Monday, November 11, 2013

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Anyone who charts the development of thrillers throughout the history of American movies must reserve a place of honor for John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, the not-so-missing link between grimly paranoid, seriously noirish melodramas of the Cold War-fixated ’50s, and darkly ironic, brazenly fantastical superspy escapades of the swinging ’60s.

Frankenheimer’s impressively stylish and audaciously stylized tale of brainwashed assassins, duplicitous politicians and international conspiracies is at once unmistakably of its time and undeniably timeless. There’s something uniquely appropriate about its timing as well. Consider this: Manchurian Candidate had its New York premiere on October 24, 1962 – two days into the Cuban Missile Crisis, a real-life doomsday scenario that could have triggered World War III, and eight months before the U.S. release of Dr. No, the very first larger-than-life, licensed-to-thrill movie featuring the shaken-not-stirred James Bond.

But wait, there’s more: The 007 film was based on a book famously enjoyed by President John F. Kennedy, commander in chief during the ’62 contretemps over nuclear warheads in Cuba. President Kennedy also had words of praise for The Manchurian Candidate, Richard Condon’s original 1959 novel (which scripter George Axelrod ingeniously adapted for the screen), and Kennedy's approval reportedly did much to allay any apprehensions about filming a book that involved the potential termination of a presidential hopeful.

(According to Hollywood legend, Frank Sinatra, star and co-producer of Manchurian Candidate, curtailed all distribution of the movie after JFK, a close friend, was assassinated. The truth is far more prosaic: Sinatra withheld the movie from re-release until 1988 because of a squabble over profits.)

Very much like Stanley Kubrick’s equally disconcerting Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (which arrived in theaters just 15 months later), Frankenheimer’s classic initially upset many moviegoers – and confounded a few clueless critics – by exploiting and satirizing the free-floating, wide-ranging paranoia of its Cold War era. Indeed, Manchurian Candidate struck many tender-hearted souls as by far the more irresponsible of the two films, simply because it isn’t so obviously a black comedy.

Combining elaborate showmanship with an urgent sense of purpose, it appears at first glance to be a conventionally dead-serious thriller, shot in aptly somber black and white – especially effective during faux newscasts, Senate hearings and political convention coverage – and edited with a virtuoso skill that, back in the 1960s, greatly impressed a wanna-be moviemaker named Steven Spielberg. (“When I saw The Manchurian Candidate,” Spielberg recalled in a 1977 interview, “I realized for the first time what film editing was all about.") Only gradually does the movie reveal its true colors as over-the-top, larger-than-life pulp fiction fueled with impudence, iconoclasm and aggressively impolite wit.

The prologue, set during the Korean War, establishes Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) as a humorless prig who’s intensely disliked by his men even before he leads them into an ambush during a late-night patrol. After the opening credits, however, Shaw returns home as a celebrated hero – and Medal of Honor recipient – for rescuing his unit from behind enemy lines. Whenever he’s asked about his former comrade-in-arms, Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) automatically replies: “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Marco knows, with absolute certainly, that the testimonial is a lie. But that doesn’t keep him from reflexively repeating it at every provocation.

Frankenheimer teases us by slowly, suspensefully revealing the truth in literally nightmarish flashbacks. It turns out that Shaw, Marco and their men were brainwashed while imprisoned in Manchuria, then placed on display before an audience of Soviet, Chinese and North Korean operatives. To prove the effectiveness of their “Pavlovian technique,” spylord Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) ordered Shaw to kill – on stage – two soldiers under his command. Unfortunately, the demonstration was a success. Even more unfortunately, Shaw was implanted with post-hypnotic suggestions, enabling deep-cover agents to use the “war hero” as an unwitting assassin. The other surviving captives? They were implanted with the “kindest, bravest, warmest” bunk, all the better to make the fraud plausible.

While Marco tries to convince his skeptical superiors that his repressed memories aren’t deranged fantasies, Shaw sets his sights on a journalistic career while avoiding all unnecessary contact with his smothering mother (Angela Lansbury), a honey-voiced, steel-willed harridan who’s grooming her current husband, Sen. John Iselin (James Gregory), for a White House bid. Shaw frankly despises his buffoonish stepfather, and with good reason: The senator is an opportunistic rant-and-raver who claims to have a list of Communist agents at work in the State Department (just like the real-life Sen. Joe McCarthy, whose Red-baiting witch hunts were still fresh in the minds of moviegoers in 1962). In truth, Sen. Iselin’s charges are inventions, impure and simple, concocted by Mrs. Iselin. And, mind you, that’s not the worst trick up her sleeve.

Manchurian Candidate is an equal-opportunity offender: It takes so many potshots at Left and Right targets that it was condemned as anti-American and crypto-fascist at the time of its release. Iconographic symbols of America – most often, images of Abraham Lincoln – are repeatedly used for satirical intent, to emphasize how patriotism can be the first refuge of politically-savvy scoundrels. (The movie often recalls, and at one point paraphrases, a complaint occasionally aired during the ’50s: “Joe McCarthy couldn’t do more damage to this country if he were a paid Soviet agent!”) And yet, at the same time, Frankenheimer also indicates that paranoia sometimes is a perfectly rational response to worst-case scenarios. His movie cuts both ways, and it cuts very deep.

(It also coined a phrase that remains, more than four decades later, irreplaceably useful as shorthand in our pop-culture slanguage. At one point during the second term of President George W. Bush, conservative columnist David Brooks despaired over what he viewed as the Commander in Chief's egregious bumbling during a Meet the Press confab: “[S]ometimes in my dark moments, I think he's The Manchurian Candidate, designed to discredit all the ideas I believe in.”)

It would have been asking too much, I suppose, for Jonathan Demme’s updated remake of The Manchurian Candidate  to have the same stunning impact as Frankenheimer’s masterwork. But I don’t think it’s out of line to complain that the 2004 misfire wasn’t sufficiently sneaky and distressing on its own terms. Far too much of the Demme’s Candidate came across as obvious and literal-minded, if not leaden and ham-handed. And it didn’t help that Demme gave away too much, too early, while unwinding his recycled plot.

In the remake, which Demme directed from a script by Daniel Pyle and Dean Georgaris, the Soviet and Chinese operatives were replaced by agents of a Halliburton-type conglomerate. But instead of brainwashing U.S. soldiers during the first Gulf War, the bad guys implanted will-snapping computer chips in the brains of their captives. And instead of killing anyone who got in the way of his stepfather’s ascent, the new Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) was himself a candidate for national office – a candidate, of course, who would be controlled by his corporate masters. (All of which raised some indelicate questions: Why did the bad guys go to so much trouble? Instead of brainwashing a candidate, why didn’t they just make really big donations to his campaign fund?)

To be fair: Denzel Washington was terrifically compelling as the new Ben Marco, a man desperate to uncover the truth while maintaining a tenuous grip on his sanity. And Meryl Streep was good enough as Eleanor Shaw, Raymond’s controlling mother, to occasionally make you forget how brilliantly Lansbury played the same part in the 1962 version. Overall, however, Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate was nothing more than a fitfully exciting trifle that was reasonably involving and quickly forgotten. In the history of American movies, it likely will be remembered, if at all, only as a footnote.

Friday, July 12, 2013

North By Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated contempt for “the plausibles” – his derogatory term for literal-minded spoilsports who carp about coincidence and logical inconsistency -- infuses almost every frame of North By Northwest, a perpetual-motion machine geared to move faster than the speed of thought.

The impossibly complicated scenario of this 1959 must-see movie has something to do with a New York businessman who’s mistaken for an FBI agent, and something else to do with a cross-country chase from Manhattan to Mount Rushmore. For the most part, however, the plot concocted by Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman is little more than a gossamer thread, or a wispy excuse, to link a series of dazzling and audacious set pieces intended to surprise and delight.

Get a load of this: The hero is forcibly inebriated, then sent down a winding mountain road in a brakeless Mercedes.

Look at that: The same hero arrives in the lobby of the United Nations building, just in time to be framed – and, worse, photographed – as a knife-wielding assassin.

Check it out: The poor sap keeps an appointment near an open field in the middle of nowhere, standing precisely where he can be a sitting target for a crop-dusting plane armed with a machine gun.

There’s more – much more -- here, there and everywhere. A luxury apartment where expensive accoutrements are stocked for a man who never was. An auction house where a fugitive desperately bids to save his life. A passenger train where an alluring woman is suspiciously eager to assist. An airport where a government agent explains the entire plot in 30 seconds – only we can’t hear him over the sound of whirring propellers. And, of course, a Mount Rushmore precipice where a spiteful villain stomps on the fingers of a dangerously dangling hero.

The template for countless other fleet and flashy action-adventures – including many, if not most, of the James Bond films – North By Northwest is propelled along the fast track by the megawatt star power of Cary Grant, one of Hitchcock’s favorite collaborators. The funny thing is, even Grant was mystified by the knotty plot throughout much of the production. At one point, Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut, the actor complained: “It’s a terrible script. We’ve already done a third of the picture, and I still can’t make head or tail of it.” Hitchcock couldn’t help laughing. “Without realizing it,” he said of Grant, “he was using a line of his own dialogue.”

Grant plays Roger O. Thornhill, a carefree advertising executive who stumbles into the adventure of a lifetime when enemy agents wrongly identify him as an FBI operative named Kaplan. Thornhill actually is an ordinary fellow – at one point, he admits his ex-wife divorced him because he was so dull – but the chief villain of the piece, Phillip Van Damm (James Mason), suspects otherwise.

As it turns out, Kaplan doesn’t really exist – the imaginary agent was invented by a cunning spymaster (Leo G. Carroll) to distract Van Damm from a very real mole in his organization. So Thornhill repeatedly finds himself dodging bullets engraved with someone else’s name.

Lehman frequently described North By Northwest as his one big chance to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” Strictly speaking, he didn’t quite succeed: Hitchcock went on to make seven more films, including one – Family Plot (1976), his swan song – that Lehman also scripted. But Hitchcock did indeed express a special fondness for this classic thriller, if only because the crop-duster scene allowed him to realize his long-cherished goal of generating pure terror in broad daylight.

“No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows,” Hitchcock crowed. “Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be a true Hitchcock picture without a hint of aberrant psychology, or a smidgen of sexual tension. There’s an ineffably kinky undercurrent to the relationship between Mason’s villain and his wild-eyed right-hand man (Martin Landau). And Thornhill himself appears to have issues with a domineering mother (played by Jessie Royce Landis, even though she was ten months younger than Grant).

But the most obvious Hitchcockian touch is Thornhill’s wary bonding with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), the mysterious blond beauty working as an undercover agent. Not unlike the FBI operative Grant played in Notorious, Thornhill turns frosty and judgmental when his leading lady feels duty-bound to sleep with the elegant bad guy. Almost as if to punish our hero for his presumptuous moralizing, Hitchcock sends him racing through that open field, pursued by that bullet-belching crop-duster, and later forces him to dangle from Mount Rushmore.

Serves him right, too.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)

You've probably never seen another movie quite like The Kid Stays in the Picture, but, trust me, novelty value isn't the only thing it's got going for it. Equal parts illustrated history, cautionary fable, kiss-and-tell memoir and star-studded extravaganza, this uniquely fascinating and robustly entertaining documentary is a raffish, rollicking masterpiece of first-person myth-making.

Robert Evans is the center of attention here, even though – except for a fleeting, near-subliminal glimpse – he doesn't allow himself to be recorded by the cameras of documentarians Brett Morgan and Nanette Burstein. All we see is an artfully shrewd montage of archival photographs, interview clips, stock footage – and excerpts from a couple of '50s movies that aptly illustrate Evans' self-appraisal: "I was a half-assed actor."

That's right: We don't see today's Robert Evans, but we certainly hear him. It's the same voice that launched several thousand audio books when Evans recorded The Kid Stays in the Picture, his well-regarded warts-and-all 1994 autobiography. It's a gravelly baritone that seems to synthesize hard-won wisdom and hung-over pugnacity. And when Evans speaks here, we can't help listening, because his insights and anecdotes are so fabulously engrossing.

The word "fabulous," by the way, is not idly chosen. As in his book, Evans warns his audience early on: "There are three sides to every story: Yours, mine and the truth. And no one is lying." The Kid Stays in the Picture is entirely Evans' side of the story. There are no talking-head interviews with friends or foes, no competing narrator to cast doubts or raise questions. Morgan and Burstein obviously have shaped the material to their own overall design, editing or eliminating certain items for brevity and narrative momentum. (We learn a lot about Evans' marriage to Love Story star Ali MacGraw, and almost nothing about his several other wives.) But this is Evans' show – his career, his life -- and the filmmakers are smart enough to let him do all of the talking.

 Evans presents himself as being in the right place at the right time, time and again. He lucked into business success, then lucked into an acting career. And after his acting career tanked – he was "a half-assed actor," remember? – he lucked into a new career as a producer.

After that, he lucked into the job of production chief at Paramount Pictures in the late 1960s.

All this talk of luck, of course, recalls another memorable Evans quote: "Luck is when opportunity meets preparation." Maybe he wasn't fully prepared when he first landed the Paramount job, but Evans learned quickly, worked passionately and gambled frequently. To his credit, many of those gambles – Paramount released The Odd Couple, Rosemary's Baby, Harold and Maude, Chinatown and a couple of Godfather epics during his watch – paid off as critical and commercial hits. Indeed, The Kid Stays in the Picture can be viewed a persuasive argument that, during the 1970s, a period many view as the last golden age for Hollywood cinema, Evans was among the most significant shapers of American pop culture.

The movie is most delicious when Evans dishes about the making of classic movies with Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Mia Farrow, Dustin Hoffman and other notables. (He says he drove Roman Polanski to direct faster while making Rosemary's Baby, and ordered Francis Coppola to bring him a longer, more satisfying cut of The Godfather.) But Kid is every bit as interesting, even compelling, as Evans describes his own role in his post-Paramount downfall.

 Evans is amazingly frank when discussing his self-destructive behavior, and totally unapologetic about the myriad excesses – including substance abuse and prodigious womanizing – that are part of his living legend. His bluntness often sounds comical, like a bad imitation of tough talk in a hardboiled novel. (It's not love at first sight when he lunches with Ali MacGraw, but he tells her: "Remember, if it doesn't work out with that other guy, I'm only seven digits away!") And it's hard to ignore that his self-abnegation is threaded with steadfast pride: Even as he tells the worst about himself, Evans always manages to paint himself as a survivor.

But, then again, he's entitled: He has survived.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Quiz Show (1994)

For past two decades or so, it has been a favorite sport of good, bad and indifferent filmmakers to define that precise moment in 20th-century history when America lost its collective innocence. Until the release of Quiz Show, the handsome and provocative 1994 film directed by Robert Redford, the consensus had been that this despoiling process began sometime between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the U.S. troop escalation in Vietnam. One of the more intriguing ideas set forth in Redford's thoughtful yet viscerally exciting drama is that the first signs of corruption and disillusionment already were apparent as early as 1959.

Redford and screenwriter Paul Attanasio vividly evoke the mood and shifting mores of that period in the very first scene of their fact-based film, as an aggressively eager automobile salesman seeks to seduce a skeptical young man with the sleek lines and luxury features of a shiny new Chrysler. Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), an up-and-coming congressional aide, does his best to appear bemused by the sales pitch. But there's no doubt that he is genuinely impressed, if not transfixed, by the car itself. Everything else that follows in Quiz Show can be viewed as variations on this first scene's themes of false values, reckless optimism, self-delusion -- and, yes, seduction.

Attanasio's literate and richly detailed screenplay is based on a chapter in a nonfiction book (Remembering America) written by the real-life Goodwin several years after the events of this film. But Goodwin is only one of three central characters in this fascinating morality play. The two others are Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a patrician, Harvard-educated WASP from a celebrated literary family; and Herbie Stempel (John Turturro), a blunt-spoken, ill-mannered Jewish graduate student who may really be as brilliant as he claims.

What brings these three ill-matched fellows together, and shapes their individual fates, are the misadventures they experience through their involvement with an enormously popular TV quiz show, Twenty-One.

As the movie begins, Stempel is the program's reigning champion. Unfortunately, the producers and sponsors of the New York-based quiz show think he has outlived his usefulness as an audience draw. Even more unfortunately, Stempel has gotten as far as he has as a winning contestant largely because the game has been rigged; the answers have been provided. So Stempel has no real choice in the matter when the same people who helped him cheat insist that he take a dive. With much humiliation, Stempel loses to Van Doren, the kind of glossy, good-looking golden boy who can help a sponsor sell lots of products to millions of captivated viewers.

At first, Van Doren has grave misgivings about his role in deceiving the public. But as the weeks go by, he comes to enjoy his national celebrity (he even appears on the cover of Time magazine) and his media-manufactured status as, in the words of his producer, "the intellectual Joe DiMaggio that this country needs." And, perhaps most important, he appreciates the opportunity to establish a high profile of any sort that will at long last enable him to emerge from the long shadow of his much-respected, superstar-intellectual father (Paul Scofield).

The brave new world begins to crumble for the younger Van Doren only when a bitterly resentful Stempel decides to blow the whistle on the Twenty-One chicanery. Goodwin, who also is Jewish, is particularly attentive to Stempel's charges of anti-Semitism. ("They always follow a Jew with a Gentile - and the Gentile always wins more money!") But as Goodwin continues his investigation of the TV show for a proposed congressional investigation, he falls under the ingratiating spell of Charles Van Doren, almost to the point of becoming a Nick Carraway to Van Doren's Jay Gatsby. That director Redford once starred in a film version of The Great Gatsby makes this development all the more resonant.

Fiennes, who was so fearsomely effective as the Nazi concentration camp commandant in Schindler's List, is equally impressive, in a far subtler fashion, as Van Doren. Likewise, Morrow transcends his own minor shortcomings - his Boston accent is not entirely convincing - to give a strong, sharply defined portrayal rich in ambiguities.

But Turturro is the one who steals every scene that isn't nailed down with his rude, bull-in-a-china shop performance as Stempel, a man who becomes obsessed with dragging down some former partners in deception for their roles in his fall from grace.

 Quiz Show is, first and last, a hugely entertaining story about sharply defined individuals and the qualities that make them unique. But by being so specific about these people and their era, the film also manages to be timeless in what it has to say about the many ways we allow ourselves to be seduced by fool's gold -- by, all too often, things with an allure to which we'd like to think we're immune. Television is only partially responsible for making that seduction so easy in the electronic age.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Vertigo (1958)

Most audiences were puzzled and disappointed by Vertigo when it first appeared in 1958. Ticketbuyers of the time likely wanted a rollercoaster ride much like other Alfred Hitchcock classics of the 1950s (North By Northwest, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much). What they got instead was something much darker and more complex, even though the movie’s plot seemed – in synopsis, at least -- the perfect blueprint for a straight-ahead, standard-issue popcorn flick.

Ex-cop John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is asked by an old friend to watch over the friend’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), a beautiful but troubled woman who fears she is possessed by the spirit of a mad ancestor. Ferguson is fascinated by Madeleine, and can’t help falling in love with her. But he’s unable to stop her suicide because of his own weakness: His fear of heights, the “vertigo” of the title, prevents him from reaching her before she throws herself from a church tower.

Guilt-ridden and devastated, Ferguson suffers a nervous breakdown. While recovering, he meets a woman who is (pardon the expression) a dead ringer for his late beloved. Judy (Kim Novak again), a department store clerk, is wary of Ferguson’s attentions, but agrees to date him – and, eventually, to be supported by him. She objects, though not very strenuously, when he tries to remake her in Madeleine’s image, changing her clothes, her shoes, even the color of her hair.

Ferguson is overjoyed and grateful that he’s found someone who resembles Madeleine so strongly. Unfortunately, there’s a very good reason why there’s such a strong resemblance…

Don’t worry: No spoilers here, even though Hitchcock himself spills the beans well before the final scene. For those who prefer to enjoy Vertigo merely as a clever melodrama, and who haven’t seen any of its innumerable imitations, the surprise may come as a modestly satisfying jolt. But there’s much more to this must-see movie than an ingenious plot twist.

At heart, Vertigo is not so much a neo-gothic thriller as a moody meditation on sexual obsession. On one level, the film is a metaphor for the filmmaking process itself – or, more specifically, Hitchcock’s approach to that process. Ferguson represents the director who tries to shape reality to his own ends, and Judy represents the actor who’s asked to simply serve as a color in the director’s palette. (Remember: Hitchcock is the filmmaker who claimed actors should be treated like cattle.)

But Vertigo also can be viewed as a study of sadomasochistic symbiosis, with Ferguson single-mindedly struggling to re-create a “perfect” relationship, and Judy reluctantly agreeing to be stripped of all identity to please the man she loves. You could argue that Judy is the more deranged of the pair, in that every action she takes hints at a bottomless self-loathing. You could also argue, however, that Judy gradually emerges in the movie’s final reel as the more sympathetic character.

James Stewart is at the top of his form here, brilliantly playing Ferguson as a discontent, resolutely practical man who’s swept away by grand passions that are not unlike madness. (There’s a bitter irony at work: Ferguson, the man who’s afraid of falling, allows himself to be drawn into a different but equally dangerous vortex.) Stewart’s subtly nuanced and profoundly affecting performance provides the perfect counterpoint for Kim Novak’s fatalistic intensity as Madeleine and her skittish, anxious submissiveness as Judy.

Vertigo is a fever dream of a romantic tragedy, with elegantly graceful passages – particularly the long, silent sequence that shows Ferguson following, and falling for, Madeleine – and foreboding undercurrents. Bernard Herrmann’s score is at once lush and ominous, the perfect balance of musical moods. And cinematographer Robert Burks bathes San Francisco in an eerie glow that intensifies the lyrical beauty of key images, but also hints at hidden deceptions.

After multiple viewings of Vertigo over the years, I have come to wonder: What would the reaction have been back in 1958 – indeed, how would critics, academics and movie buffs view it today – if Hitchcock had opted to end this masterwork about ten or 15 minutes before he does? (Assuming that the Production Code would have allowed him to do so.) That is: What if The Master of Suspense had announced “The End” immediately after Ferguson and Madeleine share their fevered embrace in her hotel room, bathed in a greenish light that seems to signal a shared madness, as she finally abandons all trace of her true self and he passionately grasps his last hope for a second chance?

And what if the audience were left to consider that the only way these two characters could possibly enjoy happily-ever-aftering is to maintain interlocking lies – his self-delusion, her selfless deception – forever more?

Would even Alfred Hitchcock have had the audacity to spring something so thoroughly unsettling, if not downright perverse, on us?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

If you accept the conventional wisdom regarding the late Stanley Kubrick, your worst suspicions will be confirmed by his crowning achievement, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You think Kubrick was an egomaniacal control freak? OK, maybe he was. But it’s hard to see how a modest Mr. Nice Guy could have convinced a major Hollywood studio – Metro Goldwyn Mayer, no less! -- to bankroll something this intellectually ambitious, tauntingly ambiguous and budget-bustingly expensive back in 1968. As Norman Kagan notes in The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, the director spent a year and a half shooting 205 special effects shots, “many of them possible only because of technical processes Kubrick himself invented.” Compared to this guy, even James Cameron seems like a meek under-achiever.

You say you’ve always heard Kubrick was a dour misanthrope with a sour view of humankind? Then check out the scene that signals the dawn of civilization: Man-apes learn how to kill more efficiently by reconfiguring animal bones as lethal weapons. And while you’re at it, fast-forward a bit, and contemplate the insufferable blandness of supposedly more advanced homo sapiens. Time and again, 2001 underscores the ironic contrast between the miraculous and the mundane, between the panoramic splendors of outer space and the narrow-focused behavior of smaller-than-life humans. There’s something borderline-sadistic about the way Kubrick caricatures a white-bread, charm-free scientist who gets his first glimpse at hard evidence of intelligent life on other planets. “Well,” he remarks with the empty cheer of a Kiwanis Club luncheon speaker, “I must say – you guys have certainly come up with something.”

Do you find yourself agreeing with Calder Willingham, co-screenwriter of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, who accused the director of “a near-psychotic indifference to and coldness toward the human beings” in his movies? Then consider this: HAL 9000, the soft-spoken super-computer, seems a lot more human than its flesh-and-blood traveling companions aboard a Jupiter-bound spacecraft. It’s so affecting, even tragic, when an astronaut (another personality-challenged human, played by Keir Dullea) disables HAL, you’re almost willing to forgive the digital paranoid for causing the deaths of every other crew member. Indeed, with the arguable exception of Tom Cruise’s obsessive seeker in Eyes Wide Shut, Hal is the closest thing to a genuinely charismatic and sympathetic character in any movie Kubrick made after Spartacus (1960).

Despite the absence of a significant human protagonist to generate a rooting interest, 2001 was a huge commercial success during its first theatrical run. (And not just because many chemically-enhanced viewers repeatedly savored it as a widescreen head trip.) More than four decades later, it is widely viewed as a masterpiece, even by some critics who expressed serious misgivings in their initial reviews. That it was, and continues to be, one of the past century’s most influential films is beyond dispute. And it is so firmly affixed in our collective pop-culture consciousness that even people who have never actually seen 2001 get the joke when someone makes a wink-wink, nudge-nudge allusion to the opening notes of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra (perhaps the most inspired musical choice ever made by a filmmaker) or the arrival of those imposing black Monoliths that encourage human beings to transcend themselves.

Trouble is, much of 2001 hasn’t aged very well. The mystifying climax of what one critic described as the film’s “shaggy God story” (concocted by Kubrick and visionary sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke) seems more than ever like a precocious sophomore’s idea of deep-dish philosophizing. (It doesn’t help that, when Dullea awakens after a dazzling sound-and-light show, he finds himself trapped inside what looks like the spectacularly garish luxury suite of a Las Vegas hotel.) Worse, Kubrick’s intricately and interminably detailed depiction of extra-terrestrial travel – meant to convey shock and awe at the miracle of space flight -- now seems, compared to more recent displays of high-tech wizardry, almost quaint.

Of course, some things – titles, for instance -- never go out of date. And just as 1984 continues to serve as shorthand for a dystopian vision of technologically-enhanced totalitarianism, 2001 retains its mythic resonance – an optimistic prediction of first contact with other, presumably wiser, life forms -- long after people stopped scribbling that cluster of numbers in checkbooks. Instead of inspiring awe, however, the film itself now is more likely to evoke a kind of wistful melancholy that Kubrick never intended. It’s sad, but true: These days, we simply don’t view interstellar exploration with the same wonder-fueled enthusiasm shared by Kubrick and millions of others back in 1968.

To be sure, there’s the occasional media frenzy about images beamed from Mars by unmanned spacecraft. And there’s always a ready audience for every new chapter of the Star Wars franchise. But with each passing year, it’s increasingly more difficult to imagine that anything short of a real-world appearance by a beckoning Monolith would re-ignite our intergalactic wanderlust. All you have to do is read news accounts of petty Congressional squabbling over NASA funding, and you’ll realize that, never mind what the calendar might tell you, we’re still a long, long way from the bold new age of discovery we were promised all those years ago.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

A textbook example of a hand-tooled star vehicle that forever labels the star in its driver’s seat, Smokey and the Bandit also is noteworthy for being the movie most often credited – or, perhaps more precisely, blamed – for kicking off an action-comedy subgenre best described as Cross-Country Demolition Derby.

Two lesser sequels and at least one long-running TV series (The Dukes of Hazzard) can be traced directly to this broadly played hodgepodge of high-speed driving, lowbrow humor and spectacular car crashes. But wait, there’s more: Smokey and the Bandit, the debut feature of stuntman-turned-filmmaker Hal Needham, also inspired literally dozens of other pedal-to-the-metal extravaganzas – mostly redneck melodramas and cornpone comedies, along with Needham’s own in-jokey Cannonball Run movies -- throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Decades later, its very title still serves as shorthand for a particular type of undemanding crowd-pleaser with smart-alecky heroes, dim-bulb authority figures and more high-octane action than a month of NASCAR events.

The thin plot is a serviceable excuse for stringing together scenes of cartoonish frivolity and vehicular misadventure. Bandit (Burt Reynolds), a swaggering prankster and maverick trucker, wagers that he can transport contraband beer from Texas to Georgia in record time. While a faithful friend (Jerry Reed) does much of the actual driving in the lager-stocked 18-wheeler, Bandit darts about in a souped-up Trans Am, on the lookout for any “Smokey” (i.e., highway cop) who might impede their high-speed progress.

Complications arise when Bandit arouses the ire of an especially grizzly Smokey, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), by picking up a perky hitchhiker (Sally Field) who just happens to be the runaway bride of the sheriff’s cretinous son (Mike Henry).

Initially dismissed as a freakish regional hit at Deep South drive-ins, Smokey and the Bandit gradually proved equally popular in major metropolitan markets, and wound up in the record books as the second-highest grossing film (right behind Star Wars) of 1977. Some have credited its phenomenal popularity to its subversive allure as fantasy fulfillment: Bandit repeatedly outsmarts and humiliates Sheriff Justice and all other law-enforcement officials who dare to impinge on his God-given right to ignore any posted speed limit. (Some academic somewhere doubtless has earned a doctorate by explaining why so many pop tunes and popcorn flicks of the ’70s equated driving over 55 with all-American rebelliousness.) Most other observers, however, credit the movie’s appeal – for contemporary viewers as well as ’70s ticketbuyers -- to the once-in-a-lifetime matching of player and character.

Even moviegoers not yet born when Smokey and the Bandit first screeched into theaters reflexively think of the hard-driving, trash-talking trucker whenever they hear Reynolds’ name. Part of that can be explained by the virtually nonstop exposure of Needham’s movie on cable and home video. But it’s instructive to consider Reynolds’ own role in erasing the lines between actor and character, man and mythos.

In the wake of his becoming an “overnight success” after years of journeymen work in television and movies, Reynolds embraced typecasting – and tongue-in-cheeky self-promotion – with unseemly fervor. For the better part of a decade, he chronically reprised his Bandit shtick – winking insouciance, naughty-boy sarcasm, zero-cool self-assurance – in motion pictures and TV talk shows. It was funny, for a while, and then it wasn’t. Trouble is, by the time it stopped being funny, the image was firmly affixed in the public’s collective pop-culture consciousness. So much so, in fact, that even after demonstrating his versatility in a wide range of character roles -- most memorably, as the prideful porn-film director in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) – Reynolds appears destined to always be remembered best for one indelibly defining character.

On the other hand, there are far less pleasant ways for an actor to ensure his immortality. When asked about his enduring linkage to Bandit in 2003, more than a generation after playing the cocky trucker, Reynolds addressed the mixed blessing with typically self-effacing humor.

“I’m very flattered,” he said, “by how some people still respond to that character. I still have guys in Trans Ams pull up to me at stoplights and yell, ‘Dammit! You’re the reason I got this thing!’

“But I also remember a while back, when I was offering an acting seminar in Florida, that I was afraid they’d go over to the auto-racetrack looking for me, instead of the theater. And even when they did show up at the right place, I felt I should tell them: ‘Those of you who are wearing your racing gloves – take them off, we’re not going to need them, we’re going to talk about other things.’”

Of course, if the audience loves a character (and, better still, the actor playing that character) the character can get away with practically anything, even coming off as a bona fide egomaniac. Midway through Smokey and the Bandit, Reynolds recalled, “There’s a moment when Sally asks me, ‘What is it that you do best?’ And I say, ‘Show off.’ And she says, ‘Yeah, you do that well.’ At the time we made the film, I thought to myself, ‘If I can get that line out and they still like me – “they” being the audience – we’re home free.’ Because basically, that’s who (Bandit) was, what he was all about.”

The line got big laughs, indicating just how much the audience really, really liked Bandit. And, of course, the actor who played him.