so she assumes that Julien lost his nerve and has ditching her for the flower girl. She gets lost in her thoughts and starts wandering around the city, as if hoping against reason to run into Julien or someone who knows where he is.

Julien, meanwhile, is on his way up in the elevator, but he forgot that they shut the power off for the weekend. Since nobody saw him enter the building, the power shuts down as he is in between floors. He can pry the door a bit and reach his hand out but he has no way to escape. Florence still wanders the city asking everyone she sees for information on his whereabouts She can’t accept that he‘s just left. Watching the sadness of her face framed against the dark streets, almost daring the cars to hit her while Miles Davis plays his trumpet hauntingly in the background is such an ethereal experience that it could be a separate movie and is certainly the heart of this one. (Malle drew criticism at the time for insisting that Moreau wear no make up, but he achieved exactly what he intended, stripping her beauty down to it's natural elements, accented only by the shadows and the music.) Malle's Moreau is a riveting picture of a truly lost soul grasping to keep her love from vanishing.

The young car thieves have taken their theft a little further now, Louis trading his leather jacket for Julien’s coat (and gun.) Driving recklessly, he causes a car accident with a German couple outside a motel. On exchanging information he says he’s Mr. Tavernier. Veronique plays along eagerly, relishing the chance to sign them into the motel as Mr. and Mrs. Tavernier. The young couple's posing is absurdly comical. Although obviously far too young, Louis tells war stories to the older German man, as if he was a war hero like Tavernier. He doesn't notice that the German corrects him on details, just plows ahead with his ridiculous claims. The German man calls Louis out on his charade after he starts choking on a cigar, calling him “Mr. Tavernier, whose name isn’t Mr. Tavernier and who was never in the army. He doesn't mind the deception though, as it gave them a good laugh. Their obvious incompetence at being Bonnie and Clyde is driven home well by Louis' attempts at a tough exterior.

We then flash back and forth between Julien and Florence. He's still trapped in the elevator, trying to figure a way out, and she is just as trapped in her search for him. Her search gets ever more hopeless as it’s dark and raining now although she doesn’t even seem to notice. She calls him desperately with her thoughts and her longing is almost tangible. Julien attemps to drop through the floor and down the elevator cable, still many floors up, not realizing that the night watchman will show up at that moment and turn the power on momentarily . He manages to get back into in the elevator and Florence continues searching . Miles plays a ironically upbeat tune as she tries to rationalize everything. She runs into an old friend of Julien’s who insists that he “must be with a broad.”

The young couple decide to leave in the night since their cover's blown. Louis tries to trade Tavernier’s car for the German’s. The German however, expected the attempt and removed a piece from the gearbox which he flaunts, when coming out and to apprehend them, pulling a "gun" on Louis. Louis panics and shoots them both dead with Tavernier’s gun, which was in his pocket. They flee the scene leaving the German’s car on the side of the road with Tavernier’s effects in it. Veronique’s apartment and while he panics, she  imagines “the tragic lovers “ in the headlines. This leads to a quick Romeo and Juliet inspired suicide pact in hopes of avoiding arrest.

Florence is picked up by the police for being out in the early morning without ID, although the police become apologetic upon realizing her husband is the powerful arms dealer. One of the officers happens to let her know that they’re trying to find Tavernier for the murder of the German tourists.

Julien has fallen asleep in the elevator, and with the new day now here, the police are at the motel where the German couple was murdered. An officer lays out Tavernier’s obvious involvement for the press in time for the morning papers. The power comes back on in the arms company building and Julien manages to get out unseen only to find his car gone. The police are already in the building looking for information on Tavernier when the doorman discover’s Mr. Carala’s “suicide” and alerts them. Tavernier tries to call Florence, who he's told is asleep from her long night. He then orders breakfast not realizing that everyone around him recognizes him as a murderer from the papers.

Brought in for questioning, he is unable to provide an alibi for the tourist murders for fear of ruining his real murder alibi. The irony of the situation rattles Tavernier, who is exhausted and tells them where he was (but not why). The cops find his “elevator story” ridiculous.

Florence puts two and two together and realizes that Julien couldn’t have murdered the tourists and her husband as well, and resolves to save him. She remembers seeing Veronique (she knows she's the local flower girl)  in Tavernier’s car and tracks her down, finding the couple only feeling lousy from their suicide attempt rather than dead. She confronts them on the murder and then makes an anonymous tip to the skeptical police. She then follows Louis to the Motel as he races to get a piece of evidence that he forgot (and which neatly resolves the story for all concerned.)

Malle succeds here in creating a world that is so absurdly intent on one man's downfall that rather than let him get away with a perfect murder, it conspires to convict him of another one and then dooms everyone involved like toppling dominoes. The odds of Florence finding her love seem as likely as Godot arriving, and the young would be criminals are doomed by their failure to grasp the ideas they try to emulate. The way that all three threads tie together to present one world as a cruel adversary for them all is brilliant. Also, interestingly for a movie with three murders, there is no focus on violence. This world is even too cold for that. Did I mention that Miles Davis does the soundtrack? His music paces the scenes perfectly whether moody or panicked and the comination of Malle, Moreau and Miles is something everyone should witness. Here's a preview:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ten Big Life Problems and Movies to Help You Deal With Them

Hi Everyone,

I just realized that Lena at The Colors Magazine has posted a piece i wrote for her. Go over there and check it out, it's a fun change of pace called Ten Big Life Problems and Movies to Help You Deal With Them. Let me know what you think and check back here tomorrow for a new review!


Out of the PastDouble Indemnity (Universal Legacy Series)The Last SeductionPoint BlankThe Maltese Falcon

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Twelve Reasons Why Lee Marvin Kicks Ass in Point Blank

Hi Everyone,

Today we have a guest post by Peyton Farquhar of Prattle On, Boyo. Point Blank is a classic and one of my long time favorites, so I was thrilled when Peyton offered his own write-up. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Twelve Reasons Why Lee Marvin Kicks Ass in Point Blank

by Peyton Farquhar from Prattle On, Boyo


Based on the novel, The Hunter, written by Richard Stark, Point Blank is a neo-noir flick filmed in 1967 in and around Alcatraz Island, and Los Angeles. It was directed by John Boorman, who is also known for Deliverance and Excalibur.

Lee Marvin (1924 – 1987) plays the lead named simply, “Walker,” which also functions as an apt description of the character, as well. In addition to being known as a film actor whose roles tended to be hard-boiled, Marvin was also a Scout Sniper (Surveillance and Target Acquisition) in the United States Marine Corps during World War II. If you're a law nerd, then it may also interest you to know that Lee Marvin's personal dirty laundry also functioned as the famous starting point for spousal support, which is better known as a Marvin action in contemporary Family Law Court in the State of California.


12. Walker is a loyal friend you can count on to help take out and then hide the bodies afterward.

In the opening segment of the film, Walker and his best bud, Reese (played by John Vernon) are at a crowded event surrounded by drunken party goers in three-piece suits. Reese stumbles towards Walker, knocking him to the ground and pleads with him that he needs his help and will be killed if he doesn't get it. In the next shot, Reese explains that this, meaning Alcatraz, is where “they” make the money drop. All they have to do is just wait and then knock “them” over the head. Walker, dependable friend that he is, agrees.

11. Walker is indestructible.

Betrayed, shot up and bleeding profusely, he manages to swim the 1.5 miles back to civilization in fifty degree water temperatures and dangerous riptides surrounding The Rock. It is because of these same riptides that the island was chosen to be a maximum security penitentiary for Civil War prisoners in 1861, and then later, for civilian prisoners incarcerated by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1933.

10. Walker is personable.

He doesn't punch out the bald headed nutjob on the ferry touring Alcatraz Island with him even though he begins speaking to him from seemingly out of nowhere going on about how Reese took off with his wife, Lynne, and, has hit the big time with the money he screwed Walker out of.

9. Walker doesn't write anything down because he's too cool to forget.

When Yost, the annoying freak on the ferry, shows him the address of where his wife is shacked up with his former best friend Reese and the missing money, he doesn't bother to take notes. He just memorizes the address and does what he has to do.

8. Walker always puts safety first.

When Big John, the cooz hound used car salesman, tells him that he doesn't need to buckle up, Walker reminds him that most accidents happen within three miles from home.

7. Walker doesn't use personal violence needlessly.

When he asks Big John where he can find Reese, and, Big John won't tell him, Walker doesn't throttle the guy despite the fact that desperately deserves it. Instead, he takes him for a ride in one of his used vehicles.

6. Walker is very persuasive.

When he finally determines where Reese is, he persuades a gay couple in Reese's building to create a diversion so he can get past Reese's goons by telling the couple to contact the cops and report that they are being held hostage. The cops show up and the sirens and general bedlam cause the thugs not to notice when Walker effortlessly slips past them.

5. Walker knows that all women secretly want him.

After Walker has already bagged his sister-in-law, Chris, (Angie Dickinson), and, convinces her to distract Reese, he rides up in the elevator to the Penthouse level where Reese is and encounters Reese's secretary. He then casually reaches down between her legs to press the button that opens Reese's electronically fortified front door. The secretary doesn't even flinch.

4. Walker is merciful.

Betrayed by his best friend, Reese, Walker still doesn't exact retribution upon Reese when he finds him naked and sniveling for his life. Instead, Walker gives Reese a choice and the coward hurls himself over his patio from the Penthouse level.

3. Walker doesn't beat on weaklings.

Walker eventually finds the brains of the Organization. When Brewster (Carroll O'Connor) balks after he asks him for his $93k, Walker sits back on the couch and takes a break instead of beating the living shit out of Archie Bunker.

2. Walker doesn't abuse women.

Following some heated discussion, Chris powers on all of the electrical appliances in Brewster's house. When he finds her sipping on some booze next to the pool table, he is about to walk away when she cracks him on the noggin with a pool cue, and, then proceeds to furiously bitch slap him. Instead of fighting back, Walker allows her to carry out her tantrum, and then switches on the television where he nonchalantly retires to the sofa to watch a cold cream commercial.

1. Walker forgives.

While taking mighty footsteps of payback through the hallways at LAX airport, Walker reminisces about his wife, Lynne. He imagines what the bitch has been doing without him since she and Reese fired at him from point blank range, took his money and then left him for dead on Alcatraz.

When he bursts through the front door of their home, he grabs her and puts his hand over her mouth so that she can't scream to warn Reese of his presence. He throws her to the floor and then kicks open the bedroom door, and, instead of finding Reese, empties his .38 into vacant sheets. Walker then hears out Lynne as to why she left him for Reese.

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Monday, February 8, 2010

The Unforgiven


While I've enjoyed many Clint Eastwood films, the Unforgiven was the first one that made me think, "that's why Clint Eastwood got into the movies." While the Western has never completely gone away "The Unforgiven" reminded me why they don't. The old west provides a perfect backdrop for rough characters who get tough or die. That may sound like an odd thing to say in reference to this movie, but the Unforgiven is a thorough examination of these characters and this environment.

Technically, this film is unforgettable, showing the west as a wild and barren place not well suited for life, while interiors are as dark and brooding as any nightmare.
The acting is all astounding with nothing short of brilliant performances by any actor involved. Eastwood, Hackman, and Freeman are giving nothing but their best here.

Clint Eastwood directs and plays the lead role, an ex-killer named William Munny. Will has long since retired after finding a woman, who settled him down. She however, has passed on, leaving him to tend the ranch and take care of his two youg kids. It speaks volumes of his character that even after his wife died, he kept to the path he promised her. Munny is revealed to be such an ugly character that it's easy to forget this.

He also has a close bond with his ex-partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) which has endured over many years. While Eastwood has played the anti-hero more than probably any actor out there, Will Munny is a step further than usual. This is not a man who killed out of revenge or self defense, but simply one who killed indiscriminately because he has drunk and angry or just for money. He wasn't an anti-hero but a pure villian in the past. It's no accident that the film starts with Munny settled down and out of the killing line of business. The problem is, he's much better at killing than he is at ranching. So, when "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett) a wet behind the ears kid, presenting himself as a cold blooded killer, shows up to recruit him for one last job, he can't really pass it up.  The Kid's heard stories, but looking at Munny, he's skeptical as to their truth. He imagines that a killer has some telltale signs that give away his nature and in Will he only sees a beaten old rancher. The scenario the Kid presents is perfect. Munny is able to justify it as it appears to be a good cause. Apparently some drunk cowboy "cut up a whore." and there's a bounty on that cowboys head. Will decides he needs Ned and so pays him a visit to justify it to him as well. Ned is also settled down now, but agrees to accompany them to the town of Big Whiskey, where the offense was committed.

Big Whiskey, Wyoming is run by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). While Little Bill is not a kind character by any means, he does respect and enforce the law as fairly as he can. In some cases he's too lenient, as when he proposes the penalty for the cowboy (he's to give the saloon owner some horses to compensate for loss of the whore's services) and in others too severe (dealing with the would be assassin's.) As a result of his leniency, the group of whores decide to pool their money to offer the bounty on the cowboy's head. When Little Bill hears about the bounty offerred, he anticipates the run of criminals coming in to claim the bounty, so he outlaws guns in Big Whiskey. Little Bill is the perfect foil for Bill Munny. He is clearly on the side of law and order, a man of principles and fairness (perhaps skewed fairness) His only objective is to keep the peace in Big Whiskey. His lack of urgency in punishment for the disfiguring of the whore is also in keeping with the times he lives in. Viewing them as property, offerring horses as retribution would not be unreasonable.  Little Bill despises assassins, but don't we all?

Richard Harris has a great role as English Bob, one of the first to show up to collect the bounty. As the name suggests Bob is loyal to the English crown, a fact which makes him unpopular, but given his reputation as a skilled killer, most let his lectures pass uninterrupted. He offers an interesting theory on the assasination attempt on President Garfield, claiming that you can't shoot royalty. Bob also travels with a biographer, Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) who writes down Bob's every recollection as it it was gospel. English Bob's stay in Big Whiskey is a short one as Little Bill knows well who he is. He catches English Bob concealing a weapon and beats him severely as an example to every assassin who would ride in. He then jails Bob and Beauchamp, taking the time to shed new light on Bob's stories. He points out to Beauchamp that Bob is a coward more than a skilled gunman. Misreading the title of Beachamps book, he calls Bob the "Duck of Death" and when Beauchamp corrects him, he responds "Duck, I says. Beauchamp soon latches on to Little Bill for his seemingly more reliable information. It's an interesting examination on the nature of the myths around these men, Beauchamp only writing down what he's told by each source, each with their own bias, switching allegiance purely due to force of character.

Will, Ned and the Kid arrive in Big Whiskey, having passed through heavy rain leaving Will sick with fever. The prostitutes offer all three men "free ones" (sexual favors as an advance on payment) Ned and the Kid find this idea agreeable, but Will is both too sick and uninterested as he still thinks of himself as married, although his wife's been dead a long time. This turn of events leaves Will alone in the saloon when Little Bill shows up. Bill takes an instant dislike to Munny, and despite Will's fever, he beats him like Englis Bob and throws him out in the rain. This incident gives Ned and the Kid time to get away. They come back for Will and bring him to a location out of town where they and the prostitutes nurse him back to health. THis allows a significant moment between Will and Delilah (Anna Levine) the prostitute who was cut up. She offers Will a "free one." and when Will declines, she assumes that it's because of her face. Will corrects her saying that if he did want a free one it would be with her. This moment of tenderness reminds us how far away Will is from his past misdeeds, not to suggest that they won't reclaim him, but to show how much range one man can really have.

When Will has recovered, the killing is accomplished in short order. Rather than a glorious gunfight, we see the three assassins corner the man in a ravine. They're clearly out of practice and the first shot kills the man's horse pinning him down and breaking his leg. Although Ned is the best shot of them all, he loses his nerve after the horse, and we've learned that the Schofield Kid has a serious vision problem, so Will gets the gun. After several misses he finally hits him, but in the gut so dying will take a while. They have to listen to him moaning in pain and asking for water, to be sure he's dead. Will, still wrestling with his nature, tells the man's companions, who won't venture into the ravine for fear of being shot, to bring him the water he asks for.

Ned decides he's had enough at this point and heads towards home. They still have one man left to kill however, so Will and the Kid head for the cowboy's camp and wait in view of the outhouse for the second man to take his turn. The Kid is still out to prove his toughness, and he takes the opportunity to kill the man swinging open the door and shooting him right on the toilet. He's clearly shaken afterwards, and he admits to Will that he made up the five men he'd claimed to have killed all along, leading to this exchange:
 The Schofield Kid: That was the first one.
Will Munny: First one what?

The Schofield Kid: First one I ever killed.

Will Munny: Yeah?

The Schofield Kid: You know how I said I shot five men? It weren't true. That Mexican that come at me with a knife, I just busted his leg with a shovel. I didn't kill him or nothing, neither.

Will Munny: Well, you sure killed the hell outta that fella today.

One of the prostitute meets them with the money and also informs them that little Bill caught Ned and killed him during interrogation. Will sends the kid off with the money and heads back into town. Will's transformation is shocking and instant. Watch it here:

When he sees Ned's body propped up in front of the saloon with a warning sign hung on it for assassin's it's clear that the showdown is inevitable. Will walks in and shoots the saloon owner for having Ned outside. He then shoots Little Bill and everyone who pulled out a gun to shoot him. Despite many attempts no one manages to hit Will. Beauchamp is mystified, and quizzes Will about the order in which he killed them attempting to come up with some logic to explain this impossible task.
W.W. Beauchamp: Who, uh, who'd you kill first?

Will Munny: Huh?

W.W. Beauchamp: When confronted by superior numbers, an experienced gunfighter will always fire on the best shot first.

Will Munny: Is that so?

W.W. Beauchamp: Yeah, Little Bill told me that. And you probably killed him first, didn't you?

Will Munny: I was lucky in the order, but I've always been lucky when it comes to killin' folks.

W.W. Beauchamp: And so, who was next? It was Clyde, right? You must have killed Clyde. Well, it could have been Deputy Andy. Wasn't it? Or, or...

[Will points the rifle in his face]

Will Munny: All I can tell you is who's gonna be last.

Will rides out of town yelling a warning to everyone. Some gunman hide in alleyways and shadows but none can get up the nerve to fire a shot. The movie ends with text referring to Will's mother in law:
"Some years later, Mrs. Ansonia Feathers made the arduous journey to Hodgeman County to visit the last resting place of her only daughter. William Munny had long since disappeared with the children... some said to San Francisco where it was rumored he prospered in dry goods. And there was nothing on the marker to explain to Mrs. Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition."

And we don't know either, but we do know that it isn't as simple as hero and villian. We suspect that Munny will always wrestle with the bad part of himself, whether he can achieve any sort of redemption is unclear. And what about Little Bill whose only crime was being to severe in his application of the law? Eastwood gives an answer earlier in the fil when Will says:
"deserve's got nothing to do with it."

Friday, February 5, 2010

Midnight Express

Midnight ExpressHi Everyone,

More posts on the way very soon. In the meantime please take a look at my review of the classic prison film, Midnight Express on Peyton Farquhar's blog Prattle On Boyo.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Swimmer

The Swimmer is based on a short story by John Cheever and the qualities of short stories are evident in the film. While everything that we see is presented as a matter of fact, important elements are left out and we're left to fill in the gaps ouselves. The biggest gap is in the memory or perhaps life of our main character Ned (Burt Lancaster)

We don't know where he's coming from, but the movie starts with Ned coming out of the woods in a bathing suit to leap into the in ground swimming pool on his old friends, the Westerhazy's  property. His friend isn't much interested in swimming and asks Ned to say hello to the wife (who is also uninterested in swimming) They seem happily surprised to see him and Ned is supercharged, glowing with enthusiasm. Clearly this is an upperclass neighborhood and he thinks of himself as belonging there. 

Thanks to Lancaster, Ned's smile and charm are larger than life. It becomes clear quickly that it has been years since Ned has seen his friends, although he talks as if it was only yesterday. It's quickly established that the most popular activity in the neighborhood is sitting by the pool and drinking. Stricken by the "glorious day" and the thrill of his first swim, Ned realizes that his friends' properties make up a path to his house "Pool by pool, they form a river." he says and goes on to name it "The Lucinda River" after his wife, which clearly perplexes his friends. Nobody presses the issue though, as if afraid to appear impolite or perhaps they're only superficially interested. He decides to swim home, by stopping at every house on the path and swimming the length of each pool. However, when Ned is on his way, she comments, "Swim home, why would he want to do that?"

Ned's next stop at the Grahame's is friendly enough. Betty Grahame insists that he have a drink before he goes, and remarks that Ned never thought Howard (Mr. Grahame) would make it, as if their pool was an example that proves him wrong. The Grahames can't stop bragging that they didn't skimp on anything for their pool, and everything they'll add on next year. When Howard comes out on his riding lawnmower they brag about how they'll upgrade that. Howard refers to another couple as "the kind that skimp" Everything is brightly lit but not deep or warm. Initially Ned seems more than capable of his task, despite undergoing this journey in nothing but a bathing suit.

His next stop at the Hammar house doesn't go as smoothly. Ned is reprimanded by an the older Mrs. Hammar, who wants to know who gave him permission to use the pool. His only explanation is "I'm Ned Merrill" He says he's a friend of her son Eric, and Mrs. Hammer is clearly upset that he uses the word friend, pointing out that he never visited Eric at the hospital or even called. Ned seems perplexed and asks if Eric is better and her only answer is to state that it's her house now and he is never to set foot on it again. He is quickly distracted by watching a horse in a field on his way to the next pool.

His next stop is at the house where Julie (Janet Landgard) lives, a younger woman who used to babysit his daughters. Ned asks why they don't see her anymore, and Julie says that they don't need her anymore, even insisting that he's joking when he says that they do, trying to set her up to babysit next Friday.  Julie seems to appreciate his swimming quest and accompanies him for awhile. She reveals that she had a crush on him and went through his things when she babysat, even stealing one of his shirts to pretend he was close to her. Ned presses her for details about her crush. When Julie asks him what he meant by having her babysit again, he says "I was teasing you." We're left to wonder if perhaps Ned is more aware than he seems, as it's unlikely that he could miss all the shocked reactions when Ned speaks of his home life.

Julie accompanies him to the Bunker's, who are having a lavish party. Everyone is absurdly overdressed for a pool party, and speaks with the affectations of the priveleged. One of the guests mentions Ned's job being stolen by a younger overachiever, and another mentions a job opening that would be perfect for him. An attractive woman invites him over to dinner, only to seem insulted when Ned says he'll have to check with Lucinda. Ned quickly brushes off the comments as if he hadn't heard them, diving right into the pool with Julie.

They make an adventure out of reaching the next place, running through fields and leaping over fences and hurdles laughing and enjoying the day and each other's company. This is acompanied by a musical interlude with many close ups on young Julie's laughing face. The music stops when Ned hurts himself landing. They share a significant moment lying in the grass talking about Julie's job in the city. Julie mentions the unsavory characters she runs into. Ned is confused her alternating between quoting the Song of Solomon to Julie and calling her an innocent. Julie gets uncomfortable when Ned strokes her hair and tells her he'll be her guardian angel and she runs away frightened. Perhaps because he's so much older than her, or because in this world his sincerity and intensity are too much for her to handle. It's also possible that she recognizes he is mentally disturbed. I think it's really a combination of all three, but either way it's an interesting way to point out that her fantasy crush, is no longer in effect, taking another piece of the past from Ned.

He stops at the Halloran's next, a couple of elderly nudists, who are clearly preoccupied with their own money and avoiding being thought of as repressed. On a phone conversation with their daughter, who refuses to bring the kids over to swim unless they wear suits, they chide her that the kids will grow up repressed. When Ned approaches, they discuss how certain they are that he's going to ask for money, even bringing up to Ned how sorry they are they couldn't help him in the past. Ned answers directly for the first time, saying he didn't ask for any help. It's interesting in this scene that Ned observes their manners taking off his swimsuit to speak with them. He has his swim and leaves, leaving them to wonder if he's 'back on his feet again" although Mrs. Halloran still strikes his name off for the $1000.00 table he requested at their next benefit.

Ned moves on to the Gilmartin's to find the Gilmartin's little boy selling lemonade. His mother is gone on her honeymoon to Europe and he only knows what his mother tells him about his dad (he's in love with the manicurist.) The boy is hesitant to give him a glass of lemonade as he can't be sure he'll get the 10 cents he's charging, but relents when Ned assures him he'll be back to pay him. It turns out that not only is the boy left on his own (with the servants) but the pool has been drained forcing Ned to swim through imaginary water, deciding it won't ruin his plan if he does every stroke as he would if he were swimming. The boy does this with him, excited that it's his first time swimming the whole length of the pool. This episode gives us some insight into Ned's thinking. When the boy remarks that his achiement doesn't count because there was no water in the pool, Ned says "There was for us. If you imagine something hard enough then it's true for you."  But he still runs back in a panic when he hears the boy jumping on the diving board. He grabs him off the diving board, although the boy finds it ridiculuous that he thought he would dive when there was no water in the pool.

The next pool is another lavish party, at the Biswanger's, who aren't exactly friendly towards him. Mrs. Biswanger calling him a gate crasher before tiring of speaking with him. Talking poetically to a woman at the party, she remarks, "I've never heard anyone talk like you." until he asks her to come with him on the swim hime and she concludes that he's just another guy. Ned disagrees her, exposing the core of his character's need, telling her,  "I'm a very special human being, noble and splendid." Ned starts getting cold for the first time here too, crossing his arms in front of his chest. The effectiveness is profound as Ned is already so vulnerable in only his swimsuit. Clearly the journey is taking it's toll. Ned causes a scene claiming the Biswanger's stole his hot dog wagon. They tell him that they bought it at a white elephant sale and refuse to sell it back to him. Mr. Biswanger kicks him out of the party, even pushing him to the ground to convince him.

Ned's next stop is Shirley, Ned's ex-mistress, who is still bitter over their past. She is clearly cold to him from the instant he arrives although he tries to act as if he'd only just left her. He takes a splinter out of her foot and after it's removed she kicks him in the face. He tries to remind her of what they did together "last year" and she tells him that it was three years ago. He prods her about a man who she's expecting and only makes her more angry.  He asks her why things didn't turn out why he thought they would, although he's picked the wrong audience as she still resents him for sticking with his wife over her, although she was the one who had made him happy. Ned is even colder now and the enthusiastic man from the beginning now appears ready to fall over. Shirley remarks that "she really thought they were going to make it." remembering how deep her feelings were. Ned starts shivering and she gets worried about him offering him a sweater. He refuses to abandon his plan to swim home saying it's impossible to get home in a car as if it's more than a place he's trying to get to. Ned can't keep from clinging to her, forcing her to strike him so he'll let go. leaving Ned alone in the pool shivering. He can't even get out of the pool in one try at this point, hobbling up the stairs, istead of pulling himself up from the sides as before.

Ned makes his way to the public swimming pool, and realizes he doesn't have the 50 cents required to enter. He sees some acquantances and asks to borrow the entrance fee, finally getting it only to be humiliated by an official who keeps insisting that his feet are too dirty. The public pool is much different from the others in that it's full of people. Ned quickly does his swim and leaves but before he can be on his way, he is confronted by a pair of middle class couples who can't resist hassling him about money he owes them. In contrast to the other episodes, these couples are gathered outside the pool, barring Ned's way onward. These people have waited a long time to confront Ned and seem to relish the opportunity. They point out the ridiculous extravagances that Ned's wife required (which they provided) as if Ned's family was too good for common fare. Ned is not able to wave these accusations away as these people don't have the distaste for confrontation that his former peers did. When they challenge his belief that his daughter's idolize him, even saying that they thought he was a joke (always trying to pal around with them, to be one of the gang)  They point out a scandal his daughters were involved, having stolen and wrecked a car, which Ned apparently paid to keep out of the papers. Ned can't take anymore and runs away through now harsh terrain.

Now his growing discomfort turns to visible emotional pain. Ned has never appeared more naked and vulnerable than here, as he is forced to cross a highway on foot, while the cars refuse to slow down for him, obliviou to his journey. Ned opens the gate to his home only to be hit by a rainstorm. He can't seem to open the door and he shivers in the doorway trying and trying to open it. We're given a look into the open window of the house, which is long empty, and it's clear why Ned couldn't make his journey in a car. He not only needed to return to this place but to another time, before everything soured on him.

The Swimmer is a searing look into the cost of success and the idea that spending all of your efforts on building a perfect surface will inevitably leave the underneath hollow. Ned is ultimately left with nothing but the door handle and we're left with the picture of him, broken down and sobbing trying to get back into his past and knowing that the only thing awaiting him is an empty house. Frank Perry did a masterful job using all the effects of a short story to make this film a pointed look at the hypocrisy of upper class suburbia. Interestingly, the scene between Ned and Shirley, his former mistress was filmed by a different director, Sidney Pollack. Due to the episodic quality and the emotional intensity of that scene it nonetheless comes across as seamless and perhaps even gives Ned's emotional descent a sharper impact. It's Lancaster though whose brave acting and impressive emotional range, without the benefit of wardrobe, makes this film so devastating and long lasting.